11 most unmissable UCL Lunch Hour Lectures

A person listening using their headphones while standing in a street
A person listening using their headphones while standing in a street

Our pick of the most disruptive UCL Lunch Hour Lectures of all time - from talks on shopping at IKEA and weighing trees with lasers, to others that discuss innovations in x-ray imaging, the minds of cab drivers and whether fish can count.

UCL’s Lunch Hour Lecture (LHL) series has been running for over 80 years, showcasing innovative research and ideas through bitesize lectures delivered to our university community and the general public.  

Originally hosted on campus as 40-minute lunchtime talks, the lectures have evolved into hybrid events reaching audiences far and wide - with listeners tuning in from countries across the world.

With hundreds of LHLs to choose from, this handy guide gives you a rundown of the top unique finds to check out. Read on for the weird, wonderful, mind-boggling and bizarre... 

Our top 10 picks to add to your watch list 

Who Enjoys Shopping at IKEA? WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: Architects use space to sell you things, with patterns of movement bringing you into contact with goods. At IKEA though, the story gets more interesting, with designers deliberately setting out to confuse you, drawing you into buying things that are not on your shopping list. Intrigued? Watch this lecture, hosted by Professor Alan Penn (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture), for a new outlook on furniture shopping. 

Why can’t I Sing with Australians on the Telephone? WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: Have you ever tried to sing or play music with a friend on the phone? It’s surprisingly difficult to stay in time. If your friend is on the other side of the world, then this becomes basically impossible. Fundamental physics, the design of our digital infrastructure, and a smattering of human nature are what give rise to this and many other unusual communications phenomena. This lecture discusses the challenges of all three when trying to create a better Internet. 

Can Fish Count? WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: Do animals possess the capacity to use numerical information? And is this capacity confined to primates? This lecture, hosted by Professor Brian Butterworth (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) begins with a fantastic choice of question - "Why you might think this is a silly question" - and explores how we can test the ability to count in organisms with no counting words, as well as other mysteries of animal numerical cognition. 

Changing Perspectives on Homelessness WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: Here, Stan and Joey - two individuals with a lived experience of homelessness - are joined by fellow speaker Jo to share their perspectives and insights on the issue, as well as their thoughts on what we can do to address it. Aiming to change the way that we perceive and frame homelessness, the lecture highlights the importance of building public support and political commitment for taking action. 

What Goes on in the Mind of a London Cabbie? WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: Navigating a city can be a challenge and London - with over 60,000 streets and 100,000 places of note - is hardly an exception. How, then, do we - and London’s expert cab drivers - use our brain to do this? Join Dr Hugo Spiers (UCL Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience) as he reveals some of the neuro-scientific research that is shedding light on cab drivers’ incredible ability to plan out journeys on a whim. 

The Psychology of Climate Inaction WATCH HERE  

Why you should listen: The human race faces the greatest peril in its three-million year history with the simultaneous disasters of global heating and biosphere collapse rushing towards us at high speed. We are on the whole strangely inactive about this ecological crisis however, even though it severely shortens the life expectancy of our own children. Why is this? Find out by watching this mind-stimulating lecture. 

Weighing Trees With Lasers WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: How do you weigh a tree, let alone a forest? The increased focus on trees as tools in the fight against climate change, and subsequent rush to see who can plant the most trees, assumes that we know how much carbon trees store. But do we? In this talk, Professor Mat Disney (UCL Department of Geography) gives us a rundown on the use of 3D tree measurements  to monitor forests more effectively. 

Why a Former UCL Provost thought Research in AI Should be Stopped WATCH HERE

Why you should listen: James Lighthill, Provost of UCL between 1979 and 1989, was the author of a highly influential report to government on artificial intelligence (AI), one which questioned what AI was and what it could achieve. Its impact was profound. It was the cause, say some, of the first ’AI winter’ of the 1970s. In this lunchtime lecture, Professor Jon Agar (Science and Technology Studies) presents his discoveries on the intriguing reasons for this intervention. 

Interpreting Opera through Economic Theory WATCH HERE

Why you should listen: Opera and economic theory - two concepts that shouldn’t technically go together - are somehow linked in this unique lecture featuring Professor Steffen Huck (UCL Economics). Applying economic thinking to the actions of some of your favourite fictional characters - if you enjoy Richard Wagner’s operas, that is - Huck presents a novel re-evaluation of plots and purposes through the lens of an economist. 

Why do Some People Become Psychopaths? WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: A lecture that brings up The Joker, Anton Chigurh and Hannibal Lecter is bound to be gripping and Professor Essi Viding’s lunchtime talk on the behavioural journey towards psychopathy certainly delivers. Tracing psychopathic behaviour back to childhood, Viding’ considers the different factors behind why some children may be at an increased risk of developing psychopathy when they grow up. 

Transforming X-rays 124 Years After Their Discovery WATCH HERE 

Why you should listen: Since Roentgen’s discovery over 120 years ago, x-ray imaging has been performed by exploiting differences in x-ray attenuation. While the approach tends to be reliable, it breaks down when thin details need to be detected, or in the case of tumours in soft tissue. Researchers at UCL have however developed an innovative new solution to the issue. This talk with Sandro Olivo (Medical Physics and Bioengineering) reveals the full story. 

To Boldly Go LISTEN HERE  

Why you should listen: In the 100 years since Captain Scott’s expedition to Antarctica, humans have transformed the way that planet Earth is explored, with our voyages extended even beyond our world and out into the endless frontier of space. In this lecture, Dr Kevin Fong - a UCL alumnus who went on to work as a NASA scientist - explores innovations in medicine and living on the boundary of science fiction and science fact. 

Did you know? UCL’s archives include a manuscript draft copy of a 1958 Lunch Hour Lecture on self-reproducing objects, a 1950s lecture on Automatic Mechanical Self-Reproduction, and materials relating to the Lunch Hour Lectures Committee - including its minutes!

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