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The content of the Hoboken Lectures

Professor Dame Jane Francis.

From Greenhouse to Icehouse: history and future of Antarctica’s climate (Jane Francis, 2017)

Although the polar regions are now covered in ice and snow, fossil plants preserved in rocks in Antarctica show that the continent was once covered in lush green forests that flourished in warm humid climates, even though the continent was situated over the South Pole.

Professor Jane Francis studies fossil plants from the
Arctic and Antarctica, fossils that contain a rich store of information about past polar environments. She will illustrate her Hoboken Lecture with pictures of Antarctic fossil plants and reconstructions of the forests and landscapes in Antarctica. The fossils show how the climate cooled from tropical warmth about 100 million years ago, when dinosaurs lived in Antarctica, to cold climates with ice sheets 30 million years ago. The last small trees survived on the continent until about 10 million years ago when Icehouse conditions set in and glaciers covered both poles. Now scientists see evidence of warming climates and melting ice sheets in Antarctica. Professor Jane Francis will show the fossil plants may thus provide us with a window into life at high latitudes in our future warm world.

Professor Dave Goulson.

Saving our bumblebees (Dave Goulson, 2016)

Bees and other pollinators are vital to our wellbeing: about one third of all the food we eat depends on them. More broadly, natural ecosystems depend upon pollination: without it, most flowering plants would disappear and ecosystems would collapse. Hence we should be deeply concerned that wild bees are in decline, with some species of bee having gone extinct. Professor Dave Goulson will explain the various reasons why they are declining, which include loss of flowers from the countryside, our accidental spreading of bee diseases, and our overuse of pesticides. He will then discuss the many ways that we can all help to ensure that all types of bees have a future.

Dr. Turi King

Unearthing King Richard III: From Bones to Genes (Turi King, 2015)

In August 2012, the University of Leicester began one of the most ambitious archaeological projects ever attempted: no less than a search for the lost grave of King Richard III, the last English king to die in battle.

When Dr Turi King was contacted in 2011 about being involved in the search for the remains of Richard III, she was told her role would be purely advisory: how to dig under ‘clean’ condition and what sort of DNA analysis could be carried out if suitable remains were found. However, she was told not to worry, Richard III wouldn’t actually be found and her involvement would probably amount to about a day’s worth of her time. Incredibly, the excavation uncovered not only the friary of Grey Friars but also a battle-scarred skeleton with spinal curvature, Richard III having been described by Shakespeare as a hunchback. Alongside all the other analysis, Dr Turi King became deeply involved in the genetic work on the remains, comparing the DNA with that of known female-line relatives to look for a match.

On 4 February 2013, the University of Leicester announced to the world's press that these were the remains of King Richard III. She and her team published the jaw-dropping results in December 2014 in Nature Communications.  

In her Hoboken Lecture Dr Turi King will speak about the Richard III case from how it started through to the excavation and the scientific analysis which led to the identification of his remains, and the possible connections between individuals born five centuries – and many generations later – than Richard.

Professor Michael J. Benton, FRS.

The greatest mass extinction of all time (Michael Benton, 2014)

At the end of the Permian period (some 250 million years ago), 90% of species were wiped out. This was the greatest mass extinction ever, and its causes have been a mystery. Numerous hypotheses have been presented, including impact by an asteroid, but the consensus now focuses on massive volcanic eruption in Siberia. The immediate killers were linked aspects of substantial global warming - acid rain, increased temperature, aridity on land, and ocean anoxia. 

Professor Michael Benton’s work in Russia has pieced together the first steps in The Killing Model, as plants were stripped from the land and erosion rates increased hugely. Sediment washed into the sea combined with warming to generate swamping and anoxia. The recovery of life after this crisis took a long time, perhaps 10 Myr. Normally, life could recover faster, but so many species had been lost that whole key habitats were destroyed, including coral reefs and forests.

Further reading

Benton, M.J., Forth, J., and Langer, M.C. 2014. Models for the rise of the dinosaurs. Current Biology 24, R87-R95 (doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.063).

Benton, M.J., Zhang, Q.Y., Hu, S.X,, Chen, Z.Q., Wen, W., Liu, J., Huang, J.Y., Zhou, C.Y., Xie, T., Tong, J.N., and Choo, B. 2013. Exceptional vertebrate biotas from the Triassic of China, and the expansion of marine ecosystems after the Permo-Triassic mass extinctionEarth Science Reviews 123, 199-243 (doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2013.05.014).

Chen, Z.Q. and Benton, M.J. 2012. The timing and pattern of biotic recovery following the end-Permian mass extinctionNature Geoscience 5, 375-383 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo1475)

Chris Stringer (right) with skull of the Rhodesian man (Homo rhodesiensis). (The Natural History Museum)

Human evolution in Europe (Chris Stringer, 2013)

A century ago, many scientists believed that the human lineage had originated in Europe, but we now know that humans arrived in the continent relatively late in our evolutionary story. However, Europe may have been inhabited by five human species: Homo erectusHomo antecessorHomo heidelbergensisHomo neanderthalensis and finally, Homo sapiens. In his 2012 Hoboken Lecture professor Stringer will discuss the succession of human populations in Europe and their behaviours, concentrating on the last 500,000 years and the relationship of Neanderthals and modern humans. New data suggest that the extinction of the Neanderthals was a complex process, involving interactions with modern humans, and evidence of interbreeding that survives to the present day.

Richard Fortey shows a Coelacanth, 2nd Hoboken Lecture (2012)

Patterns in the history of life (Richard Fortey, 2012) 

[leest u liever Nederlands? klik dan hier] Charles Darwin described what he termed ‘difficulties in theory’ in the Origin of Species, and more particularly the absence of intermediate forms. A century and a half of palaeontological exploration has presented a range of truly intermediate forms which bridge some of the most important thresholds in the history of life: the transition of vertebrates from water to land; the origin of birds and the colonisation of the skies; human origins and the inferred rise of consciousness. However, the more intermediate fossils that are discovered, the more complex the tree of life becomes. Simple evolutionary trees become complex tangles. It may be preferable to think of life´s history as a progressive emergence of complex systems. The early phases at single cell level took up much of earth´s 3.5 billion year history of life, but transformed the atmosphere so that more complex life forms could emerge. The ‘Cambrian explosion’ saw the emergence of complex and large marine animals in a rapid period of innovation. Some ecological structures appeared almost immediately and continued to re-organise themselves after each mass extinction event. 

Based on decades of research in the fossil collections of The Natural History Museum in London and by exploring the paleontological literature, professor Richard Fortey presented a wide range of striking examples of the repeated appearance of such structures, such as the oceanic reef habitat and the arboreal habit in plants. These kinds of emergent systems present multiple opportunities for ecological subdivision and co-evolution, and hence drive much of the biodiversity. Whether one might apply a similar explanation to the emergence of intelligence is an interesting and controversial question that was also addressed by professor Fortey in the second Hoboken Lecture.


Martin Rees shows the universe, first Hoboken Lecture, 2011.

From 'Big Bang' to Biosphere (Martin Rees, 2011)

Astronomers have made astonishing progress in probing our cosmic environment, thanks to advanced technology. We can trace cosmic history from some mysterious 'beginning' nearly 14 billion years ago, and understand in outline the emergence of atoms, galaxies, stars and planets -- and how, on at least one planet, life emerged and developed a complex biosphere of which we are part. But these advances pose new questions: What does the long-range future hold? How widespread is life in our cosmos? Should we be surprised that the physical laws permitted the emergence of complexity? and Is physical reality even more extensive than the domain that our telescopes can probe? This illustrated lecture  addressed such issues.