In the following links you can find the title, abstract, recording and transcript of the previous lectures. You can find future lectures here.

Ibn al-Haytham’s Analysis of the Moon Illusion: A Case Study in Appropriation, Assimilation, and Innovation

Prof. Mark Smith (University of Missouri)

January 11, 2023


Mark Smith, professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri, delivered the first Bisan Lecture of 2023 on January 11 (a summary with illustrations can be found here). His subject was how the Arab scholar Ibn al-Haytham, writing a millennium ago in Cairo, sought to explain the Moon Illusion, which people have witnessed with awe from antiquity to today. When the moon is viewed on the horizon at moonrise or moonset, it appears much larger to most people than when it’s higher in the sky, despite the fact that its true visual size—the angle it spans at our eyeballs—is almost exactly the same in the two cases. The Moon Illusion is discussed at the very end of Ibn al-Haytham’s monumentally influential treatise on vision, the Book of Optics. Mark used that discussion as a non-technical gateway to al-Haytham’s adaptation the work of the second century CE scholar Ptolemy, ushering in a new theory of vision that has largely survived to the present day.

You can watch the video recording here. The lecture slides are available here (and here with the text).

The Fisheries of the Southern Mediterranean, from Morocco to Turkey (1950-2020)

Prof. Daniel Pauly (University of British Columbia)

December 14, 2022


On December 14th, Professor Daniel Pauly (University of British Columbia) gave the last lecture of 2022 of the Bisan Lecture Series. He gave a country-by-country overview of the state of fisheries in the Southern Mediterranean. Catches are grossly underreported and a large part of the scientific work goes towards getting closer to the truth. The global picture is that of a sea being quickly depleted of its native fauna, starting from the larger predators (sharks, tuna) downwards, which is then replaced by species from the Red Sea, including some nasty specimens such as Lagocephalus Sceleratus. The consequences for the societies around the Southern Mediterranean, particularly for the poor, are quite dire. You can watch the video recording here. The lecture slides are available here.  Further information on the fisheries of the Southern Mediterranean, or any other place, can be obtained from the  Sea Around Us website (a research initiative of Prof. Pauly). 

Good economics for warmer times

Prof. Esther Duflo (MIT, Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences in 2019)

November 9, 2022


On November 9th, Professor Esther Duflo (MIT, Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences in 2019) gave the third lecture of the 2022-2023 Bisan Lecture Series. In line with the current discussions at COP 27, Professor Duflo outlined the main issues associated with climate change. She stressed the lopsided inequalities involved, between nations as well as within nations, notably the 10/50 rule: worldwide, right now, the wealthiest 10% of the population are responsible for 50% of GHG emissions, and the poorest 50% for 10% of emissions. Clearly any effort to address climate change must address these inequalities, and the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of wealthy nations. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that wealthy nations have spent enormous amounts protecting their own citizens and contributed very little towards poorer nations, even raiding the provisions set up for them. Professor Duflo sees hope in the fact that the issue of redistribution is now on the agenda of COP 27, with the creation of a climate fund which would help poorer nations in the South cope with climate change.

You can watch the video recording here. The lecture slides are available here.

Functional Imaging of the Human Brain: A Window into the Architecture of the Mind

Prof.Nancy Kanwisher (MIT)

October 12, 2022


On October 12th, Professor Nancy Kanwisher (MIT) gave the second lecture of the 2022-2023 Bisan Lecture Series. She described her research into the diverse roles in perception played by different areas in the cerebral cortex. The advent of functional MRI scanning has vastly increased the detail of our knowledge over the past thirty years. This detail has revealed many surprising aspects of brain function. Some examples: Perception of spoken language, written language, and music, occupy three different regions of the cortex. Linguistic skills in multiple languages occupy the same region. There is a segment of the cortex uniquely devoted to understanding what another human being is thinking. The facial recognition area functions equally in the sighted and the congenitally blind. This research was presented as a road-map for future research; we are just scratching the surface.

The video recording of the webinar is available here in both english and arabic. The lecture slides are available here. To extend the enjoyment of this excellent talk, you can check out Prof. Kanwisher’s course on the human brain here.

Autobiographic Narratives of the Great War and the Creation of the New Middle East

Prof.Salim Tamari  (Birzeit University and Institute for Palestine Studies)

September 14, 2022

Summary :

On September 14-th, 2022, Salim Tamari (Editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Palestine Studies, Professor of Sociology at Birzeit University) gave the first lecture of the 2022-2023 Bisan Lecture Series. Quoting Rashid Khalidi (the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University), Salim Tamari is today’s “preeminent Palestinian historical sociologist.” Demonstrating an unmatched expertise as a researcher of personal diaries, official archives, government deeds, newspaper articles, and obscure documents from long-bygone years, Dr. Tamari gave a fascinating overview of political and social movements in and around Palestine, shortly before and after World War One. Looked at from the passage of one century, the war led to major social dislocations and transformations in the ways in which people of the region – from the Ottoman capital of Istanbul to the Arab provinces of the Empire – viewed themselves and the world. With the help of captivating archival photographs, Dr. Tamari recounted how the war and the ensuing devastation were reflected in the biographical trajectories of well-known writers and publicists (Muhammad Kurd Ali, Khalil Sakakini, Najib Nassar, and others) and Arab soldiers conscripted into the Ottoman army  (Muhammad Fasih, Aref Shehadeh, Ihsan al- Turjman). You can watch the video recording here. The lecture slides will be available soon at the web page of the webinar.

The video recording of the webinar is available here

Soberana vaccines against SARS-CoV2: handling antigenic complexity in a versatile biotechnological process

Dr. Gertrudis Rojas (Center of Molecular Immunology, Havana, Cuba)

May 11th, 2022


Dr. Gertrudis Rojas of the Center of Molecular Immunology in Havana delivered the third Bisan LectureSoberana Vaccines Against SARS-CoV2, on Tuesday 11 May 2022. It was an inspiring summary of Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccine program, in which the Protein Engineering lab that she heads plays a major role. “Inspiring” not only because of the program’s remarkable success in independently developing five vaccines and fully vaccinating almost 90 percent of the Island’s people; but also because it embodies hopeful lessons that other countries would do well to attend.

You can watch the video recording here and you can download the slides here.

Dr. Rojas explained in lay terms how her team in the Protein Engineering lab designed and produced the SARS CoV-2 viral antigen at the heart of three of the five vaccines: Soberana 1, 2, and Plus. The antigen is the so-called receptor-binding domain, or RBD, which is the part of the virus’s Spike surface protein that initiates the infection process by making direct contact with a receptor called ACE2 on the surface of human cells. The Protein Engineering team produced the engineered RBD protein on a laboratory scale to confirm its structure. In particular they showed that it binds ACE2, and used mass spectrometry to demonstrate that the four strong chemical bonds—the “disulfide bridges”—that lock the protein in its natural three-dimensional shape are all intact. They then produced stable lines of Chinese hamster ovary cells that secrete the engineered protein in high yield in culture. Those cell lines have allowed the protein to be produced at industrial scale in huge bioreactors for incorporation into doses for country-wide vaccination.

Dr. Rojas stressed that the vaccine project, including her part in it, isn’t innovative. She meant that the goal wasn’t development of new vaccine technology. It was to “get the job done,” building on technology that is already well established in the Island, including especially in its long-standing national vaccination initiative—a vital component of Cuba’s widely-praised universal health care system. She also emphasized how success has required coordination of many branches of Cuba’s extensive biotechnology sector, each branch playing its role without demanding more than its share of the honor. Her story is an exemplar for the power of communitarian medicine. The story is all the more remarkable in that success has been achieved in spite of the six-decade economic embargo that the U.S. and its allies have imposed on Cuba’s technological development.

One consequence of the embargo is that Dr. Rojas was unable to join the webinar herself: Zoom doesn’t make its services available in the Island, and connectivity is intermittent in any case. Instead, her lecture was pre-recorded and projected during the seminar. Afterward, she responded to the many questions that were submitted in the Chat over a WhatsApp phone connection; a Scientists for Palestine member in Switzerland held his phone close to his microphone while he asked the questions and she responded so the webinar audience could hear. This staticky makeshift arrangement was unable to hide the grace, professionalism, and intelligence of Dr. Rojas’s answers, whether to clarify the nature of the aforementioned disulfide bridges; to convey the pride she takes in her country’s biotechnology sector and the people-focused universal health care system of which it’s a part; or to explain to an audience with many Arabic speakers why one of Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines comes to have an Arabic name: Abdala, the fictional Nubian hero of an iconic 1869 poem by Cuban revolutionary intellectual José Martí.

Post-justice, exceptionalism, and the normalization of Apartheid

Dr. Honaida Ghanim (Director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies “MADAR”, Visiting Professor at Birzeit University)

April 13th, 2022


On 13th April 2022, we held our second session of the Bisan Lecture Series. It was given by Dr. Hohaida Ghanem, director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies “MADAR” and Visiting Professor at Birzeit University. The talk’s title was “Post-justice, exceptionalism, and the normalization of Apartheid”. Dr. Ghanem focused on the importance of the symbolic and ideological facets of the oppression, as those which make the normalization of Apartheid in Palestine possible. She distinguished the conception, according to which Palestine was truly, physically “empty” of Arab inhabitants before the Zionist colonization, from that which has treated Palestine as “politically empty”. The latter approach, according to Ghanem, has tolerated the Palestinian physical presence as long as it was not accorded full-blown humanity, agency and political self-definition. Such an approach has been easier to digest, by the colonialists themselves, as well as by the international community. Hence the Israeli “exceptionalism”. Ghanem offered a fascinating reading of the history of Palestine in the last 100 years according to this interpretation. The talk was followed by a lively discussion, which revolved mainly on linkages between this interpretation and the current political situation in Palestine and Israel. 

The video recording of the webinar is available here. The lecture notes will be available soon at the same address.

The Virology of Ideas—An Indispensable Pandemic

Prof. George Smith (University of Missouri, Nobel laureate in chemistry in 2018)

March 9th, 2022


On March 9, 2022, Nobel laureate George Smith gave the inaugural Bisan Lecture. He spoke of the « ideosphere, » the teeming culture of ideas interacting and mutating much the way viruses do in the biosphere. He presented scientific discovery as a communal process, in which individuals contribute small mutations to the existing flux of ideas. This generous and democratic perspective was contrasted with the authoritarian restrictions faced by the Palestinian people under occupation. His lecture was followed by an interesting question and answer period. More than a hundred people followed the event on Zoom making this Bisan Lecture Series (BLS) inaugural session a great success.

The video recording of the webinar and the lecture notes are available here