Open Air Lectures –the way of the future?

On Tuesday 31 October, Professor Mark Burgman presented the Department of Mathematics and Statistics’ Twentieth Behrend Memorial Lecture to an enthusiastic audience. The free public lecture had attracted a record crowd, and Professor Burgman had just completed his talk ‘Making use of uncertainty in environmental decision-making’ and taken the first question, when something happened that was not on the program. The fire alarm went off.

The audience of over 100 people filed out of the building, and waited in the designated assembly area. Professor Peter Taylor, Head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and chair of the event says, ”The funny thing was that I would have expected that once the fire alarm went off that most people would leave, but that didn’t happen.” When it became clear that the audience would not be allowed access to the building anytime soon and as most of the audience had remained, Professor Taylor invited the audience to continue question time.

A lively question and answer session followed, all conducted in the outdoor courtyard of the Richard Berry Building. By the time the all clear was given to return to the building, the lecture had wrapped up and the audience went away happy with their experience.

Dr. Andrew Robinson, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics said, “I don’t think I’ve seen a more relaxed or masterful performance. Mark was just phenomenal - the timing, the pacing, the delivery were all spot on.” And the open air question and answer session afterwards? “Refreshing!”

Professor Burgman (Botany), Director of the Australian Centre for Excellence for Risk Analysis was awarded the prestigious Behrend Lectureship this year, because of the multi-disciplinary nature of his work. Peter Taylor explains “Mark’s work bridges the fields of ecological modelling and risk assessment. He uses mathematical techniques in a variety of ecological and biological application areas and his talk was about the role of mathematical thinking in making management decisions in these areas.”

It wasn’t the first time Mark Burgman has held a lecture in the open air, “In life sciences we have a collective of people who like to get outside as much as we can, so if at all possible, we’ll go and stand under a tree or sit on the grass.” Professor Burgman thought the fire alarm had some significance, in light of the topic of his lecture, “It was symbolic of the content of the lecture – we had to do some risk analysis on the spot – we heard the alarm, but smelled no smoke, saw no fire and heard no rushing feet down the hall, so the probability that there was a fire was rather small, however the Head of Department, Peter Taylor imposed his authority and told us we had to evacuate. I was glad to continue question time, as the questions were very good, and created an opportunity to try and get some real communication going between different areas of the Faculty so we can start working together constructively.”

The Behrend Lecture is held by the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in memory of Professor Felix A. Behrend, a former member of the Department.