Category: Event

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) workshops

© Cheltenham Ladies’ College

I offer PBL workshops to challenge your most able students, scholars, or Oxbridge candidates (and also works very well with an inquisitive group of GCSE students). The aim is not to test the group on what they have already learned in class, but to apply their background understanding and work-out solutions from first principles. This replicates the ‘thinking out loud’ solution-finding process of university entrance interviews. The workshop is a combination of working in small groups to brain storm for suggestions, and round-table discussions amongst the whole class to arrive at final solutions, all coordinated and prompted by me.

These PBL workshops work best with a group size of 15-20 students. No Powerpoint or computer display is required, but we would need a classroom where the students can work together in tables of 4 or 5, and then also turn around to see the front. We also need a white board or large flip chart that the whole class can see as we progress through the workshop. Each workshop is tuned to the year group and capabilities of the students, and can be timetabled for anything between 30 mins and one hour long.

I offer two PBL workshops, themed within different areas of cutting-edge science research, but equally applicable to non-scientists. (Indeed, I find that often it is the non science-specialist students who are less constrained by trying to remember what they have been taught, and instead work things out by thinking out of the box).

How to define life and detect it (Biology/Chemistry)
We all know life when we see it on Earth — a tiger is obviously alive whereas a skeleton or rock are not — but how could you actually define what life is? What features or functions must something possess in order to be alive? And therefore, how could you design an experiment that will test for life on another planet? In this workshop, we’ll explore how astrobiologists think about life in fundamental terms and so know what we’re looking for with our scientific instruments aboard space probes.

Exoplanets and how to find them (Physics)
We’ve now discovered over 5,000 extrasolar planets — worlds orbiting other suns in our galaxy. But on the whole we’ve never actually been able to see these exoplanets; we have to infer indirectly that they are there. So what tricks do astronomers use to discover incredibly remote planets? What information can we gather from our telescopes, and therefore what can we tell about what an exoplanet is actually like? How can we tell if certain worlds are Earth-like and so potentially able to harbour life? In this workshop, we’ll explore the science behind how you can discover and then characterise exoplanets.

ORIGINS: How the Earth Shaped Human History

When we talk about human history, we focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us?

As a species we are shaped by our environment. Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

By taking us through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, Professor Lewis Dartnell tells us the ultimate origin story. When we reach the point where history becomes science we see a vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world and helps us face the challenges of the future.

From the cultivation of the first crops to the founding of modern states, Origins reveals the Earth’s awesome impact on the shape of human civilizations.


This event is based on my book, ORIGINS, which is  a Sunday Times bestseller, on iNews’ 11 best popular science books for 2019, and a Mail on Sunday recommended science and nature book.


If you would like to book this talk please email


Visit the ORIGINS book main website:


‘Origins by Lewis Dartnell stands comparison with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens… A thrilling piece of Big History’

‘Dartnell’s story is beautifully written and organized. His infectious curiosity and enthusiasm tug the reader from page to page, synthesizing geology, oceanography, meteorology, geography, palaeontology, archaeology and political history in a manner that recalls Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel.’

“Dartnell’s approach is encyclopedic, marked by both a broad sweep and a passion for details.”

‘Dartnell has found the perfect blend of science and history. This is a book that will not only challenge our preconceptions about the past, but should make us think very carefully about humanity’s future’

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch

Maybe it was an asteroid impact, a nuclear war, or a viral pandemic. Whatever the cause, the world as we know it has ended and you and your community of survivors must start again. What key knowledge would you need to not only survive in the immediate post-apocalyptic aftermath, but avert another Dark Ages and accelerate the rebooting of civilisation from scratch? Living in the modern world, we have become disconnected from the basic processes that support our lives, as well as the beautiful fundamentals of science that enable you to relearn things for yourself. The Knowledge is a grand thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works, and what drove the progression of civilisation over the centuries.

This event is based on my book, The Knowledge, which is  a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller, and was also awarded The Times ‘New Thinking’ Book of the Year. The event showcases a lot of artefacts and objects I made from scratch during the research for the book, and also features lots of demos and short videos of the processes involved.


If you would like to book this talk please email


Visit the main website for The Knowledge book:


“A glorious compendium of the knowledge we have lost in the living; the origins of the material fabric of our actual lives. This is the most inspiring book I’ve read in a long time”
— The Independent

“An extraordinary achievement. With lucidity and brevity, Dartnell explains the rudiments of a civilisation. It is a great read even if civilisation does not collapse. If it does, it will be the sacred text of the new world — and Dartnell that world’s first great prophet.”
— The Times

“The Knowledge is a fascinating look at the basic principles of the most important technologies undergirding modern society. It is a fun read full of optimism about human ingenuity”
— The Wall Street Journal

“The Knowledge is a stimulating read, a grand thought experiment on re-engineering every building block of civilisation”
— The New York Post

“A terrifically engrossing history of science and technology”
— The Guardian

“The ultimate do-it-yourself guide to ‘rebooting’ human civilisation”
— Nature

Astrobiology – The Hunt for Alien Life

Astrobiology is a brand new field of science, encompassing research into the origins and limits of life on our own planet, and where life might exist beyond the Earth. But what actually is ‘life’ and how did it emerge on our own world? What are the most extreme conditions terrestrial life can tolerate? And what would an alien actually look like – how realistic are the life-forms envisaged by science fiction novels and films over the years? Join Dr. Lewis Dartnell on a tour of the other planets and moons in our solar system which may harbour life, and even further afield to alien worlds orbiting distant stars, to explore one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone…?

If you would like to book this talk please email

Hacking the Brain: What optical and auditory illusions can tell us about how the mind works

Our brain runs as an organic computer to allow us to see and hear the world around us. Optical illusions ‘hack the brain’ to disrupt this process and so allow us to understand how the brain works. With live demonstrations of a great variety of optical and auditory illusions, this talk will reveal the inner workings of the mind. Warning: you may begin to see the world in a whole new way!

If you would like to book this talk please email

Sounds of the Cosmos

crabThey say that in space no one can hear you scream, but if you took your space helmet off on Mars they could certainly hear you scream your lungs out, quite literally! Any planet or moon with an atmosphere can transmit sound, and the universe is abuzz with radio emissions which really come alive when played as audio. Hear the surface of the sun ringing like a bell, the eerie whistle from Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, the pitter-patter of the rings of Saturn, and the rapid beat of pulsars. With plenty of astounding audio recordings, this talk will transport your ears to all corners of the universe and show you what space scientists can learn from the sounds of the cosmos!

If you would like to book this talk please email


Space3DOur armada of robotic spacecraft have been giving us unrivalled close-up views of the other worlds in our solar system. We’ve snapped exquisitely detailed views of the Moon’s barren face, the rusty surface of Mars, and the myriad icy moons orbiting the bloated gas giant planets. These alien vistas, however, are very rarely seen in the glorious 3D that the latest generation of space probes are able to provide. So slip on your 3D glasses, and join Dr Lewis Dartnell as he takes you by the hand on a unique tour of our neighbouring worlds. Swoop along a deep river canyon on Mars, peer into a cavernous lunar lava tube, and experience the grainy texture of the surface rocks so realistic you can almost feel the grittiness. But most intriguingly, hear what space scientists can learn from the detailed 3D views about the exciting history of these alien landscapes and how they were formed. This is a tour of the solar system like you’ve never seen it!

If you would like to book this talk please email

Alien Evolution

alien18necaAstrobiology encompasses research into the origins and limits of life on our own planet and where else this marvellous phenomenon might have emerged. On some worlds the conditions could be stable enough to allow life to progress beyond microbes. These alien plants and animals would be subject to the same physical constraints as life on Earth, and so certain features might be universal throughout the galaxy, whereas other alien features would have evolved as ingenious solutions for survival in environments very different to Earth. So what might an alien actually look like? Building on firm scientific foundations, where evolutionary biology, astrophysics and planetary science overlap, we’ll see just how plausible are the aliens that populate our sci-fi films and TV shows.

If you would like to book this talk please email

A Scientist goes to the movies

There’s much more science in the cinema than you might have thought. Either subtly incorporated into the storyline or used explicitly as in sci-fi, science is woven into many popular films, but not all of it very convincingly! Which famous romantic comedy gets its teeth into the weirdness of quantum mechanics, and in which clangers are the laws of science apparently different in Hollywood from the rest of the Universe? Bring your popcorn and settle comfortably into your seat as we take a humorous look at some of the greatest Hits and Misses of science in the movies.

If you would like to book this talk please email

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