At a packed meeting in the Library this year’s winners gave presentations on their essays.
Stuart Innes (‘Have attitudes towards mental health really changed?’) gave a clear historical summary of how societies have responded to and attempted to treat mental illness, framed within a powerful argument for a mixture of approaches. He was insistent that a reductively “scientific”, drug-based, approach was not the answer, but that counselling and therapy had central roles: humans have evolved with the ability to share with others their feelings and thoughts, and we should use this as a strength.
Rachel Maton (‘Why did 16th– and 17th-century Europe experience widespread witchcraft hysteria, and a subsequent peak in witch-hunts and trials?’) discussed in detail the many different theories which have been proposed to explain why numbers of trials increased in an age of supposed rationalism. These ranged from scapegoating and feminism to the invention of the printing press. She concluded with a balanced evaluation, arguing that it was due to a number of factors coming together; she also downplayed the contribution of the feminist argument (that the suppression of witches was allied to an expression of male power): even in England a good quarter of all those condemned were male, and in Russia and Estonia the vast majority were men.
Xiaoxuan Liu (‘Einstein’s special theory of relativity: a general explanation for its formation’) gave a humorous and in-depth explanation of Einstein’s theory, using an alternative method for deriving E=mc^2 than the one she had used in her original essay. She argued that while many people find the dramatic effects of relativity (e.g. time dilation, changes in mass) the most appealing aspects, she preferred the raw beauty of its mathematics.
All three speakers were extremely impressive – they were clear, authoritative and engaging; all were, in short, easy to listen to, despite the (each for different reasons) challenging nature of what they were talking about. They could also deal with questions with confidence and charm.
After a splendid formal dinner Tim Morrison (OC and former Howard Essay Winner, now Head of Classics at Oundle School) introduced most of us to Thales, the first Greek philosopher, and as such the first recorded person in Western Europe to question for himself accepted explanations for how the world worked. Despite being perfectly able to use his intelligence to make money (one year he predicted a bumper olive crop and bought up all the presses), he thought it more interesting and important to study the heavens and think for himself about the world – just the sort of inspirational figure needed by this year’s LVI as they embark on their own Howard & Mitchell essays.