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We’re a generation of women who love to learn. Thanks to our unrivalled access to instant information on every topic from foreign politics to how to build a jet engine, technological advancements mean you can become a master of anything at the touch of the button - making us smarter, better educated and more engaged than ever before.

Despite this, who hasn’t experienced that moment, at a dinner party or mid-meeting, when the topic turns to something completely foreign to you? While the rest of the party enthusiastically debate the latest offerings from French film, for example, you nod along wondering if Hot Shots! Part Deux qualifies as French cinema.

The reality is few people are able to be a master of every topic – regardless of how many episodes of Newsnight you devour. You may be an expert in politics but remain a little hazy on contemporary art, or love philosophy but find economics a total mystery.

With the aim of confronting these knowledge gaps head on we asked specialists from the worlds of science and art, food and economics to explain 15 key topics we want to be clear on. Armed with these you’ll never be stuck for dinner party conversation again.

WHAT IS AN AUTEUR DIRECTOR?

Anna Smith, Vice Chair of the Critics’ Circle’s Film Section

“Coined by French director François Truffaut in the Fifties, the term auteur was used in UK and US publications and is now common in film criticism and analysis. Simply put, an auteur (“author” in English) is a director who has a strong vision and personal identity that comes through in each of their films, regardless of interference from the money men. They tend to focus on recurring themes. For example Tim Burton’s misfits. Other auteurs include: Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Almodóvar, Darren Aronofsky and Edgar Wright.”

WHAT CAUSES AN INTEREST RATE RISE?

Lisa Bailey, partner of financial advisory company Ablestoke

“Interest rates are set by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, who use them to control inflation (which is the increase in the cost of living, calculated by looking at the changing cost of a ‘basket’ of everyday goods – carrots, jeans, wallpaper etc). High inflation causes serious problems for the economy. It means people’s savings have less value (ie you can buy less with the same money because prices are going up), and leads to people demanding pay increases to ensure that they can continue to pay for their outgoings.

No-one forces the committee to raise interest rates, but as it is the main tool they have to keep inflation down and with inflation currently running at 4% (the inflation goal is set by the government at 2%), a rise is pretty inevitable. With interest rates currently at 0.5% – the lowest on record – a recent poll of economists found that interest rates are predicted to rise from to 1% by the end of 2011 and 2% by the end of 2012.”

WHAT CAUSES WINE TO BECOME CORKED?

Brian Julyan, Master Sommelier

“Corked wine is caused by a chemical called trichloroanisole (TCA). It usually comes from an infected cork (and has nothing to do with cork floating in your drink) but can also come from the atmosphere outside and pass through the cork into the wine. You’ll know it’s corked if it smells and tastes mouldy, musty or has a wet cardboard aroma. The fruitiness of the wine will be flattened or absent. But it often gets confused with oxidation, which is caused by exposure to oxygen during storage. You know oxidation has happened to your wine if it’s darker in colour than normal and, if it’s white wine, could have a woody/ toffee character to it. Either way the wine isn’t at its best so take it back to the supplier.”

WHY IS THE ART WORLD OBSESSED WITH AI WEIWEI?

Francesca Gavin, art critic and Visual Arts Editor of Dazed & Confused

“You likely already know Weiwei. The biggest contemporary Chinese artist of the last 20 years hit the headlines last year with his sunflower seeds installation at the Tate. But the controversial artist is huge right now because he was arrested on 2 April by the Chinese government and, until last week, no-one knew where he was. There were protests in his honour, international outcry, moments of silence and people wearing badges that say ‘where is Ai Weiwei?’ Last week he was allowed to see his wife, in a top secret location, for 20 minutes but there is no news on when he will be released. There isn’t another artist in recent history who has had such political impact.”

WHAT DOES THE TERM ‘FREUDIAN SLIP’ REALLY MEAN?

Psychologist Dr Colin Gill

“Technically known as parapraxis, it’s essentially a slip of the tongue whereby your unconscious breaks through your ordinary train of thought to express a wish or desire that you were otherwise concealing – or repressing, as Freud would put it. Essentially it is you saying, unexpectedly, what you would really like to be doing. They’re often seen as having a sexual connotation, because Freud believed we were driven by our ‘id’, which is the part of our psyche driven by sexual feeling or intention.”

WHAT CAUSED THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT?

Professor Richard Caplan, Professor of International Relations, Oxford University

“The fundamental nature of this conflict is that you have two peoples, Jewish and Palestinian, laying claim to the same territory. Why can’t they share it? The Jewish side and many on the Palestinian side wish to define the state in terms of their national identity, rather than as a bi-national or non-national state.

The issue of identity is a problem. Large numbers of Palestinian refugees fled when the State of Israel was established in 1948. Many wish to return, and the Israelis won’t allow it as they are concerned they would dilute the fundamentally Jewish character of the state. A further complication is the fact that within the territory is the city of Jerusalem, a holy site for both peoples, who wish to exert sovereign control over it. What makes this conflict seemingly intractable is the mutually exclusive nature of the positions; you can’t have both a Jewish state and shared sovereignty. And since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has been in effect colonizing those territories, so this is another obstacle to peace on the basis of a two-state solution. The failure to achieve a negotiated settlement is creating pressure within the Palestinian leadership to consider bold moves—such as a unilateral declaration of independence.”

WHAT DIFFERENTIATES THE VARIOUS ‘WAVES’ OF FEMINISM?

Ellie Levenson, author of The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism

“The first wave of feminism was the fight for women’s suffrage in the 19th and early 20th century, focusing on voting and political rights. The second came in the Sixties and Seventies and fought for workplace and reproduction rights. The third wave started in the Nineties, and is about looking at what we want now – equal rights in the workplace, division of domestic work, etc. Post-feminism simply believes that the fight’s now been won, meaning there’s no need for the feminist movement to exist anymore.”

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MODERN POETRY?

Paul Adrian, winner of the National Poetry Competition 2010

“Modern poetry concentrates primarily on depth of feeling, and the strict forms and structures of poetic tradition (a sonnet, for example) now often take a back seat to emotion. Three essential modern poets you need to be aware of are: Carol Ann Duffy (pictured), the first woman to be appointed Poet Laureate in 2009, and famously controversial as her poem Education For Leisure was removed from GCSE reading lists. Irishman Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, is probably the most renowned poet currently writing in English, noted for his earthy style. Also, Paul Muldoon, very much a ‘poet’s poet’, has a knack for obscure words and puzzling turns of phrase which have earned him an international reputation.”

WHAT DOES MACHIAVELLIAN ACTUALLY MEAN?

Professor Robert P Harrison, Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University

“These days the word ‘Machiavellian’ is used to mean a crafty, sneaky or underhand person or ploy. It derives from Niccolò Machiavello (1469-1527), a political diplomat and historian during the time of the Italian Renaissance, who penned an infamous handbook for rulers, The Prince in 1513. The first hard-nosed realist of the political world, a typically Machiavellian statement reads, ‘since it is difficult for a ruler to be both feared and loved, it is much safer to be feared than loved.’ Machiavello was also the first to voice the opinion that ‘the end justifies the means’, an early forerunner of today’s business maxim: ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs’.”

WHAT DEFINES MODERN ART?

Paul Hobson, Director of the Contemporary Art Society

“Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Frida Kahlo are all part of the Modern Art movement, which began in the late 19th century and ended when the Contemporary Art movement started in 1970. In a world where photography had been invented, art no longer had to realistically represent what was in the world. So artists began to ask – what does art have to say about reality? It’s why Rothko just painted a square or Henry Moore sculpted bulbous shapes. They were drawing attention to the material, the paint and the stone, and the concept they were exploring, rather than just accurately representing what they could see. When people say ‘but a child could do that’, it’s often because they expect the artist to demonstrate technical skill, but modern art is the expression of another reality – then world as it is perceived and felt rather than understood.”

WHAT DOES STEPHEN HAWKING’S BOOK, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, ACTUALLY SAY?

Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey

“The Holy Grail in the world of 20th century physics was to somehow unify all the different proven theories about the universe so you would have one equation that pretty much explained it all. Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History Of Time, published in 1988, made a very good attempt. Hawking explains and explores two difficult and abstract ideas: Einstein’s theory of relativity (the Big Bang, black holes etc) and quantum physics (the minute building blocks of everything). Next he takes us through various attempts to merge the two to get a unified theory. The book brought about a new and widespread fascination with our place in the universe, and got a generation talking about where we come from, and where we are going.”

HOW BAD A STATE IS THE ECONOMY REALLY IN?

Dr Tim Leunig from the department of Economic History at the London School of Economics

“We keep hearing that we’re in the worst recession since the Thirties (a recession is at least six months of negative growth; where the country gets poorer rather than richer) but Lord Young was right in his controversial comments [the Conservative’s enterprise adviser resigned last year after claiming most Britons “had never had it so good”]. We’re richer as a country than we were 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years ago and get, on average, 2% richer each year. The national deficit (the amount the government has borrowed this year; 2010’s was £148.9 billion) and the national debt (the total amount we owe as a country from all previous years, currently £1,105.8 billion), are both very big, but we don’t need to pay it back right away – like Greece does, which is why they are in so much trouble.”

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?

Ann Gray, Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Lincoln

“The concept, dating from the Fifties refers to the shifting boundaries between high and low culture, art and everyday life. It involves parody and ‘stealing’ elements from a multitude of sources. The changing identities of constructed celebrities like Madonna and Lady Gaga are a good example of postmodernism. Like magpies they trawl areas outside of their domain, such as art and religion, and incorporate these elements into their work. Postmodernism is not concerned with what ‘real’ is – image and style are everything. As a result, it is often seen as superficial – originality and authenticity becomes impossible to locate in a sea of style and surface image.”

WHAT IS MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY?

Peter Barham, Professor of Molecular Gastronomy

“At its simplest level, molecular gastronomy is the study of the physical and chemical reactions that happen when ingredients are combined or cooked. The term was first coined in the Eighties, at workshops where scientists, chefs and food writers came together to try and understanding the science behind gastronomic quality food. Some chefs, including Heston Blumenthal (who attended the courses) and El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià and The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller (who didn’t) started using these approaches in the kitchen, and the media went wild. All these chefs are now able to produce foods full of interesting textures, like foams and gels and wonderful hits of flavour that have led to a change in the ways people eat.”

WHICH COUNTRIES ARE AT WAR RIGHT NOW?

Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent at Reuters

“A lot depends on what you mean by ‘at war’ and whether you include the world’s messy ongoing insurgencies. Libya definitely falls under the ‘war’ category, both as an old-fashioned civil war between rebels and government and as a conflict with outside military intervention. The same goes for Afghanistan. Somalia’s long-running civil war doesn’t look like it’s going to be over anytime soon. Some are worried Syria’s uprising might tip into war in the face of a brutal crackdown by the government. The Ivory Coast briefly returned to civil war this year after a disputed election in November, but that looks to be largely over following the capture of incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo last month. North and South Korea are still technically at war half a century after the end of the Korean War, but ceasefire still holds. There are occasional artillery exchanges between Cambodia and Laos, worrying diplomats, but it’s not really a war. Violence periodically continues in Iraq, but with US and other foreign forces largely withdrawn it is rarely referred to as a war these days. India, Myanmar (Burma), Russia, Venezuela, China, Russia, the Philippines, Morocco, Ethiopia, Chad and many others have ongoing insurgencies and rebel movements, some of these might be sometimes described as wars, many would not.”

Picture credits: Rex Features and Getty Images

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