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    John and Molly met on the street in Cambridge. To be more precise, they met on Mill Road, close to Saint Barnabas Church, a couple of months ago. At first, Molly thought that John was not particularly interested in her; he very much kept to himself (and his habit). She nevertheless started calling him. Every single morning, he had a missed call on his phone. Very regularly, they would bump into each other at one or other of the Cambridge begging spots and talk.

    Now in retrospect, the two claim that it must have been the star signs that were decisive for their mutual attraction; John and Molly both happen to be Leo. I guess it was more than that. It was a shared understanding of their circumstances, a shared attitude towards life and even more so a shared fate. A mutual recognition of how it is to live on the street. 

    The world of beggars is understood by mainstream Brits as a criminal sphere, the epitome of an underground world crowded by drug users and prostitutes, by the lowest kind of street people, by those unwilling to work, unwilling to behave as ‘normal’ citizens. Is this the world that John and Molly are living in, the world that accommodates their love affair? Or is their reality – the little stints and spaces of privacy, the moments of intimacy and togetherness they have created for themselves – actually rather different and more complex?

    As a student of economics, first in Germany and then in the UK, I took part in countless seminars in which poverty was reduced to numbers, statistics, abstract trends. This dehumanising of poverty was one of the reasons that I changed subjects to sociology and finally to anthropology. The financial crisis confronted me with the impotence of economics and, living in East London, I saw its impact first hand. I found myself talking to people who live in poverty every day, who have been coping with it for years.

    What first got me thinking about, and talking to, beggars was my interest in different uses of money. As I entered the community of beggars in Shoreditch, I found myself immersed in a world of very different relationships and living patterns – that turned out to be not so dissimilar at all.

    These similarities are what I now observe in Cambridge’s homeless. There certainly are differences between the life of an office worker and John. It is true, John does have a habit. He started taking drugs when he was about 15 and developed all kinds of likings before he ended up with ‘brown’ – what they call heroin on the street. The little bags that the ‘H’ comes in have kept him busy now for about 28 years. He has gone through a Methadone cure, was denied Subitex, and quickly came back to the ‘real shit’. Often, he does not even care whether people see him injecting. Public toilets, churchyards, hallways, hidden entrances: scoring happens everywhere.

    Molly, on the other hand, has three children none of whom live with her at the moment. One marriage, two fathers and an age gap of eight years separate the youngest, an 18-month-old daughter, from the oldest son. Molly became homeless only recently after having capitulated again to her alcohol problem.

    But life for John and Molly is not ‘flat’, it is not stereotypical. It does not even come close to the descriptions that we are used to reading in newspapers, which focus on the sensational side of homelessness and begging. Recent reports from Cambridge looking for this sensationalism in homelessness have included a man sleeping in St John’s College Library and homeless groups overnighting in a city graveyard. Again, this is one side of it, yes, but the culture of sensationalism often misses the other – in this case more human – part of it. The beggars I’ve encountered during my research in Cambridge and London are excluded; they are going through phases of drug-addiction, but why reduce them to that?

    What I’ve learned by going out, talking and living with people on the streets is that this – drugs, violence, theft – is only one side of ‘their coin’. John for instance is, in fact, not simply lazy. He was working for almost two decades doing tree surgery before he fell out of one of his ‘patients’ five years ago. Molly has been off the bottle for years in between stints of heavy drinking – her relapses have always been overcome and this is the first time she is actually sleeping on the street. John’s and Molly’s stories are complex and not easily subsumed under the glib phrase ‘drug addicts’.

    Beggars are human too in their desire for relationships. John and Molly found each other on the street, they live together on the street, and they love together on the street. As good as they can, they try to carve out their little space of privacy as often as possible. Even though in some moments of absolute addiction, shame is overcome by the unyielding will to score, this is mostly different when it comes to their togetherness. John and Molly don’t like to have sex in an alleyway. Only rarely they are forced to resort to these emergency spaces. At other times, they use a friend’s place for their intimacies.

    It’s not only sexuality that binds these two together; it is also sharing in a much wider sense. John and Molly share thoughts and opinions, attitudes and – yes – feelings for each other. Some academics support the one sided view arguing that love is not possible on the street – and that, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes claimed long ago, the reality is that “life is nasty, brutish and short”. John’s life might rotate around drugs, money and police officers, but he is a loving being, too. How do beggars have time for romance, you ask? Not only does love exist, it is even the form of romantic love that is not limited to a material pooling of resources – to get by more easily – it can result in a long-term relationship of mutual support and care.

    I know three couples in London who have been together for over a year, in one case more than two years. These couples go together through sicknesses and periods in prison, they encourage and help each other to stop drugging. They do often take drugs together, beg together, and might also cheat on each other – but how different is this from a ‘normal’ marriage? It is ups and downs.

    ‘Don’t give to beggars – you might be killing with kindness’, a recent campaign in East London reads. Critics might claim, that similarly to the material gift, a narrative that tries to ‘normalise’ begging, depict ‘them’ as a common part of our society, makes it harder for the street people to become ‘better’. It helps them to stay where they are. I claim that what commentators might understand as the literal whitewashing of a whole bunch of people that in their (ie the commentators’) reality pollutes the streets with drug paraphernalia and excrements has to be taken seriously. We need to be aware of the multi-dimensionality of begging and beggars, of people on the street in general.

    Last week I was sitting with John and Molly on the pavement leading to Cambridge railway station when it began to rain. Watching them smile at each other, in the romantic way that only newly-made couples have, made me realise that not only can beggars love each other, but that we should also try to love them. 

    For more information about this story contact Johannes Lenhard on jfl37@cam.ac.uk or Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673. You can follow Johannes on Twitter @Johannes Lenhard.

     

    While his peers studied global banking systems, PhD candidate Johannes Lenhard became fascinated by the economics of life on the street.  Speaking to beggars, he saw the powerful humanity that binds people together. He urges us to learn to love the people we so often edit out of our lives. 

    Beggars are human too in their desire for relationships. John and Molly found each other on the street, live together on the street, love together on the street.
    Johannes Lenhard
    Homeless Couple, San Francisco, 2010

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    Autism affects different parts of the brain in females with autism than males with autism, a new study reveals. The research is published today in the journal Brain as an open-access article.

    Scientists at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge used magnetic resonance imaging to examine whether autism affects the brain of males and females in a similar or different way. They found that the anatomy of the brain of someone with autism substantially depends on whether an individual is male or female, with brain areas that were atypical in adult females with autism being similar to areas that differ between typically developing males and females. This was not seen in men with autism.

    “One of our new findings is that females with autism show neuroanatomical ‘masculinization’,” said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, senior author of the paper. “This may implicate physiological mechanisms that drive sexual dimorphism, such as prenatal sex hormones and sex-linked genetic mechanisms.”

    Autism affects 1% of the general population and is more prevalent in males. Most studies have therefore focused on male-dominant samples. As a result, our understanding of the neurobiology of autism is male-biased.

    “This is one of the largest brain imaging studies of sex/gender differences yet conducted in autism. Females with autism have long been under-recognized and probably misunderstood,” said Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, who led the research project. “The findings suggest that we should not blindly assume that everything found in males with autism applies to females. This is an important example of the diversity within the ‘spectrum’.”

    Dr Michael Lombardo, who co-led the study, added that although autism manifests itself in many different ways, grouping by gender may help provide a better understanding of this condition. 

    He said: “Autism as a whole is complex and vastly diverse, or heterogeneous, and this new study indicates that there are ways to subgroup the autism spectrum, such as whether an individual is male or female. Reducing heterogeneity via subgrouping will allow research to make significant progress towards understanding the mechanisms that cause autism.”

    If you are a journalist and would like more information about this story, please contact: Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge. Email: Genevieve.Maul@admin.cam.ac.uk; Tel: 01223 765542.

    New research sheds light on previously under-researched area of study – females with autism.

    The findings suggest that we should not blindly assume that everything found in males with autism applies to females.
    Dr Meng-Chuan Lai

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    The new genus Kenolamna has been revealed through the study of fossilised shark teeth which date back 100-80 million years ago.

    The finds, which have revolutionised the early history of megatooth sharks, were named in honour of McNamara after his 30 years as palaeontology curator of the Western Australian Museum.

    The fossil material, from Western Australia, indicates the otodontid sharks were one of the most diverse and successful groups of sharks during the later stages of the Cretaceous period, 100-65 million years ago; unravelling previous assumptions that they were only ever represented by one species of shark at any given time.

    Dr McNamara, who has been Director of the Sedgwick Museum for two years, said he was ‘thrilled’ that the genus would boast his name.

    “A load of ancient fossils have been named after me…is that a compliment? In this case I’ll say yes. But in all seriousness, it is quite cool to have a fossil shark named after me, especially as it is thought to have been the ancestor of the great white shark.

    “This is quite a major shift in our understanding; an awful lot of work has been done to work out how our modern sharks have evolved. This extinct group of predators is also thought to have been an ancestor of the Otodus megalodon or Carcharocles megalodon – a 20 metre-long monster of the deep.” Kenolamna was about 3 metres long.

    Current Western Australian Museum Curator of Palaeontology Dr Mikael Siversson led the international team of researchers from Australia, Canada and Sweden and said the findings have rewritten the history books.

    He said: After collecting new fossil material and examining existing collections, we were surprised to find otodontid sharks were in fact one of the most diverse and successful groups of sharks during the later stages of the Cretaceous period.”

    Dr McNamara said that having the genus named after him by peers in the scientific community is better than being awarded a knighthood.

    However, this is not the first time he has had a genus named after him. A now extinct class of armoured prehistoric fish, formally described in 1995, was given the name Mcnamaraspis kaprios. The genus name Mcnamaraspis was given in honour of Dr McNamara. Later that year, Mcnamaraspis kaprios was selected as the State Fossil Emblem for Western Australia.

    Although Dr McNamara tries to keep his own research interests alive (these include using fossils, particularly trilobites and sea urchins, to understand the relationship between developmental change and evolution; studying evidence from trace fossils for the colonisation of land; and trying to unravel how fossils were viewed by our prehistoric ancestors) the demands of running a University museum, teaching and acting as the Dean of Downing College limit the time he has to undertake his own work in these areas.

    “Being Director of this place is fantastic,” he added. “The Sedgwick Museum’s collections, in paleontological terms, are the best in the world. Every time, I come down to the museum I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. We have researchers from all over the world coming to use and study our collections – collections so significant that they record first-hand the dawn of geology as a science, as well as exhibits that can take us back to the beginnings of the solar system itself.”

    However, for all the Sedgwick’s astonishing collections (only a tiny percentage of which can be displayed at any one time), it does not yet have a fossil example of the type named after its director - although Dr McNamara has requested some samples from Dr Mikael Siversson and his team.

    A newly-discovered genus of shark that prowled Earth’s oceans 100 million years ago - and is thought to have been the ancestor of the great white - has been named after the Director of Cambridge University’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Ken McNamara.

    It is quite cool to have a fossil shark named after me.
    Ken McNamara
    Sedgwick Museum Director Ken McNamara holding a giant tooth from the Carcharocles megalodon – a 20 metre-long shark thought to have evolved from the genus named after Dr McNamara

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    Like cuckoos, honeyguides are parasitic birds that lay their eggs in other birds' nests and dupe them into raising their young. Now scientists reveal that, unlike in cuckoos, the resemblance between honeyguide eggs and those of their bee-eater bird hosts hasn't evolved to trick hosts into accepting the imposter egg as one of their own. Rather, it appears to have evolved to trick other honeyguides who would otherwise destroy the eggs because of fierce competition for host nests. The new research is published today, 21 August, in the journal Biology Letters.

    Honeyguides are intriguingly odd birds that are best-known for their unique, mutually beneficial relationship with humans. Honeyguides love to eat beeswax. To obtain it, they guide human honey-hunters to bees' nests. In return for showing the humans the bees, the honeyguide gains access to the otherwise dangerous and impenetrable nest and its sought-after wax.

    But these African birds also have a dark side. They are unusually vicious parasites whose imposter chicks stab the chicks of their host birds (often little bee-eaters) to death as soon as they hatch in order to eliminate competition for the host parents' care.  The newly published research has shown that this fight for monopoly of the nest also extends to other honeyguides in a battle conducted deep underground in the nest burrows that bee-eaters dig into the roofs of Aardvark holes.

    The researchers' curiosity was piqued by their earlier finding that like cuckoo eggs, honeyguide eggs resemble those of each of their several host species. Instead of mimicking their colour, however, they mimic their size (as colour is irrelevant in the dark interior of the deep holes in which hosts breed). For example, honeyguides parasitising little bee-eaters lay smaller eggs in their nests than do honeyguides parasitising larger hosts. Many classic studies have shown that comparable mimicry in cuckoo eggs has evolved to reduce rejection by choosy hosts that eject mismatched eggs from their nests.

    Dr Claire Spottiswoode from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who carried out the research, said: “I assumed honeyguide egg mimicry had evolved just like cuckoo mimicry, so was bowled over and baffled when little bee-eaters turned out to be pretty dim. When I played the honeyguide and experimentally parasitised their nests, the bee-eaters blithely incubated eggs even much larger than their own. So I was quite wrong, and mimicry probably hasn't evolved to dupe bee-eaters.

    “It was only when some of my experiments were parasitised by real honeyguides, and my experimental eggs were pecked to pieces, that the penny dropped – perhaps they need to look like bee-eaters or else other honeyguides will get rid of them, to avoid suffering the same grisly fate that they impose upon their hosts.”

    A second experiment supported this hypothesis: again the researchers placed a larger foreign egg in bee-eaters nests, but then waited for a real honeyguide to come along and lay her own egg. When this happened they counted the number of puncture holes the female honeyguide made in each egg in the clutch. This revealed that laying honeyguides punctured the larger foreign egg more heavily than host eggs, lest it be another honeyguide's egg and kill their own chick should it hatch first. Evolution should then favour honeyguide females that lay eggs resembling those of bee-eaters and thereby avoid being detected and destroyed by a competing honeyguide.

    The suggestion that mimicry might evolve because parasites benefit from concealing their eggs from one another was first made by Cambridge scientists Nick Davies and Michael Brooke 25 years ago, but this study is the first to show that it probably happens in the wild. Honeyguide parasitism on little bee-eaters is very common and about a third of parasitised nests contain eggs laid by two or more honeyguide females, resulting in especially strong parasitic competition.

    Dr Spottiswoode said: “Under these circumstances it makes good sense that honeyguides have a lot to gain from tricking other honeyguides. But we still don't know why bee-eaters parents themselves are so undiscriminating, especially when they pay such high costs of being conned – all your offspring hacked to death, and over a month wasted raising the wrong chick!"

    The research was funded by The Royal Society and the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence at Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town. It forms part of a wider research programme investigating coevolution between parasitic birds and their hosts in Zambia led by Dr Claire Spottiswoode, who adds "My colleagues and I are very lucky to be helped by a wonderful team of local field assistants who find all the nests we study, and in this case dug many holes into rock-hard soil to reach bee-eater nests and carry out these experiments!"

    Scientists believe behaviour drives evolution of egg size similar to hosts.

    Under these circumstances it makes good sense that honeyguides have a lot to gain from tricking other honeyguides.
    Dr Claire Spottiswoode from the Department of Zoology
    A bee-eater clutch parasitised by a honeyguide; the larger egg is a honeyguide egg, and the smaller eggs are all rotten because they have been punctured by the laying female honeyguides.

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  • 08/22/13--00:00: How does your garden grow?
  • Food and biofuel crops could be grown and maintained in many places where it wasn’t previously possible, such as deserts, landfills and former mining sites, thanks to an inexpensive, non-chemical soil additive.

    The additive, a simple mixture of organic waste, such as chicken manure, and zeolite, a porous volcanic rock, could be used to support agriculture in both the developed and developing world, while avoiding the serious environmental consequences associated with the overuse of chemical fertilisers. The mixture permits a controlled release of nutrients, the regulation of water, and an ideal environment for growing crops.

    Researchers from the University of Cambridge have demonstrated that with the addition of the biofertiliser, biofuel crops can be successfully grown and – more importantly, sustained - even on coal waste highly contaminated with metal residues.

    Using coal waste from the site of a former colliery in Nottinghamshire as a substrate, the researchers grew rapeseed, flax, sugar beet and maize, with different additives: manure, zeolite, lime, or biofertiliser, as well as coal waste alone and regular garden soil. Plants grown in the coal waste with added biofertiliser achieved nearly twice the weight and yield of those grown in garden soil or in coal waste with added manure, and more than twice the weight and yield of those grown in coal waste with added zeolite. The results are published in the August issue of the International Journal of Environment and Resource.

    The coal waste contains chemical elements that can be ionised by the biofertiliser, making nutrients which are essential to growth available for uptake by the plants. As the organic waste in the mixture decomposes, it produces ammonium ions which build up on the surface of the zeolite. When the mixture is added to soil, it boosts the population of micro-organisms responsible for nitrification, which is essential for plant nutrition. The biofertiliser also helps plants develop dense root systems which stabilise the soil against erosion.

    In addition to the coal waste, the team is working with marginal soils, such as those in desert climates, which normally require large amounts of water and chemical fertilisers in order for plants to grow. Control experiments have shown that water held in the zeolite increases the moisture content of soil in desert conditions. After initial watering, early-morning dew is held in the pores of the zeolite and released during the hottest part of the day. Plants grown with the biofertiliser achieve greater weight, and in the case of fruits and vegetables, a better taste, than those grown with chemical fertilisers.

    Nitrogen is critical for crop development, yet is deficient in many types of soil. Over the past century, chemical fertilisers have been used to boost nitrogen levels and crop yields, helping global food supply keep pace with population growth. However, this has come at a cost as they are detrimental to long-term soil health. Without a regular input of organic matter, soil microbial diversity decreases and the carbon concentration is lowered. The overuse of chemical fertilisers causes the soil to lose both its ability to hold water and its overall structure, leading to greater runoff and groundwater pollution. Nitrogen-rich fertiliser runoff is the primary cause of oxygen depletion in oceans, lakes and rivers, leading to aquatic ‘dead zones.’

    “This is a whole new approach to plant nutrition,” says Dr Peter Leggo of the Department of Earth Sciences, who developed the material. “Previously, you’d douse crops with chemicals, and it’s caused a huge reduction in soil microbial diversity. It has reached the stage that in certain parts of North America enormous dust bowls have developed as a consequence. The material we’ve developed takes less energy to produce, improves soil structure and enables you to grow crops on almost any type of soil.”

    The team has plans to commercialise the material where there are large deposits of zeolite, and export it to other markets. There are also plans to collaborate with charities and social enterprises to create sustainable farmland for small hold farmers in the developing world.

    For more information on this story, contact Sarah Collins on sarah.collins@admin.cam.ac.uk or +44 (0)1223 323300.

    A simple mixture of organic waste, such as chicken manure, and zeolite, a porous volcanic rock, has been developed into a powerful fertiliser which can also reclaim desert or contaminated land.

    This is a whole new approach to plant nutrition
    Peter Leggo
    Corn grown in coal waste is shown above corn grown in coal waste with added biofertiliser

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    The earliest complete map of Cambridge, dated 1574, is held by the British Museum: it is too frail to be displayed.  Drawn in exquisite detail, it shows the intermingling of the Colleges – then variously described as Halls, Ostells, Colledges and Howses– with the town itself complete with yardes, greenes and cawseys (causeways).  The soaring shape of King’s Collegde Chappell is instantly recognisable. To its west, a lone fisherman stands beside the river, rod in hand. He wears a conical hat, doublet and hose, and pointy shoes.  Horses frolic in the meadows of Newnam and pigs rootle in Swinecrofte.

    A copy of this wonderful map will be on display for talks and tours of the Cambridgeshire Collection taking place on 13 and 14 September as part of the Open Cambridge programme. Chris Jakes, Local Studies Manager for Cambridgeshire Libraries, will use the1574 map as well as other items from the Collection to show how much can be learnt from this unique archive. 

    The introduction to the Collection on the top floor of the Central Library will include a tour of the store in the basement of the Library. Here more than 4.4 million images, 25,000 maps, many hundreds of books and journals, as well as ephemeral items such as handbills and posters, are housed in a fire-proof chamber. These documents are used by scholars in a wide range of disciplines as well as members of the public, particularly those researching family histories.

    The thousands of historic illustrations held by the Cambridgeshire Collection include engravings by David Loggan (1634-1692) whose fabulous bird’s eye views of the Cambridge Colleges are masterpieces of draftsmanship. Loggan’s engraving of Trinity College shows a small garden and a shed-like building just outside the College walls. Analysis of the soil at this spot reveals significant traces of mercury, strongly suggesting that it was in this hut that Isaac Newton carried out some of his experiments.

    Another treasure to be on show is a copy of the Cambridge Chronicle, dated 24 August 1776, which reprints in full the American Declaration of Independence.  The paper, which covers London as well as local news, offers a window into another world – some 70 years before the railway arrived in Cambridge.  Few regional papers were produced in this era; thus the Cambridge Chronicle was also sold in York and other places on the Great North Road. Twice-weekly issues of the paper were printed on Market Hill and would have travelled north by stage coach.

    Reports of births, deaths and marriages of the well-to-do are followed by news of grisly murders and executions.  A tea smuggler has escaped from the prison at Cambridge Castle, having broken through the roof. Surprisingly, he says he will return to pay his bill for food. A bay mare has disappeared, or been stolen from, Skellingsthorpe Fen in Lincolnshire.  Farms are up for sale in the Cambridgeshire villages of Little Stukely[sic] and Upwell.  An advertisement for “antiscorbutic drops” promises to cure a dizzying array of ailments and is supported by a glowing endorsement from a customer who wrote that the holes in her feet had been healed.

    The Cambridgeshire Collection boasts the earliest known tourist guide to Oxford and Cambridge. The title page reads The Foreigner’s Companion through the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and the author is given as Mr Salmon.  It was printed in 1748 for William Owen, at Homer’s Head, near Temple Bar, in Fleet Street, London. One section is devoted to famous people listed by College and another to the exotic plants to be spotted in the college gardens. In the ensuing years, before the advent of copyright, Salmon’s guide was plagiarised by other publishers who brazenly lifted whole sections of his text.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    To reserve a place for this event, and many others, go to www.cam.ac.uk/opencambridge 01223 766766. Many pre-book events quickly reach capacity but others are run on a drop-in basis. For opening times of the Cambridgeshire Collection go to http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/leisure/archives/local_history/cambs/

    For more information on this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

    A map dating from 1574 describes Cambridge as a very famous city. A copy of this exquisite document is one of the many thousands of treasures contained in the Cambridgeshire Collection. Chris Jakes, Local Studies Manager for Cambridgeshire Libraries, will give an introduction to a unique archive as part of Open Cambridge (13-15 September).

    The soaring shape of King’s Collegde Chappell is instantly recognisable. To its west, a lone fisherman stands beside the river, rod in hand.
    Detail from Richard Lyne's 1574 map of Cambridge.

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  • 08/22/13--22:00: Attack of the Zeppelins
  • The battle to bring down the Zeppelins during World War I is being revisited in a new documentary which explains how these supposed floating death-traps successfully brought terror to Britain’s skies.

    Attack Of The Zeppelins, which airs on Channel 4 on Monday, 26 August, follows University of Cambridge engineer Dr Hugh Hunt as he examines the science behind the Zeppelins’ success, and their ultimate defeat.

    Among other revelations, the programme shows how the unlikely use of cows’ intestines became so critical to German plans to bomb the British public, that sausage-making became illegal in areas under German control!

    Hunt also tells the story of how British engineers came up with new ideas to stop the giant airships, after it became all too apparent that shooting at them with machine-guns was not enough.

    In addition, the film records a remarkable personal discovery, as he finds out quite by chance that the man behind the decisive innovation which won the battle was none other than his own Great Uncle.

    It is not the first time that Hunt has revisited remarkable feats of wartime engineering. His previous investigations have looked at how some of the best-known exploits of World War II, such as the Dambusters Raid and the Great Escape, were accomplished.

    For his latest project, however, he turned instead to the air raids of World War I, which foreshadowed the Blitz 30 years later, and shocked the British public by taking war to the civilian population for the first time in centuries.

    “One of the most intriguing things about the Zeppelins is that we don’t have a huge amount of information about how they were built, nor about how they were destroyed,” Hunt said.

    “You would think that it’s pretty straightforward given the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. But while shooting down a massive hydrogen balloon sounds pretty easy, actually it was quite the opposite. For the best part of two years, these things were able to fly over Britain, dropping bombs and causing havoc. We wanted to know more about how that worked, and how they were beaten.”

    Conceived as a way to break British civilian morale, the Zeppelin raids never caused casualties on anything like the scale that would have been necessary to change the course of the war. Nevertheless, for civilians who witnessed them, the attacks, which began in January 1915, were a shocking experience.

    Over the next two years, London’s East End and other towns and cities in east and southern England, such as Hull, King’s Lynn, and Great Yarmouth, found themselves targets. Silent and difficult to anticipate, the Zeppelins were a new kind of terror weapon which the British were slow to counter. When the raids ended in 1917, 77 of the 115 German airships had been shot down, but 1,500 British citizens had been killed in air raids.

    Winston Churchill himself had written off the Zeppelins as “enormous bladders of combustible and explosive gas”, but in practice they proved exceptionally difficult to bring down. For the film, Hunt decided to investigate why, by firing at bags of hydrogen himself.

    “If you shoot a bullet at a balloon of hydrogen, all you get is a small hole,” he explained. “There were 50 thousand cubic metres of gas in a Zeppelin, and by putting a few holes in it, all you were doing was depriving it of a few cubic metres. It barely made any difference.”

    The documentary also reveals the ingenious and slightly gruesome method by which hydrogen, which is a difficult gas to contain into the first place, was held by Zeppelins in the first place. Records suggested that the Germans used the intestines of cows, but it was not clear how this was achieved.

    To find out, Hunt and his colleagues took the unlikely measure of visiting a sausage factory in Middlesbrough, where cow’s intestines are used to make sausage skins. By following the method used there, they worked out that by making the skins wet, stretching them, and allowing them to dry again, they were bonded together to form ideal vessels for hydrogen gas.

    There was a drawback for the German public, however, as it took the guts from more than 250,000 cows to make a single airship. The animal’s intestine became so precious that German sausage making was temporarily forbidden.

    The film also revisits the method by which the British finally put an end to the Zeppelin threat, by alternately firing explosive and incendiary bullets into the balloons. By doing so, they were able to pierce the balloon first, enabling oxygen to mix with the hydrogen, before setting the lethal mixture on fire.

    One final revelation for Hunt was that the designer of the incendiary bullets that set the Zeppelins alight was none other than his own Great Uncle, Jim Buckingham.

    “I remember my father talking about an Uncle Jim who had worked on tracer bullets later, in World War II, but for some reason I had never made the connection,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was chatting to my cousin about it that it clicked, and I realised that we were talking about the same person.”

    Attack Of The Zeppelins will be shown on Channel 4 at 8pm on Monday, 26 August. For more information, visit: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/attack-of-the-zeppelins 

    For more information about this story, please contact Tom Kirk, Tel: 01223 332300, thomas.kirk@admin.cam.ac.uk 

    An investigation into how the Zeppelins worked, and how they were defeated, led by Cambridge engineer Hugh Hunt, forms the subject of a Channel 4 documentary this coming Monday.

    Shooting down a massive hydrogen balloon sounds pretty easy. Actually it was quite the opposite.
    Hugh Hunt
    Screenshot from Attack Of The Zeppelins, which airs on Monday

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    After months of planning, design, building and testing, Britain’s only entry into the World Solar Challenge – a 3,000km solar-powered race across Australia – is heading out to the other side of the world.

    Created by students at the University of Cambridge, the car, which has been named “Resolution” by its creators, will be transported to Australia on Tuesday. Once there, it will undergo intense examination and further testing before the Darwin to Adelaide race begins on 6 October.

    No British team has ever won the competition in its 26-year history. A victory this time would be a triumph of enterprise and ingenuity against the odds. Unlike the most successful of their competitors, who receive funding to build their cars up front, the Cambridge team have to raise the money themselves from scratch. They also have to fit the construction around exams and holiday jobs which, in some cases, are funding their own trips to Australia to compete.

    Despite the challenge, however, the team are confident that Resolution’s radically different design has given them a chance. The car, which runs on roughly the same power as a hairdryer, overcomes the traditional trade-off between maximising its power and still having an aerodynamic design by separating the two.

    Solar panels are attached to aft-tracking plates across its body, and programmed to follow the movement of the sun across the sky. In most solar cars, the panels are fixed to the vehicle’s surface, which compromises its shape. The use of mobile panels has enabled the team to make Resolution far more aerodynamic than the traditional “table-top” design of most of their competitors.

    The result is a vehicle that can move at an astonishing rate. In tests, the car has  exceeded 70 miles per hour with a predicted top speed of 87 miles per hour. That bodes well for a competition where the fastest average speed ever recorded by a winner was just under 63mph.

    “Put simply, our car looks like nothing else in the competition, and that might just give us the edge we need,” Keno Mario-Ghae, team manager for Cambridge University Eco-Racing, based at the University’s Department of Engineering, said.

    “There is still work to do, but we’re at the stage where the devil is in the detail. We’re looking at getting little things to run a bit more smoothly, or with a bit less power. We reckon that we can still squeeze out about 200 watts more in power consumption with a bit of effort.”

    The main reason for sending the car to Australia now – weeks before the race itself begins – is the intense preparation period that it will have to pass through on arrival. The car first goes into quarantine, possibly for just five days, but potentially for much longer.

    Once released, the vehicle enters a new period of testing. Safety plans have to be submitted, driver turnaround times perfected, and the car undergoes test drives at different speeds. In particular, the team will need to assess how its systems are coping with the heat. Temperatures on the route could reach into the high 30s, which will be gruelling not just for the car, but the student drivers, who will be undertaking four hour stints inside the cramped cockpit.

    “It’s basically like Formula One,” Mario-Ghae observed. “Everything we submit gets reviewed and checked to make sure that it complies with the rules. The systems are assessed one by one. Even the drivers have to be weighed in.”

    The cost of building the car comes to almost £500,000, but at no stage during it construction period has the team possessed anything resembling that amount of money. Instead, they have had to put it together using corporate sponsorship, donations, a  “Name-On-Car” scheme, and crowdfunding through the website Kickstarter.

    The net result is that, unlike many of their competitors, there are few spare components. That will make for a tense race because, although the car can potentially reach speeds that will challenge for a place on the winners’ podium, it could also fail if its key parts stop working.

    “The margins are tight and and for us something failing could take us from challenging for a winning position to being absolutely nowhere,” Mario-Ghae said. “You just have to pray that everything will work. The race is going to be a massive effort, but if we can get everything right, we genuinely believe that we can win. We’re doing everything that we can to make this happen.”

    Further information about Cambridge University Eco-Racing, and how you can support the British team, can be found at http://www.cuer.co.uk/

    For more information about this story, please contact Tom Kirk, Tel: 01223 332300, thomas.kirk@admin.cam.ac.uk 

    Built by undergraduates working for their exams, with funds raised by the students themselves, Cambridge’s solar car is the only British entry into the World Solar Challenge. Despite the odds, however, its radical design could still secure victory.

    Put simply, our car looks like nothing else in the competition, and that might just give us the edge we need.
    Keno Mario-Ghae
    Resolution during a test drive in Cambridge.

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    I’m sitting in a stuffy office in Bulawayo’s business district, struggling to get reliable internet access, while listening to young people’s accounts of their disheartening attempts at entrepreneurialism. On the desk in front of me is a pile of national newspapers filled with conflicting reports of the recent Zimbabwean elections. In some ways, this picture sums up how Zimbabwe comes across to the outside world: difficult to connect with, flailing economically and endlessly contradictory.

    On Thursday, Mugabe enjoyed the rapture of his seventh presidential inauguration. Today the controversy surrounding the Zimbabwean elections is fast dropping off the international news agenda. There has not been a repeat of the situation in 2008, when there was loud international condemnation of the electoral process amid economic turmoil and accounts of widespread and violent voter-intimidation. Even the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangari, has retracted his challenge to the results in the constitutional court – most likely because he is aware that there is not the momentum to make his challenge viable. This weekend, the world’s attention is already elsewhere, as Western governments and observers focus on Egypt and Syria.

    Non-violent elections are not particularly newsworthy, especially in the current climate of coups, revolutions, and counter-revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. But I do wonder how much more attention Zimbabwe would be getting internationally if Tsvangari had won the July elections. Understandably, international observers are moving their attentions elsewhere, confounded that Mugabe has somehow survived what appeared to be political self-destruction just a few years ago.

    As a student of social anthropology, my instinct is to try to connect the attitudes of ordinary Zimbabweans to the machinations of international diplomacy. Considering how the international community should deal with a politically resurrected President Mugabe, in the light of the daily reality in Zimbabwe, is an important exercise.

    A month ago, there was much talk here of the European Union lifting sanctions if the August elections passed “freely and fairly”. Verifying the elections was complicated from the start by the barring of UN and Western observers; instead, Western nations were forced to rely on observers from the African Union (AU), as well as those from neighbouring countries under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

    Responses to the elections have been mixed and unclear, especially to those within Zimbabwe. Government and opposition media outlets produce absurdly differing accounts. ZBC Radio, the government-controlled radio station, regularly announces that another nation has “proudly endorsed the people’s revolutionary mandate given to His Excellency Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe”. Radio listeners were told that the vice-president of China, Li Yuanchao, was flying in for the inauguration to “celebrate democracy in a sister republic” – but it turned out that a smattering of minor officials turned up in his place. Neighbouring Botswana, on the other hand, defiantly spoke out against Mugabe’s victory, and it seems that there is now a diplomatic scuffle underway between the two SADC members.

    Despite the difficulties surrounding election observation, the official account currently circulating here is that the elections were “free but not fair”. This verdict in itself poses another series of challenges – it is not clear how the international community should engage with the Zimbabwean government now that there is such a fuzzy picture of the elections. To lift the sanctions would clearly not be politically palatable for the West, eager not to endorse Mugabe’s rule. It seems that the sanctions will quietly remain in place, and the US State Department has indicated it has no intention of loosening them at the moment.

    Mugabe may no longer be quite the pariah he was five years ago, but there is not quite the impetus to rehabilitate him and his crooked regime at present. If anything, I would suggest that “ushering him in from the cold,” as David Smith recently suggested in the Guardian, is simply not worthwhile for the international community considering that he is almost 90. Sometime in the not too distant future the international community will be dealing with his successor; perhaps then relations with the outside world will stand a better chance of rehabilitation.

    The current situation with the sanctions is not ideal for reasons other than diplomacy. Despite the fact that the sanctions are designed to target the elite – travel bans and asset freezes for Mugabe and 250 or so of his inner circle – the ultimate subjects of diplomatic actions are some 12 million Zimbabweans who have endured extreme economic turmoil for over a decade. Within Zimbabwe, however, it is widely thought that that the sanctions have done much to bring about the country’s economic decline, a notion enthusiastically promulgated by Zanu-PF in its propaganda. Sanctions provide an easy explanation for the economic situation – one that deflects responsibility from the ruling party.

    The finger of blame for economic crisis is, therefore, pointed firmly at the West. As a close friend said to me over dinner recently: “If Zanu-PF have been successful at anything, it’s been the circulation of the idea that the West has an agenda.” Although an unlikely suggestion outside Africa, the so-called Western agenda is firmly attested by many in Zimbabwe. That “agenda” is to keep poor countries like Zimbabwe down, through sanctions, enforcement of debt repayment, trade barriers, and IMF/World Bank structural adjustment policies. In this interpretation, these factors serve to reinforce the political and economic dominance of the West, while inhibiting, and actively prohibiting, growth in Africa. To many ordinary Zimbabweans, these actions are also uncomfortably reminiscent of colonial rule and imperial meddling.

    The ultimate problem with sanctions is that they weld economic issues to political ones. Whether or not sanctions actually affect the economic reality for people on the ground, they are perceived to make people’s everyday livelihood harder to ensure. And once the West has initiated the dialogue in terms of sanctions, it’s hard to get out of their stranglehold. The West is forced to continue discussing the ‘democratic deficit’ in Zimbabwe in terms of which commodities should be withheld, or which bank accounts should be frozen. This doesn’t make sense to ordinary Zimbabweans, and it’s easy to see why.

    During my three weeks in Zimbabwe, I’ve spoken with a widely diverse range of young people as part of my research – members of both Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups, university graduates and high school dropouts, township-dwellers and wealthy urbanites, NGO founders and aspiring entrepreneurs. The desire to be free of sanctions, and to assert a renewed, positive image of Zimbabwe, is something that genuinely unites all these people across demographic divides.

    Removal of the sanctions would improve the situation for everyone I’ve spoken to on various fronts. It would be a boost to Zimbabwean pride and attitudes towards the Western world, and simultaneously remove the sanctions as a scapegoat for Mugabe’s problems. It would partly clear the path for foreign investment, by giving Zimbabwe an international stamp of approval. It would not so much usher Mugabe in from the cold as usher in the country from a period of being a notorious international pariah – a label that Zimbabweans have come to feel is bitterly unfair.

    Most crucially, it would lead the way for diplomacy framed in terms other than sanctions. There’s only so much longer that one can wonder how the world would have looked if Tsvangari had won. It’s time for a dose of realpolitik in the West’s attitude towards Zimbabwe – which must start by lifting the sanctions.

    To protect the identity of the family with whom she is staying, Rowan Jones is a pseudonym. For more information about this story, contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

     

    The Zimbabwean elections will quickly drop off the international news agenda. In her third and final report, anthropology student Rowan Jones ponders Zimbabwe’s place in world politics and its complex relationships with the West.

    The desire to be free of sanctions, and to assert a renewed, positive image of Zimbabwe, is something that genuinely unites people across demographic divides.
    Rowan Jones
    Mugabe and Tsvangari campaign posters on Bulawayo's Main Street, August 2013.

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    Places are booking up fast for next month’s Open Cambridge, the annual weekend of events and activities now in its sixth year. Bigger than ever, the programme allows visitors to explore the natural, cultural and industrial histories of this ancient city through talks, walks, tours and exhibitions – all offered free of charge, with the exception of the Bridge the Gap charity walk.

    Between Friday, 13 and Sunday, 15 September, libraries, gardens, museums and buildings that normally restrict public access will be open to visitors wishing to participate in a range of activities. Places and buildings hosting events include the ADC Theatre, the Institute of Astronomy and Cambridge University Library.

    “We are delighted that Open Cambridge is so popular with the local community. Bookings this week have been very high, but we have lots of really amazing drop-in events on Friday, 13 and Saturday, 14 September,” said Sue Long, organiser of Open Cambridge.

    Below are some tips for events that are not yet full or do not require booking.

    Tour of Lucy Cavendish College – Friday, 13 September, 2.30pm-3.45pm

    On Friday, 13 September, Lucy Cavendish College, an all-women college for undergraduate and postgraduate study, will host a tour of its buildings and grounds. Visitors will also be given an overview of its remarkable history as a Cambridge College for women aged 21 and over.

    Founded in 1965 as an experimental female academy, its private surroundings provide a calm place in which to live, study and relax. Visitors will be able to see the George Perry Memorial Garden and the Music and Meditation Pavilion. A visit to the top floor of the college library concludes the tour, where visitors can gaze out over the grounds. Places are filling up fast, so be sure to book soon.

    To book visit www.cam.ac.uk/opencambridge, or telephone 01223 766766

    The Civic Insignia and Royal Charters – Friday, 13 and Saturday, 14 September, 11am-12.15pm

    Despite the ubiquity of the Cambridge University coat of arms, few know about its background, how it came to be awarded to the university, or why it, and certain other objects, are so significant. This event, held on Friday and repeated on Saturday, will explore the history of Cambridge’s insignia, as well as afford visitors the opportunity to see the original charter depicting the coat of arms.

    Other items on display will include the Mayoral throne and a collection of silverware gifted to the City Council throughout the past few centuries. It will be held in the Guildhall, a listed building in the heart of the city, used for everything from live music shows and weddings, to craft fairs. Be sure to book early to avoid disappointment.

    To book visit www.cam.ac.uk/opencambridge, or telephone 01223 766766

    It will all come out in the wash – Saturday, 14 September, between 10.3am and 4.30pm

    How white are your whites – Saturday, 14 September, between 10.30am and 4.30pm

    To celebrate its new exhibition of Cambridge Laundries, the Cambridge Museum of Technology will be hosting a drop-in event on the history of local laundering. As well as a talk on the history of Cambridge laundering and a photographic exhibition, there will be the opportunity to get to grips with the old-fashioned laundry process by making and removing stains. There will also be the chance to  join the audience for mini-performances by local women’s group, the Freudian Slips.

    In conjunction, the Museum of Cambridge (formerly the Cambridge and County Folk Museum) will be hosting 'How White are your Whites?', a treasure hunt of white-themed objects which can then be matched against a palette of whites.

    No booking required.

    Bridge the gap Charity Walk – Sunday, 15 September, 9.30am-2pm

    To round off Open Cambridge, visitors are invited to participate in a five-mile charity walk. This year’s route will take participants through many colleges, including St John’s, King’s and Pembroke, the Scott Polar Museum, and past many other City landmarks. This year, Bridge the Gap is aiming to raise £50,000 for Arthur Rank Hospice and Press Relief.

    To register for this walk, go to www.bridgethegapwalk.org , or sign up on the day at the start of the walk on Jesus Green. There are three start times: 9.30am, 10am, 10.30am.

    For more information about this story, please contact Sian Jones, Tel: 01223 748174, sian.jones@admin.cam.ac.uk

    Open Cambridge (13-15 September) is a chance to explore Cambridge’s heritage through a series of interactive events.  Many of these events are family friendly and almost all are free.  Places are still available for some activities, while others are run on a drop-in basis.

    We are delighted that Open Cambridge is so popular with the local community
    Sue Long, Organiser

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    A new study reveals that elephants are not able to recognize visual cues provided by humans but are responsive to vocal commands. These findings may directly impact protocols for future efforts to conserve elephants, which are in danger of extinction in this century due to increased poaching and human/elephant conflict.

    The study, led by Dr Josh Plotnik from the University of Cambridge and founder of Think Elephants International, a not-for-profit organization that strives to promote elephant conservation through scientific research, education programming and international collaborations, was designed in partnership with and co-authored by 12-14 year-old students from a middle school in New York. It was recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

    "Dogs have a great sense of smell, but appear to be able to follow human pointing as a way of finding food," said Dr Joshua Plotnik, founder and CEO of Think Elephants and a researcher at the University of Cambridge. "Perhaps elephants' sense of smell is one of their primary senses, meaning that they prefer to use it when navigating their physical world."

    The research tested whether elephants could follow visual, social cues (pointing and gazing) to find food hidden in one of two buckets. The elephants failed at this task, but were able to follow vocal commands telling them which bucket contained the food. These results suggest that elephants may navigate their physical world in ways that primates and dogs, prior subjects of animal cognition studies, do not.

    In the field of animal cognition, there has been considerable attention focused on how animals interact with each other and humans. Particularly, there is a lot of interest in how dogs are able to read social cues to understand what people see, know or want. Remarkably, non-human primates such as chimpanzees are not good at this, suggesting it may be that through domestication or long-term human contact, dogs have developed a capacity for following social cues provided by people. Think Elephants aimed to test elephants on this because they are a wild, non-domesticated species that, in captivity in Thailand, are in relatively constant contact with humans.

    The study's findings have important implications for future protection protocols for wild elephants. According to Dr Plotnik, "If elephants are not primarily using sight to navigate their natural environment, human-elephant conflict mitigation techniques must consider what elephants' main senses are and how elephants think so that they might be attracted or deterred effectively as a situation requires.

    “The loss of natural habitat, poaching for ivory, and human-elephant conflict are serious threats to the sustainability of elephants in the wild. Put simply, we will be without elephants, and many other species in the wild, in less than 50 years if the world does not act."

    To mitigate this, Dr Plotnik suggests additional research on elephant behaviour and an increase in educational programming are needed, particularly in Asia where the market for ivory is so strong.

    The publication of the research is the climax of a three-year endeavour to create a comprehensive middle school curriculum that brings elephants into classrooms as a way to educate young people about conservation by getting them directly involved in work with endangered species. Think Elephants' education program in NYC is a pilot that will be expanding to Thai schools later in 2013.

    The students were integrally involved in the development of this study, even helping to design some of the experimental control conditions. The study was carried out at Think Elephants' field site in northern Thailand, and students participated via webcam conversation and direct web-links to the elephant camp. This shows that collaborations that include both academics and young students can be productive, informative and exciting.

    According to Dr Jen Pokorny, Think Elephants' head of education programs, "We are so proud of our pilot program with East Side Middle School and hope to use this as a model for other schools. This wonderful group of students had an opportunity that very few young people have and, as a result, are now published co-authors on a significant piece of animal behaviour research.

    “Think Elephants is committed to showcasing these productive, informative and exciting student collaborations, and we believe similar studies can help to change the way in which young people observe and appreciate their global environment."

    Inset image: Josh Plotnik with elephants and some of the co-authors of the research

    Designed with middle school students, study helps to inform better practices for protecting these endangered animals.

    Perhaps elephants' sense of smell is one of their primary senses, meaning that they prefer to use it when navigating their physical world.
    Dr Joshua Plotnik

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    The Peninsula sustains moss banks some of which are more than 5000 years old.  A team from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter sampled the most southerly known moss bank, at Lazarev Bay on Alexander Island, in 2008. The researchers extracted a short peat core from the bank and, using radiocarbon dating techniques, ascertained the start of peat accumulation to have been around the year 1860. Microscopic tests established it was formed from a single species (Polytrichum strictum).

    The Antarctic Peninsula is known to have witnessed significant warming since the 1950s, when official records started. Records from BAS’ Rothera research station show the Peninsula warmed by between 1 and 1.4°C per decade during the 1980s and ‘90s. Along with one of the fastest rates of warming anywhere on the planet, the Peninsula has also seen significant increases in precipitation. The length of the melt season has been steadily increasing since 1948 with earlier thawing and later freezing extending the growing season.

    These trends have led to changes in the physical environment of the Peninsula. Ice cover has reduced, exposing land to settlement by a variety of flora, the most common of which is moss.

    The sampled moss bank accumulated at around 1.25 mm a year throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries then increased its growth rate from the mid-1950s to reach 5 mm a year by the late 1970s. It is now estimated to be 3.5 mm a year.

    Lead author, Jessica Royles, from BAS and the University of Cambridge, said: "This moss bank provided a unique archive of growing conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past  one hundred and fifty years. By combining multiple analyses we have clearly demonstrated a substantial increase in plant growth since the 1960s, coincident with changes to the local climate."

    Microscopic analyses of the peat samples revealed that one species of testate amoebae (Corythion dubium) was highly dominant.  The testate amoebae probably colonised the moss bank soon after it was established. There was a big expansion in its population between the 1960s and 1990s followed by a slight decline in the early part of the 21st century.

    Co-author, Matthew Amesbury, of the University of Exeter, said: "The presence of testate amoebae in very low numbers from the base of the core showed that these tiny creatures colonised the moss bank early, despite extremely cold and dry conditions. However, the rapid increase in temperature since the 1950s has allowed the amoebae to increase their numbers dramatically, indicating that the ecology of the soil-plant system has fundamentally changed."

    The biological records in this region stretch back further than the meteorological records do, so this latest research will help scientists’ improve their understanding of the interaction between diversity and climate.

    Story adapted from BAS press release, with kind permission.

    For more information visit www.antarctica.ac.uk

    Increases in temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula during the latter part of the 20th century were accompanied by an acceleration in moss growth, scientists have learned. Writing in the journal Current Biology they describe the activity as unprecedented in the last 150 years.

    By combining multiple analyses we have clearly demonstrated a substantial increase in plant growth since the 1960s, coincident with changes to the local climate
    Jessica Royles, Lead Author
    Aerial photograph of sample location: an unnamed peninsula at Lazarev Bay on the northwest coast of Alexander Island

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    The giant black hole at the centre of the Milky Way appears to be on a severe diet. Scientists have now taken a major step towards understanding why - with new data providing insights into the reason behind the lack of radiation from material near some black holes.

    Latest research shows the black hole ejecting matter it has funneled towards its ‘event horizon’ – or point of no return – because it’s too hot and spread out, with less than 1% of possible matter in its gravitational pull actually being consumed.  

    The new findings, published today in the journal Science, are the result of one of the biggest observing campaigns ever performed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

    Last year, Chandra collected about five weeks’ worth of observations on Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) - the supermassive black hole located about 26,000 light years from Earth at the centre of the Galaxy.

    Researchers used this extremely long observation to capture unprecedented X-ray images and energy signatures of multi-million degree gas swirling around Sgr A*, a black hole with about 4 million times the mass of the Sun.

    “We think most large galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their center, but most are too far away for us to study the flow of matter near the black hole. Sgr A* is one of very few black holes where we can actually witness the process,” said study leader Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts, who was a visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy for some of last year where he worked on the research with co-author Professor Andy Fabian.

    Chandra detects X-ray emissions from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars and the matter around black holes. The data that came back from the Sgr A* mission showed that the X-rays were not, in fact, coming from a concentration of low-mass stars around the black hole as had been predicted. The X-ray images showed that the gas emissions around the black hole actually originate from winds produced by a disk-shaped scattering of young massive stars, as seen in infrared observations.

    “This new Chandra image is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen,” said co-author Sera Markoff of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “We're watching Sgr A* capture hot gas ejected by nearby stars, and funnel it in towards its event horizon.”

    However, the authors say that less than 1% of the material initially within the black hole’s gravitational pull reaches its ‘event horizon’ because most of it is ejected.

    Captured material needs to lose heat and angular momentum before it can plunge into the black hole, and the ejection of matter allows this loss to occur. Consequently, the X-ray emission from material near Sgr A* is remarkably faint - like most of the giant black holes in galaxies in the nearby Universe.  

    “Most of the gas must be thrown out so that a small amount can reach the black hole”, said co-author Feng Yuan of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China. “Contrary to what some people think, black holes do not actually devour everything that’s pulled towards them. Sgr A* is apparently finding its food hard to swallow.”

    A key difference between supermassive black holes like Sgr A* and the voracious ones that power quasars and produce huge amounts of radiation is that the gas available to Sgr A* is very diffuse and hot, so it is hard for the black hole to capture and swallow. The gas reservoir of quasars is much cooler and denser.

    Researchers hope this work will impact the efforts of radio telescopes to observe and understand the “shadow” cast by the event horizon of Sgr A* against the background of surrounding, glowing matter. They say the study will also be useful for understanding the impact that orbiting stars and gas clouds might have on matter flowing towards and away from the black hole.

    Copy adapted from a press release issued by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Astronomers working with NASA'S Chandra X-ray Observatory have seen the giant black hole Sagittarius A* rejecting it’s ‘food’ of vast gas clouds as they aren’t sufficiently cool enough for it to swallow.

    Sgr A* is one of very few black holes where we can actually witness the process
    Q. Daniel Wang
    A composite image of the region around Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. X-ray emission is shown in blue, and infrared emission is shown in red and yellow.

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    The giant black hole at the centre of the Milky Way appears to be on a severe diet. Scientists have now taken a major step towards understanding why - with new data providing insights into the reason behind the lack of radiation from material near some black holes.

    Latest research shows the black hole ejecting matter it has funneled towards its ‘event horizon’ – or point of no return – because it’s too hot and spread out, with less than 1% of possible matter in its gravitational pull actually being consumed.  

    The new findings, published today in the journal Science, are the result of one of the biggest observing campaigns ever performed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

    Last year, Chandra collected about five weeks’ worth of observations on Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) - the supermassive black hole located about 26,000 light years from Earth at the centre of the Galaxy.

    Researchers used this extremely long observation to capture unprecedented X-ray images and energy signatures of multi-million degree gas swirling around Sgr A*, a black hole with about 4 million times the mass of the Sun.

    “We think most large galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their center, but most are too far away for us to study the flow of matter near the black hole. Sgr A* is one of very few black holes where we can actually witness the process,” said study leader Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts, who was a visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy for some of last year where he worked on the research with co-author Professor Andy Fabian.

    Chandra detects X-ray emissions from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars and the matter around black holes. The data that came back from the Sgr A* mission showed that the X-rays were not, in fact, coming from a concentration of low-mass stars around the black hole as had been predicted. The X-ray images showed that the gas emissions around the black hole actually originate from winds produced by a disk-shaped scattering of young massive stars, as seen in infrared observations.

    “This new Chandra image is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen,” said co-author Sera Markoff of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “We're watching Sgr A* capture hot gas ejected by nearby stars, and funnel it in towards its event horizon.”

    However, the authors say that less than 1% of the material initially within the black hole’s gravitational pull reaches its ‘event horizon’ because most of it is ejected.

    Captured material needs to lose heat and angular momentum before it can plunge into the black hole, and the ejection of matter allows this loss to occur. Consequently, the X-ray emission from material near Sgr A* is remarkably faint - like most of the giant black holes in galaxies in the nearby Universe.  

    “Most of the gas must be thrown out so that a small amount can reach the black hole”, said co-author Feng Yuan of Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China. “Contrary to what some people think, black holes do not actually devour everything that’s pulled towards them. Sgr A* is apparently finding its food hard to swallow.”

    A key difference between supermassive black holes like Sgr A* and the voracious ones that power quasars and produce huge amounts of radiation is that the gas available to Sgr A* is very diffuse and hot, so it is hard for the black hole to capture and swallow. The gas reservoir of quasars is much cooler and denser.

    Researchers hope this work will impact the efforts of radio telescopes to observe and understand the “shadow” cast by the event horizon of Sgr A* against the background of surrounding, glowing matter. They say the study will also be useful for understanding the impact that orbiting stars and gas clouds might have on matter flowing towards and away from the black hole.

    Copy adapted from a press release issued by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Astronomers working with NASA'S Chandra X-ray Observatory have seen the giant black hole Sagittarius A* rejecting it’s ‘food’ of vast gas clouds as they aren’t sufficiently cool enough for it to swallow.

    Sgr A* is one of very few black holes where we can actually witness the process
    Q. Daniel Wang
    A composite image of the region around Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. X-ray emission is shown in blue, and infrared emission is shown in red and yellow.

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    An excavation at Ham Hill, the largest Iron-Age hill fort in Britain, has revealed more about how the ancient structure was developed by its defenders in response to the Roman invasion.

    Researchers have been studying the fort, which covers more than 80 hectares of the Somerset countryside, for the past three years in an attempt to understand more about its function, and how such a large structure was defended by the local population.

    The final round of excavations, which are currently being concluded, have focused on its ramparts. In particular the team has concentrated on the final phase of their defensive construction, which occurred towards the end of the Iron Age and was probably a response to the threat posed by the Roman invasion.

    This defence consisted of box-revetted stone ramparts, situated on top of previously built, three to four metre-high earthen banks. The existence of these structures does not mean that people in the Iron Age lived in a constant state of warfare; though Ham Hill was clearly prepared to try and repulse attackers, it was not simply a military hill fort. Instead, these ramparts may have been more symbolic than practical, an emblem of defence, the building of which would have helped to foster community spirit and create a collective identity, clearly delineating “us” and “them”.

    Despite this, there is obvious evidence of violence and assault in the ramparts – the researchers found defleshed and chopped-up human remains dating back to the time of the Roman Conquest. 

    Three summers of excavations have provided enormous insight into the previously impenetrable hill fort. Many important and exciting discoveries have been made, such as that of the first “ham stone” house, an Iron Age house built from pieces of local stone. This discovery proved that ham stone was used by builders prior to Roman occupation, and that the Romans were not the first to quarry the site. Other structures found include roundhouses and grain storage pits, dating from the second to first centuries BCE.

    Archaeologists have also determined that the hill-top was inhabited from at least Neolithic period up until the time of the Romans, shown from excavated items such as stone implements and early Roman metal items. Early Roman pottery and metalwork have been discovered in the trenches across the ramparts, as have Roman military items, with the latter items in particular suggesting that the Romans garrisoned Ham Hill when initially occupying the South West.

    A wide variety of tools and weapons have been unearthed, including a bronze dagger and an iron ballista bolt, as have at least three vessels of Glastonbury Ware pottery. A particularly interesting find has been the Middle Bronze Age ditches used to create a system rectilinear fields and indicating that Ham Hill was full established as a distinct and significant  ‘place’ by that time (c. 1500 BCE).

    Archaeological fieldwork has focused mainly on a large rectangular ditched enclosure within the hill fort’s interior; during the course of its excavation, numerous sets of human remains have been discovered, both full skeletons and fragmented bones. The quantity proposes that this enclosure perhaps served as special meeting place for the community, and it has been suggested that the bones were intended to symbolise their ancestors.

    Members of the public can see the excavations themselves at an open day on 7 September. For directions and details see www.hamhillfort.info, or email Hayley Roberts at hr270@cam.ac.uk to arrange a private group tour.

    Inset image credit to Cambridge Archaeological Unit

    Archaeologists from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff are currently undertaking their third, and final, round of excavations at Ham Hill, Britain’s biggest Iron-Age hill fort.

    Though Ham Hill was clearly prepared to try and repulse attackers, it was not simply a military hill fort
    Excavations at Ham Hill, Somerset

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  • 09/01/13--01:00: How to be a butler
  • What do the following have in common: Aloysius Parker, Charles Carson, Baldrick, Passepartout, Nestor, Riff-Raff and Winston Smith?  They are all butlers, valets or manservants.  Can you name their various bosses?  (Answers at the end).

    Butlers are not simply fictional. The role of ensuring the smooth running of a large household continues to be one vital to many contemporary institutions, including many of the older Cambridge Colleges which are, in many respects, based on large family houses in the modes of operation.

    Richard Hein is Head Butler of Peterhouse, the oldest of all the Cambridge Colleges, where he supervises three other butlers. Together, they work on a shift basis to be ‘front of house’ in terms of making sure that all meals go smoothly, that feasts uphold traditions that date back hundreds of years, and that the rooms used by the Master, Fellows and Guests are kept to a high standard.

    In a talk on 14 September as part of Open Cambridge, Mr Hein will talk about his role, what it involves, and why he enjoys working as part of the staff at Peterhouse.  The talk is fully booked with a waiting list in operation – but some other booking-only events are still available and there are plenty of drop-in events too.

    Two and a half years into his job, Mr Hein describes himself as still new to his post. “It’s quite amazing to think that your workplace is somewhere that was a place of scholarship before Christopher Columbus discovered America – it certainly adds a historic perspective,” he says. “And when you are overseeing a dinner in the candlelit hall, you are taken back hundreds of years in time.”

    After taking a degree in hospitality management at Florida International University, Mr Hein worked in the hospitality and catering sector, first for a major hotel group and later for a well-known airline. Before taking up his present role, he worked for Homerton College, Cambridge, as assistant catering manager. “I was thrilled to get my job at Peterhouse which is a perfect fit – I feel really at home here,” he says.

    What are the attributes of a good butler?  “You have to be discreet,” he says. “In your public role, you must remain unflustered and maintain a sense of dignity. It’s all about looking after other people and their comfort. Behind the scenes you must be firm that standards are upheld and tasks done properly. That side of the job is all about leadership. What unites both aspects of the job is attention to detail.”

    While most butlers have just a single boss, or a single family to look after, Mr Hein has many bosses to consider.  “I work for the Master and Fellows of Peterhouse. This means that I need to be aware of all their needs and preferences – such as their individual dietary requirements. It’s a matter of building up lots of information and retaining it.”

    When formal halls and college feats take place, Mr Hein and his team are responsible for the smooth running for the event – from the greeting of guests as they arrive to the putting away of the silverware as the evening ends.  He says: “The tables must look perfect and the silver has to be polished.”

    Peterhouse was the second building, after the Palace of Westminster, to install electric lighting. It was installed in 1884 by Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), who studied at the college (then known as St Peter’s) and went on to be a Fellow. His name is immortalised by the kelvin, the unit used as a measurement of temperature.

    “Many famous well-known have people studied at Peterhouse over the centuries – and many famous people come to the college as guests today. It’s one of the many exciting aspects of a job that offers huge variety,” says Mr Hein.

    (Answers: Aloysius Parker works for Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in Thunderbirds; Charles Carson is the butler in Downton Abbey; Baldrick is valet and sidekick of Edmund Blackadder; Passepartout is valet to Phileas Fogg; Nestor is butler to Captain Haddock in the Tintin books; Riff Raff is a character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show; Winston Smith is the manservant of Lara Croft in Tomb Raiders.)

    For more information about this story, contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

    Butlers working for Cambridge Colleges play an important role in maintaining traditions and upholding standards. But what’s it like being a butler?  Richard Hein, butler at Peterhouse, will talk about his job as part of Open Cambridge (13-15 September).

    It’s quite amazing to think that your workplace is somewhere that was a place of scholarship before Christopher Columbus discovered America
    Richard Hein, Head Butler at Peterhouse
    Richard Hein, Butler at Peterhouse

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  • 09/02/13--02:07: Making the most of algae
  • The growing potential of algal biotechnology as a resource that could be used to tackle several major global challenges will be the focus of a national conference in Cambridge today (Monday, 2 September).

    The one-day “Algae Symposium” will involve researchers from a wide range of disciplines, as well as representatives of biotechnology companies. It will showcase some of the latest research on algae-based biotechnologies, and address the issues that need to be surmounted if algae are to become an effective source of biofuels, green energy, and more.

    Despite their reputation as unsightly pond slime, the potential of these simple, aquatic plants as the basis for numerous, possibly world-changing, biotechnologies, has long been recognised by scientists.

    Algae are already grown for use in the chemical and ‘nutraceutical’ industries. The most publicized possible use of algae in the future, however, is as a prospective, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Many species of algae can produce high levels of oils, or can divert photosynthetic energy into hydrogen production, which could then be tapped as fuel.

    Their productivity is high because they grow quickly, and they do not need to be cultivated on arable land or freshwater. Unlike first-generation biofuels, this means that as a fuel crop, the rearing of algae would not compete with food production.

    Beyond this, however, algae could have numerous other future uses. For example, algae could be used for “bioremediation”, recovering nutrients from waste streams.

    Other research has examined the possibility of developing bio-photovoltaic devices, which harness electrons produced during photosynthesis from the outer surface of algal cells, to produce electrical energy. The high protein content of algae means that they can also be grown as a food source, both for humans and animals.

    For that potential to become reality, however, a number of problems and issues will need to be addressed to ensure that algae can be cultivated on an economically and environmentally sustainable basis.

    Processes and infrastructure need to be developed to grow algae on a large scale, and these need to be made cost-effective. More research also needs to be undertaken to understand how these organisms can be harvested to best effect.

    The University of Cambridge is home to the Algal Biotechnology Consortium, involving a large group of scientists from across different disciplines, who study possible future algal biotechnology and bioenergy solutions, and collaborate with partners in industry to test new ideas.

    The conference will bring together some of the Consortium’s latest research with that of experts around the UK and overseas. It will address topics such as how algae can be grown most efficiently for commercial use, how current cultivation processes might be scaled up to function at an industrial level, and the genetic manipulation of algae for future biotechnologies.

    Professor Christopher Howe, from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, and a member of the Algal Biotechnology Consortium, said: “This event reflects the extent to which algal biotechnology is becoming the subject of great commercial and academic interest, not only as a source of bioenergy and biofuels, but for a number of other high-value products as well.”

    The Cambridge Algae Symposium 2013 is being organised by the Departments of Biochemistry and Plant Sciences in collaboration with EnAlgae, a strategic initiative of the INTERREG IVB North West Europe programme, aiming to develop sustainable technologies for algal biomass production. The Symposium will be held at the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

    More information can be found at: http://www.bioenergy.cam.ac.uk/events/abc-symposium-2013

    The latest research on algal biotechnology is the subject of a major conference taking place today.

    Algal biotechnology is becoming the subject of great interest, not only as a source of bioenergy and biofuels, but for a number of other high-value products as well
    Christopher Howe
    Jar of blue-green algae from Wolske Bay, Lake Menomin.

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    Summer Schools give students the opportunity to experience life as an undergraduate at Homerton, by taking part in study sessions led by academics at the University, spending time exploring the city centre, and spending time with current Homerton undergraduates.

    All students were welcomed to the college by Homerton’s Schools Liaison Officer, Ellen Slack, and were introduced to the courses on offer at the university by Admissions Tutor, Steve Watts.

    Students attending the Sciences strand of the Summer Schools chose between sessions built on topics within the A level syllabus, and others introducing new subjects they may not have studied before. Prospective engineers were challenged to build a bridge out of only paper and screws, tested to destruction with a bucket of baked beans.

    In the evening a tour of Cambridge led to the Central Science Library, where students were presented with a murder mystery to solve. Protected by crime scene suits, students collected forensic evidence, analysed finger prints, solved puzzles and looked into the motivations of each of the suspects, to decide who had committed the crime.

    “I thoroughly enjoyed the talks, the murder mystery and all the activities,” said Garrett May, from The Tiffin School, Kingston-Upon-Thames. “It provided a great insight into Cambridge."

    “It was a very valuable experience!" agreed Mae Brooksbank, from Wales High School, Rotherham, who also attended the Sciences Summer School.

    The Arts and Humanities Summer Schools included a production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ performed in Homerton College’s Gardens as part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, and a discussion of it with Dr John Hopkins. Students also and looked at Benjamin Britten’s operatic work of the play. Historians looked at the life of Mary, Queen of Scots and the challenges of being a female ruler in a patriarchal society.  Other sessions available included History, Philosophy, Art History, English and Children’s Literature.

    Jodie Ng, from Ridgewood School, Doncaster, said that the summer school “really helped me understand university life a lot more and answered so many questions I had. I had such a good time, particularly the Shakespeare performance!"

    Law, Economics, Politics and Geography were covered in the Social Sciences Summer Schools. Economics students examined how microfinance (including institutions like the Grameen Bank) has helped to transform the lives of some of the world’s poorest people by offering them loans. However, the group also studied some of the challenges and difficulties this type of credit has faced.

    Students also listened to short research talks in other areas of the Social Sciences to introduce them to Archaeology, Anthropology, Psychology and Education - subjects they may not have had the opportunity to study so far at school. The chocolate tasting section of the Psychology session certainly went down well with students!

    The residentials ended with a closing session from Admissions Tutor Steve Watts on how to make a competitive application to highly selective universities like Cambridge. Steve helped lay to rest some of the misconceptions surrounding the application process and outlined how Admissions Tutors assess applicants.

    All involved in the Summer Schools – the academics, student ambassadors and Schools Liaison Officer Ellen Slack – thoroughly enjoyed working with the students who attended the Summer Schools this year, and look forward to welcoming more students to the college in the next academic year.

    Homerton College hosted 85 year 12 students at four two-day summer residentials over the long vacation. The students came from 24 different state schools in the College’s link areas of Doncaster, Rotherham, Hounslow, Richmond and Kingston.

    It provided a great insight into Cambridge.
    Summer School Participant Garrett May
    Summer School students at Homerton College

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    In 1980, public health researchers working in West Africa detected a startling trend among children diagnosed with paralytic polio. Some of the children had become paralyzed in a limb that had recently been the site of an inoculation against a common paediatric illness, such as diphtheria and whooping cough. Studies emerging from India seemed to corroborate a similar association between diagnosis of polio and recent immunisation.

    These reports reignited a debate known as the theory of polio provocation that has waxed and waned since the early 1900s – and, at times, shaped immunisation policy. The theory of polio provocation argued that paralytic polio can be provoked by medical interventions, such as injections or tonsillectomy. The controversy that surrounded the debate forced medical professionals into the uncomfortable position of considering whether programmes and practices intended to prevent some illnesses might be also causing another.

    In a blog published today by Oxford Journals, Cambridge University historian Dr Stephen Mawdsley looks at the ways in which the theory of polio provocation was debated in the US and beyond throughout the 20th century. His blog draws on his historical research, published in the Social History of Medicine, into the polio provocation debate.

    Polio is a terrifying disease. Most infections of polio pass unnoticed but, in a small percentage of cases, the virus can enter the blood stream, where it targets the motor neurons of the spinal cord. Depending on the severity of the infection, the disease can cause paralysis of the limbs and respiratory muscles, which can lead to further complications or death. For those who survive the acute phase, the rehabilitation process is lengthy and some are left with lasting paralysis and health complications.

    After over 50 years of debate, medical researchers have shown that polio provocation can occur in certain circumstances. Although the current danger of contracting the disease through this route is likely to be slight, health professionals need to consider safeguards to reduce the risks even further. “Worldwide uptake of the polio vaccine is important since only through building herd immunity can the disease be eradicated. Research indicates that people who are not immunised against the disease and are living in polio endemic regions may face the risk of polio provocation,” said Dr Mawdsley.

    “Awareness of this risk informs health policy today. Increasingly, health professionals are considering the importance of immunisation sequence (the order in which injections against childhood diseases are given), the type of vaccine to use, and the age at which children should be immunised. We will never know precisely how many people were exposed to polio provocation in the past, or how many contracted polio by this route, as there is no reference point from which we might measure a correlation.”

    Dr Mawdsley’s research, based on records from the March of Dimes Archives in New York and historical medical journals, shows how successive generations of public health officials and policy makers made decisions with far-reaching consequences for the population. These professionals were obliged to debate whether polio provocation existed, and decide how best to balance the risks to individuals against the benefits of herd immunity, at a time when the mechanism behind the theory had yet to be understood.

    Polio, which was first identified in the 19th century, was (and still is) a feared disease: haunting images of polio survivors with withered limbs or children housed in respirators (iron lungs) serve as potent reminders of the suffering caused and underline the importance of polio vaccination. In the US, outbreaks often peaked in the summer and children were particularly vulnerable. One Minnesota physician remembered the 1948 epidemic: “The people of Minneapolis were so frightened that there was nobody in the restaurants. There was practically no traffic, the stores were empty. It just was considered a feat of bravado almost to go out and mingle in the public.”

    The first vaccine against polio, developed by Dr Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh, was field tested in 1954 and subsequently licensed for use in mass immunisation programmes by April 1955. Polio incidence in the US and other developed countries plummeted from that time and polio was slowly eradicated from the list of life-threatening children’s illnesses. Immunisation offered protection and the debate about polio provocation slipped from public consciousness.

    While parents in developed countries no longer fear polio, the disease remains a threat in some developing countries – such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Africa. Growing concerns raised by major aid organisations prompted a team at the State University of New York to unravel the mechanism behind polio provocation. In 1998 scientists Drs Matthias Gromeier and Eckard Wimmer were able to show that tissue injury caused by certain injections gives the polio virus easy access to nerve channels, thereby increasing its ability to cause paralysis.

    “In the light of this discovery it is fascinating to look at how polio provocation, which some experts contested simply did not exist, migrated from being a theory to a clinical model – and trace its history and the waves of debate about it, both in the US and beyond,” said Dr Mawdsley.“At various junctures during the 20th century, health professionals were divided in opinion, which meant that it was difficult to establish a coherent public health policy. Medical scientists were also frustrated by the difficulties this debate posed to anyone conducting field trials using injections.”

    One of the first procedures to be implicated as provoking polio was tonsil surgery. In 1910, doctors observed that children who underwent throat surgery during a polio epidemic faced an elevated risk of contracting polio within seven to 14 days of the operation. Supporters of the polio provocation theory warned fellow clinicians that operations to the nose and throat should not be performed during epidemics when the risk of contagion was highest. Medical opinion, however, remained split: while the US Army and some leading public health officials advised against tonsil and adenoid operations during polio outbreaks, other health professionals continued to assure clinicians that the danger was minimal.

    Anxiety about the hypothesis peaked in 1950 when a rise in tonsillectomy operations coincided with a spike in the diagnosis of polio. Once again, although clinical evidence suggested that tonsillectomies appeared to treble the risk of children contacting polio, not all doctors agreed – though many heeded the advice to postpone procedures until the summer polio season was over. In the absence of a consensus, doctors made decisions on a case-by-case basis.

    Shifts in notions about the causes of polio outbreaks – which was first considered to be an infection spread by immigrants or poor hygiene, and later as an affliction targeting prosperous, active people – were accompanied by changing theories about the possible causes of polio provocation.

    Along with tonsillectomy, implicated at different times were injections of a wide range of drugs and paediatric immunisations. By 1952, leading medical and health organisations in the US agreed that injections against common infectious diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus should be postponed during periods of high polio incidence, while other injections such as vitamins and hormones were thought to be safe.

    “The decision to reform public health policy in the US was handled differently in various areas, but appears to have been taken with great care, since it was clear that withholding certain immunisations would jeopardise herd immunity,” said Dr Mawdsley. “Delaying injections until after polio epidemics subsided was an expedient means to achieve a compromise.”

    Dr Stephen Mawdsley is the Isaac Newton-Ann Johnston Research Fellow in History at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. His article ‘Balancing Risks: Childhood Inoculations and America’s Response to the Provocation of Paralytic Polio’ is published in the OUP journal Social History of Medicine. A blog by Dr Mawdsley ‘Polio Provocation: A Lingering Public Health Debate’ appears today.

    For more information about this story, contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

    Dr Stephen Mawdsley's blog

    Dr Stephen Mawdsley's historical research

     

     

    For much of the 20th century, health professionals were locked in debate about one possible cause of paralytic polio. Some argued that the viral infection could be provoked by medical interventions; others hotly contested this theory. Historian Dr Stephen Mawdsley looks at the unfolding story of polio provocation.

    It is fascinating to look at how polio provocation, which some experts contested simply did not exist, migrated from being a theory to a clinical model
    Dr Stephen Mawdsley
    A Clinical Center physician prepares an injection for a young patient

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    New research has found a “very significant” relationship between a nation’s wealth and hygiene and the Alzheimer’s “burden” on its population. High-income, highly industrialised countries with large urban areas and better hygiene exhibit much higher rates of Alzheimer’s.

    Using ‘age-standardised’ data - which predict Alzheimer’s rates if all countries had the same population birth rate, life expectancy and age structure - the study found strong correlations between national sanitation levels and Alzheimer’s.

    This latest study adds further weight to the “hygiene hypothesis” in relation to Alzheimer’s: that sanitised environments in developed nations result in far less exposure to a diverse range of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms - which might actually cause the immune system to develop poorly, exposing the brain to the inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s disease, say the researchers.

    “The ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which suggests a relationship between cleaner environments and a higher risk of certain allergies and autoimmune diseases, is well- established. We believe we can now add Alzheimer’s to this list of diseases,” said Dr Molly Fox, lead author of the study and Gates Cambridge Alumna, who conducted the research at Cambridge’s Biological Anthropology division.

    “There are important implications for forecasting future global disease burden, especially in developing countries as they increase in sanitation.”

    The researchers tested whether “pathogen prevalence” can explain the levels of variation in Alzheimer’s rates across 192 countries.

    After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the study found that countries with higher levels of sanitation had higher rates of Alzheimer’s. For example, countries where all people have access to clean drinking water, such as the UK and France, have 9% higher Alzheimer’s rates than countries where less than half have access, such as Kenya and Cambodia.

    Countries that have much lower rates of infectious disease, such as Switzerland and Iceland, have 12% higher rates of Alzheimer’s compared with countries with high rates of infectious disease, such as China and Ghana.

    More urbanised countries exhibited higher rates of Alzheimer’s, irrespective of life expectancy. Countries where more than three-quarters of the population are located in urban areas, such as the UK and Australia, exhibit 10% higher rates of Alzheimer’s compared to countries where less than one-tenth of people inhabit urban areas, such as Bangladesh and Nepal.

    Differences in levels of sanitation, infectious disease and urbanisation accounted respectively for 33%, 36% and 28% of the discrepancy in Alzheimer’s rates between countries.

    Researchers said that, although these trends had “overlapping effects”, they are a good indication of a country’s degree of hygiene which, when combined, account for 42.5% of the “variation” in countries’ Alzheimer’s disease rates - showing that countries with greater levels of hygiene have much higher Alzheimer’s rates regardless of general life expectancy.

    Previous research has shown that in the developed world, dementia rates doubled every 5.8 years compared with 6.7 years in low income, developing countries; and that Alzheimer’s prevalence in Latin America, China and India are all lower than in Europe, and, within those regions, lower in rural compared with urban settings - supporting the new study’s findings.

    The results of the study are newly published by the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, with these latest results coming hard on the heels of previous research led by Fox on the benefits of breastfeeding for Alzheimer’s prevention.

    “Exposure to microorganisms is critical for the regulation of the immune system,” write the researchers, who say that say that - since increasing global urbanisation beginning at the turn of the 19th century - the populations of many of the world’s wealthier nations have increasingly very little exposure to the so-called ‘friendly’ microbes which “stimulate” the immune system - due to “diminishing contact with animals, faeces and soil.”

    Aspects of modern life - antibiotics, sanitation, clean drinking water, paved roads and so on - lead to lower rates of exposure to these microorganisms that have been “omnipresent” for the “majority of human history”, they say.

    This lack of microbe and bacterial contact can lead to insufficient development of the white blood cells that defend the body against infection, particularly those called T-cells - the foot soldiers of the immune system that attack foreign invaders in the bloodstream.

    Deficiency of anti-inflammatory (“regulatory”) T-cells has links to the types of inflammation commonly found in the brain of those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, and the researchers’ proposal that Alzheimer’s risk is linked to the general hygiene levels of a nation’s population is reinforced by their analysis of global Alzheimer’s rates.

    “The increase in adult life expectancy and Alzheimer’s prevalence in developing countries is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our time. Today, more than 50% of people with Alzheimer’s live in the developing world, and by 2025 it is expected that this figure will rise to more than 70%,” said Fox.

    “A better understanding of how environmental sanitation influences Alzheimer’s risk could open up avenues for both lifestyle and pharmaceutical strategies to limit Alzheimer’s prevalence. An awareness of this by-product of increasing wealth and development could encourage the innovation of new strategies to protect vulnerable populations from Alzheimer’s.”

    While childhood - when the immune system is developing - is typically considered critical to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, the researchers say that regulatory T-cell numbers peak at various points in a person’s life - adolescence and middle age for example - and that microorganism exposure across a lifetime may be related to Alzheimer’s risk, citing previous research showing fluctuations in Alzheimer’s risk in migrants.

    The team used the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates to calculate the incidence of Alzheimer’s across the countries studied. The DALY measurement is the sum of years lost due to premature mortality combined with years spent in disability – the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that one DALY can be thought of as “one lost year of ‘healthy’ life”.

    The researchers say this method is a much better measure than death rates as it “omits the effects of differential mortality rates” between developed and developing countries. The study was based on the WHO’s ‘Global Burden of Disease’ report, which presents world dementia data for 2004.

    People living in industrialised countries may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s due to greatly reduced contact with bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms - which can lead to problems with immune development and increased risk of dementia, suggests a new study.

    There are important implications for forecasting future global disease burden, especially in developing countries as they increase in sanitation
    Molly Fox
    Wash your hands
    Age-standardised data

    The process of age-standardisation presents a “single summary rate that reflects the number of events that would have been expected if the populations being compared had had identical age distribution” (WHO 2001)

    The age-standardised data is calculated by adjusting the crude data for 5-year age groups by age-weights reflecting the age-distribution of the standard population. In the version of the WHO’s Global Burden of Disease report we utilised, the terminal age category has been extended from the previous 85+ to 100+, which allows for better adjustment for differences in the proportion of population in older strata.

    The age-adjusted and disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates are calculated by “adjusting the crude estimates to an artificial population structure, the WHO Standard Population, that closely reflects the age and sex structure of most low and middle income countries” (WHO 2013).

    The effort to construct a standard population for comparing data across populations with varied age-structures began in the 1840s, and progressed to an international scale in 1960 and was then adopted by the WHO. Statisticians have been researching and improving this process for the past five decades.

    The new WHO World Standard was developed in 2000 to best reflect projections of world age-structures for the period 2000-2025. This new standard is based on the UN Population Division’s assessments every two years and future projections for every five years of each country’s population age-structure. This standardised procedure is widely accepted across the world, and is the basis for all relevant WHO-sponsored analyses.

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