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- 09/03/15--02:00: _Alumni couple boost...
- 09/03/15--03:25: _Research Collaborat...
- 09/03/15--08:29: _The anxiety puzzle:...
- 09/03/15--08:52: _Why the latest EU r...
- 09/03/15--16:33: _Using stellar ‘twin...
- 09/03/15--16:10: _Every hour you spen...
- 09/04/15--00:00: _Use of TV, internet...
- 09/04/15--01:14: _Post-16 education m...
- 09/04/15--06:59: _Cambridge engagemen...
- 09/07/15--02:21: _Men and women with ...
- 09/07/15--03:00: _Cities at risk
- 09/07/15--08:06: _What is a monster?
- 09/08/15--04:54: _The University of C...
- 09/08/15--07:28: _Cast of ancient sku...
- 09/08/15--09:11: _Linguistics study r...
- 09/08/15--16:09: _Cod bones from Mary...
- 09/09/15--03:34: _Motion dazzle: spot...
- 09/09/15--06:54: _O is for Owl
- 09/09/15--11:00: _Paying farmers to h...
- 09/10/15--01:26: _Facebook data sugge...
- 09/03/15--02:00: Alumni couple boost college outreach work
- 09/03/15--03:25: Research Collaboration launched with Chinese health firm
- 09/03/15--08:52: Why the latest EU referendum question is worse than the original
- 09/03/15--16:33: Using stellar ‘twins’ to reach the outer limits of the galaxy
- 09/04/15--06:59: Cambridge engagement with Africa will expand following major gift
- 09/07/15--03:00: Cities at risk
- 09/07/15--08:06: What is a monster?
- 09/08/15--09:11: Linguistics study reveals our growing obsession with education
- 09/09/15--06:54: O is for Owl
This summer, Downing College welcomed students from seventeen schools and colleges in Dorset, Cornwall and Devon to its 16th South West Open Day, where they explored the College, met Directors of Studies, joined departmental tours and got a taste of lectures from Fellows and PhD students.
For most of the students, taking part involved a round trip of at least 400 miles but the College is determined to overcome any obstacles posed by distance.
Downing has helped with travel expenses for some time but this year a donation from former students, Jamie and Louise Arnell, meant the event could be extended to two nights, giving students more time to immerse themselves in University life.
Jamie studied law at Downing in the 1980s and later qualified as a barrister. He is now a Partner at the private equity firm, Charterhouse, and is on several company boards. Louise studied Classics and runs The Pebble Trust, a charity supporting individuals and organisations in Brighton and Hove, as well as volunteering for Citizens Advice and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
Jamie said “My degree opened so many doors and I would like to see students from the widest possible range of backgrounds benefiting from those same opportunities. Before Downing I went to a charity school which supports social mobility and I still feel very passionate about this.”
“We focused our efforts on Downing partly because we both studied there, but also because the College has a tough task. The South West is a long way from Cambridge and overcoming distance costs money.”
Louise added “I don’t come from a privileged background but I was never made to feel that access to the very best education was out of my reach. My teachers encouraged me to apply to Cambridge but not everyone is fortunate enough to have such support.”
“Many Cambridge graduates go on to become leaders in their field so it benefits society as a whole if the University can attract the most academically able young people from all backgrounds.”
Downing recently appointed a new Schools Liaison Officer, Lauren Payne. An English literature graduate from Emmanuel College, Lauren will continue to build relationships in the South West, as well as organising events for students from across the UK and spreading the word via the Discover Downing website , Facebook and Twitter.
Cambridge’s outreach work achieves national coverage thanks to its Area Links scheme (established in 2000), which gives schools and colleges in every part of the UK a direct way of developing a relationship with the collegiate University through specific contact points.
Schools Liaison Officers and Admissions Tutors for each College engage thousands of state school students and teachers throughout the year through outreach activities. There is no expectation that students should apply to their area link College and all Colleges welcome enquiries from anywhere in the UK, and the world.
In 2013-14, the collegiate University delivered 4,000 access events which led to almost 200,000 interactions with young people and their teachers. For more information, visit www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk
A couple who met at Downing as undergraduates are supporting their College’s outreach work in the South West of England.
The five year partnership, which is a combination of philanthropic support and research collaboration, will establish the Cambridge Infinitus Research Centre (CIRCE) based in the new landmark building for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology on the West Cambridge site, due to open this autumn.
Infinitus (China), a member of LKK Health Products Group, are renowned in China for their wide range of personal and healthcare products. The collaboration marks the first academic partnership for Infinitus outside China.
It will expand opportunities for Cambridge academics to collaborate and exchange information with Infinitus’ academic collaborators in China, some of whom will visit CIRCE during the course of the partnership.
Using state-of-the-art imaging technology, researchers will be able to visualise the effects of various treatments or environmental conditions on cells and molecules.
This potentially has far-reaching implications for understanding the interactions of small molecules and macromolecules within molecular cell biology in neurodegenerative and other diseases.
A signing ceremony took place on Wednesday 2 September to seal the partnership and a plaque was unveiled that will be placed with the new Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology building.
Mr. Tim Qin, Senior Vice President of LKKHPG said: "Today, we are gathered here at the University of Cambridge to open a new chapter in Infinitus's science and technology development. To work with the University and to benefit from the profound science and research strength in Cambridge provides Infinitus with great encouragement for the future."
The Vice-Chancellor said: “Cambridge is well known for its extensive industrial partnerships and we actively encourage a culture of collaboration that strives towards real world impact.
“These kinds of partnerships are invaluable in helping our academics continue and expand their cutting-edge research.
“We are delighted that Infinitus have chosen to take their first step in international expansion at Cambridge and we are grateful not only for their research partnership but also their generous philanthropic support of both the Centre and the Department.”
Photo Caption: L-R Richard Prager, Head of the School of Technology; The Vice-Chancellor; Tim Qin, Senior Vice-President, LKK Health Products Group Ltd; Leon Li, General Manager of Marketing Department, Infinitus (China) Company Ltd
The University of Cambridge has concluded a £4 million agreement with Chinese health firm Infinitus (China) Company Ltd. (Infinitus (China) for short) to explore the activity of plant-derived compounds at the molecular and cellular levels.
A major survey of more than 20,000 people in the UK has found that women living in poor areas are almost twice as likely to develop clinical anxiety as women in richer areas. Interestingly, living in poorer or richer areas made no difference to the levels of generalised anxiety disorder experienced by men.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common mental health conditions in modern society. It is debilitating, and associated with a high use of health services. If untreated, it can lead to the development of major depression and substance abuse, and it places individuals at a high risk of suicide.
Despite these serious risks, very little research has been done on the factors in society that give rise to this disorder. Much of the work on mood and mental illness has focused on depression, while anxiety has been largely neglected. Those studies which have looked at the risk factors for anxiety disorders have tended to focus on the effect of low personal income, low levels of education, or poor health behaviours (such as smoking, drinking and physical inactivity).
So far, very little work has been done on the impact of the environment in relation to anxiety, even though it is widely recognised as an important contributor to health in general, and can affect a very large number of people. In particular, living in poverty has been linked to a range of chronic medical conditions – including depression– and mortality. So could there be a link between poverty and anxiety?
Now, for the first time, I and researchers in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge have shown that British women living in deprived areas are almost twice as much at risk of experiencing GAD, compared with women living in areas that are not deprived. This association persisted even after we accounted for individual circumstances, such as socio-economic status and existing medical conditions. It is also remarkable that the link between deprivation and clinical anxiety does not seem to exist among men.
Why is it so?
These findings are intriguing, and several explanations can be put forward. Deprivation – which we measured based on factors such as the local unemployment rate, barriers to housing and services, crime, and other dimensions – can lead to stress, which can trigger mental health problems. It may be that women are more affected by the stress that comes with living in poverty, compared with men.
Women tend to be more embedded in their local communities and spend more time in the surrounding environment than men, perhaps due to their greater uptake of part-time work and domestic or child-rearing duties. This means that they may be more exposed to the strain and stresses that come with living in deprived conditions.
Women may also perceive the environment differently from men. Neighbourhood safety and fear of being assaulted seem to be much more of a concern for women. If women perceive a neighbourhood to be unsafe, they may restrict leisure activities, such as walking, and this can have further negative effects on their mental health.
Finally, both genders may experience and manifest the effects of stress in different ways. One study has shown that women who are highly distressed tend to develop internalising disorders, while men are more prone to drinking abuse and antisocial problems.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have emphasised the need to reduce social and health inequalities. Our findings add detail to this call, showing that environmental characteristics should inform mental health policy, but also that investments made to improve local areas will not benefit all parts of the population in the same way. Gender is clearly an important factor when it comes to assessing the impacts of our environment, and promoting good mental health.
Olivia Remes, a PhD student at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, explores the relationship between deprivation and anxiety disorders, and in particular why women seem particularly vulnerable.
The meaning of The Clash song Should I Stay or Should I Go is probably sufficiently clear for most people who listen to it. Getting a referendum question right is a more complex affair. The British Electoral Commission has shown us as much by advising that the wording of the question for the forthcoming vote on the UK’s membership of the EU should be changed.
The Council of Europe code of practice on referendums suggests referendum questions should avoid leading the voter to one choice or another. And the Electoral Commission is obliged to give its view on the wording of referendum questions in the UK. But I fear the commission has made matters worse in its quest for neutrality in this case.
As published, the EU Referendum Bill stated that the referendum question would be “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”. Voters would be given a simple Yes/No choice on the ballot to answer that question.
This was actually the wording originally proposed by the Electoral Commission in 2013.
But after testing this wording, the commission has expressed concern that it might create a bias towards a “Yes” answer. It also wondered whether an alternative question might better grasp the complexities involved in making a choice about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
It sought to refine the question around two alternative statements rather than a question with a simple Yes/No answer. It has now proposed changing the question to: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
Voters will be asked to select either “remain a member of the European Union” or “leave the European Union”. It has been widely reported that David Cameron has accepted this new wording.
Are you really leaving?
The concept of “remaining” in the EU is reasonably clear. The problem with this new formulation lies in what is actually meant by “leave the European Union”.
Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union – the provision governing the exit of a member state – uses the term “withdraw” and it might be better to use this term rather than a less precise “leave”.
More importantly, a “withdrawal” from the EU must be a negotiated process that ends in an agreement between the EU and the withdrawing state. That agreement will govern the future relationship between the EU and its former member and is likely to result in EU rules continuing to apply to the withdrawing state in areas like access to the European single market.
If by selecting “leave the EU” a voter believed that they were voting for the UK to have a clean break with the EU, they may well feel disappointed with the outcome. The UK may have ceased to be a member of the EU but without having left the EU in any meaningful sense. To turn from The Clash to The Eagles, like Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never really “leave”.
The serious point is that if a Yes/No question risks bias, this new iteration of the question only introduces a different problem: namely that the alternative statements do not quite depict the consequences that they purport to capture.
Whatever the problems of a polarising binary Yes/No question, they are not solved by giving voters a choice between one relatively clear answer – remain a member of the EU – and one wholly ambiguous response – leave the EU.
A straight question?
There remains quite a lot of merit in the original proposal to ask electors to vote Yes/No on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union.
This at least reflects a legal reality. The UK is currently a member of the EU and therefore the choice is whether or not that status should continue. It avoids speculation about what the alternative to being a member might entail. Though of course, for some, the problem is the status quo of EU membership and a question which apparently reflects that is itself an impediment to change.
An issue that has not been discussed is whether the wording of the question should really strive towards a kind of agnostic neutrality or whether it should seek to reflect political realities by starting with the world as it is now – that the UK is a member of the EU – and then ask voters whether that should change. This would imply not a bias but a certain onus on those who wish to seek change.
The haste with which David Cameron has endorsed the Electoral Commission’s proposal has pre-empted a debate on the wording of the referendum question and there is still time for further change. Amendments to the EU Referendum Bill can be made in the House of Commons at the Report Stage, scheduled for September 7. This will give an opportunity for further reflection on the wisdom of this proposed change. And that reflection is greatly needed.
This article also appears on the UK in a Changing Europe website
David Cameron has been widely reported to have agreed to amend the wording on the forthcoming referendum about the UK's position in the EU. But the new wording may not be any better, writes Professor Kenneth Armstrong, Director of the Centre for European Legal Studies.
Astronomers from the University of Cambridge have developed a new, highly accurate method of measuring the distances between stars, which could be used to measure the size of the galaxy, enabling greater understanding of how it evolved.
Using a technique which searches out stellar ‘twins’, the researchers have been able to measure distances between stars with far greater precision than is possible using typical model-dependent methods. The technique could be a valuable complement to the Gaia satellite – which is creating a three-dimensional map of the sky over five years – and could aid in the understanding of fundamental astrophysical processes at work in the furthest reaches of our galaxy. Details of the new technique are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“Determining distances is a key problem in astronomy, because unless we know how far away a star or group of stars is, it is impossible to know the size of the galaxy or understand how it formed and evolved,” said Dr Paula Jofre Pfeil of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, the paper’s lead author. “Every time we make an accurate distance measurement, we take another step on the cosmic distance ladder.”
The best way to directly measure a star’s distance is by an effect known as parallax, which is the apparent displacement of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight – for example, if you hold out your hand in front of you and look at it with your left eye closed and then with your right eye closed, your hand will appear to move against the background. The same effect can be used to calculate the distance to stars, by measuring the apparent motion of a nearby star compared to more distant background stars. By measuring the angle of inclination between the two observations, astronomers can use the parallax to determine the distance to a particular star.
However, the parallax method can only be applied for stars which are reasonably close to us, since beyond distances of 1600 light years, the angles of inclination are too small to be measured by the Hipparcos satellite, a precursor to Gaia. Consequently, of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, we have accurate measurements for just 100,000.
Gaia will be able to measure the angles of inclination with far greater precision than ever before, for stars up to 30,000 light years away. Scientists will soon have precise distance measurements for the one billion stars that Gaia is mapping – but that’s still only one percent of the stars in the Milky Way.
For even more distant stars, astronomers will still need to rely on models which look at a star’s temperature, surface gravity and chemical composition, and use the information from the resulting spectrum, together with an evolutionary model, to infer its intrinsic brightness and to determine its distance. However, these models can be off by as much as 30 percent. “Using a model also means using a number of simplifying assumptions – like for example assuming stars don’t rotate, which of course they do,” said Dr Thomas Mädler, one of the study’s co-authors. “Therefore stellar distances obtained by such indirect methods should be taken with a pinch of salt.”
The Cambridge researchers have developed a novel method to determine distances between stars by relying on stellar ‘twins’: two stars with identical spectra. Using a set of around 600 stars for which high-resolution spectra are available, the researchers found 175 pairs of twins. For each set of twins, a parallax measurement was available for one of the stars.
The researchers found that the difference of the distances of the twin stars is directly related to the difference in their apparent brightness in the sky, meaning that distances can be accurately measured without having to rely on models. Their method showed just an eight percent difference with known parallax measurements, and the accuracy does not decrease when measuring more distant stars.
“It’s a remarkably simple idea – so simple that it’s hard to believe no one thought of it before,” said Jofre Pfeil. “The further away a star is, the fainter it appears in the sky, and so if two stars have identical spectra, we can use the difference in brightness to calculate the distance.”
Since a utilised spectrum for a single star contains as many as 280,000 data points, comparing entire spectra for different stars would be both time and data-consuming, so the researchers chose just 400 spectral lines to make their comparisons. These particular lines are those which give the most distinguishing information about the star – similar to comparing photographs of individuals and looking at a single defining characteristic to tell them apart.
The next step for the researchers is to compile a ‘catalogue’ of stars for which accurate distances are available, and then search for twins among other stellar catalogues for which no distances are available. While only looking at stars which have twins restricts the method somewhat, thanks to the new generation of high-powered telescopes, high-resolution spectra are available for millions of stars. With even more powerful telescopes under development, spectra may soon be available for stars which are beyond even the reach of Gaia, so the researchers say their method is a powerful complement to Gaia.
“This method provides a robust way to extend the crucially-important cosmic distance ladder in a new special way,” said Professor Gerry Gilmore, the Principal Investigator for UK involvement in the Gaia mission. “It has the promise to become extremely important as new very large telescopes are under construction, allowing the necessary detailed observations of stars at large distances in galaxies far from our Milky Way, building on our local detailed studies from Gaia.”
The research was funded by the European Research Council.
Jofré, P. et. al. Climbing the cosmic ladder with stellar twins. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (2015). DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv1724.
A new method of measuring the distances between stars enables astronomers to climb the ‘cosmic ladder’ and understand the processes at work in the outer reaches of the galaxy.
By the time they are teenagers, more than two-thirds of young people are not doing enough physical activity. Teenagers spend an average of eight hours every day sitting, with 11 to 15-year-olds watching nearly three hours of television. Most of us are well aware that such behaviour risks damaging their physical health, but there’s an additional problem. I have been involved in a new piece of research which suggests that too much screen time is also harming grades.
We measured the physical activity and sitting time of 845 teenagers at 14.5 years old, using a sensor that measures movement and heart rate. We asked how much time they spent watching TV, playing computer games, going online, doing homework and reading. And at the end of year 11, when these students were 16-years-old, we collected their GCSE results.
We found that teenagers with higher screen time had lower GCSE grades, even when we took account of differences in homework and reading. Television, computer games and internet use were all associated with poorer academic performance, but TV viewing was the most detrimental. For every hour that someone watched per day, they showed a drop of nine GCSE points in total – the equivalent of two whole grades in one subject (or for example, one grade in each of two subjects). Two extra hours was associated with 18 fewer points.
Although we did not find that more physical activity was associated with higher grades, as some other studies have suggested, it was not detrimental to academic performance either. It’s important that this message isn’t lost among the findings about screen time: schools are under so much pressure to improve exam results that many don’t prioritise PE and other opportunities for physical activity for fear that they interfere with academic achievement.
The case for 60 a day
The wider picture is that most teenagers are failing to meet the recommendations of doing at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity each day (activity that makes you sweat and breathe heavily). This needs to change if we are to develop a more rounded approach to our children’s education. Behaviours developed in the teenage years are likely to persist into adulthood, and we need to take every opportunity to improve the nation’s health by tackling high levels of physical inactivity across the population.
There are many reasons for young people not taking enough exercise, which will differ for each individual. Teenagers are often given a bad press about being lazy but I don’t believe that, and we should resist the temptation to blame them. Even as someone who studies and promotes physical activity, for example, I find it hard to fit it into my day, and it certainly wasn’t a priority for me at school.
In our research, we asked teenagers how we could help them to be more active and sit less. The overwhelming response was that they didn’t want to be sitting around, but lacked opportunities to be active in a way that interested them. They wanted more variety and choice about what activities they tried, telling us that the limited range of school sports was putting most of them off. This dislike of PE in high school could sour exercise for life. Offering a range of non-traditional activities – from martial arts to zumba – over the usual football or netball could encourage young people to take more exercise.
A related point is that while many strategies have focused on educating us about the health benefits of exercise, it looks like that doesn’t work. We need to change the way we pitch the message instead. Researchers and practitioners need to find out what motivates people and use that to convince them to be active instead. For instance one fascinating study paired adult men with Scottish football clubs for a weight loss and healthy-living intervention. The programme succeeded in encouraging this hard-to-reach group to improve their health because it tapped into these men being fans of football rather than health benefits.
Be lean with screens
Put this all together and a win/win answer begins to emerge. So long as homework and reading time are protected, schools and parents should be looking to encourage teenagers to swap screen time for physical activity. And in a multi-screen world that teenagers navigate frequently without supervision, we will need to become more sophisticated about how we guide the amount of time they spend in front of screens and what choices they make instead. Encouraging a good variety of physical activity and tapping into what makes them tick rather than speaking endlessly about health benefits looks like a good place to start. Achieve this goal and it looks like the way to maximise academic achievement and reduce health risks at the same time.
We also need to think about what happens in future. Screens are proliferating and we’re not going to get rid of them. Nor should we want to – the worlds that young people can access through screens can educate, inform and enrich their lives, from nature documentaries to Minecraft. And with more and more activities moving online – including educational resources – there are many unanswered questions about how future generations may adapt. For now and the future, the challenge is to get teenagers more active so that once they’ve done their homework, the last thing that they think of is sitting in front of a screen.
We need to think about how our teenagers spend their spare time, writes Dr Kirsten Corder from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, whose research has shown that even an hour a day of TV and internet use is linked to poorer GCSE grades.
In a study published today in the open access International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers also found that pupils doing an extra hour of daily homework and reading performed significantly better than their peers. However, the level of physical activity had no effect on academic performance.
The link between physical activity and health is well established, but its link with academic achievement is not yet well understood. Similarly, although greater levels of sedentary behaviour – for example, watching TV or reading – have been linked to poorer physical health, the connection to academic achievement is also unclear.
To look at the relationship between physical activity, sedentary behaviours and academic achievement, a team of researchers led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge studied 845 pupils from secondary schools in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, measuring levels of activity and sedentary behaviour at age 14.5 years and then comparing this to their performance in their GCSEs the following year. This data was from the ROOTS study, a large longitudinal study assessing health and wellbeing during adolescence led by Professor Ian Goodyer at the Developmental Psychiatry Section, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge.
The researchers measured objective levels of activity and time spent sitting, through a combination of heart rate and movement sensing. Additionally the researchers used self-reported measures to assess screen time (the time spent watching TV, using the internet and playing computer games) and time spent doing homework, and reading for pleasure.
The team found that screen time was associated with total GCSE points achieved. Each additional hour per day of time spent in front of the TV or online at age 14.5 years was associated with 9.3 fewer GCSE points at age 16 years – the equivalent to two grades in one subject (for example from a B to a D) or one grade in each of two subjects, for example. Two extra hours was associated with 18 fewer points at GCSE.
Screen time and time spent reading or doing homework were independently associated with academic performance, suggesting that even if participants do a lot of reading and homework, watching TV or online activity still damages their academic performance.
The researchers found no significant association between moderate to vigorous physical activity and academic performance, though this contradicts a recent study which found a beneficial effect in some academic subjects. However, both studies conclude that engaging in physical activity does not damage a pupil’s academic performance. Given the wider health and social benefits of overall physical activity, the researchers argue that it remains a public health priority both in and out of school.
As well as looking at total screen time, the researchers analysed time spent in different screen activities. Although watching TV, playing computer games or being online were all associated with poorer grades, TV viewing was found to be the most detrimental.
As this was a prospective study – in other words, the researchers followed the pupils over time to determine how different behaviours affected their academic achievement – the researchers believe they can, with some caution, infer that increased screen time led to poorer academic performance.
“Spending more time in front of a screen appears to be linked to a poorer performance at GCSE,” says first author Dr Kirsten Corder from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) in the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge. “We only measured this behaviour in Year 10, but this is likely to be a reliable snapshot of participants’ usual behaviour, so we can reasonably suggest that screen time may be damaging to a teenager’s grades. Further research is needed to confirm this effect conclusively, but parents who are concerned about their child’s GCSE grade might consider limiting his or her screen time.”
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that teenagers who spent their sedentary time doing homework or reading scored better at GCSE: pupils doing an extra hour of daily homework and reading achieved on average 23.1 more GCSE points than their peers. However, pupils doing over four hours of reading or homework a day performed less well than their peers – the number of pupils in this category was relatively low (only 52 participants) and may include participants who are struggling at school, and therefore do a lot of homework but unfortunately perform badly in exams.
Dr Esther van Sluijs, also from CEDAR, adds: “We believe that programmes aimed at reducing screen time could have important benefits for teenagers’ exam grades, as well as their health. It is also encouraging that our results show that greater physical activity does not negatively affect exam results. As physical activity has many other benefits, efforts to promote physical activity throughout the day should still be a public health priority.”
The research was mainly supported by the MRC and the UK Clinical Research Collaboration.
Corder, K et al. Revising on the run or studying on the sofa: Prospective associations between physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and exam results in British adolescents. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; 4 Sept 2015.
Each extra hour per day spent watching TV, using the internet or playing computer games during Year 10 is associated with poorer grades at GCSE at age 16, according to research from the University of Cambridge.
Education sits at the heart of our society – and politicians know it. When Tony Blair famously said “education, education, education” it was essentially an election slogan. We are constantly told by our politicians that English A levels are the “gold standard” in education. I say, maybe it’s time for a rethink.
At the heart of the problem is the early specialisation in post-16 education. As a practising scientist I like to think that I can at least have some understanding of any science story presented in the news. But for a large proportion of the population that isn’t the case; our society almost seems to believe that the situation is a virtue. If a politician says “I never could do maths” no one thinks “Philistine”, whereas if they admitted to never having read any Shakespeare or Dickens the reaction would be very different. Why does our society think this is OK?
Science underpins so many decisions; political and personal. In our daily life and jobs, we increasingly need to use quantitative skills: the ability to interpret graphs, utilise spreadsheets and manipulate data. Our national academies recognise this, with a recent report from the British Academy to go with last year’s Vision report from the Royal Society, both calling for all students to continue with some form of maths post-16.
This issue cuts both ways of course. Scientists need to be able to write and communicate better. Whether or not they can quote chunks of poetry, ancient or modern, is not the point. Scientists need to be able to write lucidly and put their work in context. Just about every branch of science is going to touch on the human condition and they need to be able to understand what their research means for the public. Some grasp of history, literature and social science could help them communicate this.
So in my upcoming Presidential Address to the British Science Association, I will be urging politicians to reconsider the structure of our post-16 education. England and Wales are unlike almost all other developed countries in our early specialisation. This leads to a damaging divide between arts and science.
Implicitly, at the point of choosing GCSE topics, a 14 year old will see themselves heading off in one direction or the other. Schools sometimes appear to encourage this, perhaps for the simple reason of easing the timetable. A broader post-16 education would mean moving from the typically narrow choices of A levels to something akin to the European Baccalaureate system (or perhaps the Scottish Higher system), where more subjects are studied for longer.
The teaching shortage
Of course, all this would require an adequate supply of qualified teachers. Currently, however, we neither have enough teachers entering the profession nor staying on for long subsequently. This is a massive problem in many subjects.
In primary school teaching, many schools have no one qualified in science or with a maths degree (the Vision report says only 3% and 5% of primary school teachers have maths and science degrees or specialist teaching qualifications in those subjects respectively). In turn this creates a confidence problem: teachers who haven’t looked at a maths problem since they were 16 are expected to teach numeracy skills they may feel unsure about themselves.
This problem is particularly acute when there is no one else with more relevant experience in the school to whom they can turn for specific advice. This is no criticism of the teachers themselves, but, when teachers have to teach beyond their own areas of confidence and competence, it is harder for them to stimulate the children and to answer their questions.
In the sciences a related problem occurs at secondary school. Teachers may be science teachers, but if their qualification is in biology it is tough for them to teach GCSE physics. Again, this is not meant to apportion blame to the teachers. The Institute of Physics has suggested we need 1000 more physics graduates a year entering the teaching profession if we are to reach a situation where a third of science teachers are qualified in physics – and it would still take 15 years.
To do this would need around a quarter of all physics graduates training as teachers each year. It is hard to imagine that happening, particularly given the level of salaries graduates can otherwise command.
England has this strange habit of splitting our children up into arts and sciences at an age when hormones are surging and peer pressure is liable to be at its most powerful. We should be pressing the government to modify our system so that all children keep studying a broad range of subjects post-16 – and providing adequate funding to do so. In time this would translate into primary school teachers with more confidence to enthuse the next generation in maths and science.
Furthermore, this change would empower everyone to be able to make better-informed decisions about the things that affect them in their everyday life and to make sure that day by day people are able to cope with the numeracy requirements of their jobs with confidence.
Why is it acceptable to say “I never could do maths” but not “I’ve never read any Shakespeare”? It’s symptomatic of the art-science divide that can only be addressed by reforming our education system, writes Professor Athene Donald from the Department of Physics and Master of Churchill College.
The ALBORADA Trust, a UK charity that supports the global advancement of education, health, poverty relief and animal welfare, has confirmed that it will donate £4 million to the University of Cambridge’s flagship Cambridge-Africa Programme.
This donation signals the ALBORADA Trust’s growing commitment to the Cambridge-Africa Programme, which it has been supporting for the past three years.
The funds will help researchers at the University of Cambridge to initiate or enhance research projects in all disciplines involving partners at sub-Saharan African universities or research institutions. Support from the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund can cover research costs, including equipment, fieldwork, travel and research training costs in Africa.
Since its creation in 2012, the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund has supported 78 research projects in 11 African countries in more than 30 areas of knowledge. The projects have involved 28 African institutions, with 78 African researchers and 86 Cambridge researchers participating.
Projects that have received awards from the ALBORADA Research Fund in the past year include Ha-Joon Chang and Julius Kiiza’s investigation of the links between development and incipient state institutions in Rwanda; Devon Curtis and Paul Omach’s research into local communities and peacebuilding in Northern Uganda; and Andrew Grant and Maitshwarelo Ignatious Matsheka’s study of Campylobacter bacteria from diarrhoeal patients and chickens in Botswana.
Travel awards have facilitated research into enteric infections (Ian Goodfellow and Allison Elliott), and into capacity-building in computational linguistics (Paula Battery and Fridah Katushemererwe) –both in Uganda. They have also allowed researchers to examine the challenges to the sustainability of heritage sites in Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Botswana (Marie Louise Stig Sorensen and Chris Boonzaaier).
Professor David Dunne, Director of the Cambridge-Africa Programme, remarked: “The first donation by the ALBORADA Trust, in 2012, was essential to strengthening the University’s engagement with African partners. It enabled the establishment of research collaborations between Cambridge and Africa, and in many cases allowed the collaborators to obtain further external national and international funding.
“The new gift will more than double the value of the awards we can make over the next 10 years. It consolidates the Cambridge-Africa Programme’s activities as one of the University’s major international initiatives, and sends a strong signal to other potential funders about the Programme’s strengths.”
Commenting on the gift, Professor James Wood, Head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine and ALBORADA Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science, said: “We know that across the African continent there are large numbers of talented people we can support through the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund.
“This gift will allow us to engage with many of them on a much wider scale, and to make sure they are performing at their best—not just while in Cambridge but also while delivering the results of their research in their own communities, countries and regions.”
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, added: “The generous support of the ALBORADA Trust played a pivotal role in establishing the Cambridge-Africa Programme. This extension will be transformative, offering us the unique opportunity to enhance the programme’s impact across the continent.”
Pictures: Jenneke van der Wal, University of Cambridge, and Saudah Namyalo, Makerere University, received Alborada funding for their study of the Luganda language.
The University of Cambridge’s determination to enhance research capacity across Africa, and to engage in collaborative research with African partners, has been given a significant boost following the announcement of a major gift.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge University have published new results in the journal PLoS ONE from the largest ever study of people with autism taking the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test. Whilst typical adults showed the predicted and now well-established sex difference on this test, with women on average scoring higher than men, in adults with autism this typical sex difference was conspicuously absent. Instead, both men and women with autism showed an extreme of the typical male pattern on the test, providing strong support for the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism.
The study was led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at the University of Cambridge. Almost 400 men and women with autism or Asperger Syndrome took the test online, which entails looking at a series of photographs of just the eye region of the face, and picking which of four words best describe what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.
The ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test is known as an advanced ‘theory of mind’ or empathy test, designed to reveal subtle individual differences in social sensitivity. It particularly measures the ‘cognitive’ component of empathy, that is, the ability to recognize or infer someone else’s state of mind. The test has been used in hundreds of studies worldwide, showing reliable sex differences in typical individuals, with women on average scoring higher than men, and showing that people with autism score lower on average than people without autism.
The team investigated whether men and women with autism perform differently on this test, and used it to evaluate the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, in the largest study to date. This theory predicts that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with autism. The results confirmed this pattern.
Professor Baron-Cohen commented: “We are seeing this pattern not just on the Eyes test but on a number of measures. Last year we saw it on the Empathy Quotient, a self-report measure of social sensitivity, and on the Systemizing Quotient, a self-report measure of one’s interest and aptitude in understanding systems. This year we saw it in prenatal testosterone levels, where boys with autism had elevated levels of this hormone compared to typically developing boys, who in turn have higher levels than typically developing girls. And a decade ago we found how much prenatal testosterone you have influences your scores on the Eyes test. Future research needs to delve into what is giving rise to this pattern.”
Dr Carrie Allison, Research Manager at the ARC and another member of the team, said: “Imagine looking at people’s eyes and not being able to ‘read’ them effortlessly and intuitively for what the other person may be thinking or feeling. This research has the potential to explain why children with autism, from the earliest point in development, avoid looking at people’s eyes, and become confused in rapidly changing social situations, where people are exchanging glances without words all the time. This disability may be both a marker of the early-onset empathy difficulties in autism, and contribute to exacerbating them. Teaching children with autism how to read emotional expressions non-verbally should become an important clinical focus for future research and practice. ”
Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, the William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellow at the ARC and senior author of the study, added: “There are substantial individual differences in terms of how well a person with autism performs on the Eyes test, but the social difficulties of both men and women are reflected on their test scores. In addition, women with autism differ more from typical women than men with autism differ from typical men. The relationship between autism and sex and gender is becoming an important topic for autism research.”
New results published by researchers at the Autism Research Centre (ARC) show both men and women with autism show an extreme of the typical male pattern on the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test.
Using a new metric, ‘GDP @Risk’, the ‘Catastronomics’ techniques developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge reveal that major threats to the world’s most important cities could reduce economic output by some $4.56 trillion, equivalent to 1.2 per cent of the total GDP forecast to be generated by these cities in the next decade.
The techniques, developed by researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies, provide the data and risk analysis for the Lloyd’s City Risk Index 2015-2025, which was launched last week.
“GDP @Risk makes it possible to combine and compare a very wide range of threats, including those that are disruptive and costly, such as market collapse, in addition to destructive and deadly natural catastrophes, and measure their impact on economic output,” said Professor Daniel Ralph, Academic Director of Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies, which is based at the Cambridge Judge Business School. “This 1.2 per cent is the estimated ‘catastrophe burden’ on the world’s economy – without this, the growth of global GDP, currently running at around three per cent a year, would be significantly higher.”
Lloyd’s City Risk Index encompasses 301 of the world’s leading cities, selected by economic, business and political importance. These cities are responsible for over half of global GDP today, and an estimated two-thirds of the world’s economic output by 2025.
The analysis considers 18 different threats from manmade events, such as market crashes and technological catastrophes, to natural disasters to these urban centres. It examines the likelihood and severity of disruption of the output from the city as an economic engine, rather than metrics of physical destruction or repair cost loss – which is the traditional focus of conventional catastrophe models.
The Centre’s analysis reflects the typologies of different economic activities in each city. The GDP growth history, demographics and other data are used to derive GDP projections out to 2025 for each city. GDP @Risk is a long run average: the economic loss caused by ‘all’ catastrophes that might occur in an average decade, baselined against economic performance between 2015 and 2025.
Professor Ralph added: “A framework to quantify the average damage caused by a Pandora’s box of all ills – a ‘universal’ set of catastrophes – can be used to calibrate the value of investing in resilience. This is what the GDP @Risk metric for 300 World Cities attempts to provide. We believe that it is possible to estimate the cost to a business, city, region or the global economy, from all catastrophic shocks. Such holistic approaches are an antidote to risk management that reacts to threats taken from yesterday’s news headlines. Our simple methodology suggests that between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of GDP @Risk could be recovered, in principle, by improving resilience of all cities.”
Adapted from an article originally published on the Cambridge Judge Business School website.
New model says world cities face expected losses of $4.6 trillion in economic output over the next decade as a result of natural or man-made catastrophes.
What do we mean when we talk about 'monsters’? The word conjures up figures from gothic horror, such as Frankenstein or Dracula, classical images of exotic peoples with no heads or grotesquely exaggerated features, and the kinds of impossible chimerical beasts inhabiting the pages of medieval bestaries. How monsters have been created over the centuries is much more indicative of the moral and existential challenges faced by societies than the realities that they have encountered.
The etymology of monstrosity suggests the complex roles that monsters play within society. 'Monster' probably derives from the Latin, monstrare, meaning 'to demonstrate', and monere, 'to warn'. Monsters, in essence, are demonstrative. They reveal, portend, show and make evident, often uncomfortably so. Though the modern gothic monster and the medieval chimaera may seem unrelated, both have acted as important social tools.
Dr Walter Palmer, who illegally shot Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, has been labeled a 'monster'. Given the moniker 'The Dentist', he has had to resign from his practice, flee his home, and hire armed guards to protect himself and his family as a result of public disgust at his actions. He has even received death threats and been described as 'barely human'. Trophy hunting, and anyone who takes part in or has involvement with it, has been similarly vilified in the media and by animal rights groups.
Such public 'monsters' serve a similar role to gothic monsters, images that embody the cultural or psychological characteristics that we as a society find difficult to acknowledge. By excising them, through fantasies of execution or simply professional exclusion, we rid ourselves of the undesirable attributes they are perceived to carry. The 'murdered' lion becomes the innocent white-robed victim of the archetypal gothic tale, while murderous 'Dentist' plays the role of social scapegoat.
Until relatively recently in history, monsters close to home, such as deformed babies or two-headed calves, were construed as warnings of divine wrath. Monstrous depictions in newspapers and pamphlets expressed strong political attitudes. The monstrous races or traditional monstrous beasts such as basilisks or unicorns, that were banished to distant regions in maps, represented a frightening unknown: 'here be dragons' effectively filled cartographic voids.
Simultaneously, however, monsters represented the wonderful diversity of divine creation, a playful ‘Nature’ that could produce a multitude of strange forms. Exotic beasts brought to Europe for the first time in the 16th century, such as armadillos or walruses, were often interpreted as 'monstrous'. More accurately, they were made into monsters: things that did not fit into the accepted natural categories. An armadillo became a pig-turtle, while a walrus was a fish-ox.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but beasts that seemingly mixed the characteristics of different natural groups were not troubling. Rather, they reinforced categories by clarifying the defining criteria for these groups. By transgressing, they helped to determine boundaries. To define a deviant form, such as a 'deformed' baby or calf, or a 'monstrous' exotic creature, you have to define 'normal'.
For example, the simple Aristotelian definition of a 'bird' was something that had two legs, two wings, could fly and walk. Two new creatures arrived in the 16th century that seemed to violate this definition. Firstly, birds of paradise were brought to Europe in 1622 as trade skins with stunning, colourful plumes but no legs or wings. Their limbs were removed by the hunters who supplied the birds in New Guinea. The birds were interpreted by European naturalists as heavenly creatures that never landed, inhabiting the boundary between the avian and the angelic.
At the other end of the avian spectrum, Dutch sailors landing on Mauritius at the end of the 16th century encountered dodos. Though rarely brought to Europe physically, the descriptions and detached parts of dodos were used by naturalists to depict ungainly, fat birds. Not only did dodos not fly, they could hardly walk. Lacking the typical feathers and wings of other birds, they were almost mammalian in form.
Monsters are not self-evident; they were created to serve these roles. Even beautiful creatures like the birds of paradise could become monsters due to their lack of limbs and imagined ascetic lifestyles. Making monsters added value. They were commercially lucrative things: oddities, curiosities and rare things were very marketable.
The market for monstrosity motivated the literal creation of monsters: 'mermaids' were assembled from pieces of fish, monkeys and other objects while 'ray-dragons' were created from carefully mutilated and dried rays. These objects could be sold to collectors or displayed in menageries and freak-shows. Writing about and portraying virtual monsters helped to sell books and pamphlets.
The tale of Cecil and 'The Dentist' is not so different. It is certainly highly saleable, as details about this particular monster's life and activities provide valuable fodder for media outlets.
Animal monsters could have very specific roles. The dodo, for example, was depicted as vast and gluttonous in late 17th-century accounts. It greedily consumed everything it came across, even hot coals. It was described as nauseatingly greasy to eat: one bird could apparently feed 25 men. This image was created by writers who had never seen the bird, and is not supported by current paleobiological evidence.
The idea of the avian glutton embodied European anxieties about the rapacious colonial trading activities in the Indian Ocean, which brought a surfeit of riches to Europe. The engorged dodo became a scapegoat for the European sin of gluttony.
What catharsis does the 'monsterification' of Palmer and other trophy hunters provide? Perhaps focusing on the tragedy of one 'personality' lion distracts from the greater horrors of illegal poaching and human-animal conflict occurring in similar regions. It also masks the fact that, though controversial, regulated commercial hunting is an important source of conservation funding in many countries.
On the one hand, excising this monster reinforces our conceptions of social boundaries of morality: don't kill creatures we perceive as having human traits, like names or personalities. On the other, it offers the illusion of absolution from the underlying horror at what all of us are doing to the natural world.
Inset images: The 'Monster of Cracow', a monstrous creature born to honourable parents, from Pierre Boaistuau's 'Histoires Prodigieuses' (1560, Paris) (Wellcome Library, London); 'Draco alter ex raia' or a ray-dragon from Ulysse Aldrovandi's 'Serpentum et draconum historiæ' (1640, Bologna), p.316.
In the outrage that erupted when an American dentist killed a lion, the trophy hunter was branded a 'monster'. Natalie Lawrence, a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, explores notions of the monstrous and how they tie into ideas about morality.
The purpose of the agreement, signed by Dr Barnes and by the JRC’s Director General, Vladimír Šucha (pictured left), is to promote research collaboration between the two organisations, particularly regarding the use of evidence to inform policy-making in Europe.
Speaking after the signing ceremony, the Vice-Chancellor said: “All the best science in the world without translation into policy really is of no practical value in the world of tomorrow. Doing the science itself is not enough –we have to work with those who are in positions of making decisions, as these will affect the lives of citizens of Europe”.
Vladimír Šucha said the MoU followed a series of contacts between the two organisations: "I'm extremely happy that we're going to have a formalised understanding between the JRC and the University of Cambridge. I hope that European policy will profit from these contacts and from this ocean of knowledge within Cambridge."
The Memorandum of Understanding foresees collaboration in research into the use of evidence in policymaking, particularly with the University’s Centre for Science and Policy. It will also facilitate academic exchanges, and the undertaking of joint research projects in areas of common interest.
A pilot programme on Green Growth and Sustainability is already being developed jointly by the JRC’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, the Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment, and a number of the University’s Strategic Initiatives.
The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding was followed by a lunch-time lecture to JRC members, “Cervical cancer –A biological and public health policy conundrum”, delivered by the Vice-Chancellor.
The JRC supports the European Commission by providing EU policymakers with independent, evidence-based scientific and technical support throughout the whole policy cycle. This is the latest in a number of agreements with which the JRC pursues closer cooperation with the European scientific community through partnerships with universities, national academies and other umbrella research organisations.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy, Dr Jennifer Barnes (pictured right), were in Brussels on Monday 7 September for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Cambridge and the European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC).
A cast of the skull of Bede – the ‘Father of English History’ – has been rediscovered within the anatomical collections of the University of Cambridge by an academic from the University of Leicester.
An exhibition showcasing the cast of the skull – recently rediscovered by Professor Jo Story of the University of Leicester’s School of History – and the story behind the excavation of Bede’s tomb in 1831 and the preservation of the skull found there, has opened today (8 September) at Bede’s World, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear.
Bede (also known as The Venerable Bede) lived from 672–735. He was one of the most influential scholars in medieval Europe. His most famous work, completed in AD 731, is the 'Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' or 'The Ecclesiastical History of the English People'.
It is the key source for understanding early British history and the establishment of Christianity in England, and it was the very first work of history to use the AD system of dating which is still in use today.
In 1831 Dr James Raine excavated the tomb of Bede in Durham Cathedral. This tomb contained the bones that had been venerated throughout the middle ages as those of Bede. The medieval tomb was destroyed at the Reformation but the bones it contained were carefully laid out in a new tomb in the Galilee Chapel at the western end of the cathedral, where they remain today.
The new Jarrow exhibition explores the medieval devotion to Bede, and the discovery, preservation, and fierce debate about the authenticity of the skull in the mid-19th century. This story is revealed in a new article by Professor Story and Richard Bailey (formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Anglo-Saxon Civilisation at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne) just published in The Antiquaries Journal.
By kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries of London, this article on ‘The Skull of Bede’ has been made free to view online by Cambridge University Press, to coincide with the opening of the exhibition.
Professor Story said: “The story of ‘The skull of Bede’ is one that takes us to the heart of 19th-century ideas about race and the peopling of the British Isles in antiquity. It traces the thread of evidence that links the cast in the Cambridge cupboard back to the excavation of Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral in 1831, and from there back to the destruction of the medieval shrines of saints in Reformation England, to the devotion to the memory of Bede throughout the middle ages, to the creation of Durham Cathedral in early twelfth-century Norman England.”
Professor Bailey said: “Thirty years ago, when working on the cult of Bede, I discovered Dr Raine’s handwritten note which showed that he had ordered three casts of the skull he had found in Bede’s tomb. I tracked the subsequent fate of one of them through to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries but it had disappeared by 1900. Every other trail I tried to follow then went cold on me. Imagine my surprise therefore when Professor Story e-mailed me with a photograph of the Cambridge cast! Of course, that means that there may still be one more out there somewhere.”
The article uncovers the tale of Alfred Westou, a thieving monk who, in the early eleventh century, is said to have stolen the bones of Bede from his original grave in the monastery of Jarrow and secreted them into the tomb of St Cuthbert at Durham for safe keeping.
The bones were discovered there in 1104 when St Cuthbert’s tomb was moved from the old Anglo-Saxon cathedral into the magnificent new Norman building, where it remains today.
In the article, Story and Bailey argue that the skull recovered in Durham by James Raine in 1831 was almost certainly that which was discovered in Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, and thus that it was the skull that Westou had excavated, and which he believed was that of Bede himself.
Raine was perplexed by the shape of the skull found in Bede’s tomb, and had a plaster cast made before reinterring the bones. Three copies of Raine’s cast were made in 1831.
Raine gave one cast to Dr John Thurnam, a pioneering psychiatrist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, who had developed a specialist interest in ethnography and archaeology alongside his medical work.
All the casts were since believed to be lost, but Professor Jo Story recently discovered Thurnam’s cast in the collections of the Duckworth Laboratory in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) at the University of Cambridge.
The cast of the skull of Bede sits there alongside remains of the earliest hominids, which are the focus of the pioneering research at LCHES.
The cast made it into the collection via Sir George M Humphry, Professor of Anatomy at Cambridge 1866-83, and then of Surgery. He was a noted collector of specimens for the museum of anatomy and surgical pathology at Cambridge and it is thought he may have acquired the collection shortly after Thurnam’s death in 1873.
It was later incorporated into the collection of Crania and Cranial Bones in the [Anatomy] Museum of Cambridge University and then transferred in 1968 from the Department of Anatomy to Department of Physical Anthropology before finally being moved to the reference collection of the Duckworth Laboratory.
The laboratory is named after noted anatomist and former Master of Jesus College, Wynfrid L H Duckworth. The Duckworth collection was created in 1945 to hold the amalgamated material from the University’s Collection of Anatomy and those from the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
A copy of the Cambridge cast has been made for the museum of Early Medieval Northumbria at Bede’s World in Jarrow by the Duckworth director Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr and senior technician Maggie Bellatti. It is the centrepiece of the new exhibition which opens on Tuesday 8 September at Bede’s World, Jarrow.
Matt Storey, of Bede’s World, said: “Not only is it exciting that we have been able to acquire a cast of the skull of Bede for permanent display at the museum, but the story behind the cast opens up a number of fascinating questions about what happened to Bede’s bones after his death along with the celebration of his cult in medieval Europe. The project has been a very successful collaboration between Bede’s World, the University of Leicester and the University of Cambridge and I hope that there will be further opportunities for us to work together in the future.”
Picture credits: Skull images; J. Story, with permission of the director of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies. Catalogue images: with permission of the director of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies.
Duckworth Collection provides the missing link in a search for the venerable Bede's skull cast.
The ‘Skull of Bede’ by Professor Jo Story and Richard Bailey is free to view online from 4 September until 31 December 2015: http://journals.cambridge.org/Skull_of_Bede
Information about Bede’s World is available here: www.bedesworld.co.uk
For information on the LCHES go to www.human-evol.cam.ac.uk/index.html
Story based on a University of Leicester press release: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2015/september/univers....
The study, which compares spoken English today with recordings from the 1990s, allows researchers at Cambridge University Press and Lancaster University to examine how the language we use indicates our changing attitudes to education.
They found that the topic of education is far more salient in conversations now, with the word cropping up 42 times per million words, compared with only 26 times per million in the 1990s dataset.
As well as talking about education more, there has also been a noticeable shift in the terms we use to describe it. Twenty years ago, the public used fact-based terms to talk about education, most often describing it as either full-time, or part-time.
Today, however, we’re more likely to use evaluative language about the standards of education and say that it’s good, bad or great. This could be due to the rise in the formal assessments of schools, for example, with the establishment of the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) in 1992. Indeed, Ofsted itself has made its debut as a verb in recent times, with the arrival of discussions on what it means for a school to be Ofsteded.
Dr Claire Dembry, Senior Language Research Manager at Cambridge University Press said: “It's fascinating to find out that, not only do we talk about education twice as much as we used to, but also that we are more concerned about the quality. It's great that we have these data sets to be able to find out these insights; without them we wouldn't be able to research how the language we use is changing, nor the topics we talk about most.”
The research findings also indicate that we’re now expecting to get more out of our education than we used to. We’ve started talking about qualifications twice as much as we did in the 1990s, GCSEs five times as much and A levels 1.4 times as much.
Meanwhile, use of the word university has tripled. This is perhaps not surprising, as the proportion of young people going to university doubled between 1995 and 2008, going from 20 per cent to almost 40 per cent.
When the original data was collected in the 1990s, university fees had yet to be introduced, and so it is unsurprising that the terms university fees and tuition fees did not appear in the findings. However the recent data shows these terms to each occur roughly once per million words, as we’ve begun to talk about university in more commercialised terms.
However, while teachers may be happy to hear that education is of growing concern to the British public, it won’t come as good news to them that the adjective underpaid is most closely associated with their job.
These are only the initial findings from the first two million words of the project, named the ‘Spoken British National Corpus 2014,’ which is still seeking recorded submissions.
Professor Tony McEnery, from the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences (CASS) at Lancaster University, said: “We need to gather hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations to create a full spoken corpus so we can continue to analyse the way language has changed over the last 20 years.
“This is an ambitious project and we are calling for people to send us MP3 files of their everyday, informal conversations in exchange for a small payment to help me and my team to delve deeper into spoken language and to shed more light on the way our spoken language changes over time.”
People who wish to submit recordings to the research team should visit: http://languageresearch.cambridge.org/index.php/spoken-british-national-...
As children around the country go back to school, a new comparative study of spoken English reveals that we talk about education nearly twice as much as we did twenty years ago.
New stable isotope and ancient DNA analysis of the bones of stored cod provisions recovered from the wreck of the Tudor warship Mary Rose, which sank off the coast of southern England in 1545, has revealed that the fish in the ship’s stores had been caught in surprisingly distant waters: the northern North Sea and the fishing grounds of Iceland – despite England having well developed local fisheries by the 16th century.
Test results from one of the sample bones has led archaeologists to suspect that some of the stored cod came from as far away as Newfoundland in eastern Canada.
The research team say that the findings show how naval provisioning played an important role in the early expansion of the fish trade overseas, and how that expansion helped fuel the growth of the English navy. Commercial exploitation of fish and the growth of naval sea power were “mutually reinforcing aspects of globalisation” in Renaissance Europe, they say.
“The findings contribute to the idea that the demand for preserved fish was exceeding the supply that local English and Irish fisheries were able to provide in order to feed growing – and increasingly urban – populations. We know from these bones that one of the sources of demand was naval provisions,” said Dr James Barrett, from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.
“The existence and development of globalised fisheries was one of the things that made the growth of the navy possible. The navy was a key mechanism of maritime expansion, while at the same time being sustained by that expansion. The story of the cod trade is a microcosm of globalisation during this pivotal period that marked the beginning of an organised English navy, which would go on to become the Royal Navy,” he said.
The study, led by researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Hull and York, is published today in the open access journal Royal Society Open Science.
Built in 1510, the Mary Rose was one of the most famous ships in England, a former flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet, when it mysteriously heeled over and sank in the Solent channel during a battle with an invading French fleet in 1545, taking almost all of its crew – over 400 men – down with it, as well as a full store of provisions. Rediscovered in the 1970s and raised in 1982, the remains are an extraordinary time capsule of naval life during the Tudor period.
Among the remains of the ship’s supplies were thousands of bones from dried or salted cod from casks and baskets – staples of Tudor naval diet. The researchers took a small selection of eleven bones from the various different holds of the ship, and analysed them using two techniques: stable isotope analysis, which reflects the diet and environmental conditions of the fish based on the bone’s protein chemistry, and ancient DNA analysis, which reflects genetic drift, gene flow and natural selection.
Separately, the techniques gave very broad answers, but when cross-referenced with each other and the historical record they provided researchers with increasingly reliable evidence for which waters the cod had been fished from almost 500 years ago.
The best indication for three of the samples was that they were fished in the northern North Sea, possibly the Scottish Northern Isles, where there were known fisheries that produced dried cod preserved in salt.
Another seven of the samples probably came from waters off the cost of Iceland. Due to the cold and dry climate, many Icelanders preserved cod by air-drying it during winter months, a product known as ‘stockfish’, which was frequently traded with the English. English fishermen also worked Icelandic waters themselves, to produce salt cod. At the time, England to Iceland was a three to six month round trip, usually departing in spring and returning in early autumn after a season of trade and/or fishing.
One bone sample appeared to have come from the other side of the Atlantic. While not definitive, the most likely evidence pointed to Newfoundland, an island off the northeast Canadian coast famous for its historical cod fishery. While such distances for fishing may seem surprising for the time, James Barrett says that – as the English Newfoundland fishery had begun in 1502, in the wake of John Cabot’s exploratory voyage of 1497 – this is entirely plausible. French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen also took advantage of this new source of cod.
“At the time of the Mary Rose in 1545, Newfoundland was a small-scale seasonal fishery where mariners went to fish and then come home. Within a century the Newfoundland fishery had become a major economic concern, of greater value than the fur trade, for example,” said Barrett.
“The need for fish stocks was an important driver of involvement in north-eastern North America. The fish trade was one of the key links in the causal chain of European expansion to that continent,” he said. A typical outbound journey time from England to Newfoundland was around five weeks.
Records from just after the time of the Mary Rose show that a standard daily ration of preserved cod was a quarter of a fish served with ship biscuit, two ounces of butter and a gallon of beer. This was dished up three times a week. The bone samples show that these fish could range from approximately 70cm to over a metre in length, so a quarter of cod was a significant portion. “Preserved cod was great value for money as a provision, particularly as space and durability were an issue on board a ship,” said Barrett.
Before the reign of Henry VIII, another driver for the cod fisheries was the fact that fish was a suitable food during Christian fasts such as Lent as an alternative to milk and cheese, and, as Barrett points out, “urban populations didn’t have room for cows in their back yards”.
Once Henry VIII split from the church and the Reformation was ushered in, religious associations with meals of fish started to dissipate, threatening to send England’s fisheries, and subsequently its navy, into decline.
Thus Elizabeth I, Henry’s successor, instigated weekly ‘fish days’ to encourage domestic consumption and consequently a commercial fleet to not only help feed the navy but also ensure a supply of mariners to help run it when needed.
“The importance of ‘victualling’ the navy continued to grow in the seventeenth century, most famously during the Restoration when its administration was systematized under Samuel Pepys,” said Barrett.
“Military sea power was a prerequisite for the concurrent – and subsequent – development of England’s sea-borne colonialism. Yet by sourcing the cod bones from the Mary Rose, we see that the navy itself was first sustained, in part, by fishermen working distant northern and transatlantic waters,” he said.
Arguably the most challenging aspect of the research was creating the historical context, the ‘base map’, for the researchers to compare their Mary Rose specimens to. Due to chemical pollution of the world’s oceans over the last few hundred years, and changes in the genetic structure of cod populations due to fishing pressures and climate change, the team had to find and use ancient cod bones for their study’s comparison controls, as modern cod bones would have been useless.
“Thankfully, when making dried cod, part of the process was chopping the head off,” said Barrett. “This meant we could use skull bones from archaeological sites to get both genetic and isotopic signatures for all these regions. The lion’s share of the work was finding and analysing the over 300 control samples.”
The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, with an accompanying grant from the Fishmongers’ Company, one of the twelve livery companies of the City of London.
Hutchinson WF, et al. 2015 The globalization of naval provisioning: ancient DNA and stable isotope analyses of stored cod from the wreck of the Mary Rose, AD 1545. R. Soc. open sci. 2: 150199. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.150199
New analysis shows warship’s dried fish provisions were sourced from as far away as Icelandic and possibly even transatlantic waters. Researchers show how boom in fishing trade helped fuel the growth of the English navy, and vice versa.
Many animals use the colours and patterns on their bodies to help them blend into the background and avoid the attention of predators. But this strategy, crypsis, is far from perfect. As soon as the animal moves, the camouflage is broken, and it is much easier for a predator to see and catch it. So how do animals protect themselves when they’re on the move?
Researchers are exploring whether high-contrast patterns during motion, such as stripes and zigzags, may be distorting the predator’s perception of where the animal is going. But, as little is known about such “motion dazzle”, we have built an online game to help shed light on it.
Lessons from war
The idea is that it may be more effective for animals to focus on preventing capture, rather then preventing detection or recognition, is actually more than 100 years old. It was naturalist Abbott Thayer who suggested that high-contrast patterns may distort the perceived speed or direction of a moving object, making it harder to track and capture.
Such motion dazzle patterns were actually used in World War I and II, where some ships were painted with black and white geometric patterns in an attempt to reduce the number of successful torpedo attacks from submarines. However, due to many other factors affecting wartime naval losses, it is unclear whether motion dazzle patterns actually had the desired effect.
What about the natural world? Zebras have bold stripes, and scientists have debated the function of their patterns since Darwin’s time. A recent modelling study suggested that when zebras move, their stripes create contradictory signals about their direction of movement that is likely to confuse predators. There are potentially two visual illusions responsible for this, which could form the basis of motion dazzle effects: the wagon wheel effect and the barber pole illusion.
The wagon wheel effect is named after Western movies, where the wheels on wagons often appear to be moving backwards. This is because the visual system takes “snapshots” over time and links them to create a continuous scene, in the same manner as recording film. If a wheel spoke moves forward rapidly between sampling events, it will appear to have moved backwards as it will be misidentified as the following spoke.
The barber pole illusion (also known as the aperture effect) occurs because the moving stripes provide ambiguous information about the true direction of movement. These illusory effects produced by stripes could therefore lead to difficulties in judging the speed and movement of a moving target. However, the zebra study was entirely theoretical and didn’t test whether striped patterns actually affected the judgements of real observers.
Surprisingly, the first experimental tests of the effectiveness of motion dazzle patterns weren’t carried out until recently. Some studies have shown that strikingly patterned targets can be more difficult to catch than targets with other patterns in studies using humans as “predators” playing touch screen computer games. However, other studies have found no clear advantage for motion dazzle patterns So although patterns can affect our perception of movement, it’s still not clear which are most effective at doing so.
We are addressing the question of which patterns are best for avoiding predators during movement using Dazzle Bug– an online game that asks players to imagine themselves as a predator, trying to catch a moving bug as fast as possible. Each bug has a different body pattern as well as a random pattern of movement. Bugs with easy to catch patterns will disappear, whereas those that are particularly tricky to catch will survive ––just like in nature. Over time, the patterns on the bugs' body will evolve so that they become harder to catch with each successive generation.
This citizen science project will allow us to see what patterns are most effective at evading capture. We can then use these results to look at what visual effects these patterns have, and to see whether these patterns match up with those found on real animals in the wild.
Our findings will offer insight into the role of stripes, which are common in many species. While these patterns may have evolved to confuse the visual perception of a predator, they may also be a result of other selection pressures, such as attracting a mate or regulating body temperature. If striped patterns survive and evolve in the game, this would provide strong evidence that these patterns do act to confuse human predators, perhaps by producing the illusions described above. As motion perception seems to be highly conserved across a wide range of populations, these illusions may occur for many other predators too.
If we find that patterns other than stripes – such as speckles, splotches or zigzags – are most effective in preventing capture, this then leads to new and interesting questions about how these patterns may act to confuse or mislead. Whatever the outcome, Dazzle Bug will provide insight into how bodily patterns may have evolved to help animals to survive life on the go.
A new online game is helping researchers explore whether high-contrast patterns during motion, such as stripes and zigzags, help to protect animals from predators.
Owls fly silently: not all species of owl but those species that rely on stealth in hunting small animals. People have known this for hundreds of years but until recently no-one has understood quite how these magical birds manage to swoop undetected on their scurrying prey.
The puzzle of how the wings of certain species of owls are adapted to minimise the sound that their wings make has been solved by a partnership between researchers at the University of Cambridge and two institutions in the USA.
The key to the puzzle lies in the intricate structure of owls’ feathers – and especially the plumage on the trailing edge of their wings.
The researchers have now been able to replicate this structure by producing a prototype surface (patented in 2014) which has potential applications in wind turbines and a wide range of fans. Its use could significantly reduce the noise generated by these products.
An especially promising end-use for the surface is for on-shore wind turbines which are heavily ‘braked’ to reduce noise pollution. The braking makes the turbines less efficient.
The story began in 2010 when Dr Justin Jaworksi, then a researcher in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) at Cambridge University, decided to look in detail at the structure of owls’ wings.
At DAMTP, Jaworski (who is now at Lehigh University) worked with Professor Nigel Peake, a specialist in aeroacoustics known for his work on aircraft, to identify how owls’ wings differed from those of other birds.
They found three key differences. The first difference, unrelated to silent flight, is that owls’ wings are have a serrated leading edge in a way that enables them to plunge steeply downwards and then take off again.
The other two differences combine to enable owls to fly stealthily so that they can hear their prey without it hearing them. “The feathers on the upper wing surface have a particularly detailed and complex micro-structure with layer upon layer of interleaved barbs and hairs,” said Peake.
Much of the noise from wings – whether the wing of bird, plane or fan – originates at the trailing edge where the air passing over the wing surface becomes suddenly turbulent.
Owls have a neat solution to this problem. “At the trailing edge of their wings, owl feathers produce a flexible and porous fringe which reduces air turbulence by smoothing the passage of air,” said Peake.
No other species of bird possesses these features. Even more significantly, species of owl (such as fish owls) not requiring an acoustic stealth advantage do not possess them either.
To understand how the features unique to owl wings contribute to soundlessness, and in order to replicate the surfaces created, Jaworski and Peake have been collaborating with Professors William Devenport at Virginia Tech and Stewart Glegg at Florida Atlantic University in a project funded by the US Office of Naval Research.
“We used advanced mathematical tools in a wind tunnel to show that the role of the fringe on owls’ wings is to negate something called the ‘Flowes Williams and Hall effect’. The porous elastic fringe filaments are a much softer ‘sound scatterer’ than a sharp rigid edge,” said Peake.
The role of the complex feather structure is more of a mystery but the collaborators have been able, to some extent, to replicate its effect in the laboratory. “What appears to be crucial is the way that the fine hairs form a ‘canopy’ perhaps shielding the basal surface of the wing from pressure fluctuations in the turbulent air flow,” said Peake.
"The whole project has been very exciting. We’ve been able to use advanced mathematics to understand an amazing natural phenomenon, which then inspired us to develop a practical engineering solution to a really challenging noise pollution problem."
The intricate structure of owl’s wings was noted more than 300 years ago by Francis Willughby (1635 to 1672), the polymath who compiled one of the world’s first comprehensive and analytical ornithologies. Several species of owl feature in Willughby’s Ornithologia libri tres which was published by his more famous friend and colleague John Ray (1627 to 1705).
Willughby studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where the Wren Library holds a copy of the ornithology he authored. The lavishly produced volume contains dozens of plates showing birds categorised by their characteristics. The accompanying text reveals Willughby’s passionate interest in the wonders of the natural world.
Of the eagle-owl, Willughby writes: “ … in the great feathers of the Wings and Tail distinguished with broad, transverse, blackish lines or bars; which lines are so formed, especially in the Tail, that each of the broader are terminated above and below by other narrower ones, like borders or fringes, disposed in a triple order, and at certain intervals distant from each other, as in Hawks.”
Willughby studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where the Wren Library holds a copy of the ornithology he authored. The lavishly produced volume contains dozens of plates showing birds categorised by their characteristics. The author of the stunning drawings is not recorded.
Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: P is for critters that are part of one of the most significant of all human-animal relationships.
Have you missed the series so far? Catch up on Medium here.
The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, O is for Owl, the researchers using their wing structure to inspire aeroacoustic developments, and the lavish drawings of them found in one of the world's first ornithologies.
New research suggests that offering financial incentives for farming industries to mitigate the impact agriculture has on the environment, by reducing fertiliser use and ‘sparing’ land for conservation, for example, actually has a positive effect on critical areas such as greenhouse gas reduction and increased biodiversity.
It has been a point of contention whether such ‘cash for conservation’ initiatives succeed. For the latest study, researchers aggregated investment in environmental incentives at a national level for the first time, and, by comparing them to broad trends in environmental outcomes, found that paying the agriculture industry to help the environment seems to be working.
However, the research team also mapped the proportion of global agricultural production reinvested in environmental incentives, and compared it to the proportion gifted to the industry through government subsidies. As expressed in pie charts, the results show big wedges of subsidy stacked on top of barely perceptible slivers of environmental investment.
For example, around 20% of the value of agriculture production in the EU is subsidised by the taxpayer. However, less than 1% goes towards mitigating the toll farming takes on the natural world – despite agriculture contributing more to environmental degradation than any other economic sector, say researchers.
The team describe current agriculture funding models as ‘perverse subsidies’: promoting negative actions in both the long and short term by being bad for the environment and costly to the economy.
They argue for a redressing of the massive imbalance between government money spent on farming subsidies, and that spent on lessening the damage farming does to the environment.
Consumption of environmental services, such as water (crop irrigation alone counts for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals), should be taxed, say the researchers, and any subsidies should be paid on the proviso that they are as much for protecting the land as for farming it.
“Our results show that paying farmers to do things that are good for the environment actually seems to work when averaged across national scales,” said lead author Dr Andrew Tanentzap.
“In many parts of the world, governments already provide huge subsidies to the agriculture industry; if we are paying people to be farmers, part of that payment – indeed, part of the job of a farmer – needs to be protecting the countryside as well as farming it,” he said. “We need a shift in what it means to be a farmer.”
The work, conducted by researchers from Cambridge University’s departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology, is published today in the open access journal PLOS Biology.
While national data for environmental performance is limited and difficult to quantify, the research team were able to plot investment in two key agri-environment schemes, land ‘retirement’ for conservation and limiting fertiliser use, against national trends for farmland bird populations and emissions from synthetic fertiliser across landmasses including the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.
They found that, broadly speaking, higher national investment in these environmentally-friendly incentive schemes over a five-year period correlated with increased levels of bird biodiversity and lower rates of gas emissions from farming.
“There’s controversy around whether such environmental incentives actually work at a local scale. What we’ve done is average out the local effects to pull out what’s happening on a very large scale, and it looks like there are benefits to paying farmers to be kinder to the environment,” said Tanentzap.
However, Tanentzap points out that paying farmers to be more environmentally-friendly won’t solve the problem of food security, and if these schemes reduce crop yields it may result in increased production elsewhere: “displacing the impacts that we are paying some farmers to mitigate”. He says that, in the worst cases, this results in further land being sucked into the agricultural churn.
“A result of many agri-environment schemes is the spreading out – or ‘sharing’ – of land for both farming and the natural environment. A lot of research, much of it driven by conservation scientists here in Cambridge, shows that this is less effective than simply removing the land from production – ‘sparing’ it for conservation.”
“The most logical solution would be to intensify production on existing lands, trying to minimise environmental impacts with regulations, incentives for good environmental performance, or consumption taxes, while protecting land elsewhere for conservation,” Tanentzap said.
The researchers say that tackling the huge disparity between government subsidies and environmental incentives needs to be the first step in reducing conflict between agriculture and the natural environment, something they say has traditionally been difficult to achieve because of the power behind agri-food lobbies.
They write that while governments continue to subsidise production and famers are not accountable for the costs of their actions because associated penalties are trivial, damaging the environment will remain highly financially lucrative – with devastating consequences.
However, simply removing subsidies alone fails to reduce environmental harm, and incentives for better farming practices are still required. In the paper, researchers look at the case of New Zealand, where there are no subsidies or mitigation schemes, and much of the country has been transformed into a massive dairy farm for China as a result, says Tanentzap.
“Subsidies for production date from the post-war era, when feeding a booming population was paramount. Food security is, of course, still a major issue as populations continue to rise, but there are ways to deliver this without destroying the planet,” Tanentzap said.
“If the agriculture industry is to be subsidised, then paying farmers to protect the environment – rather than just stripping as much use from the land as possible – is something our study has shown to be effective, and something the natural world is in dire need of.”
Tanentzap AJ, Lamb A, Walker S, Farmer A (2015) Resolving Conflicts between Agriculture and the Natural Environment. PLoS Biol 13(9): e1002242. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002242
First analysis of effectiveness of agri-environment schemes measured at a national level suggests that they work, but are still a drop in the ocean compared to huge government subsidies received by farming industries for environmentally damaging practices.
A new study conducted in collaboration with Facebook using anonymised data from the social networking site shows a correlation between people’s social and financial status, and the levels of internationalism in their friendship networks – with those from higher social classes around the world having fewer friends outside of their own country.
Despite the fact that, arguably, people from higher social classes should be better positioned to travel and meet people from different countries, researchers found that, when it comes to friendship networks, people from those groups had lower levels of internationalism and made more friends domestically than abroad.
Researchers say that their results are in line with what’s known as the ‘restricting social class’ hypothesis: that high-social class individuals have greater resources, and therefore depend less on others – with the wealthy tending to be less socially engaged, particularly with those from groups other than their own, as a result.
The research team, from the Prosociality and Well-Being Lab in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, conducted two studies – one local and one global, with the global study using a dataset of billions of Facebook friendships – and the results from both supported the idea of restricting social class.
However, the researchers say the fact that those of lower social status tend to have more international connections demonstrates how low-social class people “may actually stand to benefit most from a highly international and globalised social world”.
“The findings point to the possibility that the wealthy stay more in their own social bubble, but this is unlikely to be ultimately beneficial. If you are not engaging internationally then you will miss out on that international resource – that flow of new ideas and information,” said co-author Dr Aleksandr Spectre, who heads up the lab.
“The results could also be highlighting a mechanism of how the modern era might facilitate a closing of the inequality gap, as those from lower social classes take advantage of platforms like Facebook to increase their social capital beyond national borders,” he said.
For the first study, the ‘local’, the team recruited 857 people in the United States and asked them to self-report their perceived social status (from working to upper class on a numerical scale), as well as an objective indicator in the form of annual household income. The volunteers also provided researchers access to their Facebook networks.
The results from the first study indicated that low-social class people have nearly 50% more international friends than high-social class people.
For the second study, the ‘global’, the team approached Facebook directly, who provided data on every friendship formed over the network in every country in the world at the national aggregate level for 2011. All data was anonymous. The dataset included over 57 billion friendships.
The research team quantified social class on a national level based on each country’s economic standing by using gross domestic product (GDP) per capita data for 2011 as published by the World Bank.
After controlling for as many variables as they were able, the researchers again found a negative correlation between social class – this time on a national level – and the percentage of Facebook friends from other countries. For people from low-social class countries, 35% of their friendships on average were international, compared to 28% average in high-social class countries.
The findings from the two studies provide support for the restricting social class hypothesis on both a local and a global level, say the researchers. The results are contained in a new paper, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
“Previous research by others has highlighted the value of developing weak ties to people in distant social circles, because they offer access to resources not likely to be found in one’s immediate circle. I find it encouraging that low-social class people tend to have greater access to these resources on account of having more international friendships,” said co-author Maurice Yearwood.
“From a methodological perspective, this combination of micro and macro starts to build a very interesting initial story. These are just correlations at the moment, but it’s a fascinating start for this type of research going forward,” Yearwood said.
Spectre says that the high levels of Facebook usage and sheer size of the network makes it a “pretty good proxy for your social environment”. “The vast majority of Facebook friendships are ones where people have met in person and engaged with each other, a lot of the properties you find in Facebook friendship networks will strongly mirror everyday life,” he said.
“We are entering an era with big data and social media where we can start to ask really big questions and gain answers to them in a way we just couldn’t do before. I think this research is a good example of that, I don’t know how we could even have attempted this work 10 years ago,” Spectre said.
The latest work is the first output of ongoing research collaborations between Spectre’s lab in Cambridge and Facebook, a company he commends for its “scientific spirit”. “Having the opportunity to work with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google should be something that’s hugely exciting to the academic community,” he said.
Yearwood, M. H., Cuddy, A., Lamba, N., Youyou, W., van der Lowe, I., Piff, P., Gronin, C., Fleming, P., Simon-Thomas, E., Keltner, D., & Spectre, A. (2015). On wealth and the diversity of friendships: High social class people around the world have fewer international friends. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 224-229. DOI: doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.040
New study using Facebook network data, including a dataset of over 57 billion friendships, shows correlation between higher social class and fewer international friendships. Researchers say results support ideas of ‘restricting social class’ among wealthy, but show that lower social classes are taking advantage of increased social capital beyond national borders.