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    The findings, drawn from research developed across the University of Cambridge and presented to journalists, politicians and lawmakers, as well as representatives of faith communities, found Britain’s Muslim communities – fragmented and often uncomfortable with the media – to be ill-equipped to counter negative narratives with more balanced reporting.

    “Can we have freedom and security at the same time?” said Roxane Farmanfarmaian, lead scholar on the ESRC project and principal at the Centre of the International Studies of the Middle East and North Africa (CIRMENA). “And how do we balance the right to speak and think freely with the protections necessary for a life without fear?

    “In January 2015, the attack on Charlie Hebdo brought into focus how vulnerable the relationship is between free speech and the security of the societies in which we live. Fulfilling its responsibilities to its citizens, the government enacted laws to suppress extremist activity, clamp down on radicalisation and protect British values. This included ‘vocal opposition to British values’. Does this mean protecting a key universal right has in fact restricted it?”

    The Rt Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Home Office Minister on the Counter-Extremism Strategy, highlighted the significance of the research for government and his intention to share it with officials across government, including immigration ministers and ministers within the Department of Media, Culture and Sport.

    Roundtable attendees discussed ways to protect freedom of speech in religious contexts, promote integration, and further the successes of multiculturalism. The discussion developed ten points for joint action by policymakers and the media.  These range from appointing a celebrity role model as a Muslim Media Relations officer, to creating community relations reporters in minority communities (see below).

    These points, and the findings, were reported as part of growing coverage on the worrying rise in media interpretations of Islamophobia, public disaffection and Islamic community isolation in The Independent  and al-Jazeera Online English.

    The Roundtable was organized by CIRMENA, in partnership with Cambridge’s the Woolf Institute and the Centre of Islamic Studies, and made possible through the support of an ESRC Impact Acceleration Action Programme Grant..

    A Home Office network, as part of the Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy linking individuals and groups standing up to extremism in their communities, will draw on findings from this research.

    Ten recommended action points:

    • To stem the slide toward an increasingly divided society, establish a consulting forum led by media and government to facilitate professional communications practices for mosque leaderships, neighbourhood centres, charities, schools and other minority group institutions. The goal:  to enable them effectively to promote, and publish more balanced narratives about their communities.
    • Appoint a well-recognized figure (for example, a celebrity role model) as a Muslim Media Relations Officer to encourage contextual awareness  and media education surrounding minority group issues and perspectives; the position would be responsible for representing the multiple viewpoints necessary to serve as an effective  spokesperson for the Muslim community as a whole. The Muslim Media Relations Officer would be a member of the consulting forum (see above).
    • Encourage media employment of ‘community relations’ reporters as specialist correspondents (much like political, financial and health editors), to improve the balance in reportage on faith and other minority affairs. The remit should include, 1. Improving domestic awareness of counter-narratives, 2. Bettering understanding of how global events shape British responses to local communities, 3. Enhancing comprehension of the connections between local (diaspora) communities and their countries of origin, including the sharing of discourses, entertainment preferences and ideological attitudes.
    • Build media resources within minority communities that actively encourage capacity building, and that can provide tools, such as media training programmes. The goal: to engage community members, especially youths, in developing skills for effective media planning, and interaction.
    • Encourage trusts, foundations and other civil society and mainstream opinion-forming organizations to partner with and include Muslim and other minority representatives, especially women.
    • Actively support all affirmative engagement with majority community values through positive role models the Muslim community can identify with.
    • Promote opportunities for Muslim role models to provide inspiration to minority groups, including youth and women.
    • Support British media productions (drama series, soap operas, documentaries, films, talk shows, game shows, reality TV and other entertainments) that feature minority figures and local minority group issues. The goal:  to raise the competitive edge of British output vis-à-vis the consumption needs of this audience, and increase the visibility of British, over country-of-origin, media offerings.
    • Encourage clear definitions of radicalisation (as terminology) to be circulated within the law enforcement and security agencies, and put in place guidelines to protect individuals from agency profiling.  
    • Assign minority group coverage to non-minority reporters and editors, so as to broaden awareness and avoid ‘ghettoisation’ of minority coverage. Develop and promote context-sensitive awareness and language use among staff. 

    Mainstream media reporting about Muslim communities is contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards Muslims in Britain, according to a University of Cambridge/ESRC Roundtable held at the House of Lords.

    The attack on Charlie Hebdo brought into focus how vulnerable the relationship is between free speech and the security of the societies in which we live.
    Roxane Farmanfarmaian
    Freedom of Speech by Ahdieh Ashrafi via Flickr

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    The Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky sat for just one portrait in his lifetime. He was painted by Vasily Perov, an artist whose exquisite sketches conveyed some of the harshness of the imperial regime. Perov shows Dostoevsky wrapped in a heavy woollen coat, his slender frame almost lost in its mouse-grey folds. The writer’s hands are clasped and his eyes are downcast. The survivor of a decade of imprisonment, exile and hard labour, Dostoevsky had suffered unthinkable pain yet lived to write novels that continue to enthral.  

    Perov was commissioned to paint Dostoevsky by the industrialist Pavel Tretyakov, founder of Moscow’s famous Tretyakov Gallery. Tretyakov was responsible for encouraging a generation of Russian artists with purchases and commissions of work that reflect the rumblings of pre-revolutionary Russia. In 1892 Pavel Tretyakov donated his entire gallery to the city of Moscow, a move of stunning generosity that prompted further investment in the arts.

    Until 26 June, visitors to London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) are able to gaze into the faces of some of Russia’s foremost writers, composers and dramatists – including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, Turgenev and Chekhov.  The 26 portraits, on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery and the majority seen for the first time outside Russia, were selected for Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky by Rosalind Blakesley, a trustee of the NPG and, from October 2016, Head of the Department of History of Art at Cambridge.

    Blakesley is also author of a forthcoming book which, in looking at a neglected era in Russian painting, is set to recalibrate our understanding of Russian history of art. The Russian Canvas is a scholarly yet highly readable account of painting in imperial Russia from 1757 to 1881, a period that saw the country’s artistic movers and shakers explore and develop a distinctively Russian identity – and, in many cases, outperform its European neighbours in the range and quality of its creative output.

    The exhibition Russia and the Arts is the culmination of five years’ work to bring to London some of the legendary figures in the arts who defined Russia between the 1860s and the start of the First World War, a period when growing discontent developed into full-scale revolution.

    In an exchange, the NPG has sent some of its famous artworks to the Tretyakov to be enjoyed by the Russian public. Among the portraits to have travelled east are paintings of Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Darwin and, on the 400th anniversary of his death, a priceless portrayal of Shakespeare.  Known as the Chandos portrait, it was the very first work to enter the collections of the NPG.   

    Opened in March, Russia and the Arts struck an immediate chord with a British public already awakened to an interest in all things Russian by the success of the BBC’s acclaimed televising of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The exhibition is seeing twice the anticipated visitor numbers, with up to 900 people attending each day – and has benefited from enthusiastic press coverage. The catalogue, with colour plates of all the exhibits set within a beautifully illustrated account of the development of portraiture in Imperial Russia, had to be reprinted within just a few weeks of the opening of the show.

    In staging the exhibition Blakesley’s motivation is twofold. Ever since school, she has been passionately interested in the language and culture of Russia. She hopes to “give something back” to the UK’s Russian community as well as to many scholars and art historians in Russia who have long supported her work. Most importantly, she wants to bring to public attention the phenomenal talent of the artists whose work is held by the Tretyakov Gallery but who tend to be overshadowed in western understanding by the work of Russian avant-garde artists such as Malevich and Kandinsky.

    Too often under-recognised outside Russia, the artists whose masterful work features in Russia and the Arts range from Perov, whose studies of Russian peasants (not on show but reproduced in the catalogue) convey the grinding poverty of the Russian countryside, to Valentin Serov whose painterly style embodies the best of Russian impressionism.

    Male portraits predominate. Among the most striking are Repin’s study of the composer Modest Mussorgsky, captured in a mood of defiant brilliance in hospital less than a fortnight before his death, and Perov’s portrait of the philologist Vladimir Dal, whose haunted eyes shine with enquiry. Dal was a tireless collector of Russian proverbs, folksongs and fairy tales.

    Just six of the portraits on display at the NPG are of women. Perhaps the most arresting is Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia’s portrayal of Anna Akhmatova whose poetry, in giving voice to the horrors of the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes, led to her persecution. The portrait of Akhmatova is shown next to that of her then husband Nikolai Gumilev, painted by the same artist. The couple, whose marriage became a casualty of long separations, are united by the way in which Della-Vos-Kardovskaia captures their languid beauty and sense of solemn composure.

    Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas has been some seven years in the making. The book takes as its starting point the foundation of the Russian Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in 1757, almost a full decade before the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768. In meticulous detail, Blakesley reveals the powerful part that the Russian Academy played in the development of a flourishing arts scene that looked first to western Europe for its inspiration before turning to the traditions of Russia itself.

    In telling the extraordinary story of the first century of the Academy, Blakesley upturns the claim of the Soviet era that the institution was exclusive and elitist. Early on, professors were recruited from France and students enlisted in their teens after training elsewhere. However, in 1764, in something akin to a social experiment, the Academy opened its own boarding school which took pupils as young as five years old, retaining them until their graduation at the age of 21.

    Boys (until 1873 they were all boys) were enlisted from various ranks of a highly stratified society. Some were drawn from the lower ranks of the nobility but many were the sons of soldiers, tradesmen or even serfs, born into a class of indentured poor. Pupils were provided with uniforms and followed a rigorous curriculum. Parents were obliged to agree not to withdraw their sons from the Academy until they had completed the course, and pupils were shielded from contact with members of the lower orders who might tarnish their character. Conditions were so harsh, and the accommodation so bitterly cold, that in a ten-year period in the late 18th century, 73 of the school’s 380 young artists-in-training died.

    While history painting – the depiction of epic scenes of historical, biblical or mythological content – was seen initially by the Academy as the supreme test of an artist’s skill, portraiture soon came to the fore. Portraitists to emerge from the Academy, either directly or indirectly, include many of those whose work informs the exhibition Russia and the Arts. Orest Kiprensky, whose bold self-portrait features in the catalogue, was the illegitimate son of a landowner and one of his serfs. Kiprensky entered the Academy boarding school at the age of six and became one of its star students.

    Also on show in London is Ivan Kramskoy’s thoughtful painting of the actor Alexander Lensky as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The hot-headed Kramskoy, who studied at the Academy as a young man, led ‘the Revolt of the Fourteen’, in which a group of artists protested their right to choose subjects suited to their own artistic temperament rather than work within set parameters. Blakesley shows that too much has been made of this supposed schism, which in fact did not witness the battle lines drawn up as sharply as many commentators have assumed.

    Blakesley is a fearless investigator and tireless teller of human stories. In researching the exhibition Russia and the Arts and her book The Russian Canvas, she ventured into national and regional archives that have remained unexplored for many years. What she found, in official records and private correspondence, prompted her to challenge accepted narratives. In bringing the work of often overlooked eras of Russian creativity to public attention, she shines a welcome light on the phenomenal talent on Europe’s doorstep, and reminds us of just one of many aspects of Russia’s remarkable cultural heritage that is all too quickly overlooked amid the current political concerns.

    Inset images: Vladimir I Dal by Vasily Perov (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow); Pavel M Tretyakov by Ilia Repin (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

    An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery features paintings of some of Russia’s legendary creative figures. Russia and the Arts, which draws attention to a generation of overlooked artists, is curated by Dr Rosalind P Blakesley. This month also sees the launch of Blakesley’s new book, The Russian Canvas, a work set to expand our understanding of a century of painting through periods of remarkable social and political change.

    Blakesley reveals the powerful part that the Russian Academy played in the development of a flourishing arts scene that looked first to western Europe for its inspiration before turning to the traditions of Russia itself.
    Mussorgsky (Ilia Repin), Akhmatova (Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia) and Dostoevsky (Vasily Perov)

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    As part of its 600th anniversary, the University Library has put on display some of its greatest treasures in the blockbuster exhibition Lines of Thought: Discoveries that Changed the World.

    To celebrate the anniversary and the exhibition, which runs until September 30, 2016, the University Library has made a series of six short films, each examining one of the six key themes of Lines of Thought.

    On the Shoulders of Giants – Understanding Gravity covers three centuries of development in human understanding of how and why gravity operates.

    Beginning with Copernicus and a first-edition copy of his iconic De Revolutionibus, Understanding Gravity looks at his first formative ideas of a sun-centred (heliocentric) universe.

    Adam Perkins, Curator of Scientific Manuscripts at the University Library, said: “It’s essential to have Copernicus’ idea to create what we know today about the solar system. But we also have on display other, later objects in the exhibition – such as Tyco Brahe’s De Nova Stella – which tried to keep the Earth at the centre of the solar system. However, Johannes Kepler, Brahe’s pupil, immediately rejected the ideas in De Nova Stella and went back to Copernicus’ sun-centred solar system.”

    Perhaps the star of Understanding Gravity, and Lines of Thought as a whole, is Newton’s copy of Principia.

    Although earlier minds had challenged the view that the earth was the centre of the solar system, it was the work of Sir Isaac Newton, second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, which firmly established that the planets revolved around the sun, and that gravity was the force which controlled this.

    “Its publication in 1687 inspired a scientific revolution and laid the foundations of modern physics,” said Perkins.  “The bulk of Newton’s scientific manuscripts came to Cambridge in 1872, where they continue to be the focus of global scholarly activity.”

    Although Newton was able to posit the existence of gravity, he was unable to explain how it functioned and it fell to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to suggest a solution, with proof coming from Trinity College mathematicians Frank Dyson and Arthur Eddington.

    Cambridge physicists and mathematicians including Stephen Hawking and Jocelyn Bell have continued to grapple with the implications of Newton and Einstein’s work in order to explain better the universe around us.

    To celebrate Lines of Thought, Cambridge University Library commissioned a once-in-a-lifetime photo of Professor Stephen Hawking and Newton’s copy of Principia, shot in Professor Hawking’s office at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Cambridge. Lines of Thought has also put on display Hawking’s typescript draft of A Brief History of Time – the worldwide bestseller which was first published in 1988.

    Added Perkins: “Hawking sees his own theoretical work as part of a continuum of the ideas going back across the great founding fathers of modern science, many of whom we have on display at the moment.

    “Well over 200 scientists have deposited their papers in Cambridge which has given us a world-class treasure. Lines of Thought has given us the opportunity to share these treasures with people around the world as we celebrate 600 years of Cambridge University Library.”

    The most important publication in the history of science – Isaac Newton’s own annotated copy of Principia Mathematica – and other seminal works by Copernicus, Einstein and Stephen Hawking, feature in a new film, released today, celebrating 600 years of Cambridge University Library.

    Principia's publication in 1687 inspired a scientific revolution and laid the foundations of modern physics.
    Adam Perkins
    Priceless treasures: in a shot commissioned to celebrate Cambridge University Library’s 600th anniversary, Professor Stephen Hawking is pictured with Newton’s annotated first edition of Principia Mathematica. Credit: Graham CopeKoga

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    On 7 January 1628, a fleet of ships weighed anchor off the coast of Kent and set sail for the Mediterranean. As fleets go, this one was small. It comprised just two vessels – the Eagle and the Elizabeth and George– fitted out for war. Aboard were around 250 men, overseen by carefully selected mariners, and some 200 barrels of gunpowder imported from Amsterdam. The mission of crew and captains was simple: to vanquish England’s enemies and return laden with prizes.

    In command of the two vessels was 24-year-old Kenelm Digby, a man whose naval experience was slight. His seafaring was confined to being a passenger but Digby was a believer in the power of books, and he had just the right volume in his pocket. From a stall in London’s St Pauls’ churchyard, he had purchased John Smith’s A Sea-Grammar. If nothing else, it provided a guide to the wonderful terminology of seafaring with its belays, bonits and Drablers – and Digby was a fast learner.

    Digby was a man of many parts: he was a privateer (or state-sponsored pirate), compiler of recipes, assimilator of foreign tongues (“a great student of the Arabicke language”), collector of objects (antiquities of every kind), thinker and doer. In his extensive writing, and experiments in kitchens and laboratories, he embraced philosophy and alchemy, science and magic, food and flavours.

    On his death aged 62 in 1665, Digby left behind a library of several thousand books, countless letters and journals, and a fictionalised account of his adventures in elaborately flowery style. On the Greek island of Milos, scribbling furiously and barely eating for a week, he wrote Loose Fantasies, recasting himself as a romance hero in the shape of Theagenes, a character lifted from classical literature.

    Drawing these sources together, Joe Moshenka (Faculty of English) has produced a masterful narrative – a blend of biography, history and imaginative reconstruction – that focuses in gripping detail on Digby’s foray into the cultural melting pot of the Mediterranean world. A Stain in the Blood: the Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digbyis the first book to dig deep into the story of an adventurer who, quintessentially English yet endlessly curious, personifies an era when seafaring was opening up routes into boundless possibilities and exotic goods of every shape and form.   

    Sailing south in January 1628, Digby left behind a beloved wife and two sons, the youngest just a few weeks old. He was a man on the make. Despite being well-connected and highly educated, he had a black mark against his name. His father, Everard Digby, had been hung for treason against the crown. Revealed to be a co-conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, Everard was subjected to the most grisly of executions. In front of approving crowds, his heart was ripped out and his genitals sliced off.

    Everard Digby maintained his dignity right up to the moment he lost consciousness. He professed that he “deserved the vilest death” and made an impassioned plea that wife and sons not be punished for his crime. Everard’s fortitude became legendary but his family lived with a sense of disgrace. The blood stain in the title of Moshenska’s book is a reference to a wound cut deep into a man with an extraordinary thirst for knowledge and experiences.

    Seventeenth century England was layered in complexity. Raised as a gentleman and a Roman Catholic in a country that had officially broken its ties with Rome, Kenelm Digby learned early on to tread a delicate line between faith, politics and expediency. As a practising Catholic student at Oxford, he was unable to “weare a gowne” (matriculate) and each November endured the bonfire celebrations that reminded him of his father’s death. But Digby had friends in high places and the means to travel.

    Trips to Europe, the first when he was aged just 14, helped Digby to develop the worldly ease and diplomatic skills so vital to him later in life. In Italy, his nimble mind won admiration in philosophical debates. In France, his handsomeness gained the (embarrassing) attention from the older and powerful Queen Regent. Visiting Spain, he socialised with the future Charles I – and became dangerously entangled in negotiations for a royal marriage bringing two disparate nations together.

    The single voyage that allowed Digby to establish himself as a loyal subject was almost derailed by those who sought to discredit him as papist. The 1620s saw England engaged in an expensive war with its Roman Catholic neighbours. When he finally got the commission he sought from the king, it gave him permission to sail wherever he chose and to take as prizes any ships belonging to enemies of England. He was empowered to undertake any action “tending to the service of the realm and the increase of his knowledge”.

    A conveniently vague brief was just what Digby needed. Entering the Mediterranean, he moved dizzyingly from adventure to adventure. Half his crew perished from a “violent pestilential disease” which erupted at ghastly speed. Forced to put in at Algiers, his filthy ships were scoured and replacement crew recruited. Digby hobnobbed with local dignitaries, and feasted on partridges and “Melons of marveilous goodnesse”. Ever mindful of his reputation, he negotiated the freedom of 50 English slaves, some of the many Europeans incarcerated in warehouses filled with human chattels.

    Digby’s big moment came when he reached the easternmost shore of the Mediterranean.  In the Bay of Scanderoon, gateway to the city of Aleppo, he surprised fleets of Venetian and French ships in an audacious attack. The famously agile Venetian galleases (which were guarding French ships laden with pieces of eight) were forced to admit defeat. The French hurriedly ferried their cargo ashore. But, surveying the damage his men had done, Digby was able to claim a glorious victory, one that he richly-embroidered in the fictional account of his venture.

    Warfare, and the need to prove himself on a world stage, was only one strand of Digby’s character: he was also an inveterate foodie. Bobbing in the wake of his protagonist, Moshenska takes us into cosmopolitan Mediterranean ports brimming scents and flavours – and introduces the chefs of Algiers who engineered crazy confections made in sugar. Ashore in Turkey, on respite from command, Digby hunted “wilde boare” with “the countrie people”. That night, they settled by a roaring fire to feast on “goates, sheepe, hens, milke, egges, mellons, and bread baked as thinne as strong paper”.

    For a man given to pondering the relationship between body and soul, the rich mix of faiths and ethnicities was enthralling. Digby reflected delightedly that his crew included “French, Venetians, Lygononces, Savoyardes, Greekes, Slavononians, Maltoses and Dutch”. He was fascinated by the shape-shifting Ambo-Dexters and Nulli-fidians who swapped religions on a whim. The same adaptability smoothed his own passage into the spaces that had fired his imagination in England, where he had immersed himself in stories of the Bible and classical world.  

    Insatiable English hunger for the antiquities of Greek and Roman civilisations spurred Digby to add chunks of architecture to the treasure in his holds. Anchoring at the island of Delos, and finding it deserted, he was able to “avayle myself of the convenience of carrying away” a great many marbles, rolling the stones down to the shore. The largest objects were more problematic. When Digby’s entire crew of 300 men failed to shift one large piece, he devised a mechanism using the “mastes of ships” to lever it aboard. Displayed in a London warehouse, these looted prizes earned the approbation of the king.

    Digby had many loves – but the greatest was his wife Venetia Stanley. They met when Digby was aged 14 and Venetia three years older. Both had shadows over their names; they married in secret to avoid gossip about Venetia’s supposed impropriety with other suitors. When Venetia died, Digby was inconsolable, turning to alchemy and beset by tumultuous thoughts. He lived for a while in Paris where he wandered the streets “with his beard down to his middle” accompanied by a large dog on a leash.

    Returning to England, Digby became involved in politics once more. Denounced as ringleader of a plot to advance popery, he was briefly imprisoned – but managed to persuade the authorities to allow him access to a small laboratory where he (allegedly) made “artificiall pretious stones … out of Flints”. His mind ever active, he wrote “a total survey of the whole science of Bodyes”, cramming more than 200 pages with theories and memories. He counted among his friends some of the most famous figures of the era – Ben Jonson, Thomas Hobbes and Anthony Van Dyck – and late in life formed an unlikely friendship with Oliver Cromwell.

    As much as it exults in daring exploits, A Stain in the Blood is much more than a riveting account of 17th-century derring-do. English literature, not history, is Moshenska’s primary field: he unravels the fanciful prose of Digby’s writing, and the books he absorbed, to show us what shaped a man who saw no barriers to learning or discovery. Moshenska opens up for us a world in constant flux – a place where ships sail on a “high popping sea”, sweet scents drift on the breeze, and “wyld beastes” roam the land.

    A Stain in the Blood: the Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby by Joe Moshenska is published by William Heinemann. An event to launch the book will take place at Heffers (20 Trinity Street, Cambridge CB2 1TY) on Wednesday 4 May at 6.30pm. To book

    Inset images: Map of Algiers from Civitate orbis terrarum (Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge); Venetia Digby on her deathbed, by Anthony van Dyck (By permissions of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Library, London).

    A dark shadow lay over his family name when, aged 24, Sir Kenelm Digby raised a fleet to sail against the enemy French in the multicultural world of the Mediterranean. In his new book, Joe Moshenska (Faculty of English) looks at the intellectual, political and culinary life of a man driven by a thirst for knowledge.

    Forced to put in at Algiers, his filthy ships were scoured and replacement crew recruited. Digby hobnobbed with local dignitaries, and feasted on partridges and “Melons of marveilous goodnesse”.

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    An international team of astronomers has discovered three planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star just 40 light years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and may be the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the Solar System. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

    Using the TRAPPIST telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla Observatory in Chile, the astronomers observed the star 2MASS J23062928-0502285, now also known as TRAPPIST-1, and located in the Aquarius constellation. They found that this dim and cool star faded slightly at regular intervals, indicating that several objects were transiting, or passing between the star and the Earth. Detailed analysis showed that three planets with similar sizes to the Earth were present.

    TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star — much cooler and redder than the Sun and barely larger than Jupiter. Such stars are very common in the Milky Way and very long-lived, but this is the first time that planets have been found around one of them. Despite being so close to the Earth, this star is too dim and too red to be seen with the naked eye or even with a large amateur telescope.

    “The discovery of a planetary system around such a small star opens up a brand new avenue for research,” said Professor Didier Queloz from the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, the paper’s senior author. “Before this discovery it was not at all clear whether such a small star could host an Earth-sized planet. Nobody had seriously studied it, but now that’s likely to change.”

    “Systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology,” said the paper’s lead author Michaël Gillon, from the University of Liège in Belgium. “So if we want to find life elsewhere in the Universe, this is where we should start to look.”

    Astronomers will search for signs of life by studying the effect that the atmosphere of a transiting planet has on the light reaching Earth. For Earth-sized planets orbiting stars similar to our Sun this tiny effect is swamped because of the large size ratio between the planet and the star. Only for the case of faint red ultra-cool dwarf stars — like TRAPPIST-1 — is this effect big enough to be detected.

    Follow-up observations with larger telescopes have shown that the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 have sizes very similar to Earth. Two of the planets complete an orbit of the star in 1.5 days and 2.4 days respectively, and the third planet has a less well determined orbital period in the range of 4.5 to 73 days.

    “With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun,” said Gillon. “The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System.”

    Although they orbit very close to their host dwarf star, the inner two planets only receive four and two times, respectively, the amount of radiation received by the Earth, because their star is much fainter than the Sun. That puts them closer to the star than the habitable zone for this system. The third, outer, planet’s orbit is not yet well known – it probably receives less radiation than the Earth does, but perhaps still enough to lie within the habitable zone.

    The next generation of giant telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Telescope due to launch in 2018, will allow researchers to study the atmospheric composition of these planets and to explore them first for water, and then for traces of biological activity.

    “While this is not the first time that planets have been found in the habitable zone of a star, the TRAPPIST-1 system provides humanity with our first opportunity to remotely explore Earth-like environments and empirically determine their suitability for life,” said study co-author Dr Amaury Triaud from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. “Because the system contains many planets, we will even be able to compare the climates of each to one another and to the Earth’s.”

    This work opens up a new direction for exoplanet hunting, as around 15% of the stars near to the Sun are ultra-cool dwarf stars, and it also serves to highlight that the search for exoplanets has now entered the realm of potentially habitable cousins of the Earth. The TRAPPIST survey is a prototype for a more ambitious project called SPECULOOS that will be installed at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

    Michaël Gillon et al. ‘Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star.’ Nature (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nature17448

    ​Adapted from an ESO press release. 

    Three Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a dim and cool star, and may be the best place to search for life beyond the Solar System.

    The discovery of a planetary system around such a small star opens up a brand new avenue for research.
    Didier Queloz
    Artist’s impression of the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 from the surface of one of its planets.

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    Sudden oak death – caused by Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen related to potato blight – has killed millions of trees over hundreds of square kilometres of forest in California. First detected near San Francisco in 1995, it spread north through coastal California, devastating the region’s iconic oak and tanoak forests. In 2002 a strain of the pathogen appeared in the south west of England, affecting shrubs but not oaks, since English species of oak are not susceptible. In 2009 the UK strain started killing larch – an important tree crop – and has since spread widely across the UK.

    In a study published today in PNAS, researchers from the University of Cambridge have used mathematical modelling to show that stopping or even slowing the spread of P. ramorum in California is now not possible, and indeed has been impossible for a number of years.

    Treating trees with chemicals is not practical or cost-effective on the scales that would be necessary for an established forest epidemic. Currently the only option for controlling the disease is to cut down infected trees, together with neighbouring trees that are likely to be infected but may not yet show symptoms. “By comparing the performance of a large number of potential strategies, modelling can tell us where and how to start chopping down trees to manage the disease over very large areas,” explains Dr Nik Cunniffe, lead author from Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences.

    The authors say that preventing the disease from spreading to large parts of California could have been possible if management had been started in 2002. Before 2002 not enough was known about the pathogen to begin managing the disease. Their modelling also offers new strategies for more effectively controlling inevitable future epidemics.

    In close liaison with colleagues from DEFRA and the Forestry Commission, models developed in Cambridge are already an integral part of the management programme for the P. ramorum epidemic in the UK. The models are used to predict where the disease is likely to spread, how it can be effectively detected and how control strategies can be optimised.

    Sudden oak death is known to affect over one hundred species of tree and shrub, presenting a significant risk to the biodiversity of many ecosystems. The death of large numbers of trees also exacerbates the fire risk in California when fallen trees are left to dry out. There is now concern that the disease may spread to the Appalachian Mountains, putting an even larger area of trees at risk.

    “Our study is the first major retrospective analysis of how the sudden oak death epidemic in California could have been managed, and also the first to show how to deal with a forest epidemic of this magnitude,” explains Cunniffe.

    “Even if huge amounts of money were to be invested to stop the epidemic starting today, the results of our model show this cannot lead to successful control for any plausible management budget. We therefore wanted to know whether it could have been contained if a carefully-optimised strategy had been introduced sooner. Our model showed that, with a very high level of investment starting in 2002, the disease could not have been eradicated, but its spread could have been slowed and the area affected greatly reduced.”

    The model also indicates how policymakers might better plan and deploy control when future epidemics emerge.

    “It is a tool by which we can make a better job next time, because it is inevitable that there will be a next time,” says Professor Chris Gilligan, senior author and also from the Department of Plant Sciences. “With this sort of epidemic there will always be more sites to treat than can be afforded. Our model shows when and where control is most effective at different stages throughout a developing epidemic so that resources can be better targeted.”

    “It can be tempting for authorities to start cutting down trees at the core of the infected area, but for this epidemic our research shows that this could be the worst thing to do, because susceptible vegetation will simply grow back and become infected again,” explains Cunniffe.

    Cunniffe, Gilligan and colleagues found that instead treating the ‘wave-front’ – on and ahead of the epidemic in the direction that disease is spreading – is a more effective method of control. They also found that ‘front-loading’ the budget to treat very heavily and earlier on in the epidemic would greatly improve the likelihood of success.

    “Unlike other epidemic models, ours takes account of the uncertainty in how ecological systems will respond and how the available budget may change, allowing us to investigate the likelihood of success and risks of failure of different strategies at different points after an epidemic emerges,” says Gilligan.

    “Whenever a new epidemic emerges, controlling it becomes a question of how long it takes for us to have enough information to recognise that there is a problem and then to make decisions about how to deal with it. In the past we have been starting from scratch with each new pathogen, but the insight generated by this modelling puts us in a better position for dealing with future epidemics,” he adds.

    The researchers say that the next step in dealing with well-established epidemics such as sudden oak death is to investigate how to protect particularly valuable areas within an epidemic that – as they have demonstrated – is already too big to be stopped.

    The methodology is already being applied to create related models for diseases that threaten food security in Africa, such as pathogens that attack wheat and cassava.

    This research was enabled by funding from the BBSRC, DEFRA, NSF, USDA and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

    Inset image: Extensive control starting in 2002 could have greatly slowed epidemic spread (map shows risk of infection in 2030 under no control on left; control on and ahead of wave-front on right) (Nik Cunniffe).

    New research shows the sudden oak death epidemic in California cannot now be stopped, but that its tremendous ecological and economic impacts could have been greatly reduced if control had been started earlier. The research also identifies new strategies to enhance control of future epidemics, including identifying where and how to fell trees, as “there will be a next time”.

    It is a tool by which we can make a better job next time, because it is inevitable that there will be a next time
    Professor Chris Gilligan
    Large-scale tree mortality in northern Sonoma County, California

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    Researchers have developed the world’s tiniest engine – just a few billionths of a metre in size – which uses light to power itself. The nanoscale engine, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could form the basis of future nano-machines that can navigate in water, sense the environment around them, or even enter living cells to fight disease.

    The prototype device is made of tiny charged particles of gold, bound together with temperature-responsive polymers in the form of a gel. When the ‘nano-engine’ is heated to a certain temperature with a laser, it stores large amounts of elastic energy in a fraction of a second, as the polymer coatings expel all the water from the gel and collapse. This has the effect of forcing the gold nanoparticles to bind together into tight clusters. But when the device is cooled, the polymers take on water and expand, and the gold nanoparticles are strongly and quickly pushed apart, like a spring. The results are reported in the journal PNAS.

    “It’s like an explosion,” said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, and the paper’s first author. “We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them.”

    “We know that light can heat up water to power steam engines,” said study co-author Dr Ventsislav Valev, now based at the University of Bath. “But now we can use light to power a piston engine at the nanoscale.”

    Nano-machines have long been a dream of scientists and public alike, but since ways to actually make them move have yet to be developed, they have remained in the realm of science fiction. The new method developed by the Cambridge researchers is incredibly simple, but can be extremely fast and exert large forces.

    The forces exerted by these tiny devices are several orders of magnitude larger than those for any other previously produced device, with a force per unit weight nearly a hundred times better than any motor or muscle. According to the researchers, the devices are also bio-compatible, cost-effective to manufacture, fast to respond, and energy efficient.

    Professor Jeremy Baumberg from the Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research, has named the devices ‘ANTs’, or actuating nano-transducers. “Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications.”

    The research suggests how to turn Van de Waals energy – the attraction between atoms and molecules – into elastic energy of polymers and release it very quickly. “The whole process is like a nano-spring,” said Baumberg. “The smart part here is we make use of Van de Waals attraction of heavy metal particles to set the springs (polymers) and water molecules to release them, which is very reversible and reproducible.”

    The team is currently working with Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm, and several other companies with the aim of commercialising this technology for microfluidics bio-applications.

    The research is funded as part of a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) investment in the Cambridge NanoPhotonics Centre, as well as the European Research Council (ERC).

    Tao Ding et al. ‘Light-induced actuating nanotransducers.’ PNAS (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1524209113

    Researchers have built a nano-engine that could form the basis for future applications in nano-robotics, including robots small enough to enter living cells.

    Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight.
    Jeremy Baumberg
    Expanding polymer-coated gold nanoparticles

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    Endometrial cancer affects the lining of the uterus. It is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in UK women, with around 9,000 new cases being diagnosed each year.

    Researchers at the University of Cambridge, Oxford University and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane studied the DNA of over 7,000 women with endometrial cancer and 37,000 women without cancer to identify genetic variants that affected a woman’s risk of developing the disease. The results are published today in the journal Nature Genetics.

    Dr Deborah Thompson from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge said: “Our findings help us to paint a clearer picture of the genetic causes of endometrial cancer in women, particularly where there no strong family history of cancer. Prior to this study, we only knew of four regions of the genome in which a common genetic variant increases a woman’s risk of endometrial cancer.

    “In this study we have identified another five regions, bringing the total to nine. This finding doubles the number of known risk regions, and therefore makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the genetic drivers of endometrial cancer.

    “Interestingly, several of the gene regions we identified in the study were already known to contribute to the risk of other common cancers such as ovarian and prostate.

    “Although each individual variant only increases risk by around 10-15%, their real value will be in looking at the total number of such variants inherited by a woman, together with her other risk factors, in order to identify those women at higher risk of endometrial cancer so that they can be regularly checked and be alert to the early signs and symptoms of the disease.”

    The study also looked at how the identified gene regions might be increasing the risk of cancer, and these findings have implications for the future treatment of endometrial cancer patients.

    “As we develop a more comprehensive view of the genetic risk factors for endometrial cancer, we can start to work out which genes could potentially be targeted with new treatments down the track,” said Associate Professor Amanda Spurdle from QIMR Berghofer.

    “In particular, we can start looking into whether there are drugs that are already approved and available for use that can be used to target those genes.”

    The study was an international collaboration involving researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom, German, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, the United States and China. The UK part of the study received funding from Cancer Research UK.

    Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager, said: “The discovery of genetic changes that affect women’s risk of developing endometrial – or womb – cancer could help doctors identify women at higher risk, who could benefit from being more closely monitored for signs of the disease.

    “It might also provide clues into the faulty molecules that play an important role in womb cancer, leading to potential new treatments. More than a third of womb cancer cases in the UK each year could be prevented, and staying a healthy weight and keeping active are both great ways for women to reduce the risk.”

    Cheng, THT et al. Five endometrial cancer risk loci identified through genome-wide association analysis. Nature Genetics; 2 May 2016; DOI: 10.1038/ng.3562

    An international collaboration of researchers has identified five new gene regions that increase a woman’s risk of developing endometrial cancer, one of the most common cancers to affect women, taking the number of known gene regions associated with the disease to nine.

    Interestingly, several of the gene regions we identified in the study were already known to contribute to the risk of other common cancers
    Deborah Thompson
    DNA representation (cropped)

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    Long before there were fish swimming in the oceans, tiny microorganisms were using long slender appendages called cilia and flagella to navigate their watery habitats. Now, new research reveals that species of single-celled algae coordinate their flagella to achieve a remarkable diversity of swimming gaits.

    When it comes to four-legged animals such as cats, horses and deer, or even humans, the concept of a gait is familiar, but what about unicellular green algae with multiple limb-like flagella? The latest discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that despite their simplicity, microalgae can coordinate their flagella into leaping, trotting or galloping gaits just as well.

    Many gaits are periodic: whether it is the stylish walk of a cat, the graceful gallop of a horse, or the playful leap of a springbok, the key is the order or sequence in which these limbs are activated. When springboks arch their backs and leap, or ‘pronk’, they do so by lifting all four legs simultaneously high into the air, yet when horses trot it is the diagonally opposite legs that move together in time.

    In vertebrates, gaits are controlled by central pattern generators, which can be thought of as networks of neural oscillators that coordinate output. Depending on the interaction between these oscillators, specific rhythms are produced, which, mathematically speaking, exhibit certain spatiotemporal symmetries. In other words, the gait doesn’t change when one leg is swapped with another – perhaps at a different point in time, say a quarter-cycle or half-cycle later.

    It turns out the same symmetries also characterise the swimming gaits of microalgae, which are far too simple to have neurons. For instance, microalgae with four flagella in various possible configurations can trot, pronk or gallop, depending on the species.

    “When I peered through the microscope and saw that the alga was performing two sets of perfectly synchronous breaststrokes, one directly after the other, I was amazed,” said the paper’s first author Dr Kirsty Wan of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) at the University of Cambridge. “I realised immediately that this behaviour could only be due to something inside the cell rather than passive hydrodynamics. Then of course to prove this I had to expand my species collection.”

    The researchers determined that it is in fact the networks of elastic fibres which connect the flagella deep within the cell that coordinate these diverse gaits. In the simplest case of Chlamydomonas, which swims a breaststroke with two flagella, absence of a particular fibre between the flagella leads to uncoordinated beating. Furthermore, deliberately preventing the beating of one flagellum in an alga with four flagella has zero effect on the sequence of beating in the remainder.

    However, this does not mean that hydrodynamics play no role. In recent work from the same group, it was shown that nearby flagella can be synchronised solely by their mutual interaction through the fluid. There is a distinction between unicellular organisms for which good coordination of a few flagella is essential, and multicellular species or tissues that possess a range of cilia and flagella. In the latter case, hydrodynamic interactions are much more important.

    “As physicists our instinct is to seek out generalisations and universal principles, but the world of biology often presents us with many fascinating counterexamples,” said Professor Ray Goldstein, Schlumberger Professor of Complex Physical Systems at DAMTP, and senior author of the paper. “Until now there have been many competing theories regarding flagellar synchronisation, but I think we are finally making sense of how these different organisms make best use of what they have.”

    The findings also raise intriguing questions about the evolution of the control of peripheral appendages, which must have arisen in the first instance in these primitive microorganisms.

    This research was supported by a Neville Research Fellowship from Magdalene College, and a Senior Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust.

    Kirsty Y. Wan and Raymond E. Goldstein. ‘Coordinated beating of algal flagella is mediated by basal coupling.’ PNAS (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1518527113

    Species of single-celled algae use whip-like appendages called flagella to coordinate their movements and achieve a remarkable diversity of swimming gaits.

    As physicists our instinct is to seek out generalisations and universal principles, but the world of biology often presents us with many fascinating counterexamples.
    Raymond Goldstein
    Microscope images showing two species of algae which swim using tiny appendages known as flagella

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    In developed countries, between one and two in three dogs (34-59%) is  overweight, a condition associated with reduced lifespan, mobility problems, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as it is in humans. In fact, the increase in levels of obesity in dogs mirrors that in humans, implicating factors such as reduced exercise and ready access to high calorie food factors. However, despite the fact that dog owners control their pets’ diet and exercise, some breeds of dog are more susceptible to obesity than others, suggesting the influence of genetic factors. Labradors are the most common breed of dog in the UK, USA and many other countries worldwide and the breed is known as being particularly obesity-prone.

    In a study published today in the journal Cell Metabolism, an international team led by researchers at the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge, report a study of 310 pet and assistance dog Labradors. Independent veterinary professionals weighed the dogs and assessed their body condition score, and the scientists searched for variants of three candidate obesity-related genes. The team also assessed ‘food motivation’ using a questionnaire in which owners reported their dog’s behavior related to food.

    The researchers found that a variant of one gene in particular, known as POMC, was strongly associated with weight, obesity and appetite in Labradors and flat coat retrievers. Around one in four (23%) Labradors is thought to carry at least one copy of the variant. In both breeds, for each copy of the gene carried, the dog was on average 1.9kg heavier, an effect size particularly notable given the extent to which owners, rather than the dogs themselves, control the amount of food and exercise their dogs receive.

    “This is a common genetic variant in Labradors and has a  significant effect on those dogs that carry it, so it is likely that this helps explain why Labradors are more prone to being overweight in comparison to other breeds,” explains first author Dr Eleanor Raffan from the University of Cambridge. “However, it’s not a straightforward picture as the variant is even more common among flat coat retrievers, a breed not previously flagged as being prone to obesity.”

    The gene affected is known to be important in regulating how the brain recognises hunger and the feeling of being full after a meal.  “People who live with Labradors often say they are obsessed by food, and that would fit with what we know about this genetic change,” says Dr Raffan.

    Senior co-author Dr Giles Yeo adds: “Labradors make particularly successful working and pet dogs because they are loyal, intelligent and eager to please, but importantly, they are also relatively easy to train. Food is often used as a reward during training, and carrying this variant may make dogs more motivated to work for a titbit.

    “But it’s a double-edged sword – carrying the variant may make them more trainable, but it also makes them susceptible to obesity. This is something owners will need to be aware of so they can actively manage their dog’s weight.”

    The researchers believe that a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the POMC gene, which is also found in humans, might have implications for the health of both Labradors and human.

    Professor Stephen O’Rahilly, Co-Director of the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science, says: “Common genetic variants affecting the POMC gene are associated with human body weight and there are even some rare obese people who lack a very similar part of the POMC gene to the one that is missing in the dogs. So further research in these obese Labradors may not only help the wellbeing of companion animals but also have important lessons for human health.”

    The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Dogs Trust.

    Raffan, E et al. A deletion in the canine POMC gene is associated with weight and appetite in obesity prone Labrador retriever dogs. Cell Metabolism; 3 May 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.04.012

    A genetic variation associated with obesity and appetite in Labrador retrievers – the UK and US’s favourite dog breed – has been identified by scientists at the University of Cambridge. The finding may explain why Labrador retrievers are more likely to become obese than dogs of other breeds.

    People who live with Labradors often say they are obsessed by food, and that would fit with what we know about this genetic change
    Eleanor Raffan
    Where's My Snacks? (crop)

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  • 05/04/16--03:37: Busting brain myths
  • Dr Hannah Critchlow was named one of the “unofficial stars” of last year’s Hay Festival last year by no less than the New York Times. Peter Florence, the director of the Hay Festival, said:  “Hannah Critchlow is one of the most gifted communicators I’ve ever heard. She can completely captivate and transform an audience of 1,500 people.” That’s quite an achievement for a young neuroscientist given that Hay is one of the world’s most prestigious literary festivals, attracting best-selling authors and politicians from around the world.

    Yet Hannah admits to having been quite nervous about her talk on myths about the brain despite her years of experience doing public engagement work about neuroscience. “It was the most daunting talk I have ever given,” says Hannah, who will be taking part in the Cambridge Series at the Festival again this year.

    Her science communications work was honed when she took part in one of the first Rising Stars programmes run by the University of Cambridge’s Public Engagement team in 2011. It offers training in public engagement and educational outreach for postgraduates, post-docs and early career academics at the University of Cambridge. As part of the programme Hannah had to produce a science communications project. She teamed up with the cosmologist Andrew Pontzen. Together they approached the online science radio show The Naked Scientists and produced some Naked Shorts on their research. The idea turned into a series which they also helped to produce. Hannah then went on to secure  a Wellcome Trust Society Award which allowed her to develop a series of talks to take round schools and public festivals, including the Science Festival and the Festival of Ideas, as well as to produce and present a series of neuroscience podcasts.

    The Hay Festival was a different audience entirely, though. Hannah normally spoke to people with a special interest in science. She viewed the Hay audience as being arts and culture focused. “I had a preconception that I would be viewed as an arts illiterate, low brow ignoramus trying to get them to see how interesting science is and how relevant it is to their lives,” she says. "Fortunately, the audience were interested in what I had to say and I wish I'd left more time for discussions with them at the end!"

    Her talk was about busting brain myths. She says: “So many headlines are related to neuroscience. A lot of the research is misrepresented by the press or over-egged.” Her session examined 10 different myths and who was involved in making them. The causes of the myth-making were various, including pressures on scientists to show the impact of their research, on university press officers to get their stories into the press and on journalists to sell a story which interests their readers. Hannah sees her public engagement work as a way of speaking directly to the public, getting them to understand research methods and enthusing them in science.  That work has been recognised through being named a Top 100 UK scientist by the Science Council. In 2013 she was named as one of Cambridge Universities ‘inspirational and successful women in science’.

    Hannah’s Hay Festival talk was so popular that she ended up being moved to another tent. She says: “There is a general global realisation of the impact that science has and will have in the future. People want to be able to discuss these issues.”

    Hannah also took part in another session at the Hay Festival with the historian Bettany Hughes which explored how the ideas behind certain ancient Greek words such as peace and liberty have changed over time and what impact they have had on history and the human experience. Ironically, a comment made by Hannah during this session about whether it might ever be possible to download the human brain was misquoted by a journalist [she said it might theoretically be possible at some point to take a snapshot of the human brain and upload that image to a computer. The story was headlined “Humans could download brains on to a computer and live forever”]. The story was reported around the world.

    Following her talks, Hannah was introduced to some publishers who had been in the audience at Hay. She now has a literary agent and is trying to find a publisher.  She is working on three book ideas, including one about the brain and individuality and another which aims to help children - and adults - to understand how their brain is developing. TV producers have also been in touch and she is giving a Royal Institution talk this summer, all the result of her Festival appearance.

    It has been quite a year for Hannah personally too - soon after the Festival she moved to New Zealand with her partner and had a baby. She is now on maternity leave and will bring baby Max with her to Hay Festival when she returns in May. Her talk this time round is aimed at a younger audience, although it is open to all ages.  “It will be an exploration of the brain, including the latest technology such as machines that read your brainwaves and lie detector kits,” she says. “People tend to be fascinated by neuroscience as there is so much that is unknown about the brain. The science of the brain is one of the world’s biggest mysteries.”  Hannah’s work aims to probe that mystery - both to reveal what is known about how it operates and to excite people to want to find out more.

    Full details of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival can be found here.

    Neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow is heading back to Hay Festival to take part in the Cambridge Series after being named one of the stars of the Festival last year. 

    Hannah Critchlow is one of the most gifted communicators I’ve ever heard. She can completely captivate and transform an audience of 1,500 people.
    Peter Florence

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    London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

    Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it. The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy. The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love, so maybe best leave it alone.

    Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament918 KB(download)


    Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

    Big Ben in 1858.The Illustrated News of the World December 4 1858


    Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

    Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

    Marvel of engineering

    The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

    Big Ben’s clock has had only one major breakdown, in 1976.UK Parliament, CC BY


    The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

    The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

    Pendulum suspension from a Smith of Derby clock.Hugh Hunt, Author provided


    The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

    The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

    In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

    So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

    What makes it tick

    But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy– better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

    In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

    The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of tender loving care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.


    Hugh Hunt, Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration, University of Cambridge

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

    Hugh Hunt (Department of Engineering) discusses the mechanism that makes Big Ben chime, and why it needs repairing.

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    The term ‘nature writing’ didn’t exist in the 1940s when Nan Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain, a book in which she describes exploring the Cairngorm Mountains in north-east Scotland as a walker and writer.  Shepherd sent her manuscript to a novelist friend called Neil Gunn. He responded with praise (“This is beautifully done,” he wrote) but suggested that Shepherd might find it hard to get her work published unless she added photographs and a map.

    The Living Mountain defies categorisation. It was turned down by the one publisher to whom Shepherd sent it. Gunn remained the book’s sole reader right up until 1977, when the book was finally published by Aberdeen University Press (with a map but no photographs). In a preface, Shepherd notes that 30 years in the life of a mountain is nothing (“the flicker of an eyelid”), but that many things had happened in the Cairngorms between her writing of the book and its publication.

    She lists the ‘eruption’ of the resort of Aviemore, the growing impact of tourism and terrible tragedies of lives lost in accidents. She follows her list with a message that speaks of her intense relationship with landscape in all its moods: “All these are matters that involve man. But behind them is the mountain itself, its substance, its strength, its weathers. It is fundamental to all that man does to it or on it.”

    Last month the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) announced the designs of two polymer banknotes to be issued later this year. Both feature portraits of women. The new £10 note will bear the face of the scientist Mary Somerville and the £5 note the face of Nan Shepherd.

    The portrait on the new £5 note is based on a photograph taken of Shepherd as student at Aberdeen. Her calm face is framed by long hair parted in the middle and held by a headband. Shepherd was famously averse to notions of glamour (though she always walked in skirts, never trousers) and with her bold eyes, and steadfast gaze, she makes an understated heroine.

    Shepherd’s appearance in the public sphere will raise the profile of an author whose work has at times risked falling from view, and whose writing helped to lay the foundations for the current flowering of writing about place, people and nature. The accolade accorded her by RBS has been welcomed by the growing number of readers who enjoy Shepherd’s prose and poetry – all of which is centred on her deep appreciation of the Scottish landscape.

    Robert Macfarlane (Faculty of English) has written extensively on Shepherd, seen her poetry back into print after 80 years, and presented both television and radio programmes about her for the BBC. In an interview with the Guardian, Macfarlane called Shepherd a “brilliant, progressive choice” for the £5 note.

    “She’s an incredibly inspiring figure, and an unusual one, in the sense of being a woman writing about mountains and the wilderness and nature,” he said. “She found her own path in life and in literature, and it feels like she’s so far ahead of us – we’re always only starting to catch Nan up. Philosophically and stylistically, she was extraordinary.”

    Macfarlane spent many of his childhood holidays in the Cairngorms, where he developed a love for the Scottish Highlands. But he came across Shepherd’s writing only just over a decade ago. He has since read and reread her books and poetry, as well as teaching regularly on Shepherd and her work to both undergraduates and graduates.

    In his latest book, Landmarks (2015), Macfarlane writes that reading The Living Mountain changed him: “I had thought that I knew the Cairngorms well, but Shepherd showed me my complacency. Her writing taught me how to see these familiar hills rather than just to look at them.” He was influenced by Shepherd’s emphasis on mountain-going as a pilgrimage rather than a conquest, and by her readiness to peer into what she calls ‘nooks and crannies’, in order to know better ‘the total mountain’.

    In The Living Mountain, Shepherd describes making a similar discovery when she began walking in Scotland. She writes: “At first, mad to recover the tang of height, I made always for the summits and would not take time to explore the recesses.” A turning point came when a friend took Shepherd to Loch Coire an Lochain, a stretch of water that lies hidden in the hills. It was a September day, following a storm, and “the air was keen and buoyant, with a brilliancy as of ice”.

    Dipping her fingers into the frost-cold waters, Shepherd listens to the sound of the waterfall until she no longer hears it.  She lets her eyes travel over the surface of the water from shore to shore – not once but twice. “There is no way like that for savouring the extent of a water surface,” she writes. “This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality.”

    Shepherd did not talk about walking up mountains but walking into them.  Her writing is sometimes mystical but never gushingly romantic – water is “appalling” in its strength, birches are most beautiful when “naked”.  She was a keenly acute observer, each of her words chosen with such razor-sharp precision that she feared that her writing would be considered cold and inhuman.

    Sensual is one of the words Macfarlane uses to describe Shepherd’s work. She herself wrote that she found “a joyous release” in walking and climbing, often toiling through foul weather. The Living Mountain begins with the observation: “Summer on the high plateau can be as sweet as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature.”

    It was through a process of immersion – sleeping outdoors, wading through streams, and sometimes swimming in the burns, watching and observing – that Shepherd got to know the colours and textures of the Cairngorms. Long before ecology became fashionable, she spoke about the interconnectedness of nature in a way that sprung from feeling rather than learning.  

    In an essay written to preface the 2011 edition of The Living Mountain, Macfarlane draws attention to a passage in which Shepherd experiences the vastness of life. “So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, above me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow – the total mountain.”

    For Shepherd there was a kind of magic in the act of walking itself and the way in which the human body adapts to the earth’s surface. "Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a coordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step will fall, even when watching land and sky." Countless walkers will have felt the same thing - but few will have put it into words so neatly.

    For almost all her life, Shepherd lived in the house where she had been born. She travelled widely but always returned to the hills she loved. Macfarlane suggests that Shepherd’s focus on a particular place, one not far from her doorstep, led to a deepening rather than a restriction of knowledge. “The Living Mountain needs to be understood as parochial in the best sense,” he has written.

    “Because it’s there” was the climber George Mallory’s famous retort to the question of why he climbed Everest.  Shepherd’s reasons for walking the Cairngorms are imbued with the same intense ‘thereness’ but none of the high drama of conquest. She sought to know these rugged hills in a sense both quiet and fierce. “Knowing another is endless,” she wrote, “The thing to be known grows with the knowing.”




    The writer Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), who was quietly acclaimed in her lifetime, is the face of a new Royal Bank of Scotland bank note. One of Shepherd’s staunchest supporters is Robert Macfarlane (Faculty of English), who wrote the introduction to her book about the Cairngorms.

    She found her own path in life and in literature, and it feels like she’s so far ahead of us – we’re always only starting to catch Nan up. Philosophically and stylistically, she was extraordinary.
    Robert Macfarlane
    New Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note

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    Once an egg has been fertilised by a sperm, it divides several times to generate a small, free-floating ball of stem cells. Around day three, these stem cells cluster together inside the embryo towards one side; this stage is known as the blastocyst. The blastocyst comprises three cell types: cells that will develop into the future body (which form the ‘epiblast’), cells that will develop into the placenta and allow the embryo to attach to the womb, and cells that form the primitive endoderm that will ensure that the fetus’s organs develop properly and will provide essential nutrients.

    This pre-implantation period – so-called as the blastocyst has yet to implant itself into the uterus – has been extensively studied in human embryos using in vitro culture methods. However, on the seventh day of development, the human embryo must implant into the uterus of the mother to survive and to develop further, even though UK law permits embryos to be studied in the laboratory for up to 14 days.

    The failure of an embryo to implant is a major cause of early pregnancy loss and yet the cellular and molecular changes that take place in the human embryo at this stage remain unknown. This is because it is impossible to carry out such studies on embryos developing in the womb, and until now there has been no system to culture human embryos in the laboratory beyond day seven.

    Today, in parallel papers in Nature and Nature Cell Biology, two international teams report the development of a technique that allows them to culture human embryos outside the body of the mother for an additional six days, up to day 13 of development. This work builds on previous work by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’s team from the University of Cambridge on mouse and was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

    Using the technique, the researchers have shown that the reorganisation of the embryo that normally takes place during early post-implantation development can be achieved in the lab given the right culture conditions.

    Professor Zernicka-Goetz, who led the UK research and is an author on both studies, says: “Implantation is a milestone in human development as it is from this stage onwards that the embryo really begins to take shape and the overall body plan are decided. It is also the stage of pregnancy at which many developmental defects can become acquired. But until now, it has been impossible to study this in human embryos. This new technique provides us with a unique opportunity to get a deeper understanding of our own development during these crucial stages and help us understand what happens, for example, during miscarriage.”

    “Embryo development is an extremely complex process and while our system may not be able to fully reproduce every aspect of this process, it has allowed us to reveal a remarkable self-organising capacity of human blastocysts that was previously unknown,” says Dr Marta Shahbazi one of the co-first authors of the study from the University of Cambridge.

    The researchers established a system for the in vitro culture of human embryos and, using this technique, followed the development of the embryos up to day 13 of development. Immediately following ‘implantation’, the three cell types that comprise the blastocyst reorganise into a new configuration.

    “The stem cells in the epiblast that will form the future body have the remarkable ability to self-organise themselves and create a cavity that represent the basic structure of the early post-implantation human embryo,” says Professor Zernicka-Goetz. “Without this cavity, it would be impossible for the embryo to develop further as it is the basis for its future development. It is also a mechanism that we can study using human embryonic stem cells.”

    This cavity was previously thought to arise through a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death, but using human embryonic stem cell models, the researchers were able to show that in fact cell death is not required for the cavity formation in human embryos.

    “This process is similar to what we have recently observed in mouse embryos, despite the significant differences in the structure of post-implantation embryos in these different mammalian species”, says Professor Zernicka-Goetz. “This suggests it may be a fundamental process conserved across many species.”

    Dr Simon Fishel, founder and President of CARE Fertility Group, adds: “This is about much more than just understanding the biology of implantation embryo development. Knowledge of these processes could help improve the chances of success of IVF, of which only around one in four attempts are successful.”

    This research has been possible thanks to couples that underwent IVF treatment and decided to donate their surplus embryos to advance our understanding of the early phases of post-implantation human development. The research was licensed by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

    Left image: At day 10 of embryo development the pluripotent stem cells that will generate the future body self-organise to generate a cavity (the pro-amniotic cavity). This configuration is the basis for the subsequent developmental stages and the formation of the body plan. The immunofluorescence image shows a day 10 human embryo cultured in vitro through early post-implantation stages (purple-epiblast, red-nucleus, green-membrane).

    Right image: At day 11 of embryo development the pluripotent stem cells that will generate the future body self-organiseto generate a cavity (the pro-amniotic cavity). This configuration is the basis for the subsequent developmental stages and the formation of the body plan. The immunofluorescence  image shows a day 11 human embryo cultured in vitro through early post-implantation stages (while-epiblast, blue-nucleus, green-membrane).

    Shahbazi, MN et al. Self-organisation of the human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues. Nature Cell Biology; 4 May 2016; DOI: 10.1038/ncb3347


    Deglincerti, A et al. Self-organization of the in vitro attached human embryo. Nature; 4 May 2016

    A new technique that allows embryos to develop in vitro beyond the implantation stage (when the embryo would normally implant into the womb) has been developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge allowing them to analyse for the first time key stages of human embryo development up to 13 days after fertilisation. The technique could open up new avenues of research aimed at helping improve the chances of success of IVF.

    Implantation is a milestone in human development as it is from this stage onwards that the embryo really begins to take shape and the overall body plan are decided
    Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz
    Imaging a human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues - day 10 (left) and day 11 (right)

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    Regular physical activity reduces the risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and several cancers. One way for people to increase their levels of physical activity is through ‘active travel’ – for example walking and cycling; however, concern has been raised about the potential risk due to air pollution while walking and cycling in urban environments.

    Air pollution is one of the leading environmental risk factors for people’s health. A recent report from the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health suggested that it contributes to around 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK. One of the main sources of air pollution in cities is transport and a shift from cars, motorbikes and buses to active travel would help to reduce emissions. However, people who walk or cycle in such environments will inhale more pollution, which could be detrimental to their health.

    Previous studies conducted in Europe, the USA and several other developed countries found that the health benefits of active travel are greater than the risks, but these were undertaken in areas of relatively low air pollution, and the applicability of their results to more polluted cities in emerging economies has been uncertain.

    Researchers from CEDAR, a partnership between the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia, and the Medical Research Council, used computer simulations to compare the risks and benefits for different levels of intensity and duration of active travel and of air pollution in different locations around the world, using information from international epidemiological studies and meta-analyses. The study, published in Preventive Medicine, is the first to model the risks and benefits of walking and cycling across a range of air pollution concentrations around the world.

    Using this data, the researchers calculated that in practical terms, air pollution risks will not negate the health benefits of active travel in the vast majority of urban areas worldwide. Only 1% of cities in the World Health Organization’s Ambient Air Pollution Database had pollution levels high enough that the risks of air pollution could start to overcome the benefits of physical activity after half an hour of cycling every day.

    Dr Marko Tainio from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, says: “Our model indicates that in London health benefits of active travel always outweigh the risk from pollution. Even in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world – with pollution levels ten times those in London – people would need to cycle over five hours per week before the pollution risks outweigh the health benefits.

    “We should remember, though, that a small minority of workers in the most polluted cities, such as bike messengers, may be exposed to levels of air pollution high enough to cancel out the health benefits of physical activity.”

    Senior author Dr James Woodcock, also from CEDAR, says: “Whilst this research demonstrates the benefits of physical activity in spite of air quality, it is not an argument for inaction in combatting pollution. It provides further support for investment in infrastructure to get people out of their cars and onto their feet or their bikes – which can itself reduce pollution levels at the same time as supporting physical activity.”

    The authors caution that their model does not take into account detailed information on conditions within different localities in individual cities, the impact of short-term episodes of increased air pollution, or information on the background physical activity or disease history of individuals. For individuals who are highly active in non-transport settings, for example recreational sports, the marginal health benefits from active travel will be smaller, and vice versa for those who are less active than average in other settings.

    The research was undertaken by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research, a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. The work was also supported by the project Physical Activity through Sustainable Transportation Approaches, funded by the European Union.

    Tainio et al. Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking? Preventive Medicine; 5 May 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.02.002

    The health benefits of walking and cycling outweigh the negative effects on health of air pollution, even in cities with high levels of air pollution, according to a study led by researchers from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) and Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge. This new evidence strengthens the case for supporting cycling even in polluted cities – an effort that in turn can help reduce vehicle emissions.

    Our model indicates that in London health benefits of active travel always outweigh the risk from pollution
    Marko Tainio
    Jogging on a bright November morning (cropped)

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    James Dyson Building Department of Engineering

    Sir James Dyson opens some of the world’s most advanced engineering facilities at the University of Cambridge today – giving the institution’s students and academics the space and means to prototype, invent and collaborate on cutting-edge research.

    The development has been funded by a £8m donation from the James Dyson Foundation – the largest gift ever received by Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, consistently ranked among the best engineering departments globally.

    The Dyson Centre for Engineering Design is the focal point for teaching Cambridge students about the design process, providing specialised printing machinery, scanners, lasers and routers. It provides space for over 1,200 bright engineers to conduct their project work. An open plan design encourages the sharing of ideas and a collaborative environment. Student led projects housed within the centre include solar powered electric racing cars, vehicles engineered for arctic ice, quad-rotor drones and helium balloon spaceflight systems.

    A separate new four-storey building, the James Dyson Building for Engineering, houses postgraduate researchers and supports world leading research in areas including advanced materials, smart infrastructure, electric vehicles and efficient internal combustion systems. A bridge link offers easy access to testing laboratories housing world-class fluid dynamics machinery, aerodynamics equipment and areas for aeroacoustics analysis.

    The building itself is as smart as the minds it houses: fibre-optic sensors in the foundation piles, concrete columns and floor sections offer live data, about temperatures and strain – providing a picture of how the building is behaving. The result is a building that’s more of a living creature than a passive block of material.

    Research undertaken in the hub will build on a rich tradition of invention:  Cambridge alumni include internal combustion pioneer Harry Ricardo and Jet engine inventor Frank Whittle.

    The Department is located at the heart of the Cambridge cluster, Europe's largest technology cluster, which employs around 57,000 people in more than 1,500 technology-based firms, which have combined annual revenue of over £13 billion. Cambridge has created over 1,500 spin-out companies over the last decade, with a 97.4% five year survival rate, compared to 44.6% nationally. 

    Sir James said: “Developing the intellectual property that will help Britain succeed in the global technology race depends on applying our brightest minds to ambitious and exciting research projects. I’m hopeful that this new space for Britain’s best engineers at the University of Cambridge will catalyse great technological breakthroughs that transform how we live”.

    Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said: “The research taking place in this building exists at the very cutting edge of engineering excellence. Allied to new ideas generated within the Dyson Centre, this will produce not only world-changing discoveries and inventions, but the future generations of engineers the world requires to address the major challenges of the 21st century.”

    Head of the Department of Engineering, Professor David Cardwell, said: “Collaboration is at the heart of solving global engineering challenges and the new James Dyson Building brings brilliant researchers from across disciplines together with industrial practitioners to serve our cities, transportation and energy systems with novel techniques.

    “The adjoining Dyson Centre for Engineering Design enables students to express their creative talents and test their engineering skills using high-tech and diverse machining and prototyping equipment. Here we will also welcome schoolchildren to see engineers at work and captivate the next generation of competent engineers. An updated and redesigned Engineering Library will guarantee flexible spaces for collaborative as well as silent work spaces for our students and researchers.”

    Professor Dame Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Academic rigour must meet with practical invention. The Dyson Engineering Design Centre and the James Dyson Building for Engineering bridge the gap, encouraging engineers to apply their minds to creatively experiment and try new things.”

    Engineering hub focuses on advances including smart infrastructure, electric vehicles and efficient internal combustion systems

    I’m hopeful that this new space for Britain’s best engineers at the University of Cambridge will catalyse great technological breakthroughs that transform how we live.
    Sir James Dyson
    James Dyson Building Department of Engineering

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    Bird song has fascinated scientists for decades. Songs can be intricate, loud and, as it turns out, very important for reproductive success. In many species the males with the most complex songs secure the highest quality breeding territories and mates, and end up producing the most young. For species that spend their summers in Europe, almost every hour of daylight is crammed full with energetic and often very loud song.

    For songbirds that have migrated to Africa at the end of the breeding season, singing shouldn’t be on their to-do list. Singing requires a big energetic investment and increases vulnerability to predators. The only time males should be willing to pay these costs is when there is a good chance of attracting females as mates, and that is not going to happen in Africa outside of the breeding season.

    Despite this, several species of migratory songbirds, from Wood Warblers to Nightingales, are known to sing a great deal in Africa. This prompted us to ask: what is the purpose of singing in Africa, when the breeding grounds are thousands of kilometres away? To answer this question, we focused on a drab-looking but raucous singer, the Great Reed Warbler. This species breeds in Europe and spends the northern winter in the wet grasslands and savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa.

    Testing a long-held hypothesis

    We began by testing a long-held hypothesis for the persistence of singing in Africa. Perhaps singing is being used as a means to defend individual winter-feeding territories. It might be acting as a “keep out” sign to other individuals encroaching on the territory holder’s space.

    In territorial systems, distinct boundaries are expected between the spaces used by each individual in combination with an aggressive reaction when that territorial boundary is breached. We used radio transmitters to track bird movements through the tall grasses of the study site in Zambia, and used models of Great Reed Warblers with recorded song to simulate territory intrusions. We found no support for the expectations of territoriality. Great Reed Warblers overlapped widely in their use of space, and individuals were unperturbed by other birds in their space.

    Radio transmitters were used to track bird movementsJason Boyce

    Given that Great Reed Warblers did not have a territorial system, this long-held hypothesis of singing for territorial protection didn’t hold up.

    Singing for song improvement

    Next, we tackled an intriguing but yet untested hypothesis. Perhaps, given the importance of song quality for males during breeding, they were using their downtime in Africa to improve the quality of their songs.

    To find out, we combed through the literature and spoke to other researchers in Africa to determine which of the 57 migratory songbird species that migrate from Europe sing while in Africa and, importantly, how much. If this hypothesis is true, the benefits of singing in Africa should be most important for species in which song is especially valued when choosing a mate. Those should be species with the most complex songs, but conversely with the dullest appearance. So, when males are drab, females are expected to pay more attention to flashy song rather than flashy plumage.

    Sure enough, we found that species with more complex songs, and those with drab plumage colouration, sing most often when in Africa. We argue that the costs associated with practice are probably well worth the investment for those species that stand to benefit most from producing the highest-quality songs.

    A final piece of evidence comes from the Great Reed Warblers themselves. If songs function to defend territories, then they should sing the short territorial warnings they use to defend their breeding territories. But instead, recordings from Zambia showed that African songs are much more like those sung during mate attraction on the breeding grounds, when attracting a female is paramount. But there are a couple of important differences.

    In Africa, songs are much longer and with many more switches between syllables than those sung in Europe. Given that songs in Africa are sung without a female receiver in mind, this may be the best way to practice. In Europe, when songs are mixed amongst the racket from competing males, repeating complex syllables up to five times is important to ensure that they are received loud and clear by females.

    With the evidence tallied, both from Great Reed Warblers and across the dozens of songbird species that migrate between Africa and Europe, this puzzling non-breeding singing behaviour appears best explained as a rehearsal period before the big show the following spring.

    To conclusively test this hypothesis, researchers would need to follow individual birds between their breeding and non-breeding grounds and monitor changes to their song and their breeding success. But this is close to impossible given the current tracking devices available. For now, this study points towards an intriguing new explanation for this previously unstudied behaviour. It also offers insight into the lives of migratory songbirds during the lengthy, but little-known part of their lives spent in Africa.

    Marjorie Sorensen, Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and Claire Spottiswoode, BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow and Hans Gadow Lecturer, University of Cambridge

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

    Claire Spottiswoode (Department of Zoology) and Marjorie Sorensen (Goethe University Frankfurt am Main) discuss why several species of migratory songbirds sing a great deal in Africa when their breeding grounds are thousands of kilometres away.

    The African Golden Weaver, Zanzibar

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    Researchers have compiled the first global set of observations of the movement of the Earth’s mantle, the 3000-kilometre-thick layer of hot silicate rocks between the crust and the core, and have found that it looks very different to predictions made by geologists over the past 30 years.

    The team, from the University of Cambridge, used more than 2000 measurements taken from the world’s oceans in order to peer beneath the Earth’s crust and observe the chaotic nature of mantle flow, which forces the surface above it up and down. These movements have a huge influence on the way that the Earth looks today – the circulation causes the formation of mountains, volcanism and other seismic activity in locations that lie in the middle of tectonic plates, such as at Hawaii and in parts of the United States.

    They found that the wave-like movements of the mantle are occurring at a rate that is an order of magnitude faster than had been previously predicted. The results, reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, have ramifications across many disciplines including the study of oceanic circulation and past climate change.

    “Although we’re talking about timescales that seem incredibly long to you or me, in geological terms, the Earth’s surface bobs up and down like a yo-yo,” said Dr Mark Hoggard of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, the paper’s lead author. “Over a period of a million years, which is our standard unit of measurement, the movement of the mantle can cause the surface to move up and down by hundreds of metres.”

    Besides geologists, the movement of the Earth’s mantle is of interest to the oil and gas sector, since these motions also affect the rate at which sediment is shifted around and hydrocarbons are generated.

    Most of us are familiar with the concept of plate tectonics, where the movement of the rigid plates on which the continents sit creates earthquakes and volcanoes near their boundaries. The flow of the mantle acts in addition to these plate motions, as convection currents inside the mantle – similar to those at work in a pan of boiling water – push the surface up or down. For example, although the Hawaiian Islands lie in the middle of a tectonic plate, their volcanic activity is due not to the movement of the plates, but instead to the upward flow of the mantle beneath.

    “We’ve never been able to accurately measure these movements before – geologists have essentially had to guess what they look like,” said Hoggard. “Over the past three decades, scientists had predicted that the movements caused continental-scale features which moved very slowly, but that’s not the case.”

    The inventory of more than 2000 spot observations was determined by analysing seismic surveys of the world’s oceans. By examining variations in the depth of the ocean floor, the researchers were able to construct a global database of the mantle’s movements.

    They found that the mantle convects in a chaotic fashion, but with length scales on the order of 1000 kilometres, instead of the 10,000 kilometres that had been predicted.

    “These results will have wider reaching implications, such as how we map the circulation of the world’s oceans in the past, which are affected by how quickly the sea floor is moving up and down and blocking the path of water currents,” said Hoggard. “Considering that the surface is moving much faster than we had previously thought, it could also affect things like the stability of the ice caps and help us to understand past climate change.” 

    M.J. Hoggard et al. ‘Global dynamic topography observations reveal limited influence of large-scale mantle flow.’ Nature Geoscience (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2709

    Researchers have compiled the first global set of observations of flow within the Earth’s mantle – the layer between the crust and the core – and found that it is moving much faster than has been predicted.

    Although we’re talking about timescales that seem incredibly long to you or me, in geological terms, the Earth’s surface bobs up and down like a yo-yo.
    Mark Hoggard
    Composition of Earth’s mantle revisited thanks to research at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source

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    Joanna Hogg behind the lens as a student filmmaker

    Noted filmmaker, screenwriter and director Joanna Hogg is set to bring the silver screen to Cambridge this month, as the University of Cambridge’s first ever Filmmaker in Residence.

    Joanna Hogg, who is one of the world’s leading contemporary filmmakers working in the tradition of “narrative art cinema”, will hold a sequence of film masterclasses for students at the University, together with public screenings and discussions of her works. There will also be a symposium on Joanna Hogg’s career in cinema held on 18 May.

    Joanna’s residency is being hosted by the University of Cambridge Centre for Film and Screen, which provides a home for the University’s teaching and research in Film and Screen Studies, and which holds an array of seminars, screenings, discussions and events for students and the public throughout the year.

    The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse cinema is collaborating with the Centre for Film and Screen to showcase a complete retrospective featuring Joanna Hogg’s three feature films, Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), as well as a special screening of her first film, Caprice (1986), which stars a then little-known Tilda Swinton.

    John David Rhodes, Director of the Centre for Film and Screen, said:

    “Joanna Hogg is one of the leading contemporary international filmmakers working in the tradition of the stylised and stylish European art cinema. We wanted to invite Joanna to Cambridge to support new initiatives in Film and Screen Studies at the University. Many of us at the Centre work on European auteur cinema, and Joanna is importantly carrying on that tradition, but in a distinctively British context. Her work, while profoundly visual, also extends from an immersion in the literary. Although her cinema pays debts to the work of filmmakers like Chantal Akerman and Michelangelo Antonioni, she draws on British and European literature for much of her inspiration when writing.”

    Joanna Hogg is currently working on a new screenplay, scheduled to go into production in summer this year.

    Joanna said: “I am thrilled and honoured to be the University of Cambridge’s first Filmmaker in Residence. I’m looking forward to bringing my ideas and approach to the University and talking with students about my new film – a project which is very much under construction. I am anticipating a stimulating two-way conversation that I hope will inspire and give insight into my creative process. I know it will embolden and enrich my own filmmaking.”

    Full details of all screenings and events held as part of Joanna Hogg’s residency at Cambridge can be found on the Centre for Film and Screen website at:

    Tickets for screenings can be booked via the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. The symposium, The Work of Joanna Hogg, is free and open to the public. It will be held at Trinity College, Cambridge on 18 May.  

    Leading contemporary director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg is to become the first Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Cambridge, where she is to present a series of talks and screenings this month.

    I am thrilled and honoured to be the University of Cambridge’s first Filmmaker in Residence. I’m looking forward to bringing my ideas and approach to the University
    Joanna Hogg
    Joanna Hogg behind the lens as a student filmmaker

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    Researchers from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute at the University of Cambridge analysed tumour samples from the METABRIC study – which revealed breast cancer can be classified as ten different diseases – to get a deeper understanding of the genetic faults of these ten subtypes.

    They found 40 mutated genes that cause breast cancer to progress. Only a fraction of these genes were previously known to be involved in breast cancer development. They also discovered that one of the more commonly mutated genes, called PIK3CA, is linked to lower chances of survival for three of the ten breast cancer subgroups. Crucially, this might help explain why drugs targeting PIK3CA work for some women but not for others.

    The researchers believe the results could in the future help find drugs to target these genetic faults, stopping the disease from progressing. The research could also provide vital information to help design breast cancer trials and improved tests for the disease.

    The findings add a more detailed layer of information to METABRIC, a major study involving 2,000 patients. METABRIC was the largest molecular profiling study looking at how patients progress after treatment for any type of cancer. It was carried out by Cancer Research UK, in collaboration with the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

    Professor Carlos Caldas, lead author at the University of Cambridge, said: “The METABRIC study mapped out the genetic blueprints for breast cancer. And these new results give us even more detail about which genetic faults could be linked to how different types of breast cancer develop and progress.

    “The information could in the future help design clinical trials for breast cancer patients, or give researchers more flags to look out for in liquid biopsies, a type of test used to detect genetic material in the blood that is released by dying cancer cells.”

    The results will be made available to the public so that other researchers can benefit from the work.

    Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Our research continues to highlight just how complicated cancers are, but we are managing to solve these puzzles faster than ever.  This study gives us more vital information about how breast cancer develops and why some types are more difficult to treat than others, and this information is a great resource for researchers all over the world.   Research like this will help us invent new diagnostic tests to guide treatment for breast cancer patients in the future.”

    Pereira et al., The somatic mutation profile of 2,433 breast cancers refines their genomic and transcriptomic landscapes. Nature Communications; 10 May 2016. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11479

    Adapted from a press release from Cancer Reserch UK.

    Scientists have unearthed crucial new genetic information about how breast cancer develops and the genetic changes which can be linked to survival, according to a study published in Nature Communications today.

    These new results give us even more detail about which genetic faults could be linked to how different types of breast cancer develop and progress
    Carlos Caldas
    solidarity against cancer

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