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    One of the many treasures of the Wellcome Library is a medical recipe book compiled by Johanna St John in the late 17th century. On the inside cover the author has noted that “Cow Piss will cure a Dog of the mang washing ther with”.  One of many entries for the treatment of ague (fever) reads: “Take 6 right civel oranges pare the outward rhind as thinn as possible and put it into a pint of true sherry sack give two spoonfuls night and mornings the well days & also the fitt days & an hower before the fitt this also is good for the wormes.”

    The early modern period (1450-1750) was awash with health-related information and Johanna St John suggests cures for a coughs, colds, cramps and ‘colick’ as well as a solution containing oak bark for treating “a Bulock that pisseth blood”. Many are attributed to the friends, relations and doctors who had recommended them. Her notebook is one example of the preoccupation for recording recipes and remedies at a time when plague periodically swept through whole communities, prompting many households to create their own libraries of health-related knowledge.

    At a conference starting at Cambridge University today, Dr Elaine Leong, from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, will discuss the notebooks kept in the 17th century by three English families – the Boscawens, the St Johns and the Temples. She will explore the note-taking strategies that these wealthy, landed families adopted to manage their growing collections of material related to all kinds of topics, including the pressing matter of keeping sickness at bay and the household healthy. 

    Titled ‘Notebooks, Medicine and the Sciences in Early Modern Europe’, the two-day conference will bring together some of the world’s foremost scholars in the history of medicine, the sciences and the production of knowledge. They include Professor Anthony Grafton of Princeton University, who will talk about the surviving notebook kept by the Basel professor of Hebrew, ethnologist and censor Johann Buxtorf I (1564-1629), and Professor Richard Yeo of Griffith University, who will discuss the notebooks of physician and philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704).

    The meeting is the first of a planned series of four conferences organised by the Notebooks Network, a virtual community of scholars brought together by Dr Leong in collaboration with Dr Lauren Kassell at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.  The Notebooks Network is closely linked to the Casebooks Project, an initiative that Dr Kassell set up to make available the astrological records of Simon Forman and Richard Napier.

    The sessions will explore not just the contents of early modern notebooks in relation to the burgeoning interest in science but also how, at the start of the early modern period, the growing availability of paper was contributed to transformations in how information was ordered and communicated. “This was the era of the scientific revolution and the rise of experimental knowledge,” said Dr Kassell. “Notebooks are as important to the history of science and medicine as are laboratories.”

    The notebooks of the Boscawens (Devon Record Office), St Johns (Wellcome Library) and Temples (British Library) reveal some of the means by which information was exchanged. “Know-how was communicated during medical consultations with physicians and other medical practitioners, around dinner tables with friends and family, scribbled on little paper slips and sent with letters or tucked away in the pages of the myriad of printed medical books that were available in the 17th century,” explained Dr Leong.

    “The contents of these wonderful family treasuries range from recipes detailing how to make secret remedies to gardening tips for harvesting herbs. An in-depth study of the ways in which these materials were organised gives us a rare glimpse into practices of natural inquiry and knowledge management by people who were not professionals themselves but had a huge incentive to learn more about ailments and how to treat them.”

    Professor Michael Stolberg from the University of Würzburg will talk about the notebooks kept by 16th century physicians, focusing on the handwritten records kept by a Bohemian practitioner called Georg Handsch.  “Some of his entries offer a complete history of a patient’s disease, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. Others are limited to brief, isolated observations.  These notebooks, which have been neglected by historians, were an important tool of knowledge production, and they reflect a vigorous and consistent effort to learn from personal experience at the bedside,” said Professor Stolberg.

    “In the notebooks of Handsch, we find physicians trying to establish general diagnostic and therapeutic rules, based on what they saw in individual patients. We find them questioning accepted medical knowledge – including that of Hippocrates – when it conflicted with their own observations. In Handsch’s case there are various entries on ‘errors’ he thought he had made in certain cases and wished to avoid in the future. There are even records of experiments carried out to assess the effects of poisons and antidotes.”

    Many notebooks contain a mix of written material – some of it copied from other sources, some of it dictated to a scribe, some of it recorded first-hand by those who experienced it. Professor Ann Blair from Harvard University will look at early modern attitudes to delegating copying and note-taking. She explained: “Some early modern pedagogues recommended taking dictation and copying as a mental and physical discipline that sharpened attention and retention. On the other hand, copying was also described at the time as a mechanical process best delegated to helpers. In practice some scholars did a lot of writing themselves while others dictated and delegated copying to others.”

    Dr Adam Smyth, from Birkbeck, University of London, will take a tangential look at notebooks through the works of William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and John Milton.  He will question the modern myth of disembodied literary creativity and ask what literary creativity means amid a culture of commonplace books and note-taking.  In a discussion of marginalia (annotations in the margins of books), Professor Bill Sherman, University of York, will show examples of books he has collected containing readers’ marks that are graphic in some sense, whether doodles or fully fledged illustrations.

    The popularity of the conference, which has attracted participants from all over the world and was oversubscribed within weeks of the call for participants, reflects the appetite among scholars to reflect on modes of reading and writing. Dr Kassell commented: ‘As digital technologies transform how we work and think, we’re reconsidering what it meant to live in a world where paper technologies were an innovation.”

    The conference ‘Notebooks, Medicine and the Sciences in Early Modern Europe’ takes place 12-13 July at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

    For more information on this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, 01223 761673

    Inset images taken from pages of a book of medical recipes recorded by Johanna St John in the late 17th century

    An examination of historic notebooks shows that physicians, and the families who called on their services, made consistent efforts to learn from their experiences at the bedside.  A conference beginning today will explore the contents of these notebooks and the ways in which they were organised, annotated and used. 

    Notebooks are as important to the history of science and medicine as are laboratories.
    Dr Lauren Kassell
    Image from Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis sensualium pictus quadrilinguis (Nuremberg, 1679), p. 374

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    The two studies provide the first estimate of the change in the number of people live with dementia in the UK, and the new figures give a more accurate picture for those developing policies and planning healthcare services for dementia patients.

    The results indicate that overall prevalence has gone down by 1.8 per cent to an estimated 6.5 per cent of the population. Using the current age profiles of the UK, this corresponds to an estimated 670,000 people over the age of 65 living with dementia, a reduction of more than 20 per cent in the number of people projected to have dementia today compared with 20 years ago.

    Three geographical areas in Newcastle, Nottingham and Cambridgeshire from the initial MRC Cognitive Function and Ageing Study (CFAS) examined levels of dementia in the population. The latest figures from the follow up study, CFAS II, show that there is variation in the proportion of people with dementia across differing areas of deprivation,  suggesting that health inequalities during life may influence a person’s likelihood of developing dementia.

    Prevalence of dementia in women remains higher than men, with 7.7 per cent of women over 65 estimated to have dementia, compared with 4.9 per cent of men. Although the overall prevalence of dementia has fallen, the prevalence of dementia among people living in care homes has increased, from 56 per cent of care home residents twenty years ago, to 70 per cent today.

    The study was led by Professor Carol Brayne from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health at Cambridge University. She said: “This study provides compelling evidence of a reduction in the prevalence of dementia in the older population over two decades. Whether or not these gains for the current older population will be borne out in later generations would seem to depend on whether further improvements in primary prevention and effective health care for conditions which increase dementia risk can be achieved, including addressing inequalities.”

    Professor Hugh Perry, Chair of the Neurosciences and Mental Health Board at the Medical Research Council said: “This robust and comprehensive study gives us crucial information on the prevalence of dementia in the country. Of course we can’t assume that this reduction will be seen in future studies, therefore the need for us to find ways of preventing and treating dementia is as urgent as ever. We should be very much encouraged by the indication that there may be modifiable environmental factors that play a role in a person’s risk of developing dementia. The knowledge gleaned from the CFAS I and CFAS II studies is a great example of the benefits of long-term investment by the MRC.”

    Story adapted from a MRC press release.

    Results from two major cohort studies, led by the University of Cambridge and supported by the Medical Research Council, reveal that the number of people with dementia in the UK is substantially lower than expected because overall prevalence in the 65 and over age group has dropped.

    This study provides compelling evidence of a reduction in the prevalence of dementia in the older population over two decades.
    Professor Carol Brayne

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  • 07/17/13--01:31: 'Becks'istentialism
  • When David Beckham arrived in France to play out his career at Paris Saint Germain, it occurred to Dr Andy Martin – West Ham fan and French philosophy expert – that Beckham was reaching a turning point, and Paris can be a dangerous town for a mid-life crisis.

    What might happen, Martin wondered, if Beckham - global footballing icon and celebrity ‘godhead’ - crashed headlong into the Parisian intellectual tradition, succumbing to ideas of existentialist angst, meaninglessness and absurdity as set out by Sartre, Proust, Camus and other great French thinkers?

    Would he descend into anguish when he realises Sartre is right, and ‘hell is other people’? Or would he find ‘the best of all possible worlds’, like Voltaire’s Candide?

    Martin conceived of a thought experiment, a first-person narrative from the perspective of Becks as these turbulent philosophies creep under his flawless skin, disrupting the shiny surface and forcing DB to question everything he thinks he knows about meaning, beauty and life itself. Goldenballs deconstructed.

    The results appeared in regular instalments over 4 months earlier this year as the Tumblr blog Becks in Paris.

    Combining actual events, such as PSG tumbling out of the Champions League and Thatcher’s funeral, with characters - both real and fictional - introducing him to destabilising notions of emptiness, ugliness and revolution, Martin wrote as Beckham’s inner voice. Each week, he speculated on how Becks might think and feel when confronted with explosive concepts from hundreds of years of French philosophical thought.

    The blog entries were posted to the University’s Facebook page and flagged through its Twitter feed. Mysterious tweets on Beckham’s imagined activities created bemusement and intrigue among University followers, with Becks in Paris building a curious and then dedicated audience.

    “Everyone knows everything about Beckham, and at the same time we know nothing. All we see is appearances, he remains - as an American friend said - a ‘blank’,” says Martin. Part of Beckham’s journey in the blog reflects an increasing awareness of this ‘being and nothingness’, at one point catching himself projected on giant screens and asking “is that all I am – a montage of images? Shorts and shoes?”

    So Martin plunged Beckham into the Paris of the mind.

    Becks hangs out at the Café de Flore - Sartre and Beauvoir’s favoured spot - with Cantona to talk Camus, debates beauty with Ginola in the salon, ponders Victor Hugo with his enigmatic driver Franck (“ex-Foreign Legion”) and spends a long, dark night of the soul without the letter ‘e’ in a tribute to Georges Perec. 

    On Sartre and eau de toilette: “I texted VB. ‘btw, name of next fragrance. Existence.’”

    On the central character in Camus’ L’Etranger: “It’s like he’s injured, and brought back too soon. Which is where everything goes pear-shaped. The gaffer should have given him longer to get himself straight.”

    While getting ‘papped’ after reading La Condition humaine: “Nothing is quite what it’s cracked up to be… what if I don’t feel like smiling one of these days? What am I – ambassador for toothpaste?”

    One of the French thinkers with the biggest impact on Becks is Marcel Proust.

    His trainer Sami, the team ‘psych’, acquaints him with the famously labyrinthine writer, and when Beckham witnesses Nani’s red card in Man U’s clash with Real Madrid it triggers a series of remembrances that keep sucking him in, “like my whole life was nothing but a series of reds, involuntary exits”.

    As the petitie madeleine gives way to Dunkin’ Donuts, he dreams of red card guillotines, reminisces about Fergie when he gets another boot in the face (“He’s the best because he’s the worst,” advises Franck, “L’enfer c’est les autres!”) and descends into a hallucinatory flashback (“I was once a tattoo-less youth, wearing underwear without even getting paid for it”) when he goes ‘in search of extra time’.

    Andy Martin has been invited to give talks to sixth-form students around the country on ‘Becksistentialism’ and the theories behind it, and will be giving a public lecture on the project – described by the Newer York press as “experimental literature” - at the University’s forthcoming Festival of Ideas in the autumn.

    Martin said having Beckham in Paris was an “irresistible opportunity” to link classic concerns of French philosophy with our contemporary experiences, and suggested it’s a “reasonable hypothesis” that Becks would undergo an intellectual awakening in Paris, as “just about everyone else does!”

    “I keep getting calls to give talks, with Columbia and Cardiff as well as the Festival later this year, so it seems to have gone down well,” said Martin. “What’s the point of being a public intellectual if you aren’t going to try and build bridges and make associations that people find interesting?”

    The final lesson of Becksistentialism will come from how he fares in retirement, so what advice might Martin offer?

    “Pascal’s theory of ‘divertissement’, or diversion, says all our misfortune springs from our inability to remain at rest in a room. Love and war are divertissements.

    “It’s clear that for Beckham – and many others – le foot is the ultimate truth with respect to which everything else is a divertissement - as per the great French writer and thinker Albert Camus, a former goalie who, when asked, said he would choose football over theatre every time. But now Becks will have to diversify, distract himself.

    “I’d suggest he take a look at the philosopher Charles Fourier – the passion papillonne– who said you should do everything and anything, but nothing for longer than two hours.

    “As Becks says in the blog, ‘I must morph or die’. Or, as the existentialists would say: ‘morph and die.’”

    Inset image: Dr Andy Martin

    A Cambridge lecturer has been imagining the inner monologue of David Beckham as he encounters the works of the great French philosophers during his time at Paris Saint-Germain.

    As Becks says in the blog, ‘I must morph or die’. Or, as the existentialists would say: ‘morph and die’
    Andy Martin
    Beckham 2

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    Mrs Nicola Padfield discusses the judgement of the European Court, and the corresponding reaction from members of the UK Government and others.

    Mrs Padfield is Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the University of Cambridge. She is a barrister by training, and also a Bencher of the Middle Temple. Mrs Padfield has also been elected as the next Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and will take office on 1 October 2013. For more information about Mrs Padfield, please refer to her profile at

    Law in Focus is a collection of short videos featuring academics from the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law, addressing legal issues in current affairs and the news. These issues are examples of the many which challenge researchers and students studying undergraduate and postgraduate law at the Faculty. 

    The case of Vinter v UK was recently decided by the European Court of Human Rights, and has raised a good deal of controversy regarding the right of the United Kingdom to sentence a prisoner to a life sentence (the Whole Life Tariff) without the chance of review. 

    Mrs Nicola Padfield

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    They are working through the physics and mathematics of the strangest of quantum phenomena –  how electrons tunnel into classically forbidden regions  where their kinetic energy of motion is negative and transcendental equations rapidly appear.

    During three days of intensive study, the students, from schools and colleges all over the UK, have tackled problems and practicals based on the University of Cambridge’s undergraduate physics course.  In order to win their place they have prepared an application and been recommended by their schools.

    Help and support during the Challenge was provided by Professor Mark Warner, Dr Anson Cheung, Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright and experienced Physics teacher Robin Hughes. 

    “We want to help school students start to think like university physicists,” said Professor Warner. “This means sketching diagrams to assess a problem, using their mathematical skills to analyse it, and bringing ideas together from across the physics curriculum.

    “We hope that events like the Senior Physics Challenge will encourage more good physicists to take the subject at university, and prepare them to be really strong applicants.”

    In the evenings the students enjoyed a taste of life as Cambridge undergraduates, living in College rooms and attending a garden party.

    Lydia Kanai-Naish from  Birmingham King Edward High School for Girls, Sneha Naik, who studies at Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls in Hertfordshire,  and Jack Dent, from St Paul’s Hammersmith, took a break to reflect on the Challenge.

    “We’re getting experience of 2nd year undergraduate physics,” Jack explained. “We’re working through the Quantum Mechanics primer, which is a formal but gentle introduction to quantum mechanics.”

    “Most people know a bit of quantum mechanics but we’re being re-taught to make sure there are no gaps,” added Lydia. “I hoped by coming here that I’d be stretched and learn to think about problems in a different way.”

    Jack also enjoyed learning how to set out a problem independently. “At school we have “machines” – we put in the information and solve the problem,” said Jack. “Here, we’re being given the tools to build the machines ourselves.”

    Sneha is sad that it’s the final day of the Challenge. “It has really stretched our minds, but I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface. I want to keep going and keep stretching!”

    The Senior Physics Challenge is now in its 8th year and is more popular than ever. “We get between 4 and 6 applications for every place,” said Dr Anson Cheung. “We’re limited in numbers because we want students to stay in colleges to experience university life.  We fully appreciate the college contribution and thank them for their support.

    “This year we’ve got 71 students. They love physics when they apply, but they don’t fully appreciate the possibilities of the subject at university level.  We’re helping them understand university-level physics and to find out whether they love it the same amount, or even more.

    “This is the last day, and we’re still seeing smiles, they’re still engaged with the problems and the lectures – working to the last minute! This is the best testament to their engagement with the subject – and tells us that the Senior Physics Challenge 2013 has been a success.”

    • The 2013 Senior Physics Challenge has been part funded by a grant from the Rutherford Schools Physics Project, a five-year project aimed at enriching A-Level physics teaching.

    • The SPC also thanks Corpus Christi College, Christ’s College, Churchill College, Fitzwilliam College, Newnham College, Peterhouse, Pembroke College, Queens’ College, Robinson College, St John's College, Trinity College and the Ogden Trust for their support.

    “Niels Bohr once said that those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it,” Professor Mark Warner tells his audience of A-Level physicists on the final day of the 2013 Senior Physics Challenge.

    I hoped by coming here that I’d be stretched and learn to think about problems in a different way.
    Lydia Kanai-Naish

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    The purpose of the review was to focus on how universities can drive growth in their areas and for the benefit of the wider UK, and to disseminate knowledge and best practice.

    The University of Cambridge's submission to the Review is available as a pdf.

    Sir Andrew Witty was invited to carry out an Independent Review of Universities and Growth, to explore how universities can support growth by working with organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), as the local bodies responsible for setting strategies to drive economic growth across the country.

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    Now, for the first time, the full story of attempts to solve the longitude problem - unravelling the lone genius myth popularised in film and literature - will be made freely available to everyone via Cambridge University Library’s Digital Library.

    Launched today, the complete archive of the Board of Longitude, held by Cambridge University Library, and associated National Maritime Museum collections, will take their place alongside the works of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton at

    Treasures of the Longitude archive, available to view in high-resolution for the first time, include accounts of bitter rivalries, wild proposals and first encounters between Europeans and Pacific peoples. This includes logbooks of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, the naming of Australia and even a letter from Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty, who writes to apologise for the loss of a timekeeper after his ship was ‘pirated from my command’.

    The University Library’s Digital Library project was launched in June 2010 following a £1.5m gift from the Polonsky Foundation. University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “With the digitisation of this incredible collection, we have taken another important step towards realising our shared ambition of creating a digital library for the world.”

    The Board of Longitude collection is the largest project undertaken to date by the Cambridge Digital Library team, comprising more than 65,000 images. Funded by Jisc (, a charity which provides digital services for UK education and research, the collection has been developed in partnership with a wider five-year research project by Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum.

    In July 1714 an act of parliament established a £20,000 prize, worth about £1.5 million today, for the discovery of longitude at sea: determining a ship’s position east and west from a fixed meridian line.

    Cambridge historian Professor Simon Schaffer said: “The problem of longitude could be a lethal one. The act of parliament established the Board of Longitude – think the X Factor, only much more money and much more important – that would reward anyone who could solve the problem of longitude.

    “The longitude story is a spectacular example of expert disagreement and public participation. As well as attracting the greatest scientific minds of the day, the board enticed people who belong to one of the most important traditions in British society; the extreme eccentric.”

    The hugely significant archive preserves detailed minutes from the first recorded meeting in 1737 right through to the Board of Longitude’s dissolution in 1828.

    Royal Museums Greenwich’s Dr Richard Dunn, who is currently curating a major exhibition inspired by longitude, said the archive proves that John Harrison, while a towering figure in the story, is not the start and end point for all things longitude.

    "The archive places the familiar story of Harrison in its richer context. He was a crucial figure but the story is much broader. It takes in the development of astronomy, exploration and technological innovation and creativity during the period of the Industrial Revolution, the work of the first government body devoted to scientific matters, and public reactions to a challenge many considered hopeless.”

    As the schemes for longitude needed to be tested on long voyages, the archive includes much detail on Britain’s maritime interests, explorations and encounters with other cultures. It also played a major role in plans for voyages by James Cook and successors into the Pacific in the 1770s - and into the Arctic in the opening decades of the 19th century. The archive includes four eyewitness accounts of Cook’s Second Voyage and contains the first Western maps and descriptions of many Pacific places and peoples.

    The Board’s work continued long after longitude was effectively solved and its many interests and long duration makes the archive a hugely important primary source on the development of science and technology in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It also provides valuable insight into the social history of the era with thousands of names featuring in its files; from Isaac Newton, to eccentric inventors who berated the Board for not following up on their ideas.

    Indeed, the archive contains two volumes of ‘impractical’ schemes submitted in the hope of finding a reward. They were later bound and prefaced with title pages such as ‘wild proposals resulting from dreams’. They came via a diverse cross-section of society, from prisoners seeking release in return for their ‘solutions’ to citizens like Mr William Lester, who proposed solar experiments to find longitude that involved igniting points on a globe with a lens. The board underlined his statement that if the globe is correct and properly adjusted ‘you will set fire to London’.

    Flickr Gallery of images from the Cambridge and Greenwich archives can be seen here

    Inset image: Sextant, made by Jesse Ramsden. Copyright National Maritime Museum

    It was the conundrum that baffled some of the greatest and most eccentric experts of the 18th century - and captivated the British public during an era of unprecedented scientific and technical transformation.

    The problem of longitude could be a lethal one.
    Simon Schaffer

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    Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Boston Children’s Hospital have discovered a genetic cause of severe obesity which, although rare, raises new questions about weight gain and energy use.

    In order to explore the role of the signaling protein Mrap2, Dr Joseph Majzoub, Chief of Endocrinology at Boston Children’s Hospital and lead investigator on the study, developed a mouse model in which the Mrap2 gene was missing. The research found that the mice lacking this protein gained a significant amount of weight even when they didn’t eat more food, suggesting that the affected gene appears to be involved in regulating metabolism. The research is published in the 19 July 2013 edition of the journal Science.

    “Mice with the mutation gain more weight and are somehow more efficient with the food they eat,” says Majzoub. “They’re not burning it; they’re somehow holding on to it.”

    To investigate the gene in humans, Majzoub collaborated with Professor Sadaf Farooqi from the University of Cambridge to examine groups of severely obese patients from around the world. The team found four rare mutations in the MRAP2 gene among the 500 people they screened; each of the four affected patients had only one copy of the mutation. While the finding suggests that these MRAP2 mutations may contribute to obesity in less than 1 percent of the obese population, the finding of a new gene could provide clues into the brain pathways that regulate weight, which could ultimately be useful for developing new treatments.

    Professor Farooqi said: “The discovery that the disruption of MRAP2 causes obesity adds to a growing body of work that illustrates how certain genes work in the brain to regulate weight. Our aim is to find the genetic determinants of body weight and by doing so, to find better ways to prevent and treat obesity and associated health problems such as diabetes.”

    The Mrap2 gene appears to work by fine-tuning signals through a receptor in the brain called the Melanocortin 4 receptor (Mc4r). MC4R is one of the critical control points in the brain for the regulation of appetite and energy expenditure (how we burn calories). Prof Farooqi and colleagues in Cambridge have previously shown that genetic changes that disrupt the MC4R gene can cause obesity in people, which often begins in childhood. This new discovery adds a further piece to the puzzle, by suggesting that defects in a different gene can indirectly impact on MC4R and thus contribute to obesity.

    While changes in diet and levels of physical activity underlie the recent increase in obesity in the UK and worldwide, there is a lot of variation in how much weight people gain. This variation between people is largely influenced by genetic factors. The discovery of a new obesity gene, MRAP2, shows that the body’s mechanisms for regulating weight are likely to be complex. The Cambridge team is continuing to work to find other new genes for obesity, findings which they hope to translate into beneficial therapies in the future.

    Professor Farooqi’s research was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

    Mice gain weight even when eating normal amount of food.

    Our aim is to find the genetic determinants of body weight and by doing so, to find better ways to prevent and treat obesity and associated health problems such as diabetes.
    Professor Sadaf Farooqi from the University of Cambridge
    Johnny Settle

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    Summer at the Museums invites visitors to explore the world and discover amazing things through a series of interactive workshops and museum tours.

    The project runs throughout the summer until September 7 with over 100 different activities, from robot construction to a 1930’s Tea Party.

    The eight museums based in Cambridge are all within easy walking distance of the city centre and many of the Summer at the Museums events are free. Other activities include: digging for buried treasure at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, art workshops at Kettle’s Yard, and storytelling and games at The Polar Museum.

    Meanwhile, the University Botanic Garden will be throwing its gates open. Visitors can discover the story of the Magic Brick Tree and join the magical modelling workshop; perfect with a picnic and some sunshine. 

    Just outside the city Denny Farmland Museum and Abbey offers history, adventure and creativity. One of the activities offered is Clay Day, where kids of all ages can roll up their sleeves and make clay creations of their very own.

    For any aspiring Sherlock Holmes, The Mystery of the Abbey is the place to be. Follow the clues and ask the nuns and monks for help to solve the mysterious goings on; a must for any young detective.

    Ely Stained Glass Museum will offer an exciting opportunity with a series of two glass fusing workshops in which visitors can learn the alchemy of glass and precious metals and make a piece of artwork to take home.

    Visitors will be taught how to cut glass and be given inspiration by the museum’s own collection. For each of the glass workshops’ pre-booking is required at the cost of £8.50 per child.

    The University of Cambridge Museums offers the unique opportunity to build a Victorian seaside setting at Castle End Mission Hall. Visitors can take a step back in time and enjoy a real Punch and Judy show, life size sea bathers and a seaside snack stand.

    Other highlights include the Origins of the Afro Comb exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, with live demonstrations of hair styling and braiding.

    To find out what else is happening and when, the Summer at the Museums programme is available online at:

    On Saturday July 20, the University launches its annual Summer at the Museums project which this year takes place across 18 different museums in Cambridgeshire.

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    The origins of robotics go back to the automata invented by ancient civilisations. The word robot entered our vocabulary only in 1920 with Czech writer Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).  Over the past 20 years robots have been developed to work in settings that range from manufacturing industry to space. At Cambridge University, robotics is a rapidly developing field within many departments, from theoretical physics and computing to engineering and medical science.

    Lord Martin Rees is Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He holds the honorary title of Astronomer Royal.  Lord Rees is co-founder of the Centre for the Study of the Existential Risk, an early stage initiative which brings together a scientist, philosopher and software entrepreneur. Kathleen Richardson is an anthropologist of robots. She took her PhD at Cambridge and recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UCL. She is writing a book that explores the representational models used by scientists and how they influence ideas we have about robots as potential friends or enemies. Daniel Wolpert is a Royal Research Society Professor in the Department of Engineering, Cambridge University. His expertise lies in bioengineering and especially the mechanisms that control interactions between brain and body. The focus of his research group is an understanding of movement, which he believes is central to all human activities.

      What can robots do for us?
    Martin Rees I think robots have two very different roles. The first is to operate in locations that humans can’t reach, such as the aftermaths of accidents in mines, oil-rigs and nuclear power stations. The second, also deeply unglamorous, is to help elderly or disabled people with everyday life: tying shoelaces, cutting toenails and suchlike. Moreover, if robots can be miniaturised, they can perhaps be used inside our bodies for monitoring our health, undertaking surgery, and so forth.

    Kathleen Richardson Some of the roles that robots are expected to play are because we cannot do them as humans - for example, to explore outer space. Space exploration is an area where robots are helpful. Robots can be remote and act as extended ‘eyes’ for humans, enabling us to look beyond our visual experience into terrains that are inhospitable to us.  Other roles that robots are expected to perform are roles that humans can play, such as helping the elderly or the infirm. Unfortunately these roles are not best suited to machines, but to other people. So the question is: why would we prefer a machine do them for us?

    Daniel Wolpert While computers can now beat grandmasters at chess, there is currently no robot that can match the dexterity of a five-year-old child. The field of robotics is similar to where computers were in the 1960s - expensive machines used in simple, repetitive industrial processes.  But modern day robotics is changing that. Robots are likely to become as ubiquitous as the smartphone computers we all carry - from microscopic robotics for healthcare and fabrication to human-size robots to take on our everyday tasks or even act as companions.

    How soon will machine intelligence outstrip human intelligence?
    MR Up till now, the advances have been patchy. For at least the last 30 years, we’ve been able to buy for a few pounds a machine that can do arithmetic faster than our brains can.  Back in the 1990s IBM's 'Deep Blue' beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. And more recently a computer called ‘Watson’ beat human challengers in a verbal quiz game on television. But robots are still limited in their ability to sense their environment: they can't yet recognise and move the pieces on a real chessboard as cleverly as a child can. Later this century, however, their more advanced successors may relate to their surroundings (and to people) as adeptly as we do. Moral questions then arise. We accept an obligation to ensure that other human beings, and indeed some animal species, can fulfil their 'natural’ potential. So what's our obligation towards sophisticated robots? Should we feel guilty about exploiting them? Should we fret if they are underemployed, frustrated, or bored?

    KR As an anthropologist, I question the idea of ‘objective’ human intelligence. There are just cultural measures about what intelligence is and therefore machines could outstrip ‘human intelligence’. When that happens will depend on what we decide is the measure of intelligence. Each generation makes a new definition of what it means to be human and what is uniquely a human quality, then a machine comes along and meets it and so many people despair that humanity is on the brink of its own annihilation. This fear of machines is not something inherent in them, it is a consequences of the modes of mimesis (copying and representation) used in the making of robots. This could be seen as a modern form of animism. Animism is a term to describe the personification of nature, but I believe we can apply it to machines. Human beings personify just about everything: we see faces in clouds, mystical impressions in Marmite and robots as an autonomous threat. The human fear of robots and machines arguably has much more to say about human fear of each other rather than anything inherently technical in the machines. However, one of the consequences of thinking that the problem lies with machines is that as a culture we tend to imagine they are greater and more powerful than they really are and subsequently they become so.

    DW In a limited sense it already has. Machines can already navigate, remember and search for items with an ability that far outstrips humans.  However, there is no machine that can identify visual objects or speech with the reliability and flexibility of humans. These abilities are precursors to any real intelligence such as the ability to reason creatively and invent new problems. Expecting a machine close to the creative intelligence of a human within the next 50 years would be highly ambitious.

    Should we be scared by advances in artificial intelligence?
    MR Those who should be worried are the futurologists who believe in the so-called ‘singularity’, when robots take over and themselves create even more sophisticated progeny. And another worry is that we are increasingly dependent on computer networks, and that these could behave like a single ‘brain’ with a mind of its own, and with goals that may be contrary to human welfare. I think we should ensure that robots remain as no more than ‘idiot savants’ – lacking the capacity to outwit us, even though they may greatly surpass us in the ability to calculate and process information.

    KR We need to ask why fears of artificial intelligence and robots persist; none have in fact risen up and challenged human supremacy. To understand what underscores these fears, we need to understand science and technology as having a particular and exclusionary kind of mimesis. Mimesis is the way we copy and imitate. In creating artificial intelligence machines and robots we are copying the human. Part of what we copy is related to the psychic world of the maker, and then the maker is copying ideas, techniques and practices into the machine that are given by the cultural spirit (the science, technology, and life) of the moment. All these factors are fused together in the making of artificial intelligence and robots. So we have to ask why it is also so frightening to make this copy? Not all fear a robotic uprising; many people welcome machine intelligence and see it as wonderful opportunity to create a new life. So to understand why some fear and some embrace you really have to know what models of mimesis go into the making of robots.

    DW We have already seen the damaging effects of simplest forms of artificial self-replicating intelligence in the form of computer viruses. But in this case, the real intelligence is the malicious designer. Critically, the benefits of computers outweigh the damage that computer viruses cause. Similarly, while there may be misuses of robotics in the near future, the benefits that they will bring are likely to outweigh these negative aspects.  I think it is reasonable to be concerned that we may reach a time when robotic intelligence outstrips humans’ and robots are able to design and produce robots more advanced than themselves.

    Should robots be used to colonise other planets?
    By the end of the century, the entire solar system -- planets, moons and asteroids -- will be explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft.  The next step would be mining of asteroids, enabling fabrication of large structures in space without having to bring all the raw materials from Earth. It would be possible to develop huge artefacts: giant telescopes with gossamer-thin mirrors assembled under zero gravity, collectors of solar energy, and so forth. I think this is more realistic and benign than the so-called ‘terraforming’ of planets – which should be preserved with a status that is analogous to Antarctica here on Earth (at least until we are sure that there is no form of life already there).

    KR I am not happy with the word ‘colonise’ for humans or robots. Europeans colonised other peoples’ lands and left a long legacy of enslavement, problems, disease and, for many, suffering. I think whether we do something on Earth or on Mars we should always do it in the spirit of a genuine interest in ‘the-Other’, not to impose a particular model, but to meet ‘the-Other’. Robots could help us to go to places we can not physically go ourselves, but these robots can not interpret what they are seeing for us.

    DWI don’t see a pressing need to colonise other planets unless we can bring resources back to Earth. The vast majority of Earth is currently inaccessible to us. Using robots to gather resources nearer to home would seem to be a better use of our robotic tools.

    What can science fiction tell us about robotics?
    I sometimes advise students that it’s better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science -- more stimulating, and perhaps no more likely to be wrong.  Even those of us who don’t buy the idea of a singularity by mid-century would expect sustained, if not enhanced, rate of innovation in biotech, nanotech and in information science.  I think there will be robotic entities with superhuman intellect within a few centuries.  Post-human intelligence (whether in organic form, or in autonomously-evolving artefacts) will develop hyper-computers with the processing power to simulate living things, even entire worlds. Perhaps advanced beings could use hyper-computers to   surpass the best 'special effects' in movies or computer games so vastly that they could simulate a world fully  as complex as  the one we perceive ourselves to be in. Maybe these kinds of super-intelligences already exist elsewhere in the universe.

    KRFiction and science fiction is so important for everyday life. In Western culture we tend to think there is reality on the one hand, and fiction and fantasy on the other. This separation does not exist in all cultures, but science and technologists made this deliberate separation because they wanted to carve out the sphere of their work. In doing this they denigrated lots of valuable knowledge, such as myth and metaphor, that might be important in developing a richer model. But the divide is not so clear cut and that is why the worlds seem to collide at times. In some cases we need to bring these different understandings together to get a whole perspective. Perhaps then, we won’t be so frightened that something we create as a copy of ourselves will be so threatening to us.

    DWScience fiction has often been remarkable at predicting the future from Arthur C Clarke’s idea of satellite communication to Star Trek’s communicators which now look old fashioned compared to modern mobile phones. Science fiction has painted a vivid spectrum of possible futures, from cute and helpful robots (Star Wars) to dystopian (I Robot) robotic societies. Interestingly, almost no science fiction envisages a future without robots.

    Robots can do a lot for us: they can explore space or they can cut our toenails. But do advances in robotics and artificial intelligence hold hidden threats? Three leaders in their fields answer questions about our relationships with robots.

    By the end of the century, the entire solar system -- planets, moons and asteroids -- will be explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft
    Martin Rees
    Robot head

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    The event also aimed to encourage more of the region’s talented students to take up engineering at university and included a masterclass on advanced aerodynamics, after which the students attempted to put their new found knowledge into practice by creating the perfect paper aeroplane.

    The day also tasked students with solving a number of maths problems before ending with a question and answer session that provided tips on how to secure a place at top universities.

    One student that benefitted from the event was Newcastle Sixth Form College student Arnold Williams, 18, who lives in Newcastle and is studying Maths, Physics and Art.

    He said: “The masterclasses really helped me to understand what it takes to become a student at a university like Cambridge, as well as how to approach the application process. I’m focussed on a career in engineering and these masterclasses have helped to improve my outlook of the industry and how to start building my career.”

    The event took place within the new Newcastle Sixth Form College building, which will be opening its doors to students in September following its £22m development on Rye Hill Campus.

    Brendan Shepherd, Schools Liaison Officer at Cambridge University’s Jesus College, said: “We know there are candidates of a high calibre in the North East and through events such as this we hope to encourage them to consider an application. It is important to us that we fulfil our aim to admit the brightest and best students that this country has to offer and believe that the North East is a hotbed of engineering talent, with individuals that can take their talents to the top of the industry.”

    High flying Sixth Form students from 10 colleges and schools across the North East attended a series of Engineering Masterclasses hosted by Newcastle Sixth Form College, which were designed to help them apply for and study at some of the country’s leading higher education institutions.

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    Each has been recognised for making significant contributions to their respective fields by a historic award from the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.

    Hughes Medal

    Professor Henning Sirringhaus, fellow of Churchill College, has been awarded the Hughes Medal for “his pioneering development of inkjet printing processes for organic semiconductor devices, and dramatic improvement of their functioning and efficiency”.

    The Hughes Medal is awarded biennially for original discoveries relating to the generation, storage and use of energy; past winners have included Alexander Graham Bell and Stephen Hawking FRS.

    Professor Sirringhaus is Head of the Microelectronics and Optoelectronics Research Groups in the Cavendish Laboratory and co-founder of Plastic Logic Ltd, a technology start-up company leading the development and commercialisation of plastic electronics.

    As current Hitachi Professor of Electron Device Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, Professor Sirringhaus’ research interests focus on the relationship of charge transport with organic molecules. 

    He is an expert in the printing fabrication of organic devices and applications of organic semiconductors in transistors and solar cells.

    Bakerian Lecture

    Professor Lynn Gladden CBE FREng FRS, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University, has been awarded the Bakerian Lecture for her “development of magnetic resonance techniques to study multi-component adsorption, diffusion, flow and reaction processes”.

    The Bakerian Lecture is regarded as the premier lecture in the physical sciences and is given annually at the Royal Society in London.

    In 2009 she was awarded a CBE for services to science.

    The Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering, her research interests lie in the application of magnetic resonance imaging techniques in porous media.

    Professor Gladden is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics.

    Francis Crick Lecture

    Dr Duncan Odom has been awarded the Francis Crick Lecture in recognition of his “pioneering work in the field of comparative functional genomics, which has changed our understanding of the evolution of mammalian transcriptional regulation”.

    The Francis Crick Lecture is given annually in any field of the biological sciences, but with preference to genetics, molecular biology and neurobiology.

    Dr Odom is Associated Research Group Leader in the Department of Oncology at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute.

    Graduating from the New College of Florida in 1995 with a BA in Chemistry, he went on to receive his PhD in 2001 from Caltech.

    He then changed research fields to undertake postdoctoral studies in genetics and genomics at the Whitehead Institute at MIT.

    Dr Odom’s first major postdoctoral work demonstrated that  human tissue can be used to map where diabetes-linked transcription factors bind the human genome in liver and pancreatic islets.

    His current research interests lie in Genomics and molecular, cellular and structural biology.

    He is an expert in the evolution of tissue in mammals.

    The Royal Society has awarded three University academics for their ground-breaking research that will help to forward the future of science. 

    Winners of Royal Society Awards. From left to right: Professor Lynn Gladden CBE FREng FRS, Dr Duncan Odom,

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    Imagine the changes required to transform a car factory  into a place in which not one single kilogram of landfill waste is produced, and you are some way to understanding what is it the Next Manufacturing Revolution (NMR), a not for profit initiative comprising academics, strategy and enterprise experts, is hoping to achieve.

    In the UK manufacturing industry, improvements to the workforce have already reduced costs and improved efficiency at a rate of 3% per annum since 2001, but so far the efficient use of materials, water and energy has been slower to follow suit. In the NMR’s new report, academics from the Department of Engineering’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) have collaborated with industrial partners to give practical advice on how the manufacturing sector in the UK can clean up its act, and boost its profits.

    “We are very excited about the launch of NMR’s report and the beginning of its programme to drive forward greater efficiencies, and in turn productivity, profits and jobs, in the manufacturing sector”, says report co-author Professor Steve Evans of the University of Cambridge. “The changes that NMR’s programme advocates use proven technologies and have already been implemented by pioneering companies. In many cases actions are straightforward and will deliver quick returns.”

    The report and subsequent programme claims it can help deliver significant benefits to the sector, including £10 billion per annum in additional profits and a 4.5% reduction in the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.  It focuses on seven key areas including waste, energy, packaging and supply chain collaboration.  These areas have been analysed within each of the manufacturing sub-sectors making it one of the most comprehensive analyses of resource management in UK manufacturing to date.

    “I welcome this report for the important issues it raises around sustainable manufacturing and the range of opportunities it identifies for UK industry to improve its productivity through more efficient use of resources,” said The Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. “It fits neatly with my objective of strengthening the manufacturing sector in a forward looking and sustainable manner.  There are many companies cited in the report as best practice leaders, and I am very supportive of its efforts to encourage the rest of UK manufacturing to follow their lead.”

    The NMR launched its new programme at a high profile event attended by Government, companies and NGOs at the House of Commons last week.

    Established in 2012, NMR is a not-for-profit initiative founded by strategy advisors Lavery/Pennell, the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing, and business community experts 2degrees.  Its objective is to unlock significant performance improvement in the manufacturing sector working with manufacturers, government, policy makers and relevant NGOs.

    For a full copy of the report and further details on NMR’s programme is available please visit:

    Programme launched to revolutionise green credentials of UK manufacturing

    In many cases actions are straightforward and will deliver quick returns
    Professor Steve Evans
    Green lego

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    A study has shed light on how cells are able to regenerate protective sheaths around nerve fibres in the brain.

    These sheaths, made up of a substance called myelin, are critical for the quick transmission of nerve signals, enabling vision, sensation and movement, but break down in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

    The study, by the University of Edinburgh and a team led by Professor Robin Franklin of the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, found that immune cells known as macrophages, help trigger the regeneration of myelin.

    Researchers found that following loss of or damage to myelin, macrophages can release a compound called activin-A, which activates production of more myelin.

    Dr Veronique Miron, of the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: “In multiple sclerosis patients, the protective layer surrounding nerve fibres is stripped away and the nerves are exposed and damaged.

    “Approved therapies for multiple sclerosis work by reducing the initial myelin injury – they do not promote myelin regeneration. This study could help find new drug targets to enhance myelin regeneration and help to restore lost function in patients with multiple sclerosis.”

    The study, which looked at myelin regeneration in human tissue samples and in mice, is published in Nature Neuroscience and was funded by the MS Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

    Scientists now plan to start further research to look at how activin-A works and whether its effects can be enhanced.

    Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Head of Biomedical Research at the MS Society, said: “We urgently need therapies that can help slow the progression of MS and so we’re delighted researchers have identified a new, potential way to repair damage to myelin. We look forward to seeing this research develop further.”

    Multiple sclerosis treatments that repair damage to the brain could be developed thanks to new research.

    Oligodendrocytes (green, left) start making myelin (red, right) when exposed to Activin A

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    "Three of our current students came with me on the trip. Helena Blair, Alex Shellum and Naomi Clothier have all just finished their second year at the college.  All three went to state schools before coming to Cambridge and were keen to share their experiences with other state school students.

    “During our time in Doncaster and Rotherham we spoke to 370 students from 11 different state schools in the area over 4 days. It was an extremely enjoyable trip and I am already looking forward to visiting again in 2014!

    “On our first morning we visited Ridgewood School in Doncaster. We spoke to all of the school’s year 12 students about making university decisions, particularly focusing on choosing the right course for you – something that you enjoy and are passionate to study for three (or possibly more!) years.

    “The student ambassadors contributed to the talks, and in this particular session shared their own personal experiences of choosing what to study, making an application, and how they have adapted to being more independent since moving away to study at Cambridge.

    “We also visited Don Valley Academy as part of our time in Doncaster. We spoke to 16 of their brightest year 10 students about the advantages of attending a top institution like Cambridge, and how to make informed subject choices over the coming years. The group was really enthusiastic and asked us good questions about going to university.

    “We spent our final two days in Rotherham, which included a visit to Wath Comprehensive School to speak to some of their year 12 students. Chris Orwin, a former student of the school, joined us for this session. Chris went on to study French and Italian at St. Catharine’s College in 2009.

    “Chris told me “It was great to go back to my old schools and share my experience - it helps to show that Oxford and Cambridge really aren’t exclusive. I hope these visits inspire many more students to apply over the next few years.”

    The student ambassadors and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Doncaster and Rotherham this July. We hope that the Schools Tour gave them an insight to life and study at University more generally, as well as at Cambridge.”

    Ellen Slack is the Schools Liaison Officer at Homerton College. Along with three student ambassadors from the college, she visited schools in Doncaster and Rotherham this July. This is her diary.

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    In a move that will benefit women’s lives in the UK and around the world, Cambridge will take over publication of the RCOG’s current medical book titles. Cambridge and the RCOG will also begin working in partnership to expand the list to offer a wider range of learning to all healthcare professionals in women’s health.

    The list, which will be published under joint RCOG–Cambridge branding, will build on Cambridge’s existing strength in reproductive medicine and maternal-fetal medicine and expand their offering to trainees in obstetrics and gynaecology.  

    The venture will also help the RCOG to pursue its mission to improve the lives of women in developing countries. The RCOG has long provided expertise to medical professionals in the UK and Commonwealth countries and is keen to extend its reach to help doctors, midwives and nurses around the world. Cambridge offers RCOG the perfect launch-pad for making medical publishing available to students and professionals globally.

    RCOG President, Dr Tony Falconer, said: “We look forward to working in partnership with Cambridge University Press as they expand their obstetrics and gynaecology list to cater to everyone caring for women and to achieve cross-over into other specialties, such as general practice and mental health.

    “This also ties in with the RCOG’s international objectives. Cambridge’s reach is truly global, making them the ideal partner to support our ambition to bring excellent learning and support to our international community, some of them working in difficult conditions.

    “The end goal for us both is very simple – to combine the RCOG’s expertise in medicine and Cambridge’s expertise in publishing to raise the standard of care for women all over the world.”

    For Cambridge the long-term aim is to become the publisher of choice in the arena of women’s health generally, offering top-quality learning materials that become fundamental to practitioners at all levels.
    Cambridge University Press Chief Executive, Peter Phillips, commented: “We are excited about the huge opportunities that our partnership with the RCOG makes possible through our joint commitment to excellence in medical publishing.”

    The RCOG is the UK’s main training and professional body for obstetrics and gynaecology with over 12,000 members and fellows. The RCOG’s Global Health Unit works to help lower mother and child death rates in under-resourced countries.

    Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge, its purpose is to further the University's objective of advancing knowledge, education, learning, and research.

    A step-change in publishing in women’s health is under way with the announcement that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is to sell its prestigious publishing list to Cambridge University Press.

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  • 07/23/13--08:04: Much ado about babies
  • In 1697, Matthew Henry, a Presbyterian minister, wrote to his mother about the health of his family. His letter survives in a collection of family correspondence in the British Library, although its immediate context is hazy. Matthew recalls returning from business to find his infant daughter, Nancy, close to death.

    A doctor is called. Matthew states that the physician “was very apprehensive of her peril” and attributed Nancy’s illness to “the badness of her Mother’s Milk”. Matthew’s wife was forbidden by the doctor from breastfeeding the child any longer, an instruction which Matthew recorded “put her in much adoe”. He concluded his letter by informing his mother that “we got a wet nurse into the house”, which, as the doctor promised, returned Nancy to health.

    Contemporary documents like this one reveal that early modern women from relatively affluent families desired to breastfeed, and in some cases were successful at breastfeeding, their infants themselves. Hiring a wet nurse was not a universal practice, and when parents were compelled to resort to outside help, the infant and wet nurse were sometimes accommodated within the home itself.

    Scholars have previously argued that only royal babies enjoyed the proximity of both their mother and wet nurse, and that middling and upper class families invariably sent their infants away from home to live with the wet nurse and her family until weaning was judged appropriate.

    Henry’s letter provides a small but intimate window into the relationship of parents, medical practitioners and infants in 17th-century England. Mortality rates in early modern England were high and parents knew that their children might well not survive infancy, let alone reach adulthood. It has been estimated that a quarter of all infants did not reach their first birthday. Neonatal death was particularly common.

    Nevertheless, parents were eager to employ all kinds of means to secure the ongoing health of their offspring after birth. Matthew and his wife knew the life of the infant Nancy was precarious but they also knew that she could be saved. Vignettes such as theirs indicate that when infant illness occurred, parents were flexible in their post-natal regimes, willing to make changes, and loving and tender in their concern for their offspring. 

    My research looks at the theory and practice of maternal and infant health, and how their respective bodies were perceived to function in relation to one another. I am part of the Wellcome Trust funded Generation to Reproduction project at the University of Cambridge, a group of scholars investigating the history of reproduction from ancient to contemporary times. My work focuses on pregnancy, childbirth and post-natal care, bringing personal documents to bear on published medical literature in order to investigate the intersection between prescriptive advice and practice.

    Sources such as diaries, correspondence and journals offer a fresh perspective on older debates about the practice of medicine within the home and bodily understanding in the past. Still at an early stage, my research into documents such as these has already thrown up a number of surprises.

    Perhaps the most interesting discovery is the frequency with which babies were bathed and cleaned in the 16th and 17th centuries. Current NHS guidelines recommend refraining from submersing newborns in water for a full week after birth, to preserve the protective white substance that covers the baby’s skin at birth to prevent dryness and cracking. After this initial period, the NHS recommends washing newborn babies in plain water once or twice a week. In contrast, 16th- and 17th-century medical authorities recommend baths at least once a day and sometimes as often as three or four times a day.

    This finding – evident in the regimes printed in childbearing manuals - challenges popular assumptions about the comparatively lax attitude to personal hygiene of Tudor and Stuart society. 

    Early modern infants were swaddled (tightly wrapped) shortly after birth. Medical texts provided instructions to parents and nurses as the best way to bind the infant body to support the body and make the limbs grow straight. Other sources indicate that this appears to have been standard practice. Infancy is typically represented on funerary monuments as a swaddled figure. Other representations of swaddling include the famous image, on display at Tate Britain, of the Cholmondeley sisters tenderly holding their wrapped infants.

    No clear time limit confined the period of swaddling. Parents were advised by medical writers to observe the baby’s movement. When infants appeared frustrated by their bindings and moved their arms, their limbs were released, usually at four months old. The entire body was freed at a later stage, sometimes up to a year after birth, depending on an assessment of the baby’s health.

    Older histories of the early modern family have tended to see swaddling as emblematic of the perceived negligence and abuse of children by their parents.
    However, post-natal schedules set out in medical literature suggest that the process of swaddling and changing the infant was couched in terms that allowed regular periods of physical intimacy and affection between mother or nurse and infant.

    Contemporary sources suggest that the infant was ritually bathed, rubbed and stroked, before being carefully dried and wrapped in clean swaddling cloths. Wadges of ‘clouts’, or cloths, were placed to act as a kind of nappy. To me, it seems that swaddling provided an opportunity for parents and other caregivers to be physically close to the infant; it was not an act of emotionally distancing the newborn as previous scholars have argued.

    The fact that wrapping of newborns remains popular today is one of the many reasons why I have chosen to do my research. So many of our social, cultural, emotional and medical values and understandings are reflected in the way we care for our young. Pregnancy, childbirth and post-natal care are subject to trends and fashions, whether they are endorsed through social or medical arguments. Infant and maternal healthcare has always been hotly contested, because it is an activity involving not just parental reputation and identity but also the perpetuation of communities.

    An examination of things which we care about deeply can reveal the discontinuities but also equally as important the continuities between past and present. The media coverage surrounding the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby is picking up the same themes that were prominent in early modern sources, among them pain relief during labour and the post-natal schedule of sleeping and feeding.

    Even our concept of demand feeding, which has recently become part of the new movement of attachment parenting, has an earlier precedent.  Correspondence between two sisters – Ann D’Ewes and Joan Ellyot – that survives in the D’Ewes family papers at the British Library shows that debate about the pros and cons of imposing a regime on a baby or allowing it to sleep and feed on demand was as alive in the mid-17th century as it has been over the past few decades.

    When Ann’s infant son was ailing, Joan wrote to her with urgent advice. Joan told Ann to stop breastfeeding the infant herself, for the baby’s ailing state was a powerful indication that Ann’s breast milk was corrupt and “stale”. Instead, Joan suggested that Ann should hire a wet nurse, whom she should house at home so she could monitor the diet and conduct of the hired nurse. The baby ought not to be “kept from sleepe or suck which I know has bin the way of very good docters in this case but let it haue a full breast of new milke at command and all the quiet and content”.

    In a similarly liberal vein, that would find favour with many modern baby manuals, the Welsh medical writer John Jones wrote in 1579 parents and nurses must “take it [the baby] uppe and laye it downe as ofte as neede shal require”.

    An exploration of the way in which the infant body was perceived to function, and how its needs were to be met, in the past reveals the impressive flexibility of parents in attending to their offspring. Parents engaged actively in the care of their babies and read bodily signs to predict infants’ medical needs. Most strikingly however, post-natal narratives reveal the physical affection which parents bestowed on their offspring in bathing, swaddling, feeding and lulling babies to sleep and how parents were deeply concerned to ensure their offspring survived.

    For more information on this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge 01223 761673.

    The management of childbirth and care of newborns have always been hotly-debated topics. PhD candidate Leah Astbury looks at narratives of reproduction in the 16th and 17th centuries and finds evidence for many of the same concerns. 

    Let it [the baby] haue a full breast of new milke at command and all the quiet and content
    Joan D'Ewes writing to her sister Ann, mid-17th century
    Aristotle's compleat and experienc'd midwife

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    As the Arctic warms and sea ice melts at an unprecedented rate, hitting a record low last summer, the thawing of offshore ‘permafrost’ - frozen soil - in the region is releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

    Scientists have previously warned that there are vast reservoirs of methane in the Arctic, hundreds of billions of tonnes of a gas many times worse than carbon dioxide for global warming - of which only a fraction needs releasing into the atmosphere to trigger possibly catastrophic climate change.

    Now, researchers from Cambridge and Rotterdam have for the first time calculated the potential economic impact of a scenario some scientists consider increasingly likely: that the methane below the East Siberian Sea will be emitted, either steadily over the next 30 years or in one giant “burp”.

    Writing in the journal Nature, the academics say that just this area’s methane alone - some 50 billion tonnes, or 50 gigatonnes - would have a mean global impact of 60 trillion dollars, an amount very similar to the size of the entire global economy last year. Current US national debt stands at a mere 16 trillion dollars in comparison.

    The economic impact modelled was only for the methane existing on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and “the total price of Arctic change will be much higher,” they warn. 

    “Arctic science is a strategic asset for human economies because the region drives critical effects in our biophysical, political and economic systems,” write the academics, who say that world leaders will “miss the bigger picture” without factoring in Arctic methane projections - as neither the World Economic Forum or the International Monetary Fund currently recognise the economic danger of Arctic change. 

    The new results were achieved using PAGE09, the latest version of the PAGE integrated assessment model developed by Dr Chris Hope from Cambridge Judge Business School. PAGE09 is currently used by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and an earlier version was used for the UK Government’s Stern Review in 2006 - the major report on climate change economics on which Hope was a specialist advisor.

    For the latest research, Hope worked with Gail Whiteman, Professor of Sustainability at Erasmus University, and Cambridge’s Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics, who has been studying the disappearance of Arctic ice for 40 years.

    The three academics, who co-authored today’s Nature Comment article, built the projections on previous fieldwork in the region by Dr Natalia Shakhova and colleagues from the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, described by Wadhams as “the only people with the geological knowledge to make estimates about methane emission in this area”.

    The PAGE09 model was then employed to translate the extra methane emissions from the East Siberian Sea into global impacts by considering the huge range of environmental changes they might cause - from increasing global temperature and sea levels to consequent flooding, public health and extreme weather.

    The model was run 10,000 times to assess the range of risks and provide robust results. The team insist that both the scientific predictions and economic modelling are far from worst-case scenarios, and that the figures represent the mean result from “the whole range of available science and economics”.

    “That’s how the model works, how it was used for Stern and by the EPA, it’s the only way I’ll allow it to be used,” said Hope. “The model has to be run with broad ranges for the inputs, it’s not justifiable otherwise.”

    “This is the first calculation of its kind that we know of,” he adds, “and we welcome anyone who wants to take this forward and build on it so we can have a discussion - but we don’t have long to discuss it! This is so big and if it happens it could happen fast; people need to wake up to the possible reality we face”.

    "This is a warning to the world borne out of many decades of research on all our parts, including forty years of ice thinning measurements from UK submarines,” said Wadhams, “it is a considered statement with enormous implications".

    The research also explored the impact of a number of later, longer-lasting or smaller pulses of methane, and the authors write that, in all these cases, the economic cost for physical changes to the Arctic is “steep”, with developing nations bearing 80% of the cost through extreme weather, poorer health and damaged agriculture.

    The authors write that global economic institutions and world leaders should “kick-start investment in rigorous economic modelling” and consider the changing Arctic landscape as an “economic time-bomb” far outweighing any “short-term gains from shipping and extraction”.

    For more information about this story, please contact Tom Kirk, Tel: 01223 332300,

    Economic modelling shows that the possible methane emissions caused by shrinking sea ice from just one area of the Arctic could come with a global price tag of 60 trillion dollars - the size of the world economy in 2012.

    This is a warning to the world borne out of many decades of research.
    Peter Wadhams
    Methane emissions caused by shrinking sea ice from the Arctic could cost the world 60 trillion dollars.

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    New research reveals how the most common cause of severe allergic reactions to cats, the Fel d 1 protein which is found in cat dander, triggers an allergic response.

    Scientists have discovered that when the cat protein Fel d 1 is in the presence of very low doses of the ubiquitous environmental bacterial toxin, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), it activates the pathogen recognition receptor Toll-like receptor 4. Until now, it was not understood how Fel d 1 generated such a large inflammatory response in the immune system.

    Allergic reactions are the result of the immune system overreacting to a perceived danger. Instead of identifying and responding to a harmful virus or bacteria, it misidentifies different allergens, including dander (microscopic pieces of animal skin often accompanied by dried saliva from grooming), as dangerous and mounts an immune response.

    In order to find out how Fel d 1 triggers these allergic reactions, the researchers exposed human cells to cat and dog dander proteins in the presence or absence of low levels of LPS. The researchers found that when the bacterial toxin LPS is present, it increases the signalling to the body’s immune system, intensifying the body’s inflammatory response to the cat protein Fel d 1.

    They also discovered that the part of the immune system that recognises the LPS contaminated Fel d 1  is the pathogen recognition receptor Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4). (TLR4 also plays a role in a heightened immune response, and subsequent allergic reaction, to dust mite allergens and as well as the metal nickel.) The researchers then used a drug which inhibits the TLR4 response and found that it blocks the effects of the cat dander protein on human cells, thereby preventing an inflammatory response.

    Dr Clare Bryant, lead author of the research from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, said: “How cat dander causes such a severe allergic reaction in some people has long been a mystery. Not only did we find out that LPS exacerbates the immune response’s reaction to cat dander, we identified the part of immune system that recognises it, the receptor TLR4.”

    Additional research revealed that the dog allergen Can f 6 (a protein found in dog dander) also enhances LPS-induced activation of TLR4. The researchers believe that dog-allergy sufferers could also benefit from new drugs which inhibit TLR4. 

    Dr Bryant continued: “As drugs have already been developed to inhibit the receptor TLR4, we are hopeful that our research will lead to new and improved treatments for cat and possibly dog allergy sufferers.”

    The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC). It was published in the The Journal of Immunology.

    Immune system’s extreme reaction to cat allergen previously poorly understood; study could lead to new treatments for those with cat and dog allergies

    We are hopeful that our research will lead to new and improved treatments for cat and possibly dog allergy sufferers
    Clare Bryant
    Turkish Angora cat

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    If you are trying to lose weight or save for the future, new research suggests avoiding temptation may increase your chances of success compared to relying on willpower alone. The study on self-control by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Dusseldorf was published today in the journal Neuron.

    The researchers compared the effectiveness of willpower versus voluntarily restricting access to temptations, called ‘precommitment’. (Examples of precommitment include avoiding purchasing unhealthy food and putting money in savings accounts with hefty withdrawal fees.) They also examined the mechanisms in the brain that play a role in precommitment to better understand why it is so effective.

    Molly Crockett, who undertook the research while at the University of Cambridge and is currently a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at UCL, said: “Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place.”

    For the study, the researchers recruited healthy male volunteers and gave them  a series of choices: they had to decide between a tempting “small reward” available immediately, or a “large reward” available after a delay. Small rewards were mildly enjoyable erotic pictures and large rewards were extremely enjoyable erotic pictures. Since erotic pictures are immediately rewarding at the time of viewing, the researchers were able to probe the mechanisms of self-control as they unfolded in real-time. (The scientists could not use money, for example, since subjects could only reap the rewards of money once they left the lab.)

    For some of the choices, the small reward was continuously available, and subjects had to exert willpower to resist choosing it until the large reward became available. But for other choices, subjects were given the opportunity to precommit: before the tempting option became available, they had the ability to prevent themselves from ever encountering the temptation.

    The scientists measured people's choices and brain activity as they made these decisions. They found that precommitment was a more effective self-control strategy than willpower – subjects were more likely to get the large reward when they had the opportunity to precommit. They also found that the most impulsive people (those with the weakest willpower) benefited the most from precommitment.

    The scientists were also able to identify the regions of the brain that play a role in willpower and precommitment. They found that precommitment specifically activates the frontopolar cortex, a region that is involved in thinking about the future. Additionally, when the frontopolar cortex is engaged during precommitment, it increases its communication with a region that plays an important role in willpower, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. By identifying the brain networks involved in willpower and precommitment, the research opens new avenues for understanding failures of self-control.

    Tobias Kalenscher, co-author on the paper from University of Dusseldorf, said: “The brain data is exciting because it hints at a mechanism for how precommitment works: thinking about the future may engage frontopolar regions, which by virtue of their connections with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are able to guide behaviour toward precommitment.”

    For more information about this story, please contact: Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge. Email:; Tel: 01223 765542.

    Study indicates that removing a temptation is more effective than relying on willpower alone.

    Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place.
    Molly Crockett

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