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July 06 2011

A chance to meet real live scientists | Royal Society Summer Science Live

The Royal Society's Summer Science Live Exhibition deftly manages to combine fun with the opportunity to meet scientists and chat about their work

I'm staring at the exhibit list: "Improved Pump" (boring), "Large Map" (even more boring), "Barometers" (ok, vaguely interesting). Not exactly what I was expecting from the Royal Society's 2011 Summer Science Live Exhibition. Thankfully, I'm looking at the wrong poster. The no doubt thrilling "Large Map" exhibit was part of the Royal Society's 1863 Exhibition. Instead when I arrive I'm greeted, not by a large map, but by a medium-sized scientist. He's wearing a synthetic skull cap adorned with electrodes, conductive jelly oozing from his scalp.

And this is what Science Live is really about: meeting the scientists and seeing their research in action. The team from the UCL Ear Institute quickly explain how they use electroencephalography (EEG) to detect electrical activity in the brain. The EEG allows them to measure a patient's response to auditory stimuli, such as the word "dog", amid background noise.

"Live" is the name of the game and, sure enough, I look up at a real-time EEG readout. It twitches up and down as the skullcap-wearing scientist cheerfully explains the purpose of the research. By measuring responses under different conditions, the team can help improve the positioning of cochlear implants and assess hearing difficulties in children too young to talk.

But something else has caught my eye. Across the room I can see a Scalextric track, complete with traffic lights, and can't resist. I wander over and ask the team from the University of Southampton about their research. Like a schoolboy, I'm trying to be polite as they explain "one of the most interesting problems in engineering": how to control traffic lights. I just want a go on the Scalextric.

At last I've got the controller in my hand. I'm the bright orange Nissan 350Z. Dr Simon Box is the white Ford Focus (gutted). We start zipping round the track and, joy of joys, the traffic lights change from red to green as we approach the first junction. Dr Box explains how a computer controls the lights to optimise traffic flow, even dealing with conflicts such as two cars approaching from different angles. Apparently this technology is already out there (given my experience with traffic lights I'm dubious) and, in the future, they hope to implement yet more sophisticated algorithms for controlling the flow of traffic.

Dr Box even convinces me that variable speed limits are a good idea. Still, I can't let him win me over entirely ... I ask if understanding the maths behind traffic jams is any consolation when he gets stuck on the M25? No, thought not.

Science Live isn't all non-stop fun (unless you spend all day on the Scalextric). These are real scientists presenting some of their latest research. Like some warped version of an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, the scientists are as much a part of the exhibition as the experiments. To that end, I make a beeline for the Interpreting Climate Predictions stand. Eager to hear something juicy, I ask Dr David Stainforth to give me his take on models of climate change. The response: "We know they are all wrong".

I splutter, fumbling for my notepad. What a scoop! A climate change denier at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition?

Of course not. Dr Stainforth goes on to make clear that climate change is real and that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce its impact. His point is that, while all models predict an increase in mean global temperature, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the specifics. For instance, if atmospheric CO2 doubles, how high should I build my seawall in Brighton, as opposed to Great Yarmouth? If atmospheric CO2 triples, will I see mass migration from London to Madrid, or the other way around?

At this point I imagine George Monbiot, standing in the corner, nodding vigorously, or perhaps shaking his head in contempt. Either way, while Science Live is obviously entertaining, it is also a showcase for "open science". It's certainly refreshing to discuss the challenges of interpreting climate data with real scientists (a far cry from the University of East Anglia freedom of information debacle).

By the end of the day I've captured a (Beany Baby) fruit bat in the library and tried my hand at spotting bombs in an x-ray machine. But it's the scientists who are the real stars of the show. You can do the experiments and then chat with them.

Children in particular shouldn't be afraid to question conclusions and offer alternatives. Science Live is a great platform for the researchers of the future to learn this.


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June 28 2011

Rachel Maxwell-Hyslop obituary

Foremost scholar of western Asiatic art and archaeology

Rachel Maxwell-Hyslop, who has died aged 97, was one of the foremost scholars of western Asiatic art and archaeology of her time. Her best-known work is Western Asiatic Jewellery: c.3000-612 BC, a bold, erudite attempt to gather together in a single volume everything important that was known on the subject. Still the standard reference work, it establishes what is characteristic about the jewellery of the near Middle East, drawing on Rachel's encyclopedic knowledge of the region's material culture, and relates it to the jewellery of neighbouring Egypt and Greece. She also wrote extensively on the weaponry and agricultural tools of bronze-age western Asia.

Born in London, she was the daughter of Sir Charles Clay and his wife, Violet, daughter of a Liberal attorney general. Her father was a noted antiquarian and librarian at the House of Lords. After going to Downe House school, Berkshire, Rachel studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then gained a postgraduate diploma in the archaeology of western Asia at the Institute of Archaeology, London University. In 1938 she married Bill Maxwell-Hyslop (cousin of Sir Robin, the Conservative MP for Tiverton), with whom she had three children, Andrew, Gillian and Hilary.

Her earliest excavations included cleaning Roman pavements at Verulamium, in modern St Albans, Hertfordshire, and digging pits at the Maiden Castle site, near Dorchester, with Mortimer Wheeler, at the start of his three years of excavations there, in 1934. Those experiences left her wanting to work outside Europe, so when Wheeler founded the Institute of Archaeology that year, she was one of its first three students, even before it had found a home at St John's Lodge in Regent's Park, London.

She was impressed by the expectations of Sidney Smith, who pioneered the new course in Mesopotamian studies: "He constantly emphasised the importance of assessing every kind of evidence – historical, archaeological, architectural, pottery, metalwork, etc – and of linking it to economic, religious, mythological and legal texts, while also considering technical, scientific problems." Literature, language and archaeology were thus linked "to provide evidence not only of material culture, but of people's everyday lives".

In 1946, she joined the staff of the institute. The following year Max Mallowan arrived as professor of western Asiatic archaeology, a new post funded by his wife, the detective novelist Agatha Christie. Rachel became an assistant lecturer, and then lecturer (1952-66). She found working with Mallowan stimulating: in Easter terms in the 1950s she looked after the administration of his excavation at Nimrud, in Iraq, and he sent her to study how materials were analysed.

From 1937 to 1990 she also researched, travelled or excavated in Cyprus, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Iran. In 1989, she returned to Nimrud with Barbara Parker, another of the three students from 1934, who had married Mallowan after Christie's death.

Like her father, Rachel was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in 1950, and also a fellow of the British Academy, in 1991. She continued to work in her later years, standing down as president of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq only on her 93rd birthday.

She enjoyed playing the piano, painting and gardening at her house at Little Tew, Oxfordshire. In later life, she gave up Turkish cigarettes in favour of occasionally smoking lavender from her garden in a pipe, all the while following her mother's family in remaining a staunch supporter of Liberal politics.

Bill died in 1993. Rachel is survived by her children and three grandchildren.


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October 19 2010

The art of geometry

The sphere of maths has borne few as provocative as the man whose 'fractals' demonstrated the universe's playful irregularity

Few recent thinkers have woven such a beautiful braid of art and science as Benoît B Mandelbrot, who has died aged 85 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (The B apparently doesn't stand for anything. He just felt like adding it.) Mandelbrot was a provocative mathematician, a subversive geometer. He left a beautiful legacy in visual art, for Mandelbrot was the man who named and explained fractals – those complex, apparently chaotic yet geometrically ordered shapes that delight the eye and fascinate the mind. They are icons of modern understanding of the universe's complexity.

The Mandelbrot set, one of the most famous fractal designs, is named after him. With its fizzing fringe of crystal-like microforms blossoming out of a conjunction of black circles, this fractal pattern looks crazy but is the outcome of geometrical calculations.

Geometry, said Mandelbrot, is seen as "dry" because it can only explain regular shapes like the square, the cylinder and the cone. Such shapes have been analysed mathematically since the time of the ancient Greeks, which is why traditional geometry is known as Euclidean geometry. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, physicists and mathematicians started to think beyond Euclid and his regular universe. Mandelbrot was not the first, but with his startling fractals concept he created a visual manifesto for a non-Euclidean universe.

Fractals – and I'd be delighted if mathematicians can give a better explanation below– are shapes that are irregular but repeat themselves at every scale: they contain themselves in themselves. Mandelbrot used the example of a cauliflower which, like a fern, is a fractal found in nature; if you look at the smallest sections of these vegetable forms, you see them mirroring the whole.

Mandelbrot, who worked at IBM before becoming a professor at Yale, started thinking about irregular shapes by looking at maps of Great Britain. The squiggly shape of the UK mainland fascinated him and he wondered whether it was possible to make a mathematical model of its perimeter. Can you measure the British coastline? He discovered that you can at a distance, but that then the closer you look, the more you find. In a sense, the British coastline is "infinite".

Artists have been fascinated by geometry for as long as mathematicians have. The studies of Euclid are reflected in the regularities of classical and Renaissance architecture, from the Pantheon in Rome to the duomo in Florence. But artists and architects were also thinking centuries ago about non-regular, curving geometries. You could argue that fractals give us the mathematics of the Baroque – they were anticipated by Borromini and Bach. I have a facsimile, given away by an Italian newspaper, of part of Leonardo da Vinci's Atlantic Codex, which contains page after page of his attempts to analyse the geometry of twisted, curving shapes.

Mandelbrot was a modern Leonardo, a man who showed the beauty in nature. He was a prophet of the curving universe and gave us, in the endlessly playful geometry of fractals, a visual lexicon for our complex world.


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September 10 2010

The secret world of the microscopic

Gallery: Spike Walker is honoured for his 'outstanding contribution to photography and its application in the service of medicine'



September 07 2010

Natural selection

Charles Darwin never patronised his audience but presented his evidence modestly; Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, lacks the patience to let natural history speak for itself

Charles Darwin was not a clever man. Well, clearly he was a very clever man. But he was not self-consciously clever: he never talked down to his readers. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, is a modest book. It begins with evidence – and down-to-earth, homely evidence at that. Even though Darwin's encounter with the island species of the Galapagos and other exotic discoveries on his voyage with HMS Beagle was so important to his intellectual evolution he starts his great work with observations about domestic British breeds. Similarly, in The Descent of Man he offers copious anecdotes about his study of primates in London Zoo (he wasn't above teasing the animals).

Darwin is the finest fruit of English empiricism. His modest presentation of evidence contrasts, I am sorry to say, with the rhetorical stridency of Richard Dawkins. Visit the famous atheist's website and you will see two causes being pushed. Dawkins is campaigning with other secular stars against the pope's visit to Britain. Meanwhile he is touring the paperback of his book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The trouble with this book is that it lacks Darwin's empirical style. Where the Victorian writer presented masses of evidence, and let his astonishing, earth-shattering theory emerge from common-sense observations of nature, Dawkins lacks the patience, at this point in his career, to let natural history speak for itself. He has become the mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises.

He just can't separate science from the debate he has got into with religious people. "Debate" is too kind a word. In a debate you are trying to convince your opponents, but the new atheists have closed off the grey area in which, for a long time in the west, science and religion co-existed. In The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins tries momentarily to backtrack, pointing out that all educated bishops believe in evolution. But he is soon back to the realm of dogma, asking himself why it took so long to come across the reality of evolution. This is clearly a historical question, although it may not be a good historical question (why did it take so long to discover the iPad? Well, first you had to invent the wheel ...) No sooner does he ask this question than Dawkins replies, in effect – and I am only slightly caricaturing – that it was because people were a bit thick. He offers no intellectual history of how Darwin's big idea was born from centuries of natural science, how the religious Victorians created an intellectual atmosphere in which such a leap in the dark could be contemplated.

Nor does he offer what is surely needed – a blow-by-blow introduction to evolution that starts calmly from the visible evidence all around us. In a telling aside, he is dismissive about the fossil Ida, which he cannot resist telling his readers was massively overhyped. Missing link? You'd have to be an idiot to think that, he grumps ... I am not defending the publicity for this fossil, but it typifies the self-regard of the public atheist that when an accessible, immediate, exciting piece of visual evidence for The Descent of Man enters the mainstream, his reaction is to sneer. He doesn't actually want to persuade, he just wants to be the cleverest kid in the class. Which Darwin never was.


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February 09 2010

Written off

The decision by a London university to axe the UK's only chair in palaeography has been met by outrage from the world's most eminent classicists. John Crace on why the study of ancient writings matters – and why history will be lost without it

Dry, dusty and shortly to be dead. Palaeographers are used to making sense of fragments of ancient manuscripts, but King's College London couldn't have been plainer when it announced recently that it was to close the UK's only chair of palaeography. From ­September, the current holder of the chair, Professor David Ganz, will be out of a job, and the subject will no longer exist as a separate academic discipline in British universities. Its survival will now depend entirely on the whim of classicists and medievalists studying in other fields.

The decision took everyone by ­surprise. "It was only recently that Rick Trainor [the principal of King's] was calling the humanities department [to which palaeography is attached] the jewel in the university's crown," says Dr Mary Beard, professor of ­classics at Cambridge University. "There had been a complete overhaul of ­minority disciplines in the mid-1990s, so there was consensus that everything had been pared down to the bare minimum."

How things change. With Lord Mandelson – in his incarnation as secretary of state for business, industry and skills – now imposing a minimum 10% cut in spending throughout higher education, universities are looking to slash and burn departments. And esoteric subjects such as palaeography are easy targets; they attract comparatively few students and, most importantly, comparatively little in the way of research grants – the only way the past few governments have measured a subject's worth.

But if Trainor was hoping palaeography would do the decent thing, he badly misjudged the situation. Professor Ganz – the fourth person to have held the chair since it was endowed in 1949 – didn't roll over and die quietly. "On the assumption that this means the end of the chair of palaeography, I am having to fight for my subject," he says, "and I have been deeply moved by the level of support from friends, many of whom I have never met."

That's pretty much all Ganz is saying for now – but, having initially raised a very restrained, academic form of hell, others are now doing the talking for him. A Facebook page to save the chair has more than 4,000 members, and many of the world's most distinguished classicists have petitioned King's to ­reconsider its position. Even his ­students are stepping in to defend him. "Without a palaeography professor such as David Ganz, not only will King's be sorely deprived of a basis on which to teach almost every other university discipline," says Alexandra Maccarini, "but the study of humanities everywhere will suffer from the absence of a devoted specialist in the subject."

In its strictest sense, palaeography is the study of ancient manuscripts whereby scholars can read texts – often partial, as many exist only in fragments – and localise and date handwriting accurately. This may sound arcane, and to some extent it is. But it is also the building block of all classical and ­medieval scholarship. According to Ganz: "Anyone who goes into a ­university library will within a week find an ancient manuscript that no one has yet properly understood."

"It is academic forensic science," agrees Dr Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the department of the ­Middle East at the British Museum. "Many of the printed texts we use today – be they the Bible, Livy's poems or Shakespeare's plays – do not come from a single text. They are a collation of various manuscripts that may have been altered by scribes over time. A palaeographer can help determine which is likely to be the most authentic.

"It's about understanding the codes, the signs and the ligatures [common abbreviations] that were in use at different periods of a language's evolution, so you can interpret words that may have been rubbed away and see what may have been added at a later date."

Academics, of course, enjoy a good squabble, so it's hard to get universal agreement on what does and doesn't fall within palaeography's reach. For some it includes major finds such as the Rosetta Stone, from which ­hieroglyphics were first decoded, and Linear B, the ancient Minoan script translated by Michael Ventris. ­Others insist that, as they were carved in stone, they fall within epigraphy. Some restrict ­palaeography to merely classical texts; others include medieval and Renaissance texts.

Either way, the point is much the same. It's not just that we wouldn't have a clue what the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Cyrus Cylinder (over which the British Museum and the Iranian government are currently locking horns) actually mean without palaeography; we wouldn't know how to evaluate their historical importance. Multiply this by every fragment and every hand-written folio, and the history of the world begins to be up for grabs.

"Palaeography is not simply an arcane auxiliary science," says Professor Jeffrey Hamburger, chair of medieval studies at Harvard University. "It is as basic to the training and practice of ­historians as mastery of Dos or Unix might be to a computer scientist.

Not that palaeography has the answer to everything. No one has still made head or tail of Linear A (dating back to around 1900BC), and the Indus ­Valley script of the third millennium BC is still a mystery. But just days before King's made the announcement, its sister London institution, University College, was boasting how two of Ganz's former students, Dr Simon ­Corcoran and Dr Benet Salway, had pieced together 17 fragments of parchment that form an important ­Roman law code – believed to be the only original evidence yet discovered of the Gregorian Codex (a collection of constitutions upon which a substantial part of most modern European civil law ­systems are built) that had been thought lost for ever.

Giving up on palaeography is like giving up on art, history and culture. It's like deciding we know all we want to know about the past, so we're not going to bother to find out any more: "It's not as if we can come back to it in 15 years' time if we then decide there's enough money," says Beard. "Palaeography can't be taught in an online tutorial; it's a skill handed down from one academic to another. If King's does go through with its decision, it's the end of the subject in this country."

Reading the past: What palaeographers have done for us

Dead Sea Scrolls

A collection of about 900 documents on parchment and papyrus, ­written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, ­dating from about 150BC to AD70. Discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The earliest surviving ­examples of Biblical texts.

Indus Valley Script

More than 600 symbols have been found – primarily on seals – belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation of 3,000BC. Most inscriptions are only four or five symbols in length. The longest is 26 symbols. Scholars have yet to decode them, though it hasn't stopped them arguing whether it does actually constitute a genuine language.

Rosetta Stone

Technically one for epigraphers, but many palaeographers claim it for themselves. The stone, discovered by the French in 1799, contained three parallel texts – hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek – and was the key that ­enabled scholars to decode ­hieroglyphics for the first time.

Beowulf

The most important work in Anglo-Saxon literature, the Old-English epic poem of 3,182 lines is known from a single manuscript that is estimated to date from AD1000. The manuscript has crumbled over time and scholars are still working on its preservation and revealing lost letters of the poem.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri

A collection of documents from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras excavated from the old rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus, an ancient Egyptian site thought so unimportant it was left almost untouched for centuries. Extracts from the plays of Menander and the Gospel of St Thomas are among the most important finds.


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January 21 2010

Snow wonder

In the late 19th century, at the age of 19, Wilson A Bentley had the bright idea of taking photographs of snowflakes through a microscope. The results are still spectacular

Vintage photographs of snowflakes taken by the first person ever to capture them with a camera went on sale yesterday at an antiques fair in New York.

The pictures are just a fraction of a lifetime's work comprising thousands of spectacular images taken by the self-taught photographer and Vermont farmer Wilson A Bentley at the end of the 19th century.

Ten of Bentley's snowflake images are up for sale at $4,800 (£3,000) each at the American Antiques Show. They appear alongside other work by the photographer of winter landscapes.

"They're remarkably beautiful," Carl Hammer, whose Chicago art gallery is selling the images, said. "There are imperfections on the outer edges of the image itself and on the paper, but the images themselves are quite spectacular."

Bentley's obsession with snow crystals began when he received a microscope for his 15th birthday. He became spellbound by their beauty, complexity and endless variety.

He told a magazine in 1925: "Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind," he said.

Bentley started trying to draw the flakes but the snow melted before he could finish. His parents eventually bought him a camera and he spent two years trying to capture images of the tiny, fleeting crystals.

He caught falling snowflakes by standing in the doorway with a wooden tray as snowstorms passed over. The tray was painted black so he could see the crystals and transfer them delicately onto a glass slide.

To study the snow crystals, Bentley rigged his bellows camera up to the microscope but found he could not reach the controls to bring them into focus. He overcame the problem through the imaginative use of wheels and cord.

Bentley took his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal at the age of 19 and went on to capture more than 5,000 more images. Kenneth Libbrecht, a physics professor who grows ice crystals in his laboratory at California Institute of Technology, said Bentley's photographs were so good "hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years."

Stacy Hollander, senior curator of the American Folk Art Museum, which is hosting the fair, said: "Everyone's fascinated by snow. It's just magical, and he captured that magic in these beautiful photomicrographs."

In his local town of Jericho, Bentely's fascination with snowflakes earned him the nickname Snowflake Bentley. A museum there is dedicated to his life's work, housing 2,000 of his vintage prints. A book of his photographs, Snow Crystals, was published in 1931. The same year he died walking home in a blizzard.


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