This post was contributed by Paola Bernoni and Anja Lanin, students on Birkbeck’s BSc Geology.

What can asteroids tell us about the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago and how are we able to extract such information from objects that are located in a region, the Main Asteroid Belt, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, several hundred million miles from the Sun? This was the subject of the lecture delivered by Professor Hilary Downes of Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences for this year’s Science Week on Thursday 3 July, her debut talk for the event despite Professor Downes’ long association with Birkbeck.

Asteroids: what, where, when?

First of all, what are asteroids?  Remnants of cosmic material unable to accrete and form a planet-sized object. In the Main Asteroid Belt this was due to the gravitational pull of the giant planet Jupiter: hence asteroids are a “failed planet”, not – as one might be led to believe – fragments of broken-up ones.   We are mainly interested in asteroids whose orbits cross that of the Earth and Mars as they are most likely to yield useful information about our own planet.

What do they look like? “Potato shaped”, or long and thin, but invariably irregularly shaped, their surfaces pock-marked with impact craters … not volcanic craters as, unlike the volcanically active Earth, asteroids are dead bodies that have lost all of their internal heat.

What do we know about asteroids and how do we know it?  

Near-Earth asteroids are occasionally knocked out of the Main Belt and can even end up colliding with the Earth: these are meteorites.  In 2008, for the first time ever, an asteroid was detected prior to impact and predicted to land in North Sudan, where researchers flocked to recover 600 fragments, after it had exploded in the atmosphere.  The more recent impact at Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals, Russia, was even filmed.

Space missions have collected useful information: there has even been a landing on asteroid  Itokawa in 2005, which managed to collect some dust material.  The ongoing Dawn mission, departed in 2007, reached Vesta in the Main Belt in 2011, orbited around the asteroid for one year and then departed for Ceres, where it is expected to arrive in 2015.  Why the interest in Vesta and Ceres? These are two of the largest surviving protoplanetary bodies that nearly became planets and therefore can help us gain a better understanding of the evolution of the solar system and of the processes that led to the formation of differentiated, layered bodies like the Earth (and Vesta) and less differentiated bodies (Ceres).

Measurements of radioactive decay of different isotopes performed on meteorite fragments have yielded consistent results on their age: they are as old as the solar system (4.6 billion years), a result matched by the results on the oldest terrestrial zircons. Yet there are some younger meteorites and they come from the Moon or Mars.

How do we classify asteroids and why?

The traditional classification of meteorites based on composition – iron, stony and stony iron – does not really tell us much, a discrimination based on provenance might be a better option:  whether meteorites come from a layered body, such as the Earth, with a nickel-iron core, an olivine-rich mantle and a silicate feldspar-rich outer shell, the crust,  or not … hence the interest in the layered Vesta and the less layered Ceres, which is made of a rocky core,  a water-ice layer and a thin crust.  But many of the recovered meteorites, especially from Antartica, do not show signs of provenance from a layered body: called “chondrites” as they containing  small globules, chondrules, which are some of the earliest materials formed in our solar system, they are unfortunately not very useful in the quest for a better understanding of our layered Earth.  Iron meteorites, compositionally similar to the Earth’s core, are thought to represent the core of small asteroids that blew apart and lost the encasing mantle. We have some 50 specimens, but it is a biased sample: they are more resistant passing through the atmosphere and easier to detect on the ground. Stony-iron meteorites are very rare instead: as they also contain an iron-nickel alloy, and olivine, one of the main components of the Earth’s mantle, they are thought to represent the core-mantle boundary of the parent asteroid, which was hot enough to commence differentiation.

Asteroids and Research at Birkbeck

Professor Downes then gave some highlights on the research underway at Birkbeck where stony meteorite samples from a very old, unknown asteroid are studied to establish similarities with the Earth’s mantle. Their olivine and other silicates are surrounded by carbon, including tiny diamonds, and nickel-iron rims, whilst on Earth these metals have segregated into the core and carbon is found in organic matter. The meteorite minerals show evidence of shock from impact and the carbon component also shows that graphite has been shocked into diamond. Compositional analyses have shown the presence of a known mineral, Suessite and an unknown mineral made of 91% iron and 9% silica, which is the most likely composition of the Earth’s core whilst the composition of meteorites originated from the outer shell of layered asteroids is similar to that of the basaltic rocks we find at the Earth’s surface.

Professor Downes finally underlined the uniqueness of the Earth amongst the rocky planets with the continued presence of water – lost on Venus and Mars – and  especially of life, which is not known to have ever developed in any of the other terrestrial planets. The question of where Earth’s water came from is still open. A “meteor shower” of questions then followed, on the provenance of water and life on Earth, the age of meteorites found in Antartica and what drives differentiation: for some of these matters the audience was referred to courses offered by the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences … for others to Birkbeck’s astrobiologists.  Finally, the talk and the Q&A session came to an end but the opportunity was available to carry on with discussions and queries helped by a nice glass of wine and nibbles.

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Dicken’s Day 2014: Dickens and Conviviality

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard, who is one of the organisers of Dickens Day. Join Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies as we read Our Mutual Friend month-by-month in its original instalments.


Charles Dickens

Now in its twenty-eighth year, Dickens Day enjoys a uniquely mixed audience of Dickens enthusiasts, academics, and students at all levels of study. It is perhaps apt then, that this year’s theme was ‘Dickens and Conviviality’, as this one-day conference, jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Leicester and the Dickens Fellowship, brought together over one hundred Dickens aficionados for a day of genial intellectual exchange.

Dickens was associated with good humour, bonhomie and sociability from the outset of his career. Before his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, had even concluded its run of monthly instalments (1836–1837), its twenty-four-year-old author had been catapulted to fame and was widely lionised, and even mythologised, as the proponent and exemplar of merry-making. Indeed, Pickwick is famously stuffed with eating, drinking and parties, dances, celebrations, picnics and all manner of sociable endeavours. Like many of his contemporaries, Dickens held that laughter possesses a unique ability to harmonise and heal. One of our speakers, Clive Johnson, observed that if Freud understood humour in economic terms as a ‘wasteful’ element in the psychic economy, for Dickens, writing in an era sharply defined by an imaginatively parsimonious political economy, this was actually a great positive.

Dickens went on to consolidate this image of himself as a master of conviviality in his own life: he was notorious for his love of parties, impromptu dinners, jamborees, skits, celebrations, practical jokes, amateur theatrics, and many other forms of high-spirited sociability. He also assiduously cultivated many friendships with some of the leading authors, politicians, artists, thinkers, philanthropists and actors of his age, and he was a notably prolific letter writer in an era famous for its voluminous epistolary correspondence.

It is as the exemplar of Christmas spirit that Dickens is perhaps most firmly lodged in the popular cultural imagination; he is even erroneously praised for ‘inventing’ Christmas in its modern, recognisable form. Even in Sketches by Boz (1836), his first published collection, Christmas is warmly lauded for stoking mutual affection:

‘Christmas time! The man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas. […] Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? […] There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten: social feelings are awakened in bosoms to which they have long been strangers’.

The later image of the joyous Cratchits in A Christmas Carol (1843) remains one of Dickens’s most famous depictions of good feeling, emblazoned on our collective memory from multiple versions of this perennial classic.

However, Dickens was also deeply interested in the flipside of conviviality and it is interesting that another paradigmatic Dickensian vignette is the starving, bedraggled Oliver Twist holding up his empty bowl and asking for more. One of the day’s plenary speakers, Wendy Parkins, reminded us of the ethical injunction to care for the vulnerable, especially children, that Dickens evokes, citing the neglected Jellyby children in Bleak House (1852–53). For Dickens, hospitality, like philanthropy, is a duty of care that we all owe to those in need. Asking for more, like Oliver, is also a rebellious assertion of individual need in a system that conglomerates and marginalises the poor. One of the fascinating threads of the day was the constant slippage in Dickens between needs, desires and wants, and the interconnectedness of physical need with emotional, social and sexual needs and desires. In Dickens, ‘hunger’ operates metaphorically as well as literally. Indeed, Jo Parsons reminded us of Dickens’s own childhood experiences of physical and emotional hunger that echo through his work, in particular David Copperfield (1849–50), and which perhaps explain his wish, shortly before his death, to compose a cookery book.

Indeed, despite his reputation as a sort of literary Father Christmas, Dickens also depicted disastrous and terrifying Christmas scenes: most famously, Pip’s excruciatingly anxious Christmas dinner in Great Expectations (1860–1861), as he endures the moralising insults of the adults and awaits the discovery of his theft of food for the escaped convict Magwitch. Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), reaches a climactic point with the disappearance of the eponymous hero on a particularly fevered and gloomy Christmas Day. Despite this, Pete Orford, creator of the Drood Inquiry revealed how early reviews of Drood foregrounded the novel’s humour and compared it to The Pickwick Papers, despite its gothic themes of drug addiction, madness and murder. As Orford showed, Dickens was a master of alternating light and dark, moving swiftly between humour and more ominous, tragic tones.

Most of our speakers were reluctant to take Dickens’s representations of good-humoured sociability at face-value, with most papers focusing conversely on loneliness, isolation, poverty and want, social aping and pretension, and the feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and exclusion that may actually fuel conviviality. As Nicola Bradbury observed, Pip’s Christmas dinner is made entirely miserable by the appalling company – in Dickens, hell really is other people. Charlotte Boyce considered the hidden class dynamics of Pickwickian sociability; somebody low-paid and low-status prepares, serves and clears up all those extravagant, jolly meals. Harriet Briggs considered how Dickensian laughter may be hearty and boisterous but is rarely anarchic, often operating to dissolve discontent and smother rebellious impulses. As the day’s keynote speaker, Malcolm Andrews, observed, humour in Dickens is both social glue and a social corrective.

Dickens Day is famous for its readings and this year’s – David Copperfield’s hilariously drunken disaster of a dinner party and the sham society wedding of the Lammles in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) – further confirmed that Dickensian conviviality is often at its most hilarious when it is faked, strained, overegged – or otherwise goes horribly wrong. Fortunately, no such disasters befell this year’s event, which is already looking forward to celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2016.

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The challenges of peace-building, leadership and completing a PhD

This post was contributed by Kevin Teoh, a PhD student and staff member in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology.


When a notice in February asked for volunteers to organise the second joint PhD Conference between the Departments of Organizational Psychology and Management, I thought: ‘heck, why not – how hard can it be?’ The work began almost immediately: sorting out venues and keynote speakers, collating abstracts and printing booklets; it may seem like a lot of work, but with some organisation and a good team, we made light work of it. Besides, picking out drinks for the wine reception doesn’t really constitute work!

The day in late September was soon upon us, and over forty of my peers from across the globe converged on central London to talk about where we were at with our PhDs. A range of topics was covered, with varied subjects including theories, methodologies, findings and even reflections on personal growth (video of the day available). People shared ideas, advice was given, and encouragement provided. My own presentation was about junior doctors and their working conditions, and how I intended to explore the link to patient safety. This subject itself is very topical, especially as Birkbeck researchers recently highlighted how patient mortality rises in August when new junior doctors start working in hospitals. Presenting my work gave me a chance to verbalise and focus on the core emphasis of what I am researching , and I was told about some resources to help with a prospective study as well.

In addition to the student presentations, we organisers pulled off quite a coup by securing the attendance of two high-profile keynote speakers. In the morning keynote (video available here), former Birkbeck student Dr Peter Davis talked about his work in the area of post-conflict peace building in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Nigeria. What struck me most was how Dr Davis used his PhD to have a real-world impact. I certainly had not realised the important role the private sector has in developing a functioning economy, vital in sustaining peace.

Professor Adrian Furnham, from University College London, spoke on leadership derailment in the afternoon keynote (video available here). A very lively speaker, Professor Furnham distinguished between incompetent and derailed leaders; the former represents the lack of ability, and the latter represents too much of a particular characteristic. It made me wonder, we often consider the narrative of incompetent managers in the NHS, but what about those who are derailed? Perhaps I should integrate this somehow into my research with junior doctors.

PhD work can at times be a lonely affair. However, I think the numerous brilliant presentations, and the informal discussions and socialisation between sessions reinforced that we are in fact part of a wider, supportive community. It allowed many of us to put a face to a name, and better understand what others were doing. One of our peers had just finished her own PhD, and it was the first time she could use the ‘Dr’ prefix. She was deservedly excited about her accomplishment, and it was wonderful encouragement for us to persevere with our own work. By the end of the day, the overall feedback was positive with everyone benefitting from participating. Although the conference is now over, we are already looking at how we can improve further for next year’s event.

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From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

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