Science Week 2017: understanding climate change

This blog was written by Giulia Magnarini, Birkbeck graduate in Planetary Sciences with Astronomy and PhD candidate in Earth Sciences at UCL.scienceweekclimatechange850x450To understand current climate changes, we need to understand past events. However, using our existing climate model is really difficult.’ This is how Professor Andrew Carter began his talk on Earth’s long-term climate. Professor Carter’s research focuses on studying Antarctica in terms of climate changes.

Despite some persistent denial, evidence for an increasingly warm climate is clear. To provide a visual idea of the impact that the total melt of ice in Antarctica could have, Professor Carter asked the audience to imagine Big Ben under water up to the clock. Thames barriers would be ineffective and it is increasingly obvious how important research on climate change to tackle its consequential threats is.

Geological evidence for the first appearance of the ice sheet in Antarctica resides in sediments that date from 33 million years ago. The question is: why did Antarctica freeze over? Two hypotheses are proposed. The first one involved plate tectonics; as Antarctica separated from Australia and South America (circa 50 million years ago), ocean circulation changed and the strong Antarctic Circumpolar Current emerged, causing thermal isolation of the continent.

The second one takes reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide into account. Historic data collected for ice volume, deep sea temperature and sea level all follow the same trend of the reconstructed amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

However, there are problems with both hypotheses. For instance, at the moment of the break, Antarctica was in a northern position and, although carbon dioxide was lower, overall temperature was warmer.

There are many difficulties in modelling over geological time. Nowadays, different models running for Antarctica show completely different results. Improving the quality of data is crucial because uncertainties are very high. On this point, Professor Carter has been conducting what is called ‘provenance analysis.’ This involves studying sand grains to locate their sources to better constrain past tectonic events and past environmental conditions. The grains that Professor Carter studies have typical shape due to ice erosion. Detrital zircons (very resistant minerals) are used to conduct U-Pb geochronological assessments to reconstruct the age distribution of the sediments. These ages are then compared with rocks from different areas for which age is known.

Oceanic drilling programs have been conducted within the ‘Iceberg Alley’. This is an area where icebergs are transported by currents and during the journey they deposit sediments. Results from sediment cores have shown that the grains come from other areas, meaning that they had been transported by icebergs, therefore implying that ice was already present on the continent at that time.

This new set of information can help improving tectonic models related to the opening of oceanic passages. Sampling the ‘Shag Rocks’, which are the only exposed part of the continental block within the Iceberg Alley, would be of benefit for this. Unfortunately, due to strong currents, this can be very difficult and dangerous.

Professor Carter concluded by pointing out the importance of better understanding the geology of this area because it was here that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current originated. This in turn had a significant implication on the global cooling of the planet. In fact, its influence reaches up to the northern hemisphere.

Therefore, more geological data can greatly improve the quality of climatic models. Better and more reliable climatic models will be fundamental to help future governments make important decisions.

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Science Week 2017: geoengineering, climate change and evolution

This blog was written by Giulia Magnarini, Birkbeck graduate in Planetary Sciences with Astronomy and PhD candidate in Earth Sciences at UCL.geoengineeringmethods-climatecentral1-2To our knowledge, Earth is the only planet where life has developed. Life appeared very soon after the formation of our planet about 4.5 billion years ago, and continues to survive.

Dr. Philippe Pogge Von Strandmann examined the mechanisms that keep the Earth habitable in a recent talk. He noted that despite large oscillations between cold periods (ice ages) and warmer intervals (interglacial stages), our planet has managed to avoid the fates of Mars and Venus. Both of these planets have lost their oceans, while Earth has retained liquid water at its surface.

Meteorite impacts, glaciations and volcanic eruptions are some of the processes that mark the very dynamic history of the Earth. Atmospheric composition has also changed dramatically over time, formerly being composed of mainly CO2, to the increase of nitrogen and oxygen. These events across Earth’s history have caused extinction of some species, but life has survived nevertheless, and continues to adapt and evolve.

Dr. Von Strandmann illustrated some of the theories that aim to explain the endurance of life on our planet – for instance, Gaia Theory, the Medea Hypothesis, the Daisyworld Experiment – and explored the influence of geological processes on climate mitigation. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, dictates atmospheric and surface temperature; therefore its atmospheric abundance is critical in long-term climate change. Plate tectonics play an important role by removing gases through subduction (where oceanic plates sink under continental plates) and re-emitting them through eruptions. But this process is slow, acting on a time scale of hundreds of millions of years. The weathering of rocks is a more effective process. Dissolved material is washed away by rivers into oceans to form rocks, which lock crucial amounts of carbon dioxide inside.

Dr. Von Strandmann concluded his talk with considerations about consequences of human actions in the face of the current climatic stage. Atmospheric CO2 has surpassed the barrier of 400 ppm (parts per million) and over the last decade, every year has been hotter than the one prior. This is evidence we can neither deny nor ignore. Climate change is going to exert challenging environmental pressures, for instance in a reduction of land available for agriculture. Geoengineers are committed to finding ways to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, the effects of carbon sequestration are still unknown and more research is needed.scienceweekgeoengineeringoriginalThe second speaker, PhD candidate Tianchen Hen, illustrated the emergence of animals that occurred as oxygen levels began to rise. About 540 million years ago, the Cambrian fauna started diversifying from the Ediacaran fauna, introducing several biological innovations. This event is known as the ‘Cambrian Explosion’, and is characterised by an accelerated rate of diversification. Cambrian rocks preserve amazing fossil records, dominated by Trilobites – the first representation of animals that we can call our ancestors.

What seems to be a sudden change in the fossil record has caused significant debate. Charles Darwin noted it to be the main counter-argument to his evolutionary theory of natural selection. However, although all Ediacaran fauna became extinct and were replaced by Cambrian fauna, there is not a distinct separation. Both faunae share a certain degree of diversification and show symmetrical structures. Indeed, molecular biology suggests that a co-occurrence is rooted in the Ediacaran fauna.

The rise of oxygen levels is vital for animal metabolism. It influences body size and allows more intense activities. However, it is unlikely that just one mechanism can explain the triggering of early animal radiation. Tianchen Hen explained other possible factors that may have contributed. Hox genes are responsible for biological innovations, such as appearance of limbs and eyes that could induce behavioural changes. These changes may have refined the relationship between predators and prey, bringing diversification in the battle to survive. Warmer temperatures following the period of extensive glaciations, known as the ‘Snowball Earth’, may have also played a part. The consequent rise of sea-levels expanded habitable shallow sea zones. Moreover, the post ‘Snowball’ stage caused an increased availability of minerals and nutrients.

The interaction between abiotic and biotic processes is extremely fascinating and deserves a better understanding – life as we know it depends on it.

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“Boy Brain, Girl Brain” – A TRIGGER Seminar on Cognitive Early Development

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

boygirlSex differences have been the source of contentious debate in recent years, beguiling scientists, lay people and major stakeholders like the NHS and pharmaceutical companies. There are obvious physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes but cognitive differences are often conveyed through stereotypes – that males have better motor and spatial abilities and females have superior memory and social cognition skills, for example. While there is research to support some areas of cognitive sex difference, recent studies have shown that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years. This suggests the causes of these differences may have less to do with one’s genetics than one’s environment – that nurture may be just as powerful as nature to one’s brain development. It also provides further evidence for the effectiveness of contemporary social movements to bridge the gap between “women’s roles” as nurturing child-bearers and “men’s roles” as workers.

So what can research into typical and atypical early development tell us about sex differences? And should we be focusing on biology as the route of sex differences?  These were just some of the questions addressed by guest speaker Teodora Gliga, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, at a special seminar on Wednesday 7 December. The event was arranged and hosted by the Birkbeck TRIGGER initiative, a European-wide research project dedicated to Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research.

Why look at sex differences?

Hormonal differences initiated by biology and genes affect physical and cognitive development; the genes on sex chromosomes and the levels of sex hormones influence the brain during early development. Many psychiatric disorders are more common either in boys or girls; boys are more likely to develop autism – the focus of Teea’s research – but girls are more prone to anxiety. By utilising animal models of development and human studies that have revealed early biological differences between sexes present even before birth, Teodora was able to explain differences in susceptibility to risk factors associated with autism.

However, that the effect is amplified when the brain is exposed to risk factors or adversity, such as stress, demonstrates that biology is not the only variable in the development of a disorder like autism; recent research by Anne Fausto-Sterling on how best to study difference in infant early development has shown that, although birth characteristics provide a moment to begin analysis of developmental processes that lead to sex-related differences in behaviour and preference, this is an arbitrary starting point. Many of the biologically-oriented studies use prenatal sex differences in hormone production as the explanation for later difference in behaviour but according to Fausto-Sterling, it seems likely that hormones are but one of many factors affecting human foetal growth and development. In this framework, behaviour after birth develops independently as small biological differences are slowly magnified by external influences – social, cultural and environmental.

Case Study: The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings

The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings was established to explore the development of autism in young infants, and to advance and improve early detection and diagnosis. Parents frequently tell medical professionals that they knew there was something different about their child’s development quite early on, often long before an official diagnosis is received. However, it has been hard for researchers and clinicians to know about the very early signs for autism as they typically only see the child when they are over three years old, when a diagnosis can be reliably given. Although diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have fallen in recent years, it remains more commonly developed by boys – 1:42 boys and 1:189 girls, according to studies from 2010 and 2014.

Scientific understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism has advanced dramatically in past decades, but there is still very little known about how the condition develops over the first few years. This is precisely why Teea’s team at the Birkbeck Babylab launched the Studying Autism and ADHD Risks (STAARS) project, which looks specifically at the early development of baby brothers and sisters of children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders and typical development. The project is notably an output of the TRIGGER programme, as the initiative provided the funding for the research assistant who carried out the analysis.

Of the participants with elder siblings with an ASD diagnosis, 20% went on to develop and get a diagnosis for ASD. The study showed a negative correlation between IQ and severity of symptoms, which provides further evidence that IQ is a protective factor against the development of autism. But Teodora was quick to remind the audience that there is still a lot of debate on these findings – there has not been one specific gene that can explain more than 10% of cases. One must also consider that the symptoms of autism might be exposed more easily in this case study, as it must be conducted on “High Risk” families, where they might be more actively looking for symptoms because of a heightened awareness of autism, and where interactions with siblings with an ASD diagnosis might even be a contributory environmental factor.

Teea finished her presentation with a call for more statistics and better models through which to analyse these statistics. If we are to gain a deeper understanding of ASD, its causes and its early detection, we must focus first on mediating effects that may reveal protective mechanisms, and on increasing our understanding of underlying biology of sex differences and the implications of hormones. According to the expert, “it is a story of interactions between biological, social and cultural factors with cascading effects.”

Further Links:

The TRIGGER team at Birkbeck is currently seeking mentees and mentors for their Athena SWAN mentoring programme 2016/17. The mentoring scheme is open to research, technical and academic staff who work at Birkbeck – find out more here.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard


On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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