Category Archives: Science

Bernal Lecture 2020: Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

Clare Samson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences reports on the annual Bernal lecture that was given by Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science on Monday 4 February, that explored whether there really is an essentially male and female brain.

photo of head bust printed

Professor J.D. Bernal is remembered for work on the social consequences of science as much as for his ground-breaking research, and these lectures have frequently focused on societal issues. The choice of Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia as the 2020 lecturer echoes Bernal’s passionate advocacy of women in science; Fine’s choice of title, Fifty Shades of Grey Matter, proved an engaging one. Tickets ran out long before the lecture, which took place on Monday, 4 February 2020; the lecture theatre was packed, and Fine held her audience’s attention throughout.

Fine began by explaining how our 19th-century ancestors viewed the difference between the sexes. Less than 150 years ago, the overwhelming majority accepted that men and women were biologically determined for their different roles. In 1876 a Professor Edward Clarke wrote a best-selling book that suggested that ‘if a woman were to engage in the hard-intellectual labour of higher education, it would divert energy from her [clearly far more important] reproductive system’. Even progressive voices supporting women’s education claimed that it would help them become ‘more interesting wives and better mothers’. Scientific justification for these views often focused on one simple variable: brain size. Since an average male brain is significantly larger than a female one, they argued, one would expect women to be intellectually inferior.

It is easy to argue against that viewpoint, since we are not ruled by elephants or whales. This degree of bias seems bizarre to our ears, yet, as Fine explained, we all – even neurologists and psychologists – look, perhaps unconsciously, through biased lenses. Differences between male and female brains do exist, but they are highly complex and subtle ones. She identified three main biases: androcentrism, in which the masculine view of the world is taken as central; gender polarisation, in which the masculine and the feminine are seen as polar opposites; and biological essentialism, in which traits are seen as innate and biologically (often genetically) determined, rather than arising from both nature and nurture.

Much of the lecture focused on the way in which gender polarisation continues to affect both academic and popular science. This bias is seen in the proliferation of ‘pop psychology’ books, arguing that men are from Mars and women from Venus; that men are like waffles and women like spaghetti; or that there is some innate reason why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. Academic books setting out reasons for this ‘essential difference’ between male and female brains are still being written, and still sell well.

She presented a case study of a paper in a reputable journal that seemed to show innate differences between the connectivity of male and female brains: that is, the way they are ‘wired’.  According to this paper, female brains have stronger connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, while male ones have stronger connections between each hemisphere. Fine noted that although the difference was there, it was a tiny one. All the pairs of ‘bell curves’ showing brain characteristics of the women and men in the study overlapped so greatly that any differences would be described as ‘modest’ at most. No differences justified the word ‘striking’ used in the paper’s title, and no correlations were given with behaviour. Press officers, however, see headlines rather than read graphs. Publication of this paper led to headlines such as ‘Men and women wired like different species – expert’ (New Zealand Times); ‘Yes, each sex is really from a different planet’ (Metro, UK); and even ‘Women crap at parking: official’ (The Register).

Gender polarisation is summed up in the idea of a single scale with ‘100% male’ and ‘100% female’ brains at opposite ends, suggesting that they are opposites and, at times, equating the ‘extreme male brain’ with autistic tendencies. It is possible to take a quiz to position your brain at some point between the ‘systemising’ male brain and the ‘empathising’ female one, but the results can be odd: Fine quoted a colleague who found, on taking the test, that he seemed to have ‘no brain at all’. Even popular psychology makes more sense if ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are seen as different characteristics with no relationship to gender. The idea of men as stereotypically problem-solvers and women as collaborators should be consigned to the past. Each community – including the scientific community – will flourish best when it is diverse, open and able to identify and eliminate bias.

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Rosetta’s views of Comet 67P

Mauro Pirarba BSc, a Planetary Sciences Graduate Certificate student and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, discusses Dr Ramy El-Maarry’s recent talk on the geology of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Figure 1 – Five comets have been photographed at close range during flyby missions, but only one, comet 67P, has been studied closely for an extensive period of time (image credit: El-Maarry et al., 2019,

Comets are temperamental, often breaking all rules, suddenly appearing out of nowhere, occasionally getting close enough to the Sun and the Earth to display long tails that make us marvel at their beauty and diversity. They have been studied by astronomers for centuries and yet we still do not understand them fully.

What can Dr. Ramy El-Maarry, a geologist at Birkbeck College, possibly tell about one of them, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, at a special meeting organized by the Royal Astronomical Society?

Does that C-something – G-something sound vaguely familiar? Perhaps you are more likely to remember another name, Rosetta, the probe of the European Space Agency (ESA) tasked with deciphering its mysteries, a few years ago. Launched in 2004, Rosetta reached Comet 67P in August 2014 and spent two years observing it closely.

“I have 80,000 images from that mission and 20 minutes to go through them…”, Ramy started his talk, to everybody’s laughter.

In fact, such a big figure hints at an unprecedented and extraordinary achievement. Twelve spacecrafts have sent back to Earth data about eight different comets and images of six of them (see figure.1). What makes Rosetta stand out is the length of the observation, two years, and its closeness, on average a few tens of kilometres. You may also remember that the mission included a lander, Philae, which failed to anchor itself to the ground and bounced a few times, before settling down and sending back images and data. The greatest feat though was achieved by the “mothership”, Rosetta, which accompanied the comet for most of its orbit around the Sun, taking images that show details as small as a fraction of a meter. These images have allowed scientists for the first time to observe geological processes, as they happened, on the surface of a comet.

We are all familiar with the effects of water, ice, temperature excursions and wind in weathering, transporting and depositing sediments, reshaping the landscape on the Earth. We’ve seen images of craters and the effects of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on our planet. What geological processes has ESA’s spacecraft uncovered on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko?

This is a tiny world with a miniscule gravity and an irregular shape (approximately 4 x 4 x 2 km), made of porous and light material rich in different ices. The agent driving most geological processes on P67 is solar radiation. As the comet orbits the Sun along a very elongated orbit, which takes it further away from our star than Jupiter and then brings it not much closer to the Sun than Mars, insolation varies dramatically and seasons become extreme. Autumn and winter last about 5.5 years in the northern hemisphere, while the southern spring and summer last nearly a year and are relatively hot, causing the icy surface to sublimate copiously, creating a coma, a tenuous atmosphere. Activity is patchy, occasionally “violent”, jets of gas burst into space taking dust and larger particles with them. Significant amounts of gas and some of the dust are lost, but part of the solid material is transported by “winds” to the northern hemisphere, blanketing it with dust and coarser grains. Over time, the material moves down gentle and steep slopes, “pushed” by the weak gravity, forming a variety of terrains. These give the northern hemisphere a very different look from that of the southern half, which is quite rugged (see figure.2). One of the most striking images shown by Ramy was one where aeolian ripples appeared on an otherwise smooth terrain in the neck of the comet, a narrow region connecting the two main “lumps” that make up 67P. No one had ever thought such features could occur on a comet.

Figure 2 -Dr. El-Maarry shows how different the northern and southern hemispheres of comet 67P appear (image credit: El-Maarry et al., 2019, and El-Maarry et al., 2016,

The rate of ices’ sublimation is so high in some areas that several meters of materials are removed during the summer, uncovering a variety of features. Some of these are circular and resemble craters, others look like depressions that wax and wane over time. Their origin is baffling geologists, as that of other so-called transient surface features. Somewhere else on the surface of the comet new pits (probably sinkholes) appear and cliffs collapse. Outbursts of activity, driven by the Sun’s heat, propel jets that like rockets push the ground in the opposite direction, varying the speed of rotation of the comet. The resulting forces cause tension, leading to the formation of tectonic fractures, as several photos shown by Dr. El-Maarry clearly prove. Picture after picture a tiny complex word emerges, revealing to us in detail what we had been able to observe only from very far or for very brief instants, in the case of other comets.

In August 2016, Rosetta ended its mission and landed softly on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The legacy of the mission is not just what it has taught us about Comet P67, but it goes beyond. As Ramy summed up at the end of his talk, the number of images and other data collected in situ is helping scientists not only to understand 67P, but also interpret previous and future mission to other comets. A long time is likely to pass, before a probe like Rosetta will be launched.

In the meantime, Comet Interceptor, a new exciting cometary mission is taking shape at ESA. We’ll ask Ramy to bring a few thousand pictures next time…


Birkbeck students’ away day fuelled their appetite for interdisciplinary collaborative research

Last week a select group of Birkbeck’s BSc Biomedicine and MRes Global Infectious Diseases project students with a few others visited The Francis Crick Institute, informally known as ‘Sir Paul’s Cathedral’, located just a short walk from Birkbeck’s main campus.

The Crick Institute (formerly the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation) is a biomedical research centre right at the heart of London. The institute is named after Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

La Young Jackson from International Students’ Administration team in collaboration with the Scientists from the Crick Institute organised this trip which was part of enhancing international students’ experience agenda at Birkbeck. The Birkbeck group was hosted and guided by Dr Minee Choi, a brilliant neuroscientist and researcher who showed the laboratory facilities and the sophisticated equipment used by the scientists working at the Crick.

Borna Matubber, a BSc Biomedicine Independent Research Project Student at Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s Mycobacteria Research Lab at Birkbeck, University of London said: “This was an amazing opportunity to interact with the scientists at the biggest single biomedical laboratory in Europe! It was truly motivating for young researchers like us to go above and beyond and appreciate how discoveries to change lives.”

Professor Bhakta adds: “A collaborative interdisciplinary approach is the way to address many of the major global challenges of our time. Students had the opportunity to step outside their lab and own zone of interest to think beyond the obvious, reflect and bring new energy back to their project. This would add great value to their research experience that we always encourage at our institution.” Professor Bhakta added.

Birkbeck officially partners with the Crick, UCL and LSHTM to jointly host the World TB Day 2020 on the 24 March at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.

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Me, Human: ‘The Big Discussion’

Dr Gillian Forrester presented ‘Me, Human: The Big Discussion’ at London’s Science Museum, where an expert panel reflected on questions of developmental psychology.

The event was held in the Hans Rousing Lecture Theatre and began with an introduction to the Me, Human project, a set of live experiments currently being held at Live Science at the museum. Dr Forrester demonstrated evolution through a set of handmade puppets that are on display in the Me, Human gallery and then went on to introduce her esteemed panel which included Professor Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist, Professor Ben Garrod, an evolutionary biologist, primatologist and broadcaster, and Tony King, an independent researcher with the Aspinall Foundation.


In her introduction, Dr Forrester noted both the number and the diversity and of attendees, the Science Museum had welcomed over the course of the project, which will yield a rich source of data to be released in the coming months. The Me, Human experiments include a number of stations which investigate how different sides of our brains are involved in various functions in our day-to-day lives. Earlier that day attendees of the discussion were invited to attend the Me, Human gallery and take part in these experiments in order to understand whether they are dominant in their left or right brain.

The Me, Human team and evolution puppets

The conversation was informal with comments and questions welcomed throughout the discussion. Dr Forrester started the discussion with a question on developmental psychology, which was followed up with a question from a member of the audience who asked simply, “What’s next for us in terms of evolution?” – something the panel said was hard to predict! The panel highlighted the importance of experiments like the Me, Human project and the need for human and animal behavioural psychology to be researched in tandem as Professor Garrod exclaimed: “We are animals!”  Other questions posed to the panel included; what’s next for humans? How does social media impact our need to be social in a time where we are increasingly connecting to others through technology?

Later in the panel, Dr Forrester questioned Professor Frith on her theory of ‘slow science’ – her belief that academics should only publish once a year to ensure a quality over quantity approach to research in order to sustain the practice.

It is clear that the Me, Human project has garnered invaluable results and it was positive to see a mix of academics and the general public in the audience. During the conversation, Professor Garrod asked how many of the audience are researchers and not, and highlighted the need for the non-researchers in the continuation of the field of psychology.

The Me, Human project be at the Science Museum London until 30 September 2019.