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17 August 2018

The 150th anniversary of the first observation of helium

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Saturday is the 150th anniversary of a total eclipse of the Sun that was seen across a wide band of Asia on 18th August 1868. Any total eclipse is interesting, but this one is particularly historic for chemists, as it was during this eclipse that observations were made that, with hindsight, led to the discovery of helium, the first element to be discovered in space before it was found on Earth.

NASA eclipse
Image of total solar eclipse in 2017, photographed by Carla Thomas. Copyright NASA

However, the story often told in encyclopaedias, that Pierre Janssen and Norman Lockyer discovered helium by observing the 1868 eclipse, is far too simple. In fact, Janssen, who was in India and is often credited with the discovery, was interested in completely different things, and never claimed any credit during his lifetime, Norman Pogson, who was in India and was the first person to speculate that something unusual might be happening, was forgotten, and Norman Lockyer, who is often credited as the co-discoverer and made the biggest contribution, wasn’t in India and made his discoveries without needing the eclipse.

Helium is the second-most-common element in the universe after hydrogen, but is very rare on Earth, and odd in other ways. It is one of the so-called “noble gases”, that, because they have a particular number of electrons, are uniquely happy to exist as single atoms and reluctant to react with other elements. Helium only exists on Earth because it is given off when many radioactive elements naturally decay. Once produced, because it is so light and so non-reactive, it usually flies straight out of the atmosphere and vanishes into space. It only stays on Earth if it is produced deep underground and trapped within rocks. However, helium is very common in stars, including our Sun, because the energy of most stars comes from hydrogen atoms being fused into helium, and stars’ greater gravity than the Earth keeps it in.

So how was it possible to find helium in the Sun by looking at eclipse light?

For reasons too complicated to explain here, electrons in atoms and molecules can only have certain precise amounts of energy. They can climb from one amount to a higher one by absorbing a photon of light, or drop to a lower one by emitting a photon of light. The amount of energy contained in a photon varies according to the wavelength of the light, and so this means that atoms or molecules can only absorb or emit light of very specific wavelengths. As a result, if you shine a light through a particular substance, the light that comes out will have certain wavelengths and colours of light reduced or missing (an absorption spectrum), and if you heat up a substance to the point that it starts glowing, the light produced will be mainly or only of the same specific wavelengths and colours (an emission spectrum). By studying the light absorbed or emitted by a substance, we can derive a lot of information about what it is and what its structure might be.

The first step in the story of the discovery of helium happened in 1814, when the lens-maker turned physicist Joseph Fraunhofer split sunlight using a telescope, prism, and diffraction slit to create a spectrum broad enough to notice that there were dark lines, so-called "Fraunhofer" lines, where particular wavelengths of light were simply not present. In 1834, David Brewster suggested that the Fraunhofer lines were due to light of specific wavelength being absorbed by gas either within the Sun or in the Earth's atmosphere. James D Forbes suggested that the dark lines could be proved to originate from the Sun rather than the Earth's atmosphere by observing light from the edge of the Sun's disc during an eclipse - as this passes through more of the Sun's atmosphere on its path to the observer, the lines will be stronger if they are produced by the solar atmosphere.

Physicists and chemists began studying the absorption and emission spectra of known substances and found that their characteristic lines were constant. In 1857 William Swan showed that particularly strong dark lines in the yellow region of the Sun's spectrum, known as the D lines, corresponded to the emission spectrum of sodium - something we are all familiar with now given the yellow tinge of sodium-vapour streetlights.

In 1859, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen (of gas burner fame), at the University of Heidelberg, were among the scientists who were making systematic studies of the spectra of different elements. When a major fire broke out in the city of Mannheim, across the valley, they playfully turned their spectroscope on the light from the flames, and were able to identify the characteristic emission spectra of strontium and barium. This experience made them realise that, if they could discover trace elements in a burning building, the Fraunhofer lines might be the key to discovering the elements present in the Sun.

The following year, the two were studying the spectrum of mineral water from a major local spa, Bad Dürkheim. They spotted two blue lines that were found in the spectrum of no known substance, and guided by this managed to prepare and purify compounds of a previously unknown element, caesium. This was the first new element to be discovered using spectroscopic methods. Within the next few years, Kirchhoff and Bunsen would discover rubidium by a similar route, and William Crookes would discover thallium.

In 1868, a total eclipse of the Sun was predicted to occur in India. The eclipse ws expected to have six minutes of totality, an extremely long time by the usual standards in which to perform observations. Spectroscopists were particularly interested in the eclipse, as with the main part of the Sun obscured from the Earth it would be possible to study the light from the Sun's outer atmosphere, potentially helping to investigate both the Sun's chemical composition and its internal structure.

The French astronomer Pierre Janssen had already made his name in the field of the solar spectrum. He had invented a much-improved astronomical spectroscope with the instrument maker Ignazio Hofmann, although the two men quickly fell out bitterly about whose contribution was greatest. In 1866 he had captured the absorption spectrum of water vapour, by a logistically challenging experiment in which he viewed the light given off by sixteen gas burners through long iron pipes filled with high-pressure steam, and verified which of the Fraunhofer lines were produced by it as sunlight passed through the Earth's atmosphere. He was selected by the French Bureau of Longitude to make a government-funded trip to India.

Science Museum spectroscope
1880 automatic spectroscope by John Browning. Image by Science Museum, released under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence

Meanwhile, the government of the British Empire, rulers of India at the time, were making their own plans for scientific observations of the eclipse. The main expedition, led by Major James F Tennant, headed for the town of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, in Southeastern India. Meanwhile, Norman Pogson, director of the Madras Observatory, headed to Machilipatnam (then known to English-speakers as Masulipatam), closer to the coast. When Janssen arrived in India, he also considered Machilipatnam, but decided that on the coast there was too much risk of fog and cloud. He decided to go to Guntur as well, possibly because it had at one time been ruled by the French and there were still some wealthy French merchants living there. Tennant's team moved into the British government compound, while Janssen set up at the home of one Jules Lefaucheur. Janssen generously helped Tennant to set up his spectroscope and telescope.

When the eclipse occurred, all the investigators paid attention to the spectrum. Janssen did not mention anything unexpected. Tennant saw an orange line which he thought was the normal sodium D line. Only Pogson saw something unusual - a third line close to the sodium D line, but not identical with it.

Pogson report
Pogson's eclipse observations, from his printed report.

It was not until the following days that Janssen made the realisation that would be his real breakthrough of the event, and the one that popular history would later confuse with the discovery of helium. He realised that the emission spectrum of the solar atmosphere and prominences was so strong that, if one could focus the spectroscope on the precise edge of the Sun, they might be visible even without an eclipse. He experimented and found that it was entirely possible, but was easiest if you moved the spectroscope to try to find the spectrum, rather than trying to focus visually on the edge of the Sun. He excitedly wrote to his wife in a letter, "They sent me to observe the eclipse for five minutes, and I am bringing back a perpetual eclipse from India." Finally, he sent a letter to the Academy of Sciences, announcing his discoveries for the first time.

Back in London, Norman Lockyer, a civil servant and prominent amateur astronomer, with a great interest in studying the Sun, was independently realising that the spectrum of the outer atmosphere of the Sun could be viewed by accurately focussing a spectroscope, without any need for an eclipse. He also seems to have somehow got a copy of Pogson's report with its reference to a previously unidentified line in the spectrum. In October, he received a new spectroscope and managed to focus on the solar atmosphere and obtain its emission spectrum. He also noticed a new line near the D line. Among the organisations he sent preliminary reports to was the French Academy of Sciences, his letter arriving within a few days of Janssen's report from India, both being read out at the same meeting on 26th October. In 1872, to avoid a potentially ugly interpersonal and international row, the French government issued a medal featuring both Janssen and Lockyer to commemorate their solar discoveries.

By the end of the year, both Janssen and Lockyer were convinced that the yellow line near the sodium D line was new. Lockyer and the chemist Edward Frankland spent some time experimenting with the spectrum of hydrogen under different conditions, and by the end of it were convinced that the Sun consisted mostly of hydrogen, but the the yellow line could not be produced by that element. By 1871 Lockyer was convinced that the yellow line was produced by a new element never found on Earth which he named "helium", but did not make such an extreme speculation in public, only in private communications with other scientists. The first public statement of it is believed to have been in Sir William Thompson's presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1871. This concluded the series of events that led, in later years, to Janssen and Lockyer wrongly being jointly credited with the discovery of helium in 1868.

Why was Pogson forgotten, even though Lockyer credited him in his own brief memoir of the discovery of helium, in Nature in 1896? Although he is now remembered for his development, earlier in his career, of a scale for the apparent magnitude, or brightness of astronomical objects, his career in India was not a success. He seems to have suffered from social snobbery due to his middle-class background and lack of a university degree, but he was also a somewhat abrasive personality, as can be seen from the negative comments in his report on the "needless and lavish expenditure" on the various expeditions to view the eclipse, and the even more offensive remarks about the local Indian people in general, which I will not quote in detail here. Another item in the India Office records shows his conflict with the government and the Dutch astronomer Jean Oudemans over longitude measurements that he did not consider particularly important and delayed in analysing. Pogson's report on the eclipse was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, but in a low-profile government publication - Pogson himself complained in a letter in 1882 that it had been treated as "waste paper".

Helium was subsequently shown not just to exist in the Sun, when in 1876 the French astronmer Alfred Cornu observed it in the spectrum of a star in the Cygnus constellation. In the meantime, however, speculation on new elements in the stars had become somewhat wild and uncontrolled, developing a bad name due to multiple announcements of "new elements" that proved too frequent to be credible. (One of the most notorious was "coronium", assigned to a spectral line from sunlight at 5303 angstroms wavelength, which was eventually discovered to come from very highly-ionised iron atoms.)

In 1887, William Hillebrand discovered a mysterious gas while treating uranium ore with acid, that he suspected to be nitrogen. He noticed that its spectrum did not match that known for nitrogen, but did not realise that it was a new element, as at the time it was known that the spectrum of nitrogen could vary considerably with the conditions. In 1895, Baron Rayleigh found that nitrogen extracted from the atmosphere had a different molecular weight to chemically-produced pure nitrogen, and suspected that another element was present. He investigated further, and managed to purify a completely new element, which he named argon. William Ramsey, who was working with Rayleigh on argon, was shown Hillebrand's paper by another colleague who thought Hillebrand's gas might have been argon as well. He repeated Hillebrand's experiment with a different type of uranium ore, and discovered that the gas he produced was much lighter than argon, and had a spectrum that included the D3 line of the mysterious solar element helium. Helium had finally been discovered on Earth.

But scientific research on the Sun continues - this week NASA launched its Parker Solar Probe, to become the first human-created object to enter the Sun's outer atmosphere and observe it.

Sources and further reading:

Janssen, P J, The total solar eclipse of August 1868. Part I, Astronomical Register, 1869, 7(77), pp. 107–110. Shelfmark PP.1556 or 1755.800000
Janssen, P J, The total solar eclipse of August 1868. Part II, Astronomical Register, 1869, 7(78), pp. 131-133 Shelfmark PP.1556 or 1755.800000
Lockyer, J. N. The story of helium, Nature, 1896, 53(1371), pp.319-22. Shelfmark P.P.2011c or (P) BX 80-E(3). Also available online in BL Reading Rooms
Nath, B B. The story of helium and the birth of astrophysics. New York City: Springer, 2013. Available online in British Library Reading Rooms.
Pogson, N R. Report of the Government Astronomer upon the proceedings of the Observatory in connexion with the total eclipse of the Sun on August 18th, 1868, as observed at Masulipatam, Vunpurthy, Madras and other stations in Southern India. Madras: Madras Observatory, 1875. Shelfmark IOR/V/27/430/8.
Pogson, N. R. Letter to Captain Awdry, 10th June 1882, in Grant Duff Collection, Miscellaneous English Correspondence, pp. 96-98. Shelfmark Mss Eur F/234/67
Ramsay, W. Helium, a gaseous constituent of certain minerals, Part I Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1895, 58 pp. 80-89. Shelfmark Ac.3025/21 or (P) JA 00-E(12). Also available free online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/115763
Reddy, V., Snedegar, K.. Balasubramanian, R. K. Scaling the magnitude: the fall and rise of N. R. Pogson, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 2007, 117(5), pp. 237-245. Shelfmark Ac.4176, (P) OT 00-E(34), or 4713.000000

Posted by Philip Eagle. Thanks to Margaret Makepeace for help in researching India Office records.

13 March 2018

Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation?

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In 1967, Jehovah's Witnesses publish a little blue volume asking Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Half a century later, a copy shows up in the British Library, in a box of books left as part of the John Maynard Smith Archive.

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was a British evolutionary biologist and no supporter of Jehovah's Witnesses in any form. Rather, he had been an atheist ever since discovering the writings of population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane at the age of 15 – and a 'semi-conscious atheist before that'. Going into Eton's school library, he found Haldane's essay collection Possible Worlds and its 'mixture of extreme rational science, blasphemy and imagination, was a way of thinking that I had never encountered before'. It inspired Maynard Smith to read up on evolution and eventually – after a detour into aircraft engineering – to study it with Haldane and turn it into a successful career. So how did he come to own such a curious little book?

We have to go back to 1967 again. In October of that year, a Mrs Daphne Taylor of Sheffield packs up the book and posts it to Sussex University. 'Dear Professor,' she writes, 'Please find enclosed a small gift which I hope you will accept and enjoy reading.' Why send it to Maynard Smith? Has she sent it to any other evolutionary biologists? We don't know, but her motivation becomes quite clear as she goes on to say that she knows several people 'including teachers interested in evolution' who 'have found it most enlightening.' She wonders if Maynard Smith would let her know his views 'on any of the points brought out in the book'? There is, unfortunately, no record of any reply.

But is it telling that he kept both the book and, folded inside it, the accompanying letter? We do know that Maynard Smith had a continued interest in religion and creation(ism). The archives contain a short manuscript from his later years on "The Evolution of Religion" (co-authored with David Harper); in the 1960s he discussed science and religion on the radio and in 1986, following an invitation by the Oxford Union, debated the motion "That the Doctrine of Creation is more valid than the Theory of Evolution" (198 noes, 115 [or 150; the recording is unclear] ayes).

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Proof for an intelligent designer? From "Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?", p.71. Copyright © Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania.

 

What do the Jehovah's Witnesses ask and affirm in their volume? Evolutionary teaching saturates everything, even religion. But 'what do you personally know of the evidence for or against the belief in evolution? Does it really harmonize with the facts of science? We invite your careful examination of this matter, as it has a direct bearing on your life and your future.' The running argument is one that had been first used by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – nature is too complex for there not to have been an intelligent designer or creator. Paley famously used the analogy of a watchmaker: suppose you were to find a watch on the heath, and upon examining it and its complexity, would you not suppose there has to have been a watchmaker? Similarly, the Jehovah's Witnesses argue that 'what is made requires a maker'. Liking DNA to 'complex blueprints for future development', they wonder: 'And when we see blueprints responsible for the building of beautiful bridges, buildings and machines, do we ever contend they came into being without an intelligent designer?' What is more, there is not enough evidence for evolution (while all the existing evidence is compatible with the Bible), it's all just a theory based on conjecture and wishful thinking, unsupported by fact, and, really, not proper science at all.

The conclusion? The truly 'honest seekers after truth must acknowledge that the evidence is overwhelming that man got here, not as a result of evolution, but by means of creation by God.'

The question of evolution or creation is of course not new – Paley's watchmaker analogy may be familiar, but more will have heard (of) the story of the 1860 debate between Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce: are you descended from monkeys on your grandmother's or your grandfather's side? (The story itself has been highly sensationalised: contemporary accounts suggest that it was much less dramatic.) But organised creationism, in the sense in which it is most commonly understood today, is very much shaped by American Evangelical Christians and emerged in the 20th century. Stephen Jay Gould referred to it as a 'local, indigenous, American bizarrity' – but it has in fact not been confined to America. In Britain, especially recently, creationism has been discussed mostly in the context of education (free schools). Maynard Smith, while obviously not involved in those recent debates, discussed whether there is a conflict between science and religion in a serious of radio broadcasts aimed at school audiences in 1964. He concluded that there are cases and ways in which they do contradict each other but agreed with Christians in so far as to say that there seems to be something remarkable – but not necessarily unique! – about human intelligence in comparison to animals. He debated creationists, once together with Richard Dawkins – famously or infamously, one of the most outspoken critics of creationism and religion. Dawkins remembers that in the 1986 debate, Maynard Smith 'was, of course, easily able to destroy the creationist's case, and in his good-natured way he soon had the audience roaring with appreciative laughter at its expense.' Interviewed by the British Humanist Association – who are actively lobbying against creationist influences – in 2001, Maynard Smith finally summarised his views on religion as follows:

'I think there are two views you can have about religion. You can be tolerant of it and say, I don't believe in this but I don’t mind if other people do, or you can say, I not only don't believe in it but I think it is dangerous and damaging for other people to believe in it and they should be persuaded that they are mistaken. I fluctuate between the two. I am tolerant because religious institutions facilitate some very important work that would not get done otherwise, but then I look around and see what an incredible amount of damage religion is doing.'

So how did man get here? Obviously, Maynard Smith's answer would have been very resounding, "by evolution"!

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John Maynard Smith c. 1965. Copyright © University of Sussex.

 

Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2018.

Further reading:

The book and letter are now catalogued and can be found in the John Maynard Smith Archive (Add MS 86839 C)

Krasnodebski, M. (2014). Constructing creationists: French and British narratives and policies in the wake of the resurgence of anti-evolution movements. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47, 35-44.

Numbers, R. (2013). Creationism. In M. Ruse (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Pallen, M. (2009). The Rough Guide to Evolution. London: Rough Guides Ltd.

Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania (1967). Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. & International Bible Students Association Brooklyn: New York.

 

30 November 2017

Digital preservation and the Anne McLaren Papers

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IDPD17_Logo_small
Today on International Digital Preservation Day we present a guest-post by Claire Mosier, Museum Librarian and Historian at American Museum of Western Art: The Anschutz Collection, concerning the digital files in the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202) which have just been made available to researchers. As an MA student Claire worked as an intern at the British Library in 2015 helping to process digital material.

 

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Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright James Brabazon

 
The developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren was a great proponent of scientists sharing their work with the general public, and gave many presentations to scientists as well as the general public. Some of the notes, drafts, and finished products of these presentations are on paper, and others are in digital formats. The digital files of the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers are comprised mostly of PowerPoint presentations and images. Digital records are more of a challenge to access, and give readers access to, as they are not always readily readable in their native format. This leads to unique challenges in determining and making available the content. 
 

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‘HongKong2003Ethics.ppt’ Page from the presentation ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’, 2003, (Add MS 89202/12/16). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Throughout her career, McLaren gave presentations not only for educating others about her own work, but also on the social and ethical issues of scientific research. Many of her PowerPoint files are from presentations between 2002 and 2006 and cover the ethical, legal, moral, and social implications around stem cell therapy. These topics are addressed in the 2003 presentation ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/16), which briefly covers the historic and current stem cell research and legislation affecting it in different countries. A presentation from 2006 ‘Ethics and Science
of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/160) goes into more detail, breaking ethical concerns into categories of personal, research, and social ethics. As seen in these presentations and others, Anne McLaren tried to present material in a way that would make sense to her audience, some of the presentations being introductions to a concept for the more general public, and others being very detailed on a narrower subject for those in scientific professions. 

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‘Pugwash 2006’ Page from the presentation ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’, 2006, (Add MS 89202/12/163). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 From looking at her PowerPoint documents it seems McLaren’s goals were to educate her audience on scientific ideas and encourage them to think critically, whether they were scientists themselves or not. However, this is hard to confirm, as the PowerPoints are only partial artefacts of her presentations, and what she said during those presentations is not captured in the collection. While she did sometimes present her own views in the slides, she presented other viewpoints as well. This is seen in the presentation for the 2006 Pugwash Conference (Add MS 89202/12/163) titled ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’ which presents semantic, legislative, and scientific definitions of the term embryo before a slide reveals McLaren’s own views, then goes back to legislative definitions before the slideshow ends. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were created to ensure the peaceful application of scientific advances, and McLaren was a council member for many years.

***

Both the newly released Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202), along with the first tranche of McLaren’s papers (Add MS 83830-83981) are available to researchers via the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1965 to 1968 (Add MS 83845) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

10 November 2017

Using science to build international relations: a short introduction to science diplomacy

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Today, on World Science Day for Peace and Development, scientists and policymakers attending the World Science Forum in Jordan are discussing the role science can play in nurturing diplomatic relations.

Science diplomacy is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities in which science and technology are leveraged to foster ties between nations. Governments are aware that collaborating with international partners to achieve scientific goals can further their national interests. Consequently they are paying increasing attention to the idea of science as a diplomatic tool.

How is it practised? On a bilateral level diplomats co-ordinate scientific agreements which commit signatories to pooling resources by sharing knowledge and collaborating on research projects. Such agreements can open up opportunities for product development and trade deals, and are becoming an important part of the UK’s strategy to expand its research and innovation horizons post-Brexit.

Jo Johnson Ruth Garber
Jo Johnson (UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) and Judith G. Garber (U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs) signed the first U.S.-UK Science and Technology Agreement on 20 September 2017 in Washington, D.C. The UK is putting £65 million into the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). Photo credit: STFC/FCO

Science is a global enterprise in which international collaboration is the norm. In particular multinational teams are needed to run large experimental facilities such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) which are beyond the scope of individual countries. One of the by-products of these neutral working environments is science diplomacy. Scientists can develop long-lasting, cross-cultural relationships that sometimes help to bridge difficult political situations from the bottom up. Proposals for these huge infrastructure projects are often driven by an incentive to stimulate co-operation as much as for a need to build scientific capacity.

This was the case for the SESAME synchrotron which opened earlier this year in Jordan. The synchrotron’s powerful light source can be used to study the properties of a range of different materials, attracting researchers from across the Middle East, including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians.

SESAME construction
Countries from across the Middle East have come together to build SESAME. Photo credit: SESAME

Science diplomacy also comes into play in resolving sensitive international disputes. When negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme stalled, credit for their successful conclusion went to the two physicists, one Iranian and one US, who worked out the scientific details of the 2015 deal.

Four negotiators
The scientists and Ministers who negotiated the Iran deal: US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Vice President of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Dr Ali Akbar Salehi. Photo credit: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

Scientists and diplomats also work together in addressing global issues such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance or cross-border public health crises. Using scientific evidence is fundamental when negotiating coherent responses to shared challenges, and government science advisers are seen as a key mechanism in getting science into policymaking. Gradually foreign ministries around the world are appointing their own science advisers to channel scientific research into the work of their departments.

Various strategic funding programmes, some of which focus on meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals, support the aims of science diplomacy. These international collaborative projects generate the necessary evidence to inform policymaking while also stimulating partnerships that foster trust between nations.

Climate ready rice Newton Prize
The Newton Fund project ‘Climate Ready Rice’ is being conducted by scientists from Sheffield University in the UK, Kasetsart University in Thailand and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.Photo credit: IRRI

It is unclear how to evaluate the impact of science diplomacy activities, but participants agree that they only work when based around excellent science that generates mutual benefits.

Emmeline Ledgerwood is an AHRC collaborative student with the British Library Oral History department and the University of Leicester. She is preparing a policy briefing on science diplomacy as part of an AHRC-funded policy fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST). The briefing will be published by POST in December 2017.

POST runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities, through which PhD students are sponsored to spend (usually) three months working at POST. Some fellowships are also open to postdoctoral researchers in academia and industry.  

You can follow @EmmeLedgerwood and @POST_UK on Twitter.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone, not of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

30 June 2017

GREATforInspiration kicks off

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GREATforImagination logoThis week saw the launch of the GREATforImagination campaign, part of the GREAT Britain campaign to promote the UK as a place to buy from, invest in, and study in. GREATforImagination celebrates the 400th anniversary year of the publication of the first British patent to be retrospectively identified in the 19th century, after the foundation of the Patent Office (now the Intellectual Property Office), as a patent for an invention in the modern sense.

GREAT Britain asked us, as the holder's of Britain's historic patent collection, to come up with some key historical British patents for the different industries that they cover each week, which they'll be promoting one invention from per weekday as the campaign continues. We're tweeting each day with a link to the GREATforImagination release on each invention, and a link to the patent if it's available free online on Espacenet. The inventions are a mix of the historical ones and new ones from the cutting edge of British industrial innovation. The first week deals with clothing and cinema, and next week will cover technological developments from curiosity-driven science.

When GREAT Britain first asked us to start coming up with patents, we searched history books while they consulted industrial sources, to find inventions that were either a success at the time, or anticipated technologies that became important in the future once the world had caught up with them. There won't be any "weird patents" or "stupid patents" here, but ideas that stood the test of time.

So keep watching our Twitter and the GREATforImagination Instagram for GREAT British inventions historical and modern.

17 March 2017

Old issues in new guises: Dame Anne McLaren and the embryo research debate

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Following the birth of the world’s first baby by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Louise Brown, in 1978, the research on human embryos that had made this possible became the subject of scrutiny and unease from both the public and politicians. This led the government to task Dame Mary Warnock with the chairing of a committee consisting of medics, social workers, lawyers and clerics in 1982, to set out a guideline for the legislation on IVF and embryo research in the UK. The report was enacted in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. One of the report’s most lasting and controversial recommendations was a limit on research on human embryos in vitro beyond fourteen-days – the so-called ’fourteen-day rule’.

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Detail of the letter to Anne McLaren inviting her to take part in the Warnock Committee. (1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1). Crown Copyright/estate of Anne McLaren.

This law has been in force for more than twenty-five years. For scientists, there had been no need to contest it, since scientists had not come close to culturing an embryo anywhere near to the fourteen-day limit. The equilibrium was only disrupted at the end of last year, when a research group at Cambridge University led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz claimed to have developed a method of culturing live human embryos for thirteen days, only stopping their experiment at this point to comply with the fourteen-day rule. This possibility has recharged the debates over the desirability of embryo research and the extent to which it should be regulated.

In the face of these reopened debates on the ethics of embryo research, it is important to understand the premises and arguments that shaped the current legislation. These arguments, at first glance, appear to be predominantly scientific.

Developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was the only research scientist serving on the Warnock Committee, and played an important role in providing the lay-committee with a scientific understanding of the processes of embryo development that proved definitive in the committee’s efforts to convince ministers of the validity of the fourteen-day rule. McLaren made the case for the rule by arguing that the fourteenth day was a clearly distinguishable step towards individuation in the development of the embryo. Fourteen days, for example, sees the onset of gastrulation, a point at which the embryo can no longer divide into identical twins. Fourteen days also falls well before the beginnings of what will become the central nervous system, and so there is no chance that the embryo could experience pain. 

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Title page of Anne McLaren’s draft for ‘Comments on the use of donated eggs fertlilized specifically for research purposes’. (c. 1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1) Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

Yet, as Lady Warnock has stressed, fourteen days is by no means a landmark set in stone. McLaren could have made a well-substantiated scientific argument for a different cut-off point- the embryo, for example, is just as incapable of experiencing pain at twenty-eight days. As Lady Warnock stated at a 2016 Progress Educational Trust conference on the topic, it was merely important to set a time limit, to provide clarity through law, so that the public would feel reassured that research would not progress untethered. The fourteen-day rule did therefore not express a moral distinction for the human embryo based on biological facts, but emphasised a specific part of the biological process in order to make a practical compromise – as Warnock writes in the committee’s report: ‘What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society’ (1985, p.3). 

Understanding the arguments McLaren made in the 1980s will shed light on what is required of legislation today—that it should take into account the current political climate and public sentiment, perhaps before making arguments about the ethics of research based on biological facts. 

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. There is currently one tranche (Add MS 83830-83981) available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue with a second tranche (Add MS 89202) planned for release at the end of April 2017. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. 

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

 This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.

Posted by Marieke Bigg. Marieke is an MPhil student in sociology at the University of Cambridge and works under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Franklin. Marieke’s MPhil dissertation and PhD will both explore the contributions made by Dr Anne McLaren to the debate over human fertilisation and embryology in the 1980s.

15 March 2017

Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career"

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John Maynard Smith c:1965. Copyright University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was born in London, though after his father’s death in 1928, the family moved to the countryside. There, Maynard Smith deepened his love for natural history – already manifest in his insistence to repeatedly visit the Zoo and Natural History Museum in London – while bird-watching and beetle-collecting during the holidays in Exmoor. His family was generally not scientifically inclined, and there were expectations for him to join his grandfather’s stockbroking firm. However, during one Sunday lunch he declared that he would not do so. What was he going to do then? Remembering a lecture on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he decided, rather spontaneously, to become an engineer. And so, after graduating from Eton in 1938, he went on to read engineering at Cambridge.

Maynard Smith is known for not having liked his time at boarding school very much – the atmosphere, he felt, was ‘really anti-intellectual’, ‘snobbish’ and ‘arrogant’ – but he credited Eton with teaching him mathematics and giving him the freedom to explore the natural sciences on his own, mostly by reading popular science books. Cambridge, in a way, did less for him academically than Eton. ‘This time, however, the fault was partly mine and partly Hitler’s. It was hard, in 1938, to take either academic work, or one’s own future, seriously.’ He joined the Communist Party, influenced by a visit of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 from which he returned ‘in a state of complete confusion, convinced that my pacifism was wrong’. Communists were those ‘saying we have got to unite and oppose Fascism’, and he spent more time being politically active than studying. Soon after joining, Maynard Smith met Sheila Matthew, his future wife, at a Communist Camp. They were to marry in 1941, making Maynard Smith one of the first married undergraduate students at Trinity College. Their first son, Anthony, would be born in 1944, their daughter Carol in 1946, and their youngest, Julian, in 1949.

In 1941, Maynard Smith graduated with a second-class honours degree in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked as an aircraft stressman which, importantly, ‘taught him to trust models, a lesson that would become fundamental in his work as a scientist.’ Moreover, ‘and for obvious reasons, Maynard Smith formed the valuable habit of not making mistakes in computations.’ However, when the war was over, he began to reconsider his career choices. He decided to return to his first love and started a second degree in zoology at University College London. Maynard Smith knew JBS Haldane was teaching there, whose work he had sought out already at Eton because several teachers seemed to particularly hate this man – so he couldn’t be ‘all bad’.

During his years as an undergraduate at UCL Maynard Smith became less and less active politically. He was much more involved in his studies than he ever was at Cambridge. In addition, Lysenkoism reached its peak in 1948. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist and Lamarckist supported by the Soviet government. Maynard Smith was not so much averse to Lysenkoism as ‘disgusted’ by the comrades who were ignorant of genetics but who were nonetheless telling him what to believe. He lost faith in the Communist Party, became disillusioned with communist politics and – though to a lesser extent – with Marxist philosophy. In 1956, after the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, he finally left the Party yet retained his leftist political outlook.

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John Maynard Smith c:1984. Copyright University of Sussex

In the year before his death, Animal Signals, his last book, co-written with David Harper, was published. The book was one of several; Maynard Smith published both textbooks and popular science – his ‘little Penguin’, The Theory of Evolution, was published as early as 1958. Indeed, he was convinced that science is a social activity: he had a ‘desire to embed discoveries in the discourse of a community as broad as possible.’ So next to writing books, reviews, and essays he also appeared on both radio and television.

The John Maynard Smith Archive at the British Library documents over half a century of John Maynard Smith's work as an evolutionary biologist, covering the years 1948 to 2004 (with an emphasis on the 1970s to 1990s). It contains letters, notes, computer printouts, draft manuscripts, lecture notes and offprints as well as artefacts and digital files. The archive is available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (Add MS 86569-86840), excepting the digital material which is in the process of being catalogued.

Maynard Smith's books and scientific papers, along with two interviews (one on camera), can be found via the British Library Explore catalogue.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.

 

Sources and Further Reading:

Charlesworth, B. and Harvey, P. (2005). John Maynard Smith. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 51, 254-265.

Kohn, M. (2004). A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, esp. pp.197-255.

‘Making it formal.’ (1988). In: Wolpert, L. and Richards, A. (eds.). A Passion for Science (pp.122-137). Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. (1985). In Haldane's Footsteps. In: Dewsbury, D.A. (ed.). Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

22 November 2016

Stephen Hales: Reverend, Researcher, Reformer

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In the final episode of “Treasures of the British Library” series (tonight at 9pm on Sky Arts) we explored the ancestry of trumpeter Alison Balsom. Alison is descended from the 18th century clergyman and polymath Stephen Hales (1677-1761) and she was keen to find out more about this remarkable man.

The first item I showed Alison was Hales’ seminal work “Vegetable Staticks” or to give it its full title “Vegetable Staticks: or an account of some statical experiments on the sap in vegetables: being an essay towards a natural history of vegetation”. Alas, it was not an age of punchy titles. Hales was interested in understanding how plants give off and take up water and in this book he outlines the many meticulous experiments that seek to understand these processes. Hales even invented the ‘pneumatic trough’ (see below) and used this to collect gases given off by plants. He didn’t however analyse the composition of this gas, since at that time air was understood to be a pure element. It was not until many years later that Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen was a component of air, making use of Hales’ pneumatic trough to collect, analyse and separate gases.


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Stephen Hales' pneumatic trough. From Vegetable Staticks p260


Some of Hales’ conclusions were remarkably prescient outlining the process of photosynthesis many years before its chemical basis was elucidated. One key quote draws parallels between the function of the leaves of plants with animals' lungs.

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From Vegetable Staticks. p326

 

Two pages later Hales also postulates that light might be a form of energy which is needed by the plant to survive.

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From Vegetable Staticks. p327

 

Alison and I then went on to look at Hales’ “A Description of Ventilators”. One of Hale’s social projects was the invention of ventilating systems for ships and prisons where overcrowding meant that stale air and unhygienic conditions were rife. Hales’ invention was essentially a giant set of bellows which removed the noxious air. The ventilator was initially used to dry grain for preservation but was eventually rolled out to ships, hospitals and prisons where it saved many lives.



Last but not least we came to Reverend Hales’ “A Friendly Admonition to Drinkers of Gin, Brandy and Other Spirituous liquors” which was published anonymously in 1751. Hales was a strong supporter of the Gin Acts of the early 18th century where gin sales were subject to high taxes in an effort to reduce consumption. In the tract he outlines the many physiological consequences of consuming as he called them, “most intoxicating and baneful spirits”. Readers are warned that liquors ‘frequently cause those Obstructions and Stoppages in the Liver, which occasion the Jaundice, Dropsy and many other fatal diseases” and “impair the mind as much as the body”.  However the message was as much moral as it was medical with Hales condemning drunkards and the great sin of drinking throughout.

A friendly admonition Stephen Hales
Stephen Hales' A Friendly Admonition... Title page and p25

 

Although Hales trained as a clergyman and did not have any formal scientific training his achievements rival many of the well-known scientists of the day. Despite this Hales does not tend to feature alongside famous scientists in the history books so we were pleased to be able to shed some light on this interesting character as part of the Treasures of the British Library series.

Katie Howe

With thanks to Tanya Kirk and Duncan Heyes for help sourcing Stephen Hales material from the British Library collections.

27 October 2016

Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research.

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PhD placement student Mandy Kleinsorge looks back on our most recent TalkScience@BL event.

TalkScience@BL - Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research

The use of animals in research is as controversial as ever. It is well-known that animal research has brought about some great discoveries in the past1, such as the development of Herceptin and Tamoxifen for the treatment of breast cancer or the discovery of bronchodilators to treat the symptoms of asthma. Today, the UK regulations for research involving animals are among the tightest in the world. In consequence, it is illegal in the UK (and in Europe) to use an animal in research if there is a viable non-animal alternative2. Despite this, the number of experimental procedures on animals in the UK has been steadily increasing over the last years3 and funding of non-animal research accounted for only 0.036 % of the UK national R&D science expenditure4 (2011). Apparently, three quarters of Britons agreed that there needs to be more research carried out into alternatives to animal experimentation5 (2012).

On 13th October, we invited experts in the field to the British Library to publicly discuss the current state of alternatives to animals, as well as the efforts that are made to improve the welfare of animals that are still needed in scientific research. The concept of reducing or even substituting animals in scientific experiments (or at least improving the conditions under which these experiments are conducted) is not new. In 1959, Russell and Burch established the principles of the Three Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement)6 which came to be EU-wide guidelines for the more ethical use – or non-use – of animals in research. Today, a number of organisations campaign for openness and education as to why animals are needed in some areas of research, but also as to where we might not actually need them anymore. One of those is the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) who we collaborated with on our TalkScience event ‘Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research’. The event was chaired by Stephen Holgate, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southampton and Board Chair of the NC3Rs.

Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.
Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.

The first speaker of the evening was Robin Williams (Head of the Biomedical Sciences Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London). Robin uses Dictyostelium, a social amoeba and therefore non-animal model, to conduct research into neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. He even brought some amoeba for the audience to look at! Besides bringing awareness to the fact that this organism can actually represent a viable alternative to animal experimentation, he also drew attention to two big problems that researchers using animal alternatives are facing. Acquiring funding and publishing scientific papers are the most important tasks of senior researchers and both of these are complicated by a limited acceptance of non-animal models. Although 3Rs practice is increasingly advocated in the UK, the peer review process regulating funding and publication of research projects is a global endeavour. Robin therefore called for a shift in attitude towards alternatives to animals on a world-wide level.

Our second speaker, Sally Robinson (Head of Laboratory Animal Science UK at AstraZeneca), shed some light into the use of animals in pharmaceutical research. Sally stressed the importance of using the most appropriate model – animal or non-animal – to answer the scientific question. This is not as trivial as it sounds, and is key to obtaining meaningful results and minimising use of animals where possible. The welfare of the animals used in drug development is equally important, as Sally illustrated with the refinement of dog housing. By optimising pen design7, the welfare of laboratory dogs can be drastically improved, and so can the quality of scientific research they’re involved in. Furthermore, Sally herself had a leading role in the challenging of the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity tests in drug development8, which ultimately changed international legislative guidance and reduced the number of animals needed in pharmaceutical research.

Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.
Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.

Our last speaker was Robin Lovell-Badge (Head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute). He opened his talk by endorsing openness in animal research. This is a welcome and necessary trend of the past few years – after animal research had been conducted behind closed doors in the UK for decades for fear of violent actions. The ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’9 was initiated in 2012 and has been signed by 107 UK organisations to date. Robin explained which animals the newly built Francis Crick Institute will work with and why, and how Home Office guidelines on animal research have helped inform the design of their state-of-the-art facilities. He also mentioned some of their work that doesn’t involve animals, like research using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells resemble embryonic stem cells and can be generated from any living cell of a human donor. They are able to differentiate into virtually every cell type of the body, presenting an alternative source of human tissue for drug screenings and the modelling of diseases10. This fairly new technology might even be useful as an alternative to animal experiments in the future.

In discussion with the audience it became clear that the UK is leading the world in the realisation of the 3Rs. However, there is still room for much improvement in furthering the 3Rs. While better experimental design using robust biostatistics and in-depth training of scientists handling animals is vital, increased acceptance of negative data would avoid unnecessary duplication of experiments using animals.

The discussion continued after the event.
The discussion continued after the event.

When asked whether an animal-free research in the immediate future was possible, the panel agreed that it wasn’t. A lot more research into alternatives as well as a change in people’s mindsets is needed beforehand. But how do we exert pressure for this change? Do we need animal activists to do this, one audience member asked. Good question. It is definitely necessary to bring different types of people together to have more balanced and open discussions about this emotive topic. So, thanks to the speakers and the audience of this TalkScience event for joining us to disuss this important issue.

Further reading:

1 Understanding Animal Research. Forty reasons why we need animals in research.
2 Animals in Science Committee. Consolidated version of the Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986.
3 Home Office. Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, Great Britain 2015.
4 Taylor, K. EU member state government contribution to alternative methods.
5 Ipsos MORI. Views on the use of animals in scientific research.
6 Russell, WMS and Burch, RL. The principles of humane experimental technique.
7 Refining Dog Care. Dog unit and home pen design.
8 Robinson, S et al. A European pharmaceutical company initiative challenging the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity studies in pharmaceutical drug development.
9 Understanding Animal Research. Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.
10 Takahashi, K and Yamanaka, S. A decade of transcription factor-mediated reprogramming to pluripotency.

 

05 September 2016

Social Media Data: What’s the use?

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Team ScienceBL is pleased to bring you #TheDataDebates -  an exciting new partnership with the AHRC, the ESRC and the Alan Turing Institute. In our first event on 21st September we’re discussing social media. Join us!

Every day people around the world post a staggering 400 million tweets, upload 350 million photos to Facebook and view 4 billion videos on YouTube. Analysing this mass of data can help us understand how people think and act but there are also many potential problems.  Ahead of the event, we looked into a few interesting applications of social media data.

Politically correct? 

During the 2015 General Election, experts used a technique called sentiment analysis to examine Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates1. But is this type of analysis actually useful? Some think that tweets are spontaneous and might not represent the more calculated political decision of voters.

On the other side of the pond, Obama’s election strategy in 2012 made use of social media data on an unprecedented scale2. A huge data analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy - e.g. broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. 

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Image from Flickr

In this year's US election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are making the most of social media's huge reach to rally support. The Trump campaign has recently released the America First app which collects personal data and awards points for recruiting friends3. Meanwhile Democrat nominee Clinton is building on the work of Barack Obama's social media team and exploring platforms such as Pinterest and YouTube4. Only time will tell who the eventual winner will be.

Playing the market

You know how Amazon suggests items you might like based on the items you’ve browsed on their site? This is a common marketing technique that allows companies to re-advertise products to users who have shown some interest in the brand but might not have bought anything. Linking browsing history to social media comments has the potential to make this targeted marketing even more sophisticated4.

Credit where credit’s due?

Many ‘new generation’ loan companies don’t use a traditional credit checks but instead gather other information on an individual - including social media data – and then decide whether to grant the loan5. Opinion is divided as to whether this new model is a good thing. On the one hand it allows people who might have been rejected by traditional checks to get credit. But critics say that people are being judged on data that they assume is private. And could this be a slippery slope to allowing other industries (e.g. insurance) to gather information in this way? Could this lead to discrimination?

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Image from Flickr

What's the problem?

Despite all these applications there’s lots of discussion about the best way to analyse social media data. How can we control for biases and how do we make sure our samples are representative? There are also concerns about privacy and consent. Some social media data (like Twitter) is public and can be seen and used by anyone (subject to terms and conditions). But most Facebook data is only visible to people specified by the user. The problem is: do users always know what they are signing up for?

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Image from Pixabay

Lots of big data companies are using anonymised data (where obvious identifiers like name and date of birth are removed) which can be distributed without the users consent. But there may still be the potential for individuals to be re-identified - especially if multiple datasets are combined - and this is a major problem for many concerned with privacy.

If you are an avid social media user, a big data specialist, a privacy advocate or are simply interested in finding out more join us on 21st September to discuss further. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe