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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’.

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. 

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.

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.

01 March 2017

The 100 most reported and shared science articles of 2016

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Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery compressed
"A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" by Joseph Wright of Derby. Since the 18th century, astronomy has remained popular among non-scientists. have recently published the list of the top 100 scholarly articles most mentioned in news and social media in 2016.  The subjects can be roughly assigned as:

Health and medicine     63
Biology   15
Environment 7
Astronomy 6
Computer science 2
Psychology 2
Scholarly publishing 2
Archaeology 1
Engineering 1
Statistics 1

Predictably, health and medicine articles were most of interest to the non-scholarly media, and social media, with many articles relating to high-profile issues such as obesity and the emergence of the Zika virus, or which could be considered to inspire "might someday lead to a cure for [condition]" stories. Environmental stories were unexpectedly low on the list. Two articles seemingly owed their popularity to a celebrity effect - President Obama's article on the Affordable Care Act, and an essay by the wife of the actor and comedian Robin Williams on the neurological problems that contributed to his suicide. Biology stories were dominated by ones on the always popular topic of prehistoric life, especially life that could be represented as particularly relevant to human ancestry. 

However, a few articles hit the headlines after arousing interest specifically within the scientific community, notably the American Statistical Association's statement stepping into the "p-value" debate about the reliability and meaningfulness of statistical significance testing in science, and the announcement of the long-awaited conclusive detection of gravitational waves. Two stories about the scientific publishing process itself got into the top 100 - the New England Journal of Medicine's controversial "research parasite" editorial on data sharing and a BMJ satirical piece on the perennial battle between authors and peer reviewers. 

So, what does this mean to us as scientific librarians? Most clearly, that at the extremes altmetrics are clearly dominated by what the general public is interested in rather than necessarily what is most important to the development of science. While we are always looking for new information to help us decide what to acquire, this list probably will not affect our purchasing much!

Posted by Philip Eagle - STM Content Expert

03 February 2017

HPC & Big Data

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Matt and Philip attended the HPC & Big Data conference on Wednesday 1st February. This is an annual one-day conference on the uses of high-performance computing and especially on big data. “Big data” is used widely to mean very large collections of data in science, social science, and business.

There were some very interesting presentations over the day. Anthony Lee from our friends the Turing Institute discussed the Institute’s plans for the future and the potential of big data in general. The increasing amounts of data being created in “big science” scientific experiments and the world at large mean that the problems of research have shifted from data collection being the hard part to processing capabilities being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data.

A presentation from the Earlham Institute and Verne Global revealed that Iceland could become a centre for high-performance computing in the future, thanks to its combination of cheap, green electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal power, high-bandwidth data links to other continents, and a cool climate which reduces the need for active cooling of equipment. HPC worldwide now consumes more energy than the entire airline industry and whole countries of the size and development level of Italy and Spain. Seljalandsfoss-1207956_1280

Dave Underwood of the Met Office described the Met Office’s acquisition of the largest HPC computer in Europe. He also pointed out the extreme male-biased demographic of the event, something that both Matt and Philip had noticed (although we admit, one of our female team members could have gone instead of Philip).

Luciano Floridi of Oxford University discussed the ethical issues of Big Data and pointed out that as intangibles become a greater portion of companies’ value, so scandal becomes more damaging to them. Current controversies involving behaviour on the internet suggest that moral principles of security, privacy, and freedom of speech may be increasingly conflicting with one another, leading to difficult questions of how to balance them.

JISC gave a presentation on their actual and planned shared HPC data centres, and invited representatives from our friends and neighbours at the Crick Institute, and the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute on their IT plans. Alison Davis from Crick pointed out that an under-rated problem for academic IT departments is individual researchers’ desire to carry huge quantities of digital data with them when they move institutions, causing extra demand on storage and raising difficult issues of ownership.

Finally, Richard Self of the University of Derby gave an illuminating presentation on the potential pitfalls of “big data” in social science and business, such as the fact that the size of a sample does not guarantee that it is representative of the whole population, the probability of finding apparent correlations in a large sample that are created by chance and not causation, and the lack of guaranteed veracity. (For example, in one investigation 14% of geographical locations from mobile phone data were 65km or more out of place.)

Philip Eagle, Content Expert - STM

13 January 2017

Making hydrogen from wax

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Philip recently attended an event for other Oxford University chemistry alumni, and one of the speakers drew attention to a recent publication from, among others, Oxford chemists, regarding the production of hydrogen from paraffin waxes by microwave degradation using a ruthenium catalyst.

Hydrogen has often been suggested as an environmentally-friendly replacement energy source for fossil fuels in transport vehicles and other applications requiring high energy density. (Note that hydrogen is not a “fuel”, as it must be made using energy from other sources, which can be environmentally-friendly or not.) However, there are significant problems with this, notably involving the safe storage of a highly-inflammable and explosive gas which is much lighter than air.

Hydrogen wax cycle
Figure 5 from original article showing chemical cycle and outputs

This publication suggests that wax could be carried on vehicles and used to create hydrogen gas in situ, the waste carbon being used to make more wax via syngas production and the Fischer-Tropsch process, where carbon monoxide and hydrogen is converted into hydrocarbons as a potential source of petro-chemicals that does not involve releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere. While this publication is still a long way from a working industrial-scale process, it offers a very hopeful potential avenue for less-polluting technology.

Source: Gonzalez-Cortes, S et al. Wax: A benign hydrogen-storage material that rapidly releases H2-rich gases through microwave-assisted catalytic decomposition, Scientific Reports, 2016 6, 35315. Available online at

Further reading:
Ball, M et al (Eds.). Compendium of hydrogen energy: volume 4, Hydrogen use, safety and the hydrogen economy, Oxford: Woodhead Publishing, 2015. Available online in the British Library Reading Rooms.

19 December 2016

The first paper on carbon dioxide and global warming

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Before 2016 ends, there’s one anniversary we previously didn’t get around to marking, the publication in 1896 of the first articles suggesting that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere might affect Earth’s climate via the greenhouse effect, by the Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrhenius. This phenomenon is almost universally accepted as a hazard to the future of human civilisation by climate scientists, although still denied by certain political figures.

Svante Arrhenius in 1910

Arrhenius (1859-1927) was one of the main early figures of physical chemistry, the branch of chemistry that uses physics to explain and predict the behaviour of chemical reactions, mixtures of matter and volumes of pure substances. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, for coming up with the idea that many substances, such as salt, exist as charged ions when they dissolve in water, explaining why solutions conduct electricity. His other important achievements in chemistry include work on the rates of chemical reactions and developing the first clear definition of acids and bases.

Later in his career, he became interested in the discipline then known as “cosmic physics”, which sought to explain the current nature and past history of the Earth and other planets of the solar system. The greenhouse effect paper developed out of his attempts to develop an explanation for ice ages on Earth, which he suggested were caused by changes in the CO2 level of the atmosphere. (This remains one of several competing hypotheses today, although there is argument about whether changes in atmosphere composition were a cause, an effect, or part of a feedback loop.)

He first published his ideas in 1896, in German in the Swedish journal Behang till Kongliga Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar and in an abridged English version in The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. He subsequently expanded on his theory for a mass audience in his popular science work Världarnas utveckling, published in English as Worlds in the Making.

According to Arrhenius, he spent a full year in tedious manual calculations for the paper, in various stages. Firstly, he sought to derive figures for the heat-absorption capacity of water vapour and carbon dioxide from detailed observations on the intensity of moonlight at Earth’s surface carried out by Samuel P Langley in 1885-7. He then calculated mean actual temperatures and humidities at different locations around the world, and then the calculated effects on temperatures in different parts of the world of carbon dioxide levels at 67%, 150%, 200%, 250%, and 300% of the actual one at the time he wrote. He calculated that doubling the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere would raise the temperature in general by 4°C.

In the paper he did not discuss the effect of fossil fuel burning on carbon dioxide emissions. However, he did in Worlds in the Making. On pp.53-63, he discussed the role in carbon dioxide emissions of human activity and volcanism, and declared the chief means of long-term removal of carbon dioxide as formation of carbonate minerals and peat production by plants, before moving on to speculation on the early history of Earth’s atmosphere. At the end of the chapter, he argues that an increased greenhouse effect due to human activity would be a good thing, preventing a new Ice Age and allowing for better yields of crops! At the time, Arrhenius did not consider the risks of rising sea level and local disruption of agriculture, to mention only two potential downsides.

Posted by Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:



Arrhenius, S. Ueber den Einfluss des atmosphärischen Kohlensäuregehalts auf die Temperatur der Erdoberfläche, Behang till Kongliga Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar, 1896 22 (1,1), 1-102. General Reference Ac.1070

Arrhenius, S. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series) April 1896 49 (251), 237-276. General Reference P.P.1433. Also available online at

Arrhenius, S, translated by Borns, H. Worlds in the Making. London: Harper & Brothers, 1908. General Reference

Brock, W H. The Fontana History of Chemistry. London: Fontana, 1992. General Reference YC.1992.a.2866

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Document Supply 2388.000000

Chen, W-Y et al (Ed.). Handbook of Climate Change Mitigation. New York: Springer, 2012. Science, Technology and Business (B) 363.738747

Earth System Science Data, available online at

Earth’s Future, available online at

Graham, S. On the Shoulders of Giants. Greenbelt, MD: NASA Earth Observatory, 2000. Available online at

Hudson, J. The History of Chemistry. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992. General Reference YC.1993.b.3347

Journal of Advances in Modeling World Systems, available online at

McGuffie, K and Henderson-Sellers, A. The Climate Modelling Primer. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. Science, Technology and Business (B) 551.6011

Matthews, J A (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Environmental Change. Los Angeles: SAGE Reference, 2014. Science, Technology and Business (B) 363.703

Mélieres, M-A and Maréchal, C. Climate Change: Past, Present and Future. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. Science, Technology and Business (B) 551.6

Nature Climate Change, Science, Technology and Business (P) 333.7205-E(2)

North, G R et al (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2015. Science, Technology and Business (B) 551.503

Philander, S G (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Global Warming and Climate Change. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Reference, 2012. Available electronically in British Library reading rooms

Rodhe, H and Charlson, R (Eds.). The Legacy of Svante Arrhenius: Understanding the Greenhouse Effect. Uddevalla: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1998. General Reference YA.2000.a.37529

16 December 2016

9 famous scientists and their PhD theses

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If you are currently working towards a PhD you might worry that your thesis is destined for life as a handy doorstop, or to gather dust on a forgotten Library shelf. But this work can be a stepping stone - either to a career in academia or something else altogether. With this in mind we decided to check out the British Library’s electronic theses service EThOS to see what treasures we could unearth from influential scientists while they were lowly graduate students.

From 1970-1974 Brian May, Queen’s famous guitarist, studied for a PhD investigating interplanetary dust in the solar system. He abandoned his studies when Queen started to have international success. Many years later he returned to Imperial to complete his PhD studies. His final thesis was awarded in 2008 and was entitled A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud.

Brian Harold May_PhD thesis EThOS

Peter Higgs, who shot to fame in 2013 after his discovery of the Higgs Boson (or God particle) was honoured with the Nobel prize in Physics, started his scientific career studying for a PhD - mysteriously entitled “Some problems in the theory of molecular vibrations”.

D-Ream singer turned astrophysicist Brian Cox started his academic career with a PhD studying in high energy particle physics at the University of Manchester. Things could only get better from there... (sorry!)

By cellanr (Prof Brian Cox) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Rosalind Franklin is famous for producing the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that led to the discovery of its double helical structure. Her PhD research focussed on the molecular structure of coal and other organic materials.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars while studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s.  A visualisation of one of these pulsars was famously used as the cover art for Joy Division's best-selling album Unknown Pleasures.

JoyDivision_UnknownPleasures and Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn bell Burnell image by Roger W Haworth (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1966 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963.  His PhD thesis, properties of expanding universes describes his theory for the creation of the universe and was inspired by Roger Penrose's work on space time singularities.

Jim Al-Khalili presents popular science on radio and TV including Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. He started his career at the University of Surrey with a PhD on “Immediate energy deuteron elastic scattering from nuclei in a three-body model”. Jim (or Jameel) Al-Khalili is now Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey.

Jim Al-Khalili PhD thesis
By Vera de Kok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Mark Walport investigated the “biology of complement receptors” for his PhD at the University of Cambridge. Complement receptors are key part of our immune system and are responsible for the detection of pathogens. He now serves the lofty position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government is former director of the biomedical research funder the Wellcome Trust.

Sir Paul Nurse is now President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute. His PhD at the University of East Anglia investigated the organisation of amino acids in a species of yeast called Candia Utitlis.  Nurse continued to work on yeast after his PhD and in 1976 discovered the molecules which control the cell cycle in fission yeast. This discovery was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001.

Katie Howe

12 December 2016

Using our science collections

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Some of you reading this blog may never have come to the British Library Science rooms, or only have used a small part of our services. Here’s an example, based on real queries from our reading rooms, of what you can do when you come here.

Emma is a medical student who has been asked to do a report over the vacation on anticonvulsive drugs. She has some online access to her university’s resources from home, but needs a quieter place to work. After getting her reader pass, she asks the science reference desk for the best place to start. She searches Explore the British Library, which is the main catalogue of books and journals in the library, using the search box on the library computer home page, for books on anticonvulsants. She finds several paper books on the open shelf, in particular “Anti-Epileptic Drugs: a Clinician’s Manual” by Ali A Asadi-Pooya at (B) 615.784, and “Wyllie’s Treatment of Epilepsy”, edited by Elaine Wyllie at (B) 616.85306. Also available is an e-book, “The Treatment of Epilepsy”, edited by Simon Shorvon. 

CC-BY by e-Magine art (

After browsing these she moves on to our electronic databases, which are all available from the “Find Electronic Resources” link on the library computer home page. She discovers our subscription to “Drug Information Fulltext” via Ovid, which includes the full text of the American Hospital Formulary Service’s Drug Information Book, giving detailed information on individual substances.

Ovid search results

In order to comment on recent developments in research, she uses the Embase database, a medical database specialising in pharmaceutical material. The database retrieves 155 results for 2016, which is a number possible to browse by title, but allows it to be narrowed by the type of subject matter of the article, such as whether it focusses on “therapy” or “diagnosis”.

Embase results
Embase search results

If she is interested in a specific drug, she can search for that by name on Embase. Another way to find recent articles on a specific substance is to find the main reference on it in one of the book sources, and then find it on the Web of Science database and look for articles citing it. For example, a major article on the use of the drug vigabatrin for complex partial seizures was Cocito et al, “Vigabatrin in partial seizures – a long-term study”, Epilepsy Research 1989, 3(2), pp. 160-6. Web of Science finds fifty later citations, up to 2014.

This was a taste of the different scientific resources that you can use here. We are open to all scientific researchers who have a need to use our resources, and if you know of something you can’t find at your university or workplace, we may well have it here. If you want to check first, send us a question.

Philip Eagle, STM Content Specialist

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.


11 October 2016

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day today! Now in its 8th year, this special day aims to raise the profile of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths, but also to create role models to encourage girls to pursue scientific careers. The name giver herself was a prime example of a woman following her inclination for analytical thinking. Ada Lovelace made a name for herself as the first computer programmer at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

But she was not the only woman who contributed to our understanding of science. The list of scientific heroines in history is surprisingly long, but mostly unheard-of. It comprises the well-known names of Marie Curie-Skłodowska, Rosalind Franklin and Florence Nightingale, but did you know the following female scientists?


Beatrix Potter's illustration
Beatrix Potter's illustrations of fungi in 'Wayside and woodland fungi' by W.P.K. Findlay (shelf mark X.329/15466)

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)

The name of Beatrix Potter might be familiar to those who grew up with ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. But besides being a famous author and illustrator of children’s books, she was also a natural scientist. Her love of flora, fauna and landscape, combined with her artistic talent and her ability to closely observe her surroundings, provided the ideal basis for this occupation. However, being a woman, she was rejected to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens. So Beatrix continued to study nature – fungi in particular – on her own and recorded her observations in beautiful drawings and watercolours, ultimately receiving the wide respect she deserved in the field of mycology. We hold a textbook on fungi at the British Library in which a collection of her brilliant illustrations has been used.


Agnes Mary Clerke (1842 – 1907)

Thanks to her parents, Agnes Mary Clerke was educated broadly in scientific subjects and languages, but it was the field of astronomy that became her passion. She started to write about the history of astronomy at the age of 15 and, after having her first important article published in the Edinburgh Review, she was repeatedly asked to contribute to scientific publications. She wrote the main article on astronomy as well as biographies of famous scientists for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She also published books of her own, her best known work being ‘A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century’ (which, of course, we have at the British Library). Although Agnes Mary Clerke was not a practical astronomer herself, she gained the respect of the profession through her interpretation of astronomical research, and by doing so, also introduced astronomy to a wider public.


Sophie Germain's letter
A letter written by Sophie Germain under her pseudonym M. Le Blanc to C.F. Gauss (shelf mark 10902.h.5)

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

Sophie Germain’s interest in mathematics was sparked at an early age, but in order to be able to study it, she had to overcome her parents’ opposition first and the society’s prejudice against her sex next. The latter she did by assuming the identity of M. Le Blanc, a former student of the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris, and sending the answers to his homework to his professor. She also corresponded with the famous mathematician Carl-Friedrich Gauss under her pseudonym. An impression of their discussions can be obtained through the letters in the British Library’s collection. In both instances, she was eventually unmasked, but was accepted immediately by the two men – and eventually by the whole scientific community – as an equal. Sophie Germain is best known for her progress on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and her work on elasticity which to this day underpins the science of building construction.


Science Fiction by Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish's science fiction work 'The Blazing World' (shelf mark 8407.h.10) 

Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673)

Back when scientists were still called natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish established herself as the first English female representative of this profession. She wrote treatises on a variety of subjects, including gender, power, scientific method and philosophy and by doing so helped popularise the scientific revolution. Although she was widely known (and often ridiculed) for her eccentricity, her innovative views added to the scientific discussion of her time. Not only was she one of the first to contest the validity of theological aspects in science, she also argued for the education of women and is claimed to be an early opponent of animal testing. On top of that, she managed to write one of the first examples of science fiction, ‘The Blazing World’, which has been digitised by the British Library and can be read online.


Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)

The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen was what you call a polymath. She was a theologian, philosopher, author, linguist and composer, but also a physician and natural scientist. While most of her non-scientific work was heavily influenced by the visions she is said to have received from a young age onwards, her botanical and medicinal texts are based on observations and experience. You can find a translation of her first book on the treatment of diseases ‘Physica’ at the British Library. Some of the remedies she described in her works might seem far-fetched from a modern scientific point of view, but she also made many accurate observations and is with good reason considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.


These five women achieved extraordinary things through their dedication to further scientific knowledge, even though (or possibly because?) they were women. Let them inspire you to strive for the same. Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone!

Mandy Kleinsorge, PhD placement student