Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

5 posts from July 2013

26 July 2013

Show me the data

Libraries just worry about books, right? Wrong! We also worry about data. If you want to provide a useful service to the research community (and that community includes anyone who wants to do research), you need to think about all the information, including research data sets, that people may need. But we recognise that isn’t always easy to do.

The Royal Society’s 2012 report on science as an open enterprise focused on the value of research data and, at a recent meeting, Professor Geoffrey Boulton who led the study noted that ‘open science’ approaches are not new. Henry Oldenburg, the 17th-century German natural philosopher and first Secretary of the Royal Society, ensured all his scientific correspondence was written in vernacular (and not Latin, as was the norm), and that all his observations were supported by supplementary evidence (and not just assertions).

Thus Boulton reflected that while the value of supporting reproducibility and providing an evidence base had been recognised very early on, many journals no longer published the results in tandem with the underlying data. Fortunately the technology is now allowing many publishers and others to provide better access to the data.

In some areas of science there has been a culture of data sharing. If researchers are sequencing DNA from any species they are asked to submit it to GenBank: a database established to ensure that scientists have access to the most up-to-date and comprehensive DNA sequence information. Most publishers require the researchers to provide evidence that they have added their data to GenBank before publication. So, if you work on sequencing DNA, getting access to other people’s data is relatively easy – but that is not necessarily the case for many other areas of science.

DNA sequence shutterstock_53986852

The reasons are complex. In many areas of research, there are no established or permanent stores for the many types of data that are produced. For researchers, the data they collect or generate is the primary output of the research and therefore comprises their intellectual capital. Many researchers are concerned about receiving appropriate credit for their efforts and that may not happen if they share their data with all and sundry. But that objection could be tackled if researchers could cite data – and thereby be recognised for their contribution.


The British Library is a founding member of an organisation called DataCite which, as the name suggests, was established to enable data to be cited. We have been working with a range of organisations responsible for managing, storing and preserving data from a variety of areas – everything from archaeology to atmospheric science – to enable them to attach a ‘digital tag’ to data that allows it to be referenced. This tag is ‘persistent’, so that even if the data is no longer available, it will be possible to find out what has happened to that resource. We hope when someone says – ‘show me the data’ – we will have played a role in making that possible.

Lee-Ann Coleman and Allan Sudlow

23 July 2013

Particle Physics: A Century of Spin

This week we have a special post from our work experience student, who was able to explore his interest in physics using the British Library Science Collection.

My name is Seyon Indran, and I am a work experience student from Mill Hill County High School who has joined the Library’s Science Team for two weeks.  When I was asked to write a piece for the BL Science blog, I decided to explore two of my favourite science topics: theoretical and particle physics. Below I describe two key discoveries in particle physics over the last hundred years, and predict what we might learn over the next hundred years. I am passionate about physics as I believe that it can reveal the magnificent beauty of the Universe we live in, and that the scientific journey it takes us on still has a lot to offer!

This July marks the 100th anniversary in which physicist Niels Bohr along with fellow physicist Ernest Rutherford and others, described the quantum atom – the atomic model many of us recognise, consisting of a positively charged nucleus with orbiting electrons. But this was only the beginning. Over the next century, scientists would manage to break this model down into a plethora of subatomic particles with different mass, charge and spin characteristics. This family of particles comprise elements of the Standard Model.  The Standard Model is an equation which shows the interaction between the fundamental forces which underpin all known interactions in the Universe and relies on the existence of subatomic particles with specific properties.

4367198103_840a1b59a2_oStatue of Niels Bohr

A new addition to the particle family arrived in March 2013, when scientists at CERN confirmed they had detected a particle which matched the description of the Higgs Boson. This discovery filled a key gap in the Standard Model. The reason why the discovery of the Higgs Boson was celebrated so much was because it also confirmed the existence of the Higgs Field. This is an invisible field which has mass stored in itself in the form of energy. When a particle goes through the field the mass is transferred to the particle. This is how particles get their mass.

Seyon&BohrSeyon with a copy of Neils Bohr's 1913 papers from the British Library Science Collection 

So, what does the next 100 years have to offer for particle physics? Never shrinking away from ambitious titles, scientists are building on the Standard Model towards defining the Theory of Everything. Such a theory would unify quantum mechanics with general relativity and fundamental forces such as gravity to provide a complete mathematical description of all potential interactions in the Universe. This sounds pretty difficult, and it will be, but I believe that in the next 50 years or so we should be able to accomplish this.

19 July 2013

BBSRC intern and potential ‘poster-boy’ buzzes-off…

From organising a public debate to writing-up science conferences and festivals, my time as part of the science team at the British Library is at an end. My placement followed on from first BBSRC intern, Catriona Manville who became the ‘poster-girl’ for the BBSRC placement programme in 2012. Even though it was never really a competition, after three months at the British Library could I be the next BBSRC ‘poster-boy’?

Stu.BeinnEigheflipped.Photo_by.Kyle_MunroStuart [me], surveying a grazing exclosure on the Beinn Eighe nature reserve in Scotland. Photo by Kyle Munro.

Before my internship I was writing-up my PhD thesis in Biological Science at the University of Aberdeen, but I wanted some experience in science policy. A placement at the British Library was appealing as an intermediary between interacting with policy makers and the general public. To that effect, I have attended as many meetings, workshops, conferences as possible; from the British Science Association Science Communication conference to a day talking to MPs at the House of Commons with the Society of Biology. For many of the events I attended, I wrote articles or blog posts to share what I learned. For example, I attended my first ever festival (and kept my wristband to prove it!) - the Cheltenham Science Festival - and helped write an article in their newspaper, Litmus paper.

DSC_6836Spot Stuart during TalkScience@BL ‘Pollinators and pesticides: is there a plan bee?’ Photo: Peter Warner.

The pinnacle of the placement has been organising TalkScience. This is a quarterly evening event, similar in format to a café scientifique. After reading the news, policy briefings, publications and reports, we decided our next TalkScience topic would be on issues surrounding the potentially harmful effect of pesticides on insect pollinators. “Pollinators and pesticides: is there a plan bee?”  was chaired by Bill Turnbull, BBC presenter and beekeeper in discussion with the panel comprising Dr David Aston (British Beekeepers Association), Dr Peter Campbell (Syngenta) and Dr Lynn Dicks (University of Cambridge). Even greater public outreach was gained via Bill hosting a BBC Horizon programme about demystifying the bees - leading to the event being filmed by the BBC. Keep your eyes peeled on BBC2 on 2 August at 21.00 and you might see a few shots of the event!

Being part of the British Library science team was a large learning curve and has increased my awareness of activities supporting, using and extending scientific research. For example, I gained new insights into Open Access and how recent policy changes are influencing libraries, funders, publishers and researchers. Even on a day-to-day basis, the transition from PhD student to science outreach is a change in mind-set and routine.

•    Preparing for a monthly supervisor meeting to participating in daily meetings with a wide range of people
•    Preparing for a single yearly conference to attending a conference every few weeks
•    Focusing on a single specific area of science to following multiple disciplines
•    Expanding sources of information from primarily research articles to journal and society news, policy briefings and blogs/Twitter!

DSCF0847A typical internship job at the British Library; fixing the life support system in the office to stop rising CO2 concentration killing the team! This was a team away day at the Leicester Space Centre.

Should I become the next ‘poster-boy’? To be honest, as a PhD student, I feel lucky to have experienced my fair share of media engagement with BBC Horizon. There are many scientists, societies and government advisors completely immersed in outreach and policy that deserve more recognition. Undertaking a placement at the British Library has been a rewarding experience in itself and I would encourage future PhD students to consider the opportunity.

Stuart Smith is a PhD student studing the effect of livestock grazing on the carbon cycle at the University of Aberdeen and has finished his internship as part of the BBSRC policy placement scheme.

12 July 2013

A bee-friendly British Library on the horizon…

On the evening of 26 June, the British Library was abuzz with discussion of issues surrounding the plight of the humble bee. This was our 21st event in the Science Team’s popular café scientifique series, TalkScience. “Pollinators and pesticides: is there a plan bee?” brought together scientists, policymakers and representatives from industry, along with the general public (many of them beekeepers), for a lively debate about the pressures facing bees and other wild insect pollinators.

British_Library_logo_and_honeybeeBee and pesticide discussions held at the British Library. Bee image © photo Eric Isselée.

BBC presenter and beekeeper, Bill Turnbull, chaired the panel comprising Dr David Aston (British Beekeepers Association), Dr Peter Campbell (Syngenta) and Dr Lynn Dicks (University of Cambridge), who expressed a diverse range of views on the decline of insect pollinators and the effects of pesticides on bees. While some research suggests pesticides do have a detrimental effect on bee populations, the issue, as we heard, is far from clear-cut; land-use, diseases and poor weather conditions also contribute to the decline in numbers.

Introducing_TalkScience21_panel.Pollinators_and_pesticides_v2. Lee-Ann Coleman (British Library science team) introduces the panel. L-R: Bill Turnbull (BBC), David Aston (BBKA), Lynn Dicks (University of Cambridge) and Peter Campbell (Syngenta). Photo: Peter Warner

The BBC Horizon team filmed the event as part of an upcoming programme on demystifying the issues impacting bees.  As well as highlighting the discussion from various experts to demonstrate the complexity of the issue, they wanted to reflect public concern for the plight of the bee. The BBC Horizon programme, which will likely contain clips from our TalkScience event, will be broadcast on Friday 2 August at 21.00, after Springwatch.

BBC_Horizon_filming_TalkScience21_panel.Pollinators_and_pesticidesTalkScience being filmed for the first time by BBC Horizon. Photo: Peter Warner

As a result of this TalkScience event, the Science Team is exploring how to make the British Library more bee-friendly. Please let us know about success stories from other public or city buildings that have made a bee-friendly transition, whether it’s planting more flowers or hosting hives of their own. And we'll report back on our own experiences.


The bee boleA potential idea of how to use books as solitary bee homes at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo: Alec Finlay

Following on from TalkScience, lively discussion continues via the blog posting of beekeeper Emily Heath, who attended the event. Lynn Dicks, one of our panellists, also summarised her four key action points to protect bees and other wind insect pollinators after TalkScience, and in preparation for the Bee Summit.

Audience members discussing pollinators and pesticides during the TalkScience interval. Photo: Peter Warner.

The event was organised by the Science Team with significant contribution from our PhD student intern, Stuart Smith. Stuart has spent three months with us through a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded policy placement. Next week read about his un-bee-lievable placement at the British Library.

Stuart Smith and Johanna Kieniewicz

02 July 2013

Introducing our new Science blog...

Welcome to our brand new Science blog bought to you by the Science Team at the British Library. We hope to inform, inspire and surprise you as we highlight the work that we do and the things that interest us. We’re also keen to hear what interests you, so please let us know and we’ll try to cover it.

Before the science bit, comes the history bit… The British Library is distinctive in many ways and one of its unexpected aspects is that, unlike many other national libraries, we cater for science, as well as the humanities. In fact, this remit was written into the British Library Act (1972) when a number of separate institutions, including the National Reference Library of Science and Invention and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, were brought together to create 'a national centre for reference, study, and bibliographic and other information services, in relation both to scientific and technological matters and to the humanities'. They finally merged physically when the St Pancras building opened in 1998.

Although the public may be less aware of the role that the British Library plays in science, many people needing access to scientific information make extensive use of our two Science Reading Rooms in London. We also offer access to scientific articles through our document supply service. But we do much more than that.

The Science Team is working on providing scientific information to more people, wherever they are. We have done quite a bit of research ourselves to understand how contemporary researchers discover and use information, not only to enhance our existing provision but to develop new services. We have been involved in Europe PubMed Central since 2006 – providing access to millions of biomedical research articles for free. We are also developing a resource – called Envia - for environmental scientists interested in flooding, which provides free access to relevant resources. Scientific data is generated in increasingly large volumes and discovering and accessing it requires new methods of gathering that information and pointing people in the right direction. The Science Team has been cataloguing datasets to make them more discoverable and is also delivering the UK DataCite service which enables datasets to be cited. While providing access to information is our core business, the British Library also has a fantastic space where scientists, researchers and the public can meet, debate issues and be challenged by new ideas. Our TalkScience events have a loyal following and we celebrate science with an annual public events programme called Inspiring Science. Next year will see a science-themed exhibition at the Library – called Beautiful Science – exploring scientific data visualisation from past to present. We’ll be keeping you updated about plans and progress on that.

Science permeates every aspect of our lives but you don’t have to wear a lab coat to be a scientist. By having curiosity and asking questions about the world, ourselves, where we’ve come from and what the future might hold is to think scientifically. Of course having access to trusted information helps us to understand what is already known and where the boundaries lie and what remains to be discovered. We hope that you will discover some new information in our blog posts, ask questions, make requests and use the resources that our experts highlight to explore new horizons.

You can expect to hear from us weekly so look out for our next post and follow us on Twitter for more frequent news, information and resources – @ScienceBL

Lee-Ann Coleman