Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

3 posts from December 2013

20 December 2013

Science Countdown to Christmas

In our last post before Christmas, we invite you to have a look through our science-themed advent calendar.

Throughout the run up to Christmas, we have been posting advent calendar items on Science at the British Library’s FaceBook page. We’ve toiled like Santa’s elves to bring you 20 festive science posts full of facts, photos and interesting links. And there are still four more on the way!

04-Reindeer_headImage from Wikimedia. Author Tiia Monto. CC BY-SA 3.0

You would be surprised at the science you can find hiding in every cracker, chocolate truffle and jar of cranberry sauce you go through this holiday season. Did you know for instance that the UK’s sweet chestnuts are facing a fungal threat that could be managed with a virus? Or that bioluminescence (of the type in Rudolf’s nose) is used by deep-sea fish to see their prey, without their prey seeing them? 

You can also see three wonderful patents for Christmas crackers (including one that lets three people join in the fun), the fractal structure of snowflakes and perhaps most interestingly for some, a picture of a cute little polar bear cub (but only so we can talk about polar ecosystems). 

02-SnowflakesImage from Flickr user yellowcloud. CC BY 2.0

If you want to see all of our advent posts so far, and keep an eye out for the final four, go on over to our FaceBook page. You can also find them all on our Pinterest Advent board.

This will be our last blog post of 2013, so we would like to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.  We look forward to sharing more of our work with you in 2014.

13 December 2013

Hidden Gems

Working with the British Library’s science collections, Natalie Bevan has been getting acquainted with collections that librarians refer to as ‘Grey’, but which are really hidden gems.

Grey literature is a dull name, but this particular part of our science collections is anything but ashen. It encompasses dynamic, new and emerging ideas and dialogues that are often never published in the conventional sense. Such outputs could be in the form of reports, newsletters or conference proceedings, for example. The information they contain might be transient, ephemeral and, very likely and often infuriatingly, nigh on impossible to track down. These factors make it vital for the Library to collect this research material and make it accessible to our users.

Part of my role on our Environmental Sciences beta project, Envia (see Johanna Kieniewicz’s previous blog post for further information on our project), involves making parts of the British Library’s comprehensive grey literature collections more accessible for the environmental science community.

The search interface for Envia, the new environmental information discovery tool from the British Library.

This work involves drawing together different content strands into one new resource discovery tool and dealing with the problematic nature of some of this grey material.

Flooding in York. (Copyright: ronfromyork: Shutterstock)

Envia’s subject focus is initially on the broad topic of flooding. To get an idea of the sort of material you’ll find, here are a few examples:

Shutterstock_122379967.Copyright.Radoslaw Maciejewski.ThamesBarrier
Thames Barrier. (Copyright.Radoslaw Maciejewski: Shutterstock)

Envia currently includes UK PhD theses, UK reports and data resources, covering topics such as coastal zone management, the social impact of flooding in local communities, flood risk assessments, the implementations of the Water Framework Directive, hydrological appraisals of past flood events, the ecology of floodplains, data on weather patterns, climate modelling and flood forecasting, to name a few.


The individual record display interface in Envia.

It is just one way that we are attempting to make these important but often ‘hidden’ collections more easily accessible for research, practice and use.

We are currently adding content to Envia and welcome feedback on this beta service, so please try it out and let us know what you think.

06 December 2013

Visualising Research

This week we are excited to announce the launch of a data visualisation competition (and workshop), sponsored by the AHRC and BBSRC

We talk quite a lot about data on the Science Blog and have previously highlighted the role we are playing in helping researchers to discover, access or cite scientific data. But working at the British Library means we have the fantastic opportunity to bring our collections and contemporary research to the wider public through our exhibitions. Earlier in the year we gave you a taster of Beautiful Science  - an exhibition launching in February 2014, that will explore scientific data visualisation from past to present. Some famous historical names, such as Florence Nightingale, knew the power of displaying data – her iconic diagram (pictured) not only enabled any viewer to quickly grasp the meaning but led to changes in the way those injured in war were treated.


As part of our celebration of all things data and our exhibition, we have been working with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council on a competition that challenges entrants to bring UK Research Council data to life. An added bonus - we hope - is that the competition aims to encourage people from different disciplines to work together, since presenting complex data not only requires mathematical, computing or scientific skills but strong expertise in art and design. A key criteria for the judges will be whether the entries convey the meaning to a wide audience and so they will be looking for that combination of valid data that tells a compelling story.

Around £3 billion of Government funding is apportioned annually between the seven UK Research Councils, which are responsible for different discipline areas. The Research Councils then distribute that funding to their various communities on the basis of applications made by researchers, which are subject to independent, expert peer review. Applications are judged by considering a combination of factors, including their scientific excellence, timeliness and promise, strategic relevance, economic and social impacts, industrial and stakeholder relevance, value for money and staff training potential. Until recently it wasn’t easy to combine funding data from different Research Councils or to explore how it was distributed across the country. And the finer grained detail, while it may have been available from an individual Council, was difficult to tease out or integrate. Behind the scenes, Research Councils worked together to make details of the research they fund available from one place. The culmination of that commitment is Gateway to Research - a database that anyone can use. The data is available programmatically and under an open government licence which means that anyone is free to interrogate it – you can extract it all, download it to your own systems, apply your own analysis tools and generally think of things to do with it that no one else has done before.

The challenge of the competition is to use the Gateway to Research data to tell a compelling story that anyone will be able to understand. While designers, graphic artists, software developers and programmers may have a particular interest, anyone and everyone is invited to produce a visualisation (on a website) that will show how this public funding contributes to research in the UK. Details of the competition are here. Entries forms will be available from 27 January 2014 and the closing date is 21 March 2014. Our judges include Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive, BBSRC, Katy Borner, Victor H. Yngve Professor of Information Science, Indiana University and Guardian Digital Agency.

On 24 January 2014, we are holding a workshop at the British Library for anyone who wants to find out more. Please register if you want some inspiration, information about the Gateway to Research database and to meet potential collaborators. Representatives from the AHRC and BBSRC will be there on the day, as well as data visualisation evangelists (Guardian Digital Agency) and developers (Cottage Labs) who have worked with the data. We will also have Andrew Steele from Scienceogram who is using public data to make the case for science in the UK.

Lee-Ann Coleman