Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

6 posts from March 2014

31 March 2014

Patently Obvious?

Katie Howe reports on the latest event in our TalkScience series.

It’s been a busy few weeks here at ScienceBL. We have hosted a total of nine events as part of our Beautiful Science events season, welcoming over 2000 people to the Library to explore all aspects of science from family science shows through to serious debate and geeky science comedy.

One of these events was the latest instalment of our TalkScience debate series. On the 4th March we welcomed a range of scientists, policy makers and patent experts to debate whether biomedical patents are a help or hindrance to scientific progress and society more generally.

The debate was chaired by Professor Jackie Hunter (Chief Executive of the BBSRC) who was joined by three expert speakers: Professor Alan Ashworth (Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research), Dr Nick Bourne (Head of Commercial Development at Cardiff University) and Dr Berwyn Clarke (biomedical entrepreneur).

L-R (Alan Ashworth, Nick Bourne, Berwyn Clarke and Jackie Hunter)

Down to business

The panel started by giving a background to the area from their point of view and sharing their thoughts on whether patents are necessary to encourage innovation or if they simply stifle scientific progress. There seemed to be two key, and often conflicting, issues at play here: firstly, the potential commercial benefits of biomedical patents, and secondly, their societal impacts.

First up was Professor Alan Ashworth. Professor Ashworth was part of the team who in 1995 identified the BRCA2 gene at the same time as the American company, Myriad Genetics, sparking a 20 year long patent war over licensing. He has previously spoken of his disappointment with the recent Myriad vs US Supreme Court ruling but was of the opinion that in areas such as drug development patents are necessary to allow investors to recoup the money invested. However, in his view the nature of genetic material is ‘sacrosanct’ and this should not be overridden by commercial considerations.

Dr Bourne shared with the audience his experience of working in technology transfer. He noted that the recent REF2014 (Research Excellence Framework) required universities to report on the impact of their research. Importantly, this included both economic impacts as well as societal impacts and Dr Bourne noted that patent protection can be useful in furthering both these aims.

Dr Clarke has a background in the pharmaceutical industry and founded the diagnostics company Lab21 in 2005. Dr Clarke was firmly of the opinion that biomedical patents are necessary as they allow investors to recoup some of the money they spent on developing the drug in the first place. He also noted that much academic research is funded by the revenue generated from patent exclusivity or patent licensing. Dr Clarke also reminded that pharmaceutical companies' raison d’être is to develop drugs to help people and it is not solely about making money.

Questions from the audience at TalkScience@BL

Invention vs. discovery?

In the second part of the evening, a question from the audience shifted the debate to the issue of defining whether something is an invention or simply a discovery. Making this distinction is particularly difficult in modern biomedicine where we are now able to mimic naturally-occurring molecules and pathways synthetically.  Dr Clarke noted that in order to be patentable an invention must be ‘non-obvious’. But Professor Hunter countered this by pointing out that the definition of ‘obviousness’ is often anything but ‘obvious’!

At the end of the evening, the consensus was that biomedical patents are definitely not ‘patently obvious’!

If you were not able to join us for the debate then you can listen to the podcast here. The next TalkScience event will be held in late June so stay tuned for further information. Meanwhile, you can get your fill of data visualisation goodness by coming along to the Beautiful Science exhibition, which is open until 26th May.

Katie Howe

27 March 2014

Access to Understanding Awards 2014: Everyone’s a Winner

The 2014 award winners for the Access to Understanding science writing competition are revealed....

Excitement mixed with nerves in equal measure on Monday night at the British Library. The ten short-listed scientists sat in the audience at the Access to Understanding Awards 2014, waiting to hear from Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, if their plain English research summary had won. But before the gold envelopes are opened and the winners announced, we reflect briefly on the competition as a whole…

Now in its second year, Access to Understanding is a science writing competition delivered by the British Library’s Science Team in collaboration with Europe PubMed Central (Europe PMC). We asked entrants to write a summary of a research article so that an interested member of the public would easily understand it. Entrants were required to explain the research and why it mattered in no more than 800 words. Ten articles, freely available from Europe PMC, were selected by ten different funders for inclusion in the competition.

It’s been a lot of effort all round. Effort from the 262 scientists who submitted an entry; effort from the Library’s Science Team and Europe PMC funders who honed these entries down to a shortlist of 10; and effort from our fantastic Judging Panel - ably chaired by Sharmila Nebhrajani, Chief Executive of the AMRC - who had the tough decision on picking first, second and third place. This year, we introduced the People’s Choice Award, which invited anyone to read the shortlisted articles online and vote for those that they liked.


So who won? Cue drum roll….and Sir Mark opening up the envelopes…

First place was awarded to Elizabeth Kirkham for her entry ‘Beat box: how the brain processes rhythm’, a brilliant piece explaining the brain structure involved in beat prediction. Judges awarded second place to Elizabeth McAdam for her entry ‘Reforming rheumatoid arthritis treatment: a step in the right direction’. And third place was awarded to Aidan Maartens for his entry ‘Populations within populations: drug resistance and malaria control’.

The People’s Choice award – which received 1350 votes from the public  in less than a month - went to Lucia Aronica for her entry ‘How healthy eating could starve out cancer’. Simon Denegri, Chair of INVOLVE, presented this award, noting some of the brilliant comments voters had made on the People’s Choice website about all ten articles.

Image2From top left clockwise: Sir Mark Walport and winner Elizabeth Kirkham; Sir Mark Walport and second place Elizabeth McAdam; People's Choice winner Lucia Aronica and Simon Denegri; Sir Mark Walport and third place Aidan Maartens

All the shortlisted articles, available in our downloadable competition booklet, provide excellent summaries of research covering blood vessel growth to neurone breakdown to novel cancer treatments. Each article also mentions the original research paper, freely available in Europe PMC.

Image38 of the 10 shortlisted scientists: (from L to R) Aidan Maartens (3rd), Clare Finlay, Elizabeth McAdam (2nd), John Foster, Claire Sand, Christopher Waite, Helle Bogetofte, Elizabeth Kirkham (1st)

We are incredibly grateful to the Access to Understanding Judges, Europe PMC Funders, and Sir Mark Walport who helped make the night so special. We are also really pleased that the scientists who authored the original research papers and attended the evening were thrilled to see these plain English summaries of their work. 

Most of all, we were yet again astounded by the enthusiasm, talent and motivation of all the scientists who entered the competition.

Given the overwhelmingly positive public response to the People’s Choice, we consider everyone a winner!


PS: Read more coverage of the evening on the Europe PMC blog: 'A night of winners!'

19 March 2014

Plotting for a Healthy Society

Johanna Kieniewicz tells the stories behind the public health section of Beautiful Science

The visual representation of health information has long been integral to the improving the health and wellbeing of society. The Public Health section of Beautiful Science shows how the visual representation of this data—whether in a table, map or rose diagram has helped us to identify causes and cures of disease, track the spread of epidemics, and make the case for a better world. 


In the beginning, there was data

John Graunt, an English haberdasher, was responsible for the first known table of public health data. As waves of plague ravaged London, parish clerks from 1603 were instructed to collect data pertaining to the causes of mortality within their constituency, collected in the Bills of Mortality, which were published on a weekly basis. In his Table of Casualties from Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality, patterns area easy to spot. 1636 was a dreadful plague year in London, whereas two years earlier, there were no recorded plague-related deaths.

The bills are also amusing from a contemporary perspective; the ‘Searchers’ who collected the mortality data were not trained health professionals and thus recorded some illnesses that from a contemporary perspective are quite amusing, or simply no longer exist. ‘Rising of the Lights’ and ‘Died of several accidents’ are personal favourites, and I recently learned that King’s Evil is actually scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes)—but so called due to the myth that if you were touched by the King (or later a coin bearing his head), then you would be cured of the disease.

Bills of Mortality, John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality. London, 1662. (1)
John Graunt, The Table of Casualties from Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality (1662)

The data within his Table of Casualties allowed Graunt to draw conclusions including:

  • That some diseases, and Casualties keep a constant proportion, whereas some others are very irregular.
  • There hath been in London within this age four times of great mortality, viz. Anno 1592, 1603, 1625, and 1638, whereof that of 1603 was the greatest
  • The Plague Anno 1603 lasted eight years, that of 1636 lasted 12 years, that in 1636 twelve years, but that in 1625 continued but one single year
  • That Plagues always come in with Kings' Reigns is most false.
  • That Autumn, or the Fall is the most unhealthful season.

John Graunt has been widely credited with as being the father of modern demography, and set the scene for the later study of vital statistics and epidemiology.


Maps that change the world

The mapping of public health data has its origins with a map produced by New York doctor, Valentine Seaman, during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1798 in an effort to identify the means by which the disease spread.  However, the best known and most influential map of public health data is probably Dr. John Snow’s “ghost map” in the he plotted cholera deaths on a map of Soho during the 1855 outbreak. The deaths were concentrated around a water pump on Broad Street, which it was later learned, was drawing water from a sewage-contaminated substrate. Although Snow suspected that cholera was a water-borne disease, this ran contrary to the leading theory of miasma (bad air), and he did not have the evidence necessary to prove his hypothesis. This map provided the proof he needed, even though germ theory was yet to be developed. Although Snow was not the first to plot cholera deaths on a map, his map of the 1855 outbreak in Soho was significant in that it acted as both a tool of discovery, as well as communication--  and achieved both exceedingly well.

On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, John Snow. London, 1855
On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, John Snow. London, 1855


Mapping public health data continues to be vital today, particularly when paired with other types of demographic data. The UK Chief Medical Officer publishes an annual report, featured in Beautiful Science, in which a vast number of causes of mortality and morbidity are mapped. Data within the report is commonly visualised as cartograms, in which geographic area is morphed in accordance with population size. Shading adds an additional layer of information, making geographic distribution visible alongside the proportion of England’s population affected.


CMO data - Fast Food Outlet Density map _lowrez
Fast food outlets per 100,000 population by local authority, England, 2013 Department of Health, 2014 (data sourced from Ordnance Survey InterestMapTM, analysis by Public Health England, visualisation by Iconomical).

In Beautiful Science, we display a cartogram from the upcoming Chief Medical Officer’s report that pictures the unequal geographic distribution of fast food outlets per 100,000 population. The darkest shade indicates the fifth of local authorities with the highest density of fast food outlets. Other information in the annual report shows an association between areas with a high density of fast food outlets and high levels of socioeconomic deprivation. This cartogram may lead to examination of other possible associations, such as high prevalence of obesity or centres of tourism.


A red, black and blue rose

The visual representation of data can have an impact that dry statistics may not. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale was enlisted by the Royal Commission to write a report enquiring into army mortality in times of both war and peace. Although she presented ample statistics and made numerous recommendations, no action was taken. This may have been due to propaganda leaflets sent out by military doctors questioning her assertions; she realised she needed to make a completely airtight case in order to see these important health reforms implemented.

Nightingale British Library
Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East Florence Nightingale. Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858.

With a keen awareness that she needed to communicate to a diverse audience ranging from Queen Victoria to government officials, Nightingale devised the rose diagram. In her diagram, Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, she shows that far more soldiers died in hospital to preventable diseases than perished due to battle-inflicted wounds. In these ‘roses’, each segment (corresponding to mortality over a period of time) extends away from the centre of the diagram at an equal angle. The square root of the radius of each segment varies in accordance with the data.

The report and its diagrams had a profound effect—numerous health reforms were passed—including improvements in ventilation, heating sewage disposal and more. Later sub-commissions drafted a sanitary code, established a medical school and put in place new procedures for gathering medical statistics.

Nightingale's Rose-- data from Florence Nightingale's Rose diagram represented as a bar chart, by David Spiegelhalter, Mike Pearson, Ian Short 2011

It is striking to compare Nightingale’s diagram with the same data pictured as a bar chart, as presented by David Spiegelhalter. Yes, it’s the same information and actually in some ways technically easier to read. But it is much more difficult to compare months a year apart on the bar chart than the rose diagram—and from the point of view of sheer visual impact, really doesn’t compare.


And what does this mean for us?

The question of whether visual rhetoric can play a part in public health campaigns is one that we’ve put to some experts, who have been involved in the public health section of Beautiful Science. 

 If you’d like to learn more, please join us for Seeing is Believing: Picturing the Nation’s Health—an event on the 28th of April featuring Professor David Spiegelhalter, Dame Sally Davies and Michael Blastland. Hope to see you there!

Beautiful Science is on display at The British Library until 26 May 2014, and is sponsored by Winton Capital Management. Entry is Free. Explore more images from the public health section of Beautiful Science on our Pinterest page!

13 March 2014

I Chart the British Library - Who Ate All the Pie Charts?

Festival of the Spoken Nerd and Special Guest Geeks explore the highs and lows of data visualisation as part of the Beautiful Science events season at the British Library. Rebecca Withers and Allan Sudlow report on the laughs and graphs during an evening for the sci-curious.

Monday night was not a typical night at the British Library. Over 250 self-identifying nerds and geeks poured into the Conference Centre for a night of graphs and gaffs for our data-related science comedy event, "I Chart the British Library". The  show was hosted by our friends Festival of the Spoken Nerd- the phenomenal trio of geeky songstress Helen Arney, experiment maestro Steve Mould and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker- and supported by an outstanding set (collective noun) of guest nerds.

In the first half of the show Steve taught us the difference between Venn and Euler diagrams in classic FOSTN cheeky style, whilst Matt plumbed the depths of bad data visualisation, exposing the eye-watering attempts to make marketing guff look more 'mathsy'. Helen - in wonderful periodic table couture - explored with our very own Richard Ranft (Head of BL Sound & Vision) how wildlife calls had been visualised before recorded sound had been invented, and what new science the analysis of animal vocalisation data can reveal.

Erinma Ochu - one of our special guest nerds - talked about her citizen science projects, including the fantastic sunflower project she worked on with another of our guest nerds, Jonathan Swinton. A current crowdsourcing data project - hookedonmusic - inspired Helen to finish the first half with a song to test with the audience whether she was able to write a catchy tune, or not! 


The interval was crammed with data-tastic activities giving the audience a chance to get hands on, literally in the case of Matt, who was analysing audience arm spans. Steve used social media to capture numbers from the audience for some suprising statistics in the second half of the show. As well as the aforementioned hookedon music and vocal visualisations with Helen and Richard, the audience explored multispectral imaging forensics with Christina Duffy, part of the Conservation Science Team at the BL. We also got a sneak peek behind the scenes tour of the Beautiful Science exhibition with our 'stand-up' curators: Johanna Kieniewicz and Nora McGregor.


After the break, we were treated to some analytical mayhem from the Nerds and Jonathan, as we examined some of the graphs and gaffs generated during the break. Graphing dangerous animals and a mathematically accurate love song were a perfect way to end the show.


We'd like to thank Helen, Matt, Steve and all our wonderful guest nerds for an evening of statistically significant silliness.

Please keep an eye out for highlight vidoes of the Beautiful Science events as they appear on our blog over the coming months....

05 March 2014


The Library hosted its first ever Science Discovery Day on Saturday 1 March. Rebecca Withers and Allan Sudlow participated. It was a day that was exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting in equal measure, and reached a brand new audience of budding scientists!

We were nervous. Our first Beautiful Science event aimed at families with children and accessible to deaf people. We knew we were in the capable hands of the BL Learning Team, who had organised the day with the wonderful Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children and Camden Family Learning. But it was a free event, it was sunny outside and we had no idea if anyone would turn up….


We needn’t have worried – over 300 families, with around 1000 people in all – enjoyed a fantastic range of activities. From photo booths, poster painting and amazing bubble shows (our friends from the Science Museum), to animal skulls (thanks to the Grant Museum), music for the deaf, and sign language storytelling. A huge cheer to all the organisations who helped deliver such a varied and exciting day!

The Science Team hosted a show and tell on some of the stories behind the Beautiful Science exhibition, including an opportunity for the budding young scientists to determine the source of a cholera outbreak in Victorian London.

Sticker science
 Science Team Stickers and Storytelling, with Esther, our fantastic BSL interpreter.

Families contributed their own data visualisation on their favourite bits of the exhibition through the medium of sticker science! And we received some wonderfully colourful feedback from the younger critics…

Voting on Beautiful Science themes and colourful feedback!

The day was a great success and we hope that the families that attended enjoyed themselves and learnt something new.

Beautiful Science is open everyday during library hours until 26 May 2014. It is a free exhibition, and after our experiences on Saturday we can guarantee it is an exhibition that appeals to all! 



03 March 2014

Access to Understanding's first ever People's Choice Award!

Rebecca Withers shares an exciting new development about the Access to Understanding competition. Get involved now!

We are pleased to announce the launch of our first ever People’s Choice Award for the Access to Understanding science-writing competition! The competition is run by Europe PubMed Central in partnership with the Science team at the British Library.

People's Choice flyer

This award gives you - the public - the opportunity to read our shortlisted entries and have your say. Our entrants rose to the difficult challenge of writing plain English summaries of research articles (all available from Europe PMC), which cover fascinating cutting-edge science including investigating alternative approaches to target tumours, clinical trials that aim to improve physical impairment associated with normal aging, using fruit fly models to understand human gene function and determining key factors in the development of Parkinson’s disease. Our rigorous judging process has ensured the scientific accuracy of the accounts, so now we want to know what you think!

The competition will remain open until 12.00 on 24 March 2014, and the winner will be announced that evening at our awards ceremony. You can vote for as many articles as you like, once a day. We encourage you to share any and all comments at any time.

When you have finished reading and voting, don’t forget to tell your family, friends and colleagues! We know these exceptional pieces will be of interest to all!