Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

4 posts from May 2014

30 May 2014

Beautiful Science coming to Cheltenham

After a hugely successful three-month run, our Beautiful Science exhibition has come to a close. We'd like to thank everyone who came along to see the exhibition-- we hope you found it thought provoking and enjoyable in equal measure.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight was an exhibition, hosted in the Library’s Folio Society Gallery from 20 February to 28 May 2014, that explored how picturing scientific data can provide new insight into our lives, our origins and our planet. From classic diagrams from the Library’s collections to contemporary digital displays, Beautiful Science demonstrated how visualising data is fundamental to the ability of scientists to make new discoveries and communicate their findings.


 Next week, Beautiful Science will travel to a British Library tent at the Cheltenham Science Festival. From 3 - 18 June 2014, digital interactives from the exhibition will be on display, alongside high-quality, large-format prints of the physical objects from the St Pancras exhibition. The curators and members of the science research engagement team will be manning the tent over the course of the festival.

CSF14-blueWe are thrilled to have this opportunity to share Beautiful Science beyond London and be a part of what is, according to Brian Cox “without a doubt, the premier Science Festival in the country”. So do please spread the word that Beautiful Science will be at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and come visit us.

You can keep up with our Cheltenham adventures on Twitter @ScienceBL @cheltfestivals #cheltscifest

Johanna Kieniewicz

16 May 2014

Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action?

Climate scientist and NERC Policy Intern, Adam Levy, explores extreme weather in advance of our upcoming TalkScience event on 17th June (doors open 6pm).

From the winter storms in the UK, to the drought currently devastating California, extreme weather is constantly in the news.  As our lives become increasingly removed from the natural world, catastrophic weather events remind us of our vulnerability and call into question how we protect ourselves from the elements.  Recently, though, headlines have begun to challenge not only our preparedness, but also whether our actions are contributing to these events.  Are we, by emitting greenhouse gases, putting ourselves at greater risk of extreme weather?


Understanding the climate

In 1990, when the first major international report on climate change was published, we were still unable to detect whether greenhouse gases were already causing the earth’s temperature to rise.  Now, not only do we know that this is extremely likely, but we can begin to unpick how the earth’s rising temperatures affects the climate of different parts of the world in different ways.

The properties of the climate that are easiest to study, though, are often far removed from the weather we experience day to day.  To those of us that don’t work in agriculture, knowing how much rainfall there will be in the average 2040s summer is of limited use.  Even when this information relates directly to our own region, it fails to resonate with our experience of the world around us.  The damages caused by extreme weather, on the other hand, are far more tangible.  In contrast to the facts and statistics that are normally presented on global warming, extreme weather is something we are naturally inquisitive about.  So can scientists tell us anything about the influence of global warming on these weather events?

Insights into our weather

In some cases, scientists have been able to use physical understanding of the climate to evaluate how rises in the earth’s temperature could affect extreme weather.  Heat waves, for example, are very likely to become both longer and more frequent, as a hotter world is biased toward more extremely hot days.  We can also expect more extreme rainfall, as hotter air holds more moisture, and so when it rains, it pours.  These findings are invaluable, but when extreme weather hits, we understandably want to know the role of climate change in that specific event, not general physical patterns.

There has always been extreme weather, so it’s not possible to claim that a particular event never could have taken place without climate change.  We can ask, however, whether emissions have changed its intensity or likelihood.  To investigate such changes, scientists use physics-based computer simulations of the climate to compare what actually happened to what might have happened had there been no manmade emissions.

Scientists in the University of Oxford recently utilised this technique to investigate the record breaking rainfall experienced by the UK this winter.  Using a computer model designed by the UK’s Met Office, they ran almost 40,000 simulations on volunteers’ home computers.  They found that the recent storms - which forced thousands from their homes and cost the UK more than £1 billion – has gone from being a one in a hundred year event to a one in eighty year event.  The implication of this amazing result is that one fifth of the storms’ costs – both human and financial – can be ascribed to manmade climate change.

Findings like these empower people to engage with the consequences of our changing climate.  Continued warnings of the future dangers of greenhouse gases have patently failed to motivate meaningful action: emissions continue to rise relentlessly year on year.  Linking extreme weather to global warming, however, enables us to see the damages our emissions are already causing.  The challenge now – not just for climate scientists, but for all of us – is to communicate this powerful science in a way that motivates us to action. 

25th TalkScience Event - Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action

To explore both scientific and policy perspectives on this issue, come along to the British Library on the evening of 17th June and join James Randerson (Assistant National News Editor, The Guardian), with Professor Stephen Belcher (Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre), Laura Sandys MP (Conservative Environment Network) and George Marshall (Founder of Climate Outreach & Information Network).

More information and tickets available here.

13 May 2014

How do you use PhD theses?

Katie Howe takes a look back at the results from our recent survey with the Society of Biology

We in the British Library’s science team are interested in how people access scientific information and how we can facilitate that access. To this end we recently ran a survey in conjunction with our friends over at the Society of Biology asking how and why people use (or don’t use) bioscience PhD theses. Here I share some of the initial results.  

Joint logos
We were pleased to receive over 200 responses from bioscientists across all subject disciplines - from Anatomy to Zoology and everything in between! Most of those who responded worked in academia but we also had some respondents from fields such as science policy and research funding. The largest group of respondents was postgraduate students but other academic job roles were also well-represented including lecturers, undergraduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

Just over half the respondents told us that they use PhD theses a few times a year with some people (15%) using theses at least once a month. A third of those who replied said they never use PhD theses as a source of information. The survey results indicate that the main barriers to using PhD theses are that people do not always know where relevant material is located or they cannot find what they are looking for. These problems were experienced by both users and non-users of theses.

We were also interested to find out how people perceived PhD theses as a source of information. Some common themes that emerged were that theses may contain huge amounts of unpublished information and negative data, which could be very valuable for researchers. On the other hand, a small pool of respondents raised concerns about the reliability of the information that lies within a PhD thesis.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Thank you to everyone who responded to our survey and congratulations to Mick Cooper who was randomly selected as our winner. A £50 voucher will be winging its way to you shortly.

The results from this survey form part of a larger project to investigate how researchers use PhD theses and build on our existing thesis discovery tool EThOS - so stay tuned for future developments!

Katie Howe

02 May 2014

Beautiful Weather

Lead Curator Johanna Kieniewicz ponders the weather and climate section in Beautiful Science

Whether dramatic, delightful, dull or dreary, the weather affects us all and is a source of endless fascination and conversation for the British. Monitoring local weather conditions has long interested the public, amateur scientists and national institutes alike. And data about the weather—whether collected by a citizen scientist or national monitoring station—has been central to the endeavour to predict the weather and understand global climate systems. In our Beautiful Science exhibition at The British Library, we explore how by picturing data about the weather, we can connect our individual experience to a much bigger picture—whether that over the course of the year, or across the globe.  In so doing, we also highlight the importance of archives to contemporary science—and explore the importance of the citizen scientist, past and present.

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Early Ocean Currents, Eberhard Werner Happel, Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fürgestelt. Ulm, 1685

The observations of mariners have been vital to the development of early maps of ocean currents, winds, and air temperatures—and continue to have relevance today. A particularly interesting set of data is to be found in East India Company ships’ journals, over 4000 of which are housed in the India Office Records at The British Library. In 1709, the East India Company ship, the Rochester, sailed from England for China via Batavia (now known as Jakarta, Indonesia). Its captain enlivened his journal with drawings of ships, wildlife and places as well as recording the required information about location, course and weather. On the page displayed in the exhibition from 15 May, 1710 he refers to ‘fresh gales of wind and cloudy weather with squalls and rain as well from the WNW’.


The journal of the Rochester, as displayed in Beautiful Science


Such descriptions of weather in early ships’ journals are still useful to climate scientists although they lack the precision of instrumental data. However, these journals contain not only administrative notes and comments about shipboard life, but also a huge amount of instrumental data about the weather, making them a valuable resource for modern climate studies. Digitised and transcribed, the weather data from 891 of these logbooks has been utilised by the UK Met Office to inform the development of their global climate models.



This use of ‘old weather’ data from archives by the Met Office was not a one-off. They are enormously interested in ‘data rescue’—as participants in the international ACRE project, they aim to facilitate the recovery of instrumental weather data from across the globe. These observations act as ‘ground truth’ data points to underpin global weather reconstructions spanning the past 200-250 years. An important component of this work is the OldWeather project, a citizen science project in which anyone can help with the transcription of ships logbooks. The recording of temperature and pressure at particular locations provides thousands of data points that can be fed into computer models of the atmosphere – from which a weather map might eventually emerge.


Luke Howard, Barometrographia: Twenty years' variation of the barometer in the climate of Britain… London, 1847.

 Citizen science – the engagement of non-experts in the enterprise of science-- is hardly a new phenomenon, despite a new proliferation of efforts—in part thanks to the popularity of Zooniverse projects like OldWeather. Indeed, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the roles of amateurs in science in the 21st century, and that which they played in the 19th, particularly in the area of weather observations. Luke Howard, a chemist and amateur meteorologist, made some of the earliest consistent scientific observations recorded. In Barometrographia (1847), he recorded the atmospheric pressure readings from 1815 to 1834 at his homes in Tottenham, London and Ackworth, Yorkshire, alongside accounts of the weather. In Beautiful Science, we display a page from 1815, where he accompanies his barometric pressure measurements with some recollections of the freezing over of the Thames in London….

 “On the 6th of January snow falling in some quantity on the previously formed surface, the air at 33˚-34˚, it was occasionally collected by the wind into a ball which rolled on gathering from beneath until its weight stopped it; thousands of these natural snowballs covered up the fields, up to several inches in diameter. On the 9th the snowy landscape had a bluish tint, and the thermometer fell in the night to 8˚ with us; at Croydon (more exposed) to 5˚. By the 12th the river Lea was firmly frozen and the Thames was become scarcely navigable.” 


The elegance and consistency of Luke Howard’s measurements is impressive. Carried out over 20 years, the circular engravings were mechanically traced by a self-recording barograph over which he plotted the phases of the Moon in an attempt to discern the lunar influence on the weather. While his speculation that the Moon’s gravitational pull influences the weather has been proved wrong, we know that changes in air pressure play a key role, which Barometrographia illustrates. His personal anecdotes give a flavour to the data that the mere observations do not in themselves provide.




It is interesting to contemplate the recordings of India Office ships captains in the light of what meteorology and climate science have become today—behemoths of data—but beautiful nonetheless. Perpetual Ocean, a marvellous visualisation of ocean currents from the NASA Scientific Visualisation Studio derived primarily from satellite data, draws visitors in like flies to lamp; they stand in wonder – both in the complexity and dynamicity of our oceans, but also our ability to picture them.


  Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, sponsored by Winton Capital Management, is on display at the British Library until 26 May 2014 in the Folio Society Gallery. Admission is free. 

The journal of The Rochester has been digitised and can be viewed here.