Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

4 posts from November 2021

23 November 2021

Climate change resources at the British Library

The British Library main building in St Pancras, seen over a hedge with a small tree to the left
(Photograph by Tony Antoniou)

The COP26 conference in Glasgow has ended, but the real work of reducing carbon emissions must now begin. The science staff and the British Library Green Network have created a collection guide now available on our website, which includes key items to provide information on the problems and potential solutions.

The guide includes books, journals and online databases that you can only access within the British Library if you have a Reader Pass, but there are also many links to trustworthy websites that contain a wealth of information on climate change, the Earth's climate, and the wider issues.

We will be keeping it up to date so that it will continue to be useful into the future.

17 November 2021

Bloodletting and leeches, not so ancient.

Hippocrates (c. 460 BC - 377 BC), the ancient Greek physician, was the first to apply humorism to medicine. In ancient medicine, “humor” refers to a fluid or semifluid substance. According to Hippocrates, the body was made up of four humors; blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. Moreover, that health and disease occurred naturally when these humors were imbalanced, either in deficiency or excess. Thus, if someone was unwell, it was a product of imbalance in their body. To cure a patient of an illness, the excess of the relevant humor had to be removed. A common treatment was bloodletting and the instrument used…leeches. Leeches were used for a wide range of ailments including headaches, gout, bruising, and brain disorders among others.



A decorated initial from an illuminated manuscript, showing two people in medieval clothing. One is cutting the arm of the other so that their blood runs down into a bowl.


Although by modern standards, most people would squirm at the thought of leeches sucking their blood and deem this tradition completely archaic, the use of leeches for medical purposes has not become wholly obsolete in the 21st century.

The medical leech is known as hirudo medicinalis. Leeches have remarkable properties that make them useful medical tools. They improve blood flow in areas with poor blood circulation. Their saliva contains anticoagulants preventing clotting, and as they suck they reduce tension and remove blood clots. Leeches release a natural antiseptic as they bite, therefore preventing infection. Due to these properties, the medical leech has had a revival and is now farmed in the UK to aid treatment.

Medical leeches are used for microsurgery, and reconstructive and plastic surgery.  In the case of plastic surgery, when tissue is reattached, blood clots can form as blood can get congested. Leeches are used to remove this tension and reduce clotting. Microsurgery is surgery that requires an operating microscope. One of the main purposes of microsurgery is to transplant tissue from one part of the body to another and to reattach amputated parts in what is known as free flap surgery. A major part of this process is repairing small blood vessels. Leeches have become a valuable tool for microsurgery recovery, salvaging surgically irreparable venous insufficiency occurring after free flap procedures. The leech can help the blood flow in small blood vessels and prevent tissue from dying.

Tracing the history of medicine can be full of surprises, especially when treatments date as far back as ancient Greece. No wonder Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine.


References and further reading:

  • NHS, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, Plastic Surgery Department, Leech Therapy.
  • Royal College of Surgeons of England, Why you should love a leech: bloodletting to microsurgery, 2018.
  • NHS, Oxford University Hospitals, Leech Therapy.
  • Green, P. A.|Shafritz, A. B. (2010). Medicinal Leech Use in Microsurgery. The Journal of Hand Surgery., 35(6), 1019-1021. Shelfmark: 4996.620000
  • Soucacos, P. N.|Beris, A. E.|Malizos, K. N.|Kabani, C. T. (1994). The use of medicinal leeches, Hirudo medicinalis, to restore venous circulation in trauma and reconstructive microsurgery. International Angiology., 13(3), 251. Shelfmark: 4535.770000
  • Bloodletting zodiac man

16 November 2021

A time for action, not words

Although the dialogues and negotiations of COP26 might be yesterday’s news, the climate crisis is not. The threat remains, and we now face the hard and urgent work of reducing emissions, but also ensuring we can cope with the changes at our doorstep.

Even if there is some good news to be had (subject to the deforestation and methane agreements being implemented, as well as the promised finance materialising and reaching those who most need it), we are still not on the path to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C, which Johan Rockström, the director for the Postsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, described as a planetary boundary, with every fraction of a degree above it being dangerous.

Emma's photo blog 2
Climate change protests in Glasgow during COP26, photo taken by Dr. Emma Jenkins

It was alarming to hear the voices of the communities already deeply affected by climate change, with the abiding image of Tuvalu’s foreign minister giving his speech knee-deep in water, and the powerful words of the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, amongst many others. Yet, despite the clearly existential threats already affecting millions of people, the key changes such as phasing out of fossil fuels have still not been achieved.

So, where do we go from here?

Greta's tweet
One of Greta Thunberg's tweets after COP26

Climate activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot think that what happens next depends on mobilising enough people to make change happen. Nigel Topping, the UN High-Level Climate Champion, emphasises that keeping 1.5 alive requires ‘the dynamism of the non-state actor agenda in driving the ambition loop for accelerated government action’.

We cannot leave our future in the hands of high-level negotiations happening behind closed doors - it is down to all of us to work together to come up with solutions and drive change. And this needs to happen now.

Whether we manage to limit warming to 1.5C or not, climate change is happening, and as well as mitigation, we also need to look at adaptation. So, what will this look like in different places nearest to us?

Are you a Londoner suffering due to increased air pollution? Does this means that you see the new Ultra Emission Zone (ULEZ) as a part of the solution? Or do you live in a UK coastal community affected by flooding and coastal erosion? Perhaps you work in a rural community, and are worried about the increased risks of drought and flooding, and the changes that climate change will bring to rural economy?

What role do all the different stakeholders in your community play as we negotiate the issues ahead of us - from government to business, from landowners to citizens? And, who is responsible for driving adaptation and building resilience?

At the British Library, we have brought together representatives from these stakeholder groups in three special events to help us explore these issues affecting British landscapes and communities.

Our first panel, to be held on 22 November, will discuss the issues arising in the coastal communities. Chaired by Sally Brown, a coastal geomorphologist from Bournemouth University, the panel will bring together –

  • Alan Frampton - Strategy & Policy Manger for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management from the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council
  • Lance Martin - a former member of the Grenadier Guards who is constantly battling coastal erosion endangering his house in Hemsby, on the Norfolk Coast
  • Gustav Milne - an archaeologist who worked for the Museum of London on Thames-side sites since 1973 and has looked at significant coastal change in Essex over the last century
  • Chris Skinner - a visiting researcher at the Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull, working on models to predict how landscapes and flood risk might change due to climate change
  • Claire Tancell - a marine ecologist, who was a member of British Antarctic Survey marine expedition and of the prize-winning Natural England team specifying Marine Protected Areas around the UK coast.

Our second panel, on 24 November, will consider countryside issues and will be chaired by Rick Stafford, a conservationist from Bournemouth University, and the lead author of the recent British Ecological Society report into Nature-Based Solutions. The panel will include –

  • Matthew Doggett - a partner and tenant on a 950 acre, mainly arable, family farm at Barley in North Hertfordshire
  • Jane Findlay - a Landscape Architect, the founding director of Fira and President of the Landscape Institute
  • Emma Hankinson - an ecologist and conservationist, with over 20 years’ experience in nature conservation, currently working as a Project Manager at Rewilding Coombeshead
  • Nicki Whitehouse - a Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Science at the University of Glasgow and Professor of Human-Environment Systems at the University of Plymouth, working on understanding complex relationships between humans, climate, landscapes and ecosystems.

Our third panel, on 26 November, will be focusing on climate change in urban environments. The panel will be chaired by Hannah Fluck, Head of Environmental Research at Historic England, and the panelists will be –

  • Neil Macdonald - a geographer from the University of Liverpool, working on understanding how floods, droughts and storms impact local communities and how they respond and adapt. Neil is the lead researcher on the current UKRI funded Building Climate Resilience Programme
  • Nadja Yang - a DPhil researcher in Systems Engineering at the University of Oxford, where she conducts research on the urban bioeconomy, a concept to help cities become more sustainable and productive in terms of their biological resources
  • Wei Yang - President of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2021 and Global Planners Network’s representative at UN Habitat Professional Forum, as well as a founder of Wei Yang & Partners, an award-winning master planning firm in London. She is a lead figure in researching, promoting, and implementing green and low-carbon development and 21st Century Garden City approaches worldwide.

Sign up to join us for one or more of the above discussions.

Organised in collaboration with the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at the Bournemouth University

02 November 2021

Changing Climate, Changing Landscapes

“The people most affected by climate change are no longer some imagined future generation.”

Sir David Attenborough, speaking to world leaders at the opening ceremony of COP26

Lucy's COP picture
An installation of planet Earth at the COP26 venue in Glasgow,
photo by Dr Lucy Wallace


The British Library and the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at the Bournemouth University are collaborating on a series of workshops, to be held after the COP26, to help us reflect on how communities have coped with environmental change in the past and the lessons we can learn as we respond to the effects of climate change happening right now. We will be drawing on discussions from the annual climate change conference COP26 and the latest knowledge about climate change adaptation, to explore how we can manage environmental change in three different landscapes across Britain, and how we can make those who live in these landscapes more resilient.

In preparation for these discussions, Dr Lucy Wallace writes from the COP 26 in Glasgow:

Climate change has always seemed far away, something that will affect someone else. However, in the last decade, narratives have shifted away from polar bears on melting ice caps, to breaking news about forest fires in southern Europe and flooding across Britain. This movement from far away, to closer to home, and from habitat destruction to something that can directly affect our livelihoods, is significant. However, if we just think about climate change as happening to someone else, somewhere else, where does that leave us?

The situation we find ourselves in today was not inevitable but rather is a result of actions we have both knowingly and unknowingly taken throughout the history of humankind. Since early humans started to settle in one place and make the first attempts to farm, we have been modifying the environments we inhabit for our own gain. This has had huge consequences for biodiversity and for our landscapes. By studying the past, we can increase our understanding of how we got to where we are now, identify the tipping points which led us here and work out what we can do differently in the future.

The past offers an alternative lens from which to view our current crisis. It enables us to widen our horizons by learning from examples of past societal resilience and to identify the underlying social cultural and ecological processes that make up that resilience.

For instance, we can explore data from past land management practices, and the impact these have had on the landscape. Asking questions about the sustainability of these practices during periods of environmental change, and what they meant for the communities of people who employed them, will be key in our fight to survive as we head into the coming decades.

Building resilient communities

Emma's COP picture
Detail from the Together for Our Planet installation, photo by Dr Emma Jenkins

To preserve a liveable climate, greenhouse-gas emissions must be reduced to net 0 by 2050. We need to accelerate action this decade to ensure we have a chance to meet this target. This need to reduce emissions is the key point currently being discussed by nation states at the COP26 and is always a highly politicised and contentious issue.

Whatever is agreed at COP26 though, we know our climate is changing now. We need to consider how we can protect our British landscapes, and how do we encourage resilience in the communities of people who inhabit them.

Climate change is not just increasing temperatures. The IPCC reports show us that climate change will result in more extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, fires, and heatwaves.

Building resilience in our communities means we will be better placed to cope with these extreme weather events, or shocks, but how we build resilience will differ depending on the landscape we are looking at.

Complicating the issue is the fact that we have become less resilient to transitions - heavy management of our landscapes has decreased their capacity to cope with environmental change.

Turn tragedy into triumph

We need to work together to find new solutions which offer us a way forward. Building resilience to climate change cannot just come from politicians and cannot simply use a one-size-fits all approach. Involving all parts of society in the discussion is key. This will enable the co-creation of solutions for different landscapes, which will be vital for us to find a way through this crisis. These ways forward will leave no-one behind and will help us to find opportunities in the challenges we face as we move forward.

This new future has the potential to be a different type of Anthropocene to what has come before. Where before there was a lack of awareness of the true impact that we have had on the environment, we now have the knowledge that we need to do things differently, and we need to pull together to make it happen.

Join us for further discussion on 22/24/26 November. You can book your space here