Category Archives: Science and Environment

Citizen Science: What it is and How to Get Involved

By Luke Farnish

‘Stand on the shoulders of giants’. This is the slogan of Google Scholar, the Google search for scientific, peer-reviewed articles – and scientists do stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, those names immortalised by their incredible achievements. But, equally so, scientific understanding is built from a foundation of hard graft. To generate large datasets, scientists rely on the dedication of members of the public to record information for them. This is called citizen science.

Continue reading Citizen Science: What it is and How to Get Involved

The Science of Christmas

By Luke Farnish and David Winlo

It’s that time of year again. Secret Santas are being set up, house Christmas dinners being planned, and many a slightly frozen student is heading to Unio for a seasonal hot drink. In other words, it is December, and Christmas will soon be upon us. Here at The Broad we celebrate Christmas in various ways, and we scientists are no different. So here is a scientific explanation of some, if not all things Christmas.

1. Santa is on his way, and what a way it is!

Even if we discount the children of parents from non-Christmas-celebrating backgrounds, Santa is going to have to deliver to around 700,000,000 children in a single night. Then we need to divide those children by household and assume even distribution of those households around the world, otherwise we’ll still be calculating by New Year’s. Now with 1.47 km between each house, Santa has a journey of 342,510,000 km on his hands, and we haven’t finished yet.

If Santa travels so as to maximise the length of the night of Christmas Eve, he has 32 hours. To travel over 342,000,000 km in that time will require him to really push his reindeer, as they’ll need to pull him along at 6,650,808 mph, or 10,703,438 kph, about 167 times faster than the fastest-moving machine ever made, the Voyager 1 space probe. So spare a thought for the poor guy and his reindeer, and leave them a mince pie and some cherry.

2. Christmas has its origins in religion.

For Christians, this time of year is about the birth of Jesus, and now, this is true for many physicists and astronomers. The bible writes that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by a new star in the sky and, what’s more, it’s not the only source from the time (5BC, a date even many high ranking church members agree with) to mention such an event. We call three of the visitors of Jesus the ‘three wise men’ but their true name is the Magi, followers of an ancient religion whose beliefs are focused on a single God and that contact may be made through the stars. They were astronomers! Texts of the time record the stars in fantastic detail and most scientists believe that there truly was a temporary ‘star’. But what was it? There are some strong contenders.

In 1614, Johannes Kepler, one of the most famous astronomers of all time, suggested a conjunction (overlapping from the perspective of Earth) of planets. It can be calculated that were a number around this time. However, they are not always very bright and many occurred in the wrong place for the Magi to follow. A supernova, an exploding star, can be VERY bright, even brighter than the moon. But, supernovae leave a trace, that being a nebula, a huge cloud of gas. No nebula of the correct age and position has been found, but, the Andromeda galaxy, our own galaxy’s neighbour has many nebulae and could have been in the correct place.

Another big contender is a comet, a large ball of ice that circles the sun in a huge orbit, meaning they can only be seen every few hundred years or so. Chinese astronomers noted one in 5BC that remained stationary in the sky for 70 days. What’s more, comets have huge tails of ice that could easily ‘point’ to the ground, much as in the Christmas card depiction of the star. The only major issue with this theory is human nature of the time, where comets were seen as bad omens. Perhaps we will be trying to work out what the ‘star’ was for many years to come, and perhaps that, to an astronomer, is the best sort of Christmas present.

3. The Nativity story.

Another Christmassy source of scientific intrigue is the Nativity story, in particular, the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. What by many is held to be a highly significant miracle can be interpreted very differently by looking back through the translations of the Bible. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, a form of the language no longer spoken natively. The writer of Matthew, the book which contains the Nativity story, referred to a passage from the Old Testament, saying ‘a parthenos shall conceive and bear a child’. ‘Parthenos’ is the word which translates to ‘virgin’ in the English translations of the New Testament, but can also simply mean ‘young woman’, which was the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘almah’ used in the passage the Greek author refers to.

Whilst Mary giving birth to Jesus may not have been an example of parthenogenesis, the scientific word for a virgin birth, there are plenty of animals which are. Among them is an animal likely to be seen on dinner tables across the nation this 25th of December – the turkey. In most cases the egg either doesn’t develop at all, or doesn’t develop normally. But some other animals, including various sharks, lizards and invertebrates, have been documented as being capable of parthenogenesis as a successful method of reproduction, though not a sole one.

4. On a rock band’s Christmas wish…

In 1973 Wizard told the world that they ‘Wish it could be Christmas every day’. Well, it can be, but only in one place, Christmas Island! Technically a part of Australia, despite being over 2,600 km (about 1,600 miles) from Perth near West Java. It’s not a big place, just 19 by 14 km with a population of about 2,000, the majority of the island’s inhabitants being of Chinese descent. Much of the island is made up of protected wildlife areas with the mining of guano (hardened bird faeces) for use in fertilisers being a well-known trade on the island since its initial colonisation.

It’s interesting, however, that Wizard mentions ‘every day’ because there is, in fact, a second Christmas island whose days are rather special. Kiritimati (pronounced ‘Christmas’ and previously spelt ‘Christmas’) is about 10,000 km (about 6,200 miles) east from Christmas Island and part of the Republic of Kiribati. It’s a fascinating place. The whole island is now a nature reserve (although much of its internal area is taken up by a lake), but in the 1950s the area was used for nuclear tests by the UK, leading to still detectable damage (many locals have suffered as the people of the island were not removed during tests). The towns of Kiritimati have rather unimaginative names including London, Paris (now abandoned), Poland and Banana, sometimes called Banana wells. But perhaps the most interesting fact about Kiritimati is its days. Christmas comes early here as Kiritimati is the only country in the UTC+14 time zone, meaning that a day starts for them 14 hours before it does in London (that’s the London in the UK, not their London!). This enabled the islands to trade more easily with other Pacific nations. So, not only is it Christmas every day, but for some, Christmas comes early.

We wish you all a wonderful Christmas from the both of us (and everyone at The Broad), and hope you enjoy all the science articles in 2017. ¡Feliz Navidad!

Image “Red Crab” by David Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

An Alternate View

By Luke Farnish

Humans have always loved drawing maps, ever since the Greeks and their contemporaries began to explore the world, we have recorded the lands we have seen on sheets of paper. However, the most important fact about any map of the Earth is that it is wrong. It is impossible to completely accurately plot a spherical surface onto a flat rectangle; therefore, all maps are wrong. The issue is, our current most used projection is very wrong. This projection you will have seen on the walls of your old geography classroom is called the Mercator projection and was drawn up in 1569.

There are features of the projection that make it useful or at least aesthetically pleasing. The top and bottom of the map represent the poles and the equator runs through the middle with the centre of the map being the prime meridian (the line of longitude designated as 0ºE) and the left and right hand edge being 180°E, roughly denoting the international date line (excluding American versions of the map which place the USA in the centre of the map and the right and left edge of the map show roughly 80°E, just east of India). However, there are huge issues with the projection. Everything is highly distorted, with areas nearer the poles being more distorted. For example, Greenland looks very large on a Mercator map, around the size of Africa but is, in truth, not much larger than just the Democratic Republic of the Congo (or is you prefer, around the same size as India looks on the projection, or the height of Australia). The issue is even worse for Antarctica which is stretched across the whole southern part of the map, making it almost impossible to tell what shape it truly is.

In the 450 years since the Mercator map was first drawn many people have suggested new projections. There is always something good about the Mercator that is sacrificed, the position of the equator, the shape of the map etc. But all of these maps are far more useful in the real world for navigation or simply educational purposes. Now a new map has come along that could top all of these. That map is AuthaGraph.

AuthaGraph is the brainchild of Hajime Narukawa, an artist and architect based in Tokyo. The idea behind the map is to change the sphere of the Earth into a sphere-like object made out of triangles (the same technique that’s used to make computer generated objects in video games). From there the map can be folded out. This in itself is a new approach and leads to a very accurate projection, but the next step adds a new level of usefulness to the map. Narukawa then flipped the map several times so that the full projection is not one Earth but nine Earths.

The projection not only shows the proportions and the positions of the landmasses with far greater accuracy than Mercator but has numerous other advantages. Due to there being nine Earths the large image can be sliced in numerous ways placing any point on the globe in the centre of the map. Equally, because the Earth is a sphere the map need not be a rectangle – equilateral triangles, parallelograms and other shapes of maps are also possible. Equally, maps that show anything that circumnavigates the Earth can be easily illustrated (Narukawa demonstrated this with a map of the voyage of Captain Cook in a Ted Talk video).

It may be some time before we see these in the classrooms, if ever. Until then, we can but dream of a world where our maps are accurate.

Image from Mental Floss

The Science of Finding Dory: What it Got Right and Wrong

By David Winlo

This will not be your ordinary film review. I’m not going to discuss the plot of the film, how funny it was or whether or not it will make you cry. I’m here to look at it scientifically, whilst ignoring the talking sea creatures of course. So here are some things that were and were not scientifically accurate in Disney’s latest animated animal adventure.

1. Right: Octopuses are amazing! They look weird, they squirt ink and they have sucker-covered tentacles. But octopuses are also excellent colour-changers and mimics, as seen in the film. The colour changing is done with chromatophores, coloured cells which are under the octopus’ conscious control. It basically just flexes its muscles in order to disappear.

2. Wrong: Marlin is not female. When a clownfish is born, it will always be male. In time, or when it is the larger member of a breeding pair, it will become female. If the female of a breeding pair dies as poor Marlin’s mate did, her mate will then become female. And you thought human relationships were complicated, right? So, here’s hoping that Marlin is a woman in the next film, should there be one.

3. Right: Beluga whales can use echolocation. Whilst I’m not at all sure about how it was depicted in the film, it is true that beluga whales can navigate and hunt by echolocation. They can hear a far greater range of sounds than humans can, and send out noises using a special organ in their skulls, which rather pleasingly is called a melon. These sounds then bounce off their prey or surroundings and are picked up again by the lower jaw, which sends a signal to the brain.

4. Wrong: Only clownfish can live in sea anemones. This is quite a common misconception, but there are in fact several species of clownfish, as well as other species which are also able to sit happily within the stinging tentacles. These include various cardinalfish, as well as some damselfish and wrasse species.

On a final cautionary note, I would like to indicate that in the unlikely event that anyone was enamoured enough by the new film to want a ‘Dory’ (or a regal blue tang, Paracanthus hepatus, to give the fish its scientific name) of their own, I would advise against it. Blue tangs don’t breed in captivity, so they’re all wild caught and don’t enjoy being handled by humans, as they tend to indicate using some surprisingly sharp and painful spines located near the base of the tail. By all means enjoy the film, but please do the proper research before buying any aquarium fish.

Image: “Blue Tang” by Liz Lawley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Help a Hedgehog: Advice For Bonfire Builders

By Luke Farnish

There’s a chill in the air and the days are growing shorter which can mean only one thing: celebrations are just around the corner. As pumpkins and spider webs litter people’s front windows, many will be reciting that age old rhyme, ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November’. As you dust off that box of sparklers you’re not sure will even light and sort through your clothes to see which you don’t mind burning on the guy, spare a thought for the hedgehogs of your neighbourhood.

Every year hedgehogs are killed in bonfires, having taken up the pile of logs as a new residence. But following these four simple steps can help stop your bonfire from becoming a killer. 

1. Source the wood responsibly. Wood piles can often house hedgehogs (among many other organisms) so if you are taking wood from an open pile be sure to check it before taking anything so as to not disturb any hedgehogs already living there. Scattered dead wood is a better source for your bonfire. 

2. Only light the fire in a wide open space. Hopefully this goes without saying. Don’t light bonfires near, or under, anything else. Bonfires too close to bushes can set these alight, another potential hedgehog home, not to mention the possibility of the fire spreading further. As a note to anyone building their first, a large bonfire gets hotter than you might expect, so keep it well away from anything. 

3. Don’t pre-build the bonfire. Possibly the most important tip for preserving hedgehog lives is to build the bonfire just before lighting it. It really doesn’t take long and (so long as you were paying attention and a hedgehog didn’t sneak in, which is highly unlikely) it should be hedgehog free.

4. Have a quick check just before lighting it. Take about a minute and check it from several angles. It can sometimes be tricky to spot a small brown hedgehog against a number of brown sticks so take the time. 

We hope you have a lot of fun this bonfire night, but do keep the local hedgehogs in mind. Following the tips above should help prevent a prickly situation.

Image from The Wildlife Trusts

What an Age We Live In

By Luke Farnish

What time is it?

The answer may seem simple, just look over at your clock for the time, your calendar for the date and year. But for geologists, things are not so easy. The Earth’s geological history is split into segments of varying length, from aeons which can last five hundred million years or more to epochs and ages that can last just a few thousand. Pick up any off the shelf text book on geology and it should proudly claim that we currently live in the Holocene epoch, an epoch that began somewhere around ten to twelve thousand years ago. But now this view has begun to change.

Originally coined in the 80s by E. F. Stoermer, the phrase Anthropocene began to be used more commonly after 2000 when P Crutzen published a paper suggesting that our atmosphere is now so heavily tainted by pollutants (most notably by greenhouse gasses) and that we have altered the climate and ecology of the earth so heavily that a layer that will be visible to geologists in the future. 

What is the Anthropocene and when did it start?

Anthropocene’s Greek meaning is simply ‘man epoch’, an apt name for the age. Like all geological periods, the Anthropocene is a period that will appear as a different rock layer to surrounding rocks. Previous periods can be noted for obvious features such as certain fossils being present/missing, layers of fossil fuels or simply the rock type. The Anthropocene is no different. The layer will show a rapid loss in the diversity of fossils (although an increase in fossil chicken bones has been suggested as a potential marker), combined with radioactive isotopes, general rubbish from human habitation (notably plastics and concrete) as well as showing evidence of rapid climatic changes. 

A paper published in science in January this year (Waters et al., 2016) cemented many of the theories associated with the Anthropocene. One of the many conclusions was that the epoch likely began in the early 1950s. Even since 1954, radiocarbon daters have used the date of January 1st 1950 as a time known as ‘the present’ because the level of radioactivity after this time is enough to disrupt readings. (Note that these levels are not dangerous, just detectable.) There are, however, still strong arguments that the epoch began around 1800 as the industrial revolution altered the face of the planet forever. 

Recent developments

In the wake of the paper, major efforts are being made to get the Anthropocene officially recognised. The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) have set up a working group on the Anthropocene (WGA), with the aim of getting the period officially recognised by the end of the year. It is they who presented the facts outlined above to the International Geological Congress on Monday 29th August. However, they need to formally identify a global universal marker that proves layers belong to the Anthropocene, not the Holocene. The hope is that this will be a reminder to governments of the world of our impact on the world and need to reduce this impact. 

Relevance at UEA and further reading

The recent developments on the idea of the Anthropocene will have an impact on the careers of Ecology, DEV, ENV and NAT students as further research is needed to verify findings and finding ways to minimise human impact. It is already a term that students and staff of these areas are familiar with. Anthropocene based projects are also now becoming more popular among PhD students. It is clear we still have a long way to go in our understanding of this rapidly developing period and UEA is likely to be at the cutting edge of much of the research. 

Check out: or for more information about the Anthropocene. 


Geological time periods (Aeon, Epoch, Age): The study of geological time periods is called geochronology. Within this, 5 main levels of division of the earth’s geological past are defined. These are, in order of size; Aeons (US spelling; Eon) of which there are four and they last at least half a billion years. Eras which last for a few hundred million years. Periods which last several tens of millions of years. Epochs which last a few tens of millions of years. And ages which last a few million years or less. These periods can be used a little like an address, focusing on narrower and narrower lengths of time e.g. the point when the dinosaurs became extinct was: Phanerozoic aeon, Mesozoic era, Cretaceous period, Late Cretaceous epoch, Maastrichtian age. 

Quaternary: (Name meaning: fourth.) The current period (see above).

The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS): (from their own website) ‘The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy is a constituent body of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the largest scientific organisation within the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).

It is also the only body concerned with stratigraphy on a global scale for the whole geological column. Its most important major objective is the establishment of a standard, globally-applicable stratigraphical scale, which it seeks to achieve through the co-ordinated contributions of a network of Subcommissions and Working Groups with a specific, limited mandate.’ 

Image from NASA

When the Whales Came

By Luke Farnish

Few animals fill us with more awe than whales, the majestic but gentle giants of the seas. Seeing one of these magnificent creatures stranded on a beach is distressing, but so far this year thirty sperm whales have been stranded on beaches across the North Sea from France to Helgoland. The first to be washed up this year in the UK was at Hunstanton, not far from UEA on the north Norfolk coast. Unfortunately all the UKs washed up sperm whales have now died. 

Many have been understandably upset by this and blame has been thrown in multiple directions. Two whales that washed up in Skegness had written on their fins ‘mans fault’ and ‘Fukushima RIP’. However, there is no evidence that the Fukushima plant had any effect on the fate of the whales. Investigators are looking into other possible causes. 

Notably, all the washed up whales are bulls (males) and this has led to the theory that they all belong to the same pod (group) made up of bachelors that have taken a wrong turn and found themselves stranded. Samples of all the whales have been taken for analysis by scientists from the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). We can only hope that no more are stranded and that the cause of the strandings is found soon.