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The 'P' word

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It's time for blue-sky thinking plus practical measures in the battle to reduce plastic waste.

In Tokyo, a householder consults her 60-page ‘Garbage Separation and Disposal’ system to check whether it's a recycle day for plastic bottles or for all other plastic packaging.

In a coastal village in Kenya, an order has been received for 2,000 bricks made from waste plastic and earth.

On a chemistry bench in Cambridge, bubbles of hydrogen form and rise around a thumbnail-sized square of plastic cut from a water bottle.

All around the world there are instances where we are getting things right with plastic – recycling, recovering, re-using – and instances where we are getting things very wrong.

Our awareness of just how wrong is riding the crest of a plastic-polluted wave: every year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans. Environmental agencies have predicted that if these trends continue, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

Plastic has become a malevolent symbol of our wasteful society. But it's also one of the most successful materials ever invented: it’s cheap, durable, flexible, waterproof, versatile and lightweight. It’s fundamental to almost every aspect of our lives and it's a resource that we are wasting, says Professor Erwin Reisner.

“As a chemist I look at plastic and I see an extremely useful material that is rich in chemicals and energy – a material that shouldn’t end up in landfills and pollute the environment. Plastic is an example of how we must find ways to use resources without irreversibly changing the planet for future generations.”

Reisner leads Cambridge University's new Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas). Funded by UK Research and Innovation, it aims to eliminate plastic waste by combining blue-sky thinking with practical measures, connecting expertise across the disciplines, and collaborating with industry and local government.

In doing so, their research reaches from the Tokyo householder to the Kenyan brickmaker to the Cambridge chemist, and yet further still.

How do we keep track of plastic?

Ask anyone what they know about plastic and they might tell you about the need to ban single-use materials, or that it’s essential for healthcare, or that it’s lighter and more fuel efficient than packaging alternatives.

“What no-one will tell you is how any of this relates to how much and what type of plastic we use, how long those products are in service, and what happens to them afterwards. The fact is – no-one knows,” says Dr Andre Serrenho.

It seems a simple enough set of questions but the data is complex and held by many different bodies. And so, as part of CirPlas, he and Dr Jonathan Cullen in the Department of Engineering are creating a map of the flow of plastic in the UK economy by amassing all of this data in one place.

Meanwhile, engineer Dr Ronan Daly is exploring digitally enabled solutions to label and track plastic, and zoologist Dr David Aldridge is using sensing technologies to measure how much microplastic is entering the food chain.

“All of these studies will take us closer to answering something we’ve never been able to answer before,” adds Serrenho. “Plastic helps us live safer, more convenient lives but how much is enough plastic and how much is too much?”

Zero waste from industry

One area where plastic has transformed modern-day living is in food safety. Of the 5 million tonnes of plastic used each year by the UK, 37% is used for packaging, of which almost three-quarters is for soft drinks. The challenges presented by waste from this packaging cannot be ignored, least of all by the industries that depend on it.

“What’s needed now is collective and informed action from individuals, government and business to shift us back in the right direction,” says Beverley Cornaby.

Last year, she and colleagues at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership worked with 10 of the UK’s largest bottled drinks companies to understand what this collective action might look like. The result was an ambitious roadmap for zero plastic packaging waste from the industry being sent to landfill or escaping into the natural landscape by 2030.

“One of the areas we identified was around design. Businesses can sometimes move faster than government policy and so making changes to their own products can provide quicker fixes,” she adds.

“We’ve worked with companies to understand how to reconsider their approach to using plastic packaging. We’re now looking at alternative packaging choices and what the relative impact might be on carbon emissions, and water and land use.”

Plastic rematerialised

It seems that our need for plastic is here to stay, and so Cambridge researchers are exploring how we re-use it – as well as developing alternatives to take its place.

Taylor Uekert, working with Dr Erwin Reisner in the Department of Chemistry, has developed a technology called photoreforming that turns plastic waste into hydrogen fuel, using only water, a photocatalyst and sunlight. The technology is still very new but already the researchers have produced enough hydrogen from polyester fibres to power a phone for 40 seconds.

Dr Aazara Oumayyah Pankan is also exploring electricity generation from waste plastic – this time using biology. She’s testing microorganisms from environments like toxic waste dumps for their ability to decompose plastic. Working with Dr Adrian Fisher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, she aims for these ‘plastic composters’ to provide off-grid power for rural communities.

In Kenya, a coastal community has started converting waste plastic into bricks, using a method developed by a student-led team from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and prototyped by the Kenyan community. They have just received an order for 2,000 bricks for a local school.

Physicist Professor Jeremy Baumberg is using plastic waste as the raw materials for low-cost 3D printers. His team’s approach is to design printable scientific instruments like microscopes for resource-poor countries to turn low-value waste into high-value locally manufactured components.

Meanwhile, biochemist Professor Paul Dupree and materials scientist Professor James Elliott have set out to design a completely new class of materials based on modified plant fibres that have some of the good properties of plastic and yet are easy to recycle or decompose naturally.

Case study: The solution catalyser

Bringing the right people together to solve a major global environmental problem like waste is essential.

With this in mind, Dr Curie Park from the Institute for Manufacturing took her emergent circular economy process for creating the right mix of people to Thailand, funded by a Global Challenges Research Fund Impact Acceleration Award.

“Thailand uses a staggering amount of single-use plastics every day, but its waste management system lags far behind its economic advances,” she explains. “We saw first-hand the marine waste at a coastal village, where plastic debris floats from the rivers and is washed up as current changes seasonally.

“Everyone recognised the problem, which seemed too big for any one individual to tackle. But there had been regular beach cleaning activities and some of this collected plastic could be turned into viable products locally.

“We brought together a construction company, an environmental NGO, university students, a local windsurfing world champion turned beach cleaning heroine, municipal officers, local primary schools and start-ups, and applied our innovation process.

“Giving everyone a chance to share their views, providing stimuli and sharing what’s happening in other communities ignited a creative momentum to come up with novel solutions. We ended up with 56 ideas for using the waste as a raw material – paddleboards, compost bins, roof tiles – seven of which are in the commercialisation pipeline by the construction company and the local start-ups.”

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Words to live by

Put simply, plastic is incredibly useful – and it's being wasted.

“There’s a word in Japanese that conveys a feeling of regret when something useful is wasted. It’s mottainai,” says anthropologist Dr Brigitte Steger, from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. As part of CirPlas, Steger and her team look at cultural attitudes to plastic and waste globally. Her own research focuses on Japan.

“The Japanese are very good citizens in terms of sorting and recycling but they also use a huge amount of plastic – and they don’t regard single-use plastic with mottainai,” she says.

In Tokyo, the 'Garbage Separation and Disposal' advice extends to 60 pages. “One woman being rehoused after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster told me she would only move to an area where she was familiar with the complexities of the recycling system,” says Steger.

Advice to householders in Tokyo on waste separation for recycling

Advice to householders in Tokyo on waste separation for recycling

“We need to understand what practical and moral needs plastic fulfils to know what can be done to shift behaviour towards living more sustainably. Moreover, policymakers define solutions in response to how problems are defined. We need to clarify these.”

What if we could shift our 'take, make, throw-away' plastic world towards 'recycle, recover, re-use'?

“Today’s cradle-to- grave economy sees around 80% of plastic landfilled, incinerated or lost into the natural environment,” says economist Dr Khaled Soufani. “It is argued by some that we are using resources 50% faster than can be replenished. It has also been said that by 2030 we will require the natural resources sources of two Earths, and by 2050, three.”

Soufani leads the Circular Economy Centre in Cambridge Judge Business School. He and Steger are contributing to CirPlas by asking how individuals, communities, companies and public bodies approach their use and recycling of plastic.

“What we need,” says Soufani, “is a circular economy with re-use of products and recycling of embedded materials into new products for as long as possible.”

Circularity by design

Cambridgeshire-based packaging company Charpak believes it is the first in the UK to adopt a ‘localised circular economy’ in which local plastic waste is collected, re-processed and re-manufactured into new packaging.

The company has been chosen by Soufani’s team as a case study to look at the viability of a circular business model. The translation of the circular economy in business models that eliminate plastic is relatively unexplored and so there's little guidance for practitioners who would like to adopt such a model.  The researchers are addressing this gap by mapping how Charpak has approached the circular economy and by estimating the impact of their efforts.

Worker at Charpak

Worker at Charpak

“Before any company will look at embedding circularity, they are going to ask a very simple question: how will it impact on me financially? Communities, companies and governing bodies need to see practical business cases and models in action,” adds Soufani.

“Minimising plastic leaking into our environment is a responsibility we take very seriously, so we must ensure plastic becomes a resource and not waste,” says Charpak Managing Director Paul Smith. “Why transport essential plastics resources nationwide, or overseas, and risk ocean plastics when the plastic resource is required for manufacture and re-manufacture within the UK? We want to be part of the solution.”

Soufani agrees, adding: “We need to shift from a culture of mass consumption and waste towards renewability, dematerialisation and reduced resource loss.

Our need to reduce, remake and recycle is a continuous journey towards circularity that will define our relationship with the planet forever. Khaled Soufani

Image credits:
Sky girl: Karina Tess
Water bottle in the ocean, Indonesia: Brian Yurasits
Plastic in a field: Masha Kotliarenko
Manufacture of plastic drinking bottles: Jonathan Chng

Top Summary: 

How do we shift our 'take, make, throw-away' plastic world towards 'recycle, recover, re-use'? It's time for blue-sky thinking plus practical measures in the battle to reduce plastic waste. 

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of ChemistryDepartment of EngineeringCambridge Institute for Sustainability LeadershipDepartment of Chemical Engineering and BiotechnologyDepartment of PhysicsDepartment of BiochemistryDepartment of ZoologyDepartment of Materials Science and MetallurgyCambridge Judge Business SchoolInstitute for Manufacturing (IfM)Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern StudiesSchool of the Physical SciencesSchool of TechnologySchool of the Biological SciencesSchool of Arts and HumanitiesExternal Affiliations: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)CharpakPeople (our academics and staff): Erwin ReisnerAndre SerrenhoJonathan CullenRonan DalyDavid AldridgeTaylor UekertAazara Oumayyah PankanAdrian FisherJeremy BaumbergPaul DupreeJames ElliottBeverley CornabyKhaled SoufaniBrigitte StegerSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): plasticSustainable EarthWasterecyclingcircular economymaterialsInnovationconservationEnvironment

Dr Jane Goodall on the environment: "My greatest hope is our young people"

At the age of 26, Jane Goodall travelled from England to what is now Tanzania, Africa, and ventured into the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. Among her many discoveries, perhaps the greatest was that chimpanzees make and use tools. She completed a PhD at Newnham College in Cambridge in 1966, and subsequently founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to continue her conservation work and the youth service programme Roots & Shoots in 1991. She now travels the world as a UN Messenger of Peace.

Her words below (from the latest issue of Horizons magazine) continue our focus on Sustainable Earth, looking at how we transition to a carbon zero future, protect the planet's resources, reduce waste and build resilience. See also the newly released film here

“In 1986, I helped organise a conference on how chimpanzee behaviour differed according to the environment. There was a session on conservation and one on conditions in captivity – in both cases, it was utterly shocking. I went to the conference as a scientist, and I left as an activist.

Since then, I’ve been travelling the world raising awareness not only of chimpanzee conservation and welfare, but also of wider environmental issues.

We have just one home, one planet, and we’re destroying it very, very fast. The human population is growing, but on a planet with finite natural resources, and we’re using up these resources faster than nature can replenish them. We’re polluting the air, the water and the land. We’re recklessly pumping out CO2 into the atmosphere and, at the same time, we’re destroying our forests and oceans – the two great lungs of the world. If we carry on with business as usual, in 20 years’ time, we may have a planet that’s virtually unliveable.

We must not give up hope. Every single day that we live, we make some impact on the planet. We have a choice as to what kind of impact that is.

I see reasons to be optimistic. Nature is resilient. If we work to restore those places that we have destroyed, if we give them time, they will recover. A bleak, destroyed area can become beautiful again as the insects and
birds and other animals come back. Animals on the very brink of extinction can be given another chance.

I truly believe we have a window of time during which we can begin to heal some of the damage we’ve inflicted and at least slow down the climate crisis. But we have to act now.

My greatest hope is our young people. There’s a saying, ‘We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children’. But we haven’t borrowed our children’s future – we’ve stolen it. In my travels, I have met so many young people who seemed depressed, angry or just apathetic, feeling that their future has been compromised and that there’s nothing they can do about it. That was why we started our Roots & Shoots education programme in 1991, to empower young people to make the world a better place.

Cambridge, like all universities and schools, can play a role in shaping the attitudes of young people. We need to educate and inspire them, to teach them to respect each other and to respect other living organisms. We need environmental concerns to be taught not just in science, but in every discipline.

We are finally beginning to use our intellect to come up with technological solutions that will enable us to live in greater harmony with our planet – electric cars and renewable energy, for instance – and to think about our own ecological footprints. We need the scientific endeavour for which institutions such as Cambridge are famous to be directed towards doing something about the mess that we’ve made of our planet.

The human spirit is indomitable. Throughout my life, I’ve met so many incredible people – men and women who tackle what seems impossible and won’t give up until they succeed. With our intellect and our determined spirit, and with the tools that we have now, we can find a way to a better future.

But do we have time? I don’t know.”

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

In a new film released as part of Cambridge University’s focus on Sustainable Earth, Dr Jane Goodall DBE talks about the environmental crisis and her reasons for hope. 

Every single day that we live, we make some impact on the planet. We have a choice as to what kind of impact that is.Jane Goodall Dr Jane Goodall DBE

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesRelated Links: The Jane Goodall Institute Roots and Shoots

Online hate speech could be contained like a computer virus, say researchers

The spread of hate speech via social media could be tackled using the same "quarantine" approach deployed to combat malicious software, according to University of Cambridge researchers.

Definitions of hate speech vary depending on nation, law and platform, and just blocking keywords is ineffectual: graphic descriptions of violence need not contain obvious ethnic slurs to constitute racist death threats, for example.

As such, hate speech is difficult to detect automatically. It has to be reported by those exposed to it, after the intended "psychological harm" is inflicted, with armies of moderators required to judge every case.

This is the new front line of an ancient debate: freedom of speech versus poisonous language.

Now, an engineer and a linguist have published a proposal in the journal Ethics and Information Technology that harnesses cyber security techniques to give control to those targeted, without resorting to censorship.

Cambridge language and machine learning experts are using databases of threats and violent insults to build algorithms that can provide a score for the likelihood of an online message containing forms of hate speech.

As these algorithms get refined, potential hate speech could be identified and "quarantined". Users would receive a warning alert with a "Hate O'Meter" - the hate speech severity score - the sender's name, and an option to view the content or delete unseen.

This approach is akin to spam and malware filters, and researchers from the 'Giving Voice to Digital Democracies' project believe it could dramatically reduce the amount of hate speech people are forced to experience. They are aiming to have a prototype ready in early 2020.

"Hate speech is a form of intentional online harm, like malware, and can therefore be handled by means of quarantining," said co-author and linguist Dr Stefanie Ullman. "In fact, a lot of hate speech is actually generated by software such as Twitter bots."

"Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google generally respond reactively to hate speech," said co-author and engineer Dr Marcus Tomalin. "This may be okay for those who don't encounter it often. For others it's too little, too late."

"Many women and people from minority groups in the public eye receive anonymous hate speech for daring to have an online presence. We are seeing this deter people from entering or continuing in public life, often those from groups in need of greater representation," he said.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told a UK audience that hate speech posed a "threat to democracies", in the wake of many women MPs citing online abuse as part of the reason they will no longer stand for election.

While in a Georgetown University address, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke of "broad disagreements over what qualifies as hate" and argued: "we should err on the side of greater expression".

The researchers say their proposal is not a magic bullet, but it does sit between the "extreme libertarian and authoritarian approaches" of either entirely permitting or prohibiting certain language online.

Importantly, the user becomes the arbiter. "Many people don't like the idea of an unelected corporation or micromanaging government deciding what we can and can't say to each other," said Tomalin.

"Our system will flag when you should be careful, but it's always your call. It doesn't stop people posting or viewing what they like, but it gives much needed control to those being inundated with hate."

In the paper, the researchers refer to detection algorithms achieving 60% accuracy - not much better than chance. Tomalin's machine learning lab has now got this up to 80%, and he anticipates continued improvement of the mathematical modeling.

Meanwhile, Ullman gathers more "training data": verified hate speech from which the algorithms can learn. This helps refine the "confidence scores" that determine a quarantine and subsequent Hate O'Meter read-out, which could be set like a sensitivity dial depending on user preference.

A basic example might involve a word like 'bitch': a misogynistic slur, but also a legitimate term in contexts such as dog breeding. It's the algorithmic analysis of where such a word sits syntactically - the types of surrounding words and semantic relations between them - that informs the hate speech score.

"Identifying individual keywords isn't enough, we are looking at entire sentence structures and far beyond. Sociolinguistic information in user profiles and posting histories can all help improve the classification process," said Ullman.

Added Tomalin: "Through automated quarantines that provide guidance on the strength of hateful content, we can empower those at the receiving end of the hate speech poisoning our online discourses."

However, the researchers, who work in Cambridge's Centre for Research into Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), say that - as with computer viruses - there will always be an arms race between hate speech and systems for limiting it.

The project has also begun to look at "counter-speech": the ways people respond to hate speech. The researchers intend to feed into debates around how virtual assistants such as 'Siri' should respond to threats and intimidation.

The work has been funded by the International Foundation for the Humanities and Social Change.

Artificial intelligence is being developed that will allow advisory "quarantining" of hate speech in a manner akin to malware filters - offering users a way to control exposure to "hateful content" without resorting to censorship.

We can empower those at the receiving end of the hate speech poisoning our online discoursesMarcus Tomalin

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


Pigeon slippers, Nobel weirdos and cakes at dawn: 24 things we learned in 2019

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24 things we learned in 2019

1. Slim people were born lucky

Image: rauschenberger

Image: rauschenberger

Ever wondered why your co-worker spends all day eating and never puts on weight while you only have to look at a biscuit to gain weight? It might be that you’ve just been dealt a bad hand, genetically speaking. A study of some 14,000 people found that thin people have fewer genetic variants that increase their chances of being overweight.

As lead researcher Professor Sadaf Farooqi put it, “Healthy thin people are generally thin because they have a lower burden of genes that increase a person’s chances of being overweight and not because they are morally superior, as some people like to suggest”.

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2. Picking salad leaves really is rocket science

Airachnid on some mixed-color lettuce (Image: Jacquelyn Orenza)

Airachnid on some mixed-color lettuce (Image: Jacquelyn Orenza)

Who’d have thought that picking up something as simple as lettuce was so difficult? Every lettuce is different, so how do you teach a robot not to crush the vegetable as it tries to harvest it? The answer: machine learning.

Researchers have developed the ‘Vegebot’, which has now been successfully tested in the field, though at this stage the robot is nowhere near as fast or efficient as a human worker.

As for others uses of robots in agriculture, we think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Read more

3. Blade Runner buildings could finally become a reality

He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard (Image: Solo)

He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard (Image: Solo)

2019 was the year in which the original Blade Runner was set, but very little of its futuristic cityscapes has actually come true… yet.

Now, scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory have created the smallest pixels to date by trapping particles of light under tiny rocks of gold. They say this technology, a million times smaller than the pixels in a smartphone, could be used for large-scale flexible displays, big enough to cover entire buildings.

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4. A 16th century doctor might offer you a dead man’s hand or some pigeon slippers

A painstaking project to study and digitise some 80,000 cases recorded by two famous astrological physicians has given us a unique insight into the worries and desires of people who lived 400 years ago. It reveals knowledge of how celestial movements influence our lives and how, for instance, a dose of the clap could be pinned on conjunctions of malevolent planets (a likely excuse).

Some of the cures they offered were questionable to say the least (pigeon slippers or the touch of a dead man's hand, anyone?).

This knowledge has fortunately been long forgotten.

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Image: Astrologaster, or, The figure-caster. John Melton, 1620. Credit: Wellcome Collection

5. Butterflies would probably swipe right if they saw their own profile

Image: Mika Baumeister

Image: Mika Baumeister

Male butterflies really are in love with themselves – they actually have genes that give them a sexual preference for a partner with a similar appearance to themselves.

Researchers took on the role of matchmakers, introducing male butterflies to female butterflies of two species and scoring them for their levels of sexual interest directed towards each. When a hybrid between the two species was introduced, the male tended to prefer a mate with similar markings to itself.

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6. Toy cars can teach us how to drive faster

Image: Wetmount

Image: Wetmount

An undergraduate student project has shown us that a future of driverless cars talking to each other could make travel move over a third faster. Even throwing in a less-than-cooperative human driver wasn’t enough to put the automated cars off their journeys.

Rather than relying on computer simulations, the students used scale models of commercially-available vehicles with realistic steering systems, adapted to include motion capture sensors and a Raspberry Pi, so the cars could communicate via wifi.

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7. If your mind goes blank when it comes to splitting the bill, you might suffer from maths anxiety

Image: ulleo

Image: ulleo

'Maths anxiety' is a very real thing. It's that feeling of stress and panic when faced with even a simple maths problem. Even people who score well at maths tests can suffer from the condition. Researchers have found that it can be infectious, too – parents and teachers might unwittingly pass on their anxieties to children.

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8. The earliest known example of fake news promised cakes at dawn

Bulldog with Dog Cakes (Image: Personal Creations)

Bulldog with Dog Cakes (Image: Personal Creations)

Everyone’s at it these days, but maybe we have the Babylonian gods to blames for fake news.

Cambridge archaeologist Martin Worthington thinks he may have spotted the earliest known example of fake news, in the 3000-year-old Babylonian story of Noah and the Ark (widely believed to have inspired the Biblical tale). In this story, the god Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news. He tells Uta–napishti (the Babylonian Noah) to promise his people ‘At dawn there will be kukku-cakes’. What he really means is ‘At dawn, he will rain down upon you darkness’.

The Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the right. (Image: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the right. (Image: The Trustees of the British Museum)

If only the Babylonians had had access to the Bad News ‘fake news vaccine’.

Now, fancy some covfefe with your kukku-cakes?

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9. We’re teaching robots to feel pain

Robot Repairman (Image: DocChewbacca)

Robot Repairman (Image: DocChewbacca)

“Cyborgs don’t feel pain,” said Kyle Reese in Terminator. But he could be wrong.

Researchers are using machine learning to teach robots to feel pain. This isn’t some cruel experiment or to prevent them taking over the world, but rather so that they can detect when they are damaged and heal themselves.

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10. Ely used to be a hotbed of crime – witchcraft, theft, highway robbery, not turning up for church

Two centuries of court records from the Isle of Ely have revealed a colourful and often brutal picture of the crimes and misdemeanours taking place in this Cambridgeshire city.

The courts, which tended to be overseen by professional judges rather than the local gentry, survived until 1972 when they were replaced by Crown Courts. Cases heard in Ely and Wisbech over the centuries often featured the gravest offences of the day including: murder, witchcraft, theft, highway robbery, rape, assault, coining, forgery, trespass, vagrancy, recusancy (failure to attend Anglican services) and infanticide.

These days, the most criminal thing about the city is its ever-increasing house prices.

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11. Plants can tell the time

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Despite not having a brain, it seems that plants are able to tell the time. Okay, so they might not be able to tell you it’s 5:10pm, but every cell in a plant has its own internal clock. They manage to coordinate these by talking to their neighbours, helping the plant ready itself for whatever the day has in store.

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12. Some restaurants serve food items with three days’ worth of calories in them...

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Restaurants that provide nutritional information on their menus tend to sell food that has less fat and salt in it. The researchers behind the study argue that if government policy made menu labelling mandatory, it could encourage restaurants to produce healthier options, leading to public health benefits.

But they also found huge differences in the number of calories in individual food items, including this monster with almost 6000kcal - that's about three days' worth of calories.

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13. ...But if you want to wean people off meat, just Offer an extra vegetarian option

Vegetarian (Image: Alexander Cahlenstein)

Vegetarian (Image: Alexander Cahlenstein)

We’re all being encouraged to eat less meat because of its impact on the climate. This year the University Catering Service announced that it had removed beef and lamb from the menu and slashed its carbon footprint as a result.

Canteens and restaurants that don’t want to take such drastic steps can still make a difference by increasing the number of vegetarian options. An experimental study showed that this could increase the proportion of vegetarian and vegan food sold by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales.

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14. A day’s work a week is enough to make you happy

High five! (Image: LoozrboyFollow)

High five! (Image: LoozrboyFollow)

Being unemployed is bad for your mental health. Aside from economic factors, paid employment brings other benefits – often psychological – such as self-esteem and social inclusion.

But it turns out that you only need one day a week of work to improve your mental health – any more makes little difference, but leaves a lot more time for Netflix.

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15. Don’t worry if people think you’re a weirdo – it could get you a Nobel Prize

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Professor Didier Queloz, as well as two others. It’s almost 25 years since he and co-laureate Michel Mayor, spotted the first planet outside our solar system, an exoplanet.

“Back then,” said Didier, “exoplanet research was a very small field. I think there were about fifty of us and we were seen as weirdos.”

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16. The Renaissance hipster was a dedicated follower of feathers

Recreation of Matthäus Schwarz's headdress. (Image: Graham CopeKoga)

Recreation of Matthäus Schwarz's headdress. (Image: Graham CopeKoga)

Take a look at this beauty, measuring over a metre in width and almost half a metre in height, resplendent with 32 red and white ostrich feathers and a bonnet of felt, satin and velvet.

It’s a recreation of a real hat as worn by Matthäus Schwarz, a 24-year-old German fashionista, on 10 May 1521. But Schwarz wasn’t alone in this fashion – feathers were quite the craze at the time.

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17. Bamboo grows a metre a day

Image: StockSnap

Image: StockSnap

Bamboo is an incredible material - and very fast growing. It’s just one of the natural materials that might replace concrete in the future.

Renewable, plant-based materials such as bamboo have huge potential for sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. Their use would dramatically reduce emissions compared to traditional materials, helping to mitigate the human impact on climate change. This approach would also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere by diverting timber away from being burnt as fuel.

Researchers already say that we could soon be living in wooden skyscrapers within the next decade.

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18. Margaret Thatcher had a very famous ‘we’ in 1989

Margaret Thatcher meets George Bush in 1989 (Image: White House)

Margaret Thatcher meets George Bush in 1989 (Image: White House)

“We have become a grandmother,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1989 upon the birth of her first grandchild, Mark Thatcher's son Michael - the first time she used this expression. The term had previously been restricted to royal use. As Queen Victoria would no doubt have said, “We are not amused”.

Thatcher's apparent conceit led to her being described as “a legend in her own imagination”.

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19. Women at Cambridge were encouraged to behave badly in the Eighties

Jane Tillier, the first woman Lay Chaplain at Jesus College in 1984, was given a badge by renowned historian Lisa Jardine encouraging her to behave badly. Jardine handed the badges out to her female friends, encouraging them to wear them. One of these badges is now on display in The Rising Tide exhibition at the University Library.

Men – particularly those trying to stop women being admitted to the University in the late 19th century – didn’t need much encouragement.

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20. 2019 was the year of upcycling

Image: vorsprung

Image: vorsprung

Cambridge Dictionary named ‘upcycling’ – the activity of making new items out of old or used things (just like this article, really) – as its Word of the Year. It reflects the momentum around individual actions to combat climate change — from going vegan to taking your own cup to Starbucks.

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21. Forget the floss – it’s time for the quantum dance

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Cambridge researchers have found a way to get the atomic nuclei in semiconductor quantum dots (crystals made up of thousands of atoms) to dance in unison, in a quickstep towards quantum computing. Lasers cool the nuclei to less than 1 milliKelvin, or a thousandth of a degree above the absolute zero temperature - it’s certainly no disco inferno in there.

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22. Your PlayStation could hold the key to better brain health

Hellbalde (Image: Ninja Theory)

Hellbalde (Image: Ninja Theory)

Not only has gaming technology been used to accurately portray mental health disorders, such as in Hellblade, the story of a Celtic warrior guided by the voices in her head, but researchers are now looking at how it might help people improve their mental health in future.

In fact, gaming technology is opening up mental and cognitive health research. Cambridge researchers say virtual reality could one day help us spot the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, as problems with navigation are one of the first clues that something is going wrong.

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23. If your cearc fhrancach brachaid this Christmas, don't eat it

Christmas 2012 (Image: Mike Fleming)

Christmas 2012 (Image: Mike Fleming)

Researchers in Cambridge and Belfast have identified and defined 500 Irish words, many of which had been lost, and published them in a free online dictionary of Medieval Irish.

Among the 500 words rediscovered and translated by researchers in Cambridge and Belfast are the festive ‘cearc fhrancach’ (turkey hen) and the less Christmassy ‘brachaid’ (oozes pus).

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24. Beer before wine, wine before beer – it doesn’t matter, you’ll still feel ill

Image: Couleur

Image: Couleur

Ignore the age-old sayings about “Beer before wine, you’ll be fine”. Researchers got a group of 90 (very willing) medical students drunk on different combinations of beer and wine and measured their hangovers the next day. Their conclusion: no matter how you mix your drinks (or even if you stick to the same drink), if you drink too much, you’re still going to get a hangover.

So this festive period, enjoy your Christmas and New Year - and always drink responsibly.

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Banner image: Artist's impression of the exoplanet BD+14 4599 b. View from the surface of its hypothetical moon. (Image: M. Mizera / PTA / IAU100)

From previous years... 2017: Dodgy robots, fake news and smart sheep 2018: Plucky underdogs, sausages in space and the winter that never ended Top Summary: 

From lettuce-picking robots to feathery hipsters, we look back at some of this year's biggest research stories.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): School of Arts and HumanitiesSchool of the Biological SciencesSchool of Clinical MedicineSchool of the Humanities and Social SciencesSchool of the Physical SciencesSchool of TechnologySection: ResearchNews type: Features

Now we’re talking

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Helping young refugees and asylum-seekers build a new life in Britain

For five weeks over the summer of 2019, a group of Cambridgeshire teenagers took part in an experimental programme aimed at developing communication skills, building confidence and fostering a sense of belonging.

The project took its name from an ‘untranslatable’ Welsh word Hiraeth which conveys a deep longing for a home which you can never return to, or which perhaps never existed. Its closest English equivalent would be a profound nostalgia or sense of homesickness.

The choice couldn’t be more appropriate for an initiative which supports adolescents trying to carve out a new life in an unfamiliar culture having been forced to flee conflict zones including Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Eritrea.

The project is a collaboration between Cambridge Hub, a student-led social enterprise; researchers from the University’s Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics; Cambridgeshire County Council's Virtual School for Looked After Children; the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign charity; and the community radio station Cambridge 105.

Seventeen participants, aged 12 to 19, signed up for Hiraeth’s programme of creative workshops including collaborative cooking, bicycle repair, map-making and several radio production sessions at Cambridge 105, all of which have culminated in the creation of a podcast and exhibition at The Museum of Cambridge.

Hiraeth’s youngest members came to the UK with adult family members but some of the older teenagers are unaccompanied and tend to have less fluent English as a result. Project co-lead, Eleanor Chapman, a modern languages Cambridge graduate and former project officer at Cambridge Hub, sums up Hiraeth’s aims:

“A lot of the English language learning that these young people get is very grammar-based and formal, not very conversational.  At the same time, they often find themselves being asked about their harrowing backstories rather than being invited to speak about the things most teenagers want to chat about.”

Eleanor Chapman

Eleanor Chapman

“We wanted to help them develop vocab and communication skills, but we didn’t want this to turn into an English language course. We were more interested in building confidence to speak as a way to foster a greater sense of belonging.”

When Julianne Pigott, a ‘research impact facilitator’ for the University’s School of Arts and Humanities, heard about Eleanor’s initial plans she saw the potential for collaboration with Dr Brechtje Post, an expert in theoretical and applied linguistics.

Brechtje’s work focuses on examining how differences in sound affect how speech is interpreted. She is interested in how people process and learn speech, not least children with different language backgrounds. Since 2016, Brechtje has been working on an international research project – Multilingual Early Childhood Education and Care for Young Refugee Children (MyREF) –which has developed a toolkit to help practitioners and volunteers working with immigrant children to improve their language and communication skills.

“These children have often suffered trauma and they are trying to learn a new language in a variety of challenging circumstances,” Brechtje says.

“Our research has revealed major gaps in training in nursery schools and asylum seeker centres to support these young people. What we’ve come up with helps prepare professionals and volunteers for the many different scenarios they encounter and to offer personalised educational support.”

Dr Brechtje Post

Dr Brechtje Post

Brechtje and her colleagues have been evaluating the effectiveness of their toolkit and training programme in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Hiraeth offered a valuable pilot opportunity involving an older group. Eventually they hope to roll out the toolkit to help many other groups of refugee children.

“What makes Hiraeth so special is that we are trying to help with language and social development, including integration, at the same time.”Dr Brechtje Post

Crucially, the project encouraged a multilingual environment. “We made it really clear that we’d rather someone said something in their first language rather than say nothing,” Eleanor explains. “Together, we would then help translate or gently move the conversation into English.”

The dynamic varied in every session, one of which was a cookery workshop run with Cambridge Sustainable Food which offers services to promote healthy eating, tackle food poverty and cut waste.

This offered an opportunity to learn important food, kitchen and cookery vocabulary. “When someone was struggling, someone else would chip in with the English word,” Eleanor recalls. “There was a lovely moment when they were helping each other put a recipe together and shouting out ‘tomatoes’ and ‘lentils’ all at once.”

At the same time, the session offered crucial life skills, particularly for the unaccompanied boys, some of whom had never expected to cook for themselves, and had rarely seen men in the kitchen.

Another small-group workshop took place in a Cambridge bike shop where some of the teenagers were shown how to make repairs and exposed to more unfamiliar vocab in another busy, real-life scenario.

The majority of sessions were more reflective and focused on promoting conversation between the teenagers about their lives: past, present and future.

Eleanor was determined to explore the idea that people develop emotional connections to place and that geography shapes our relationships and experiences. She invited the group to draw maps of their new neighbourhoods from memory including as much detail as they could, but only of the places that were important to them.

The teenagers responded by plotting the locations of their new homes and friends, schools, favourite takeaways, parks and other places where they like to hang out. They were then encouraged to plot their first memory in Cambridge and places where they feel most safe, happy and at home.

All of these experiences fed into the project’s central activity, the production of a radio show in the studios of Cambridge 105. While many of the teenagers, especially the girls, were nervous at first, they increasingly found this a safe space in which they felt they could speak English into a microphone without worrying about how people might react to their mistakes and accents.

Speaking about this on air at the end of the project, Hend, a fourteen-year-old from Syria said: “I was really scared to talk in front of people so I found it really useful … because no-one’s seeing you but they're hearing you.”

Inspired by their cookery course, the group discussed which foods took them back to their early childhoods. And on another occasion they reflected on the importance of friendship.

“The radio show had to be what they wanted to say,” Eleanor explains. “Most of the time they didn’t want to share traumatic experiences, they preferred to chat about stuff like video games. And we encouraged that because it all helps to break down the stigma that if you're a refugee, that’s all you are, and the only thing you can speak about is your suffering.

As they spent more time in the studio, some of the older teenagers became remarkably open about their past experiences and expectations for the future. Hussein, a teenager from Iraq, shared that he stays in touch with a friend living in Jordan:

“I said I can’t go back because I’m still studying, doing my future. But when I finish, I will go back to Jordan and see good friends. And I will go back to Iraq, my country, when it is safe. I will go first to see my family and friends.”Hiraeth participant Hussein

But many in the group are having to come to terms with the likelihood that they will never go back home. By the end of the programme, some of the teenagers from Syria had gained enough confidence to explain why they didn’t think a return would ever be possible.

“We just gave them a chance to be themselves and without even realising it their English was gradually improving at the same time.”Eleanor Chapman

John Jordan-Hills works with Cambridgeshire County Council to champion the education of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. He explains that while they have managed to expand support with local schools and colleges, there remained a need to develop language and socialising skills outside of the classroom. Working with Cambridge Hub student volunteers, John runs a weekly homework club in the evenings as well as summer projects like Hiraeth.

“It’s so fantastic to see these young people flourishing and learning in a fun and supportive environment. These schemes are so important to the students I work with.”John Jordan-Hills

At the end of the programme, the teenagers collected certificates at a suitably chatty graduation ceremony where their memory maps were also on display.

The project was supported by grants from the Arts and Humanities Impact Fund (University of Cambridge) and the Rayne Foundation.

The Museum of Cambridge exhibition ‘Hiraeth: The voices of young refugees and asylum seekers in Cambridgeshire’ runs from 4 Nov – 16 Dec 2019

For more info about Hiraeth Top Summary: 

A new Cambridge project aims to help young refugees and asylum-seekers build a new life in Britain by developing their confidence and communication skills

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Faculty of Modern and Medieval LanguagesCambridge HubSchool of Arts and HumanitiesJesus CollegeHomerton CollegeExternal Affiliations: Cambridgeshire County CouncilPeople (our academics and staff): Brechtje PostSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): RefugeesasylumcommunitieslanguagesSection: ResearchNews type: Features

Sir David Attenborough: "Our planet hangs in the balance"

“It might seem like an obvious thing to say but we need to keep saying it: our planet is precious.

It provides the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. You have only to take a walk through a forest and look up at its canopy to see the outstanding beauty and complexity of ecosystems. Pause in the stillness among the trees and contemplate what is surrounding you: it’s mind-blowing.

But, rather than cherish this planet – our home – we have too often treated it with contempt. Today, as a consequence, we face disaster on a global scale.

Everywhere we look, we see how ecosystems are threatened. The most striking illustration of climate change that I have seen is seared on my memory: the first time I saw a dead coral reef. It had actually bleached. Where once it had been full of hundreds of species, it was like a cemetery.

A few decades ago, the idea that humans could change the climate of our planet was unthinkable. Now this is incontrovertible and we are talking about the risk of irreparable damage. Rising temperatures mean parts of the planet are becoming uninhabitable. Species less able to adapt to rapid changes will be wiped out. Famine will lead to forced migrations. There will be major upsets in natural boundaries, leading to social unrest.

Fortunately, we are now better informed about the state of the world than ever before. We’ve seen a worldwide protest movement grow, led by young people afraid for their future and the future of their planet. We must listen to them. We must respond. We must act – and act now.

We’ve seen before what can be done. When scientists identified the cause of a catastrophic hole in the ozone layer, the world acted. We saw global leaders listening to scientific evidence and taking action.

The climate crisis is a much larger problem, but if we can all pull together, I believe we can solve it. What each one of us does in the next few years will determine what happens in the next few thousand years. There is hope if we all – every single one of us – take our share of responsibility for life on Earth.

Those in power can influence change. And those with knowledge and the ability to innovate can provide solutions to a great number of problems. 

I have had the honour of being part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative from its inception 12 years ago. I’ve seen what can be achieved when great talent is combined with great ambition: bringing together leaders in research, practice, policy and teaching gives us the greatest chance of developing the solutions required to save our planet.

In the same way, the new initiative Cambridge Zero will be vital. Combining expertise, from science and technology to law and policy to artificial intelligence and engineering, Cambridge Zero will help drive a vision for a carbon neutral future.

It’s a source of comfort to me that people are recognising that their world is at stake, that the ocean is not infinitely full of food, that the ground is not infinitely full of minerals, that life on Earth is not impervious to the damage we cause.

Our planet hangs in the balance. The only way to operate is to believe we can do something about it, and I truly believe we can.”

Broadcaster Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries have brought the wonders of the natural world to our screens – from the splendours of terrestrial life, to the otherworldly underwater kingdoms and the frozen ends of the Earth – but they also increasingly show our planet’s fragility in the face of habitat destruction and climate change. He is an alumnus of Clare College and has given his name to the campus of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – the largest cluster of biodiversity conservation organisations on the planet.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

Forests burn, glaciers melt and one million species face extinction. Can we humans save the planet from ourselves? Here, Sir David Attenborough speaks to us about the climate crisis and developing solutions. His words begin our new focus on Sustainable Earth, looking at how we transition to a carbon zero future, protect the planet's resources, reduce waste and build resilience.

Those in power can influence change. And those with knowledge and the ability to innovate can provide solutions to a great number of problems. Sir David Attenborough John Phillips/Getty ImagesSir David Attenborough

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


Visualising heat flow in bamboo could help design more energy-efficient and fire-safe buildings

The building sector currently accounts for 30-40% of all carbon emissions, due to both the energy-intensive production of the materials (predominantly steel and concrete), and the energy used in heating and cooling the finished buildings. As the global population grows and becomes increasingly based in towns and cities, traditional building approaches are becoming unsustainable. 

Renewable, plant-based materials such as bamboo have huge potential for sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. Their use would dramatically reduce emissions compared to traditional materials, helping to mitigate the human impact on climate change. This approach would also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere by diverting timber away from being burnt as fuel. 

The study involved scanning cross-sections of bamboo vascular tissue, the tissue that transports fluid and nutrients within the plant. The resulting images revealed an intricate fibre structure with alternating layers of thick and thin cell walls. Peaks of thermal conductivity within the bamboo structure coincide with the thicker walls, where chains of cellulose – the basic structural component of plant cell walls – are laid down almost parallel to the plant stem. These thicker layers also give bamboo its strength and stiffness. In contrast, the thinner cell walls have lower thermal conductivity due to cellulose chains being almost at a right angle to the plant stem. 

“Nature is an amazing architect. Bamboo is structured in a really clever way,” said Darshil Shah, a researcher in Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, who led the study. “It grows by one millimetre every ninety seconds, making it one of the fastest growing plant materials. Through the images we collected, we can see that it does this by generating a naturally cross-laminated fibre structure.”

While much research has been done on the cell structure of bamboo in relation to its mechanical properties, almost none has looked at how cell structure affects the thermal properties of the material. The amount of heating and cooling required in buildings is fundamentally related to the properties of the materials they are made from, particularly how much heat they conduct and store.

A better understanding of the thermal properties of bamboo provides insights into how to reduce the energy consumption of bamboo buildings. It also enables modelling of the way bamboo building components behave when exposed to fire, so that measures can be incorporated to make bamboo buildings safer. 

“People may worry about fire safety of bamboo buildings,” said Shah. “To address this properly we have to understand the thermal properties of the building material. Through our work we can see that heat travels along the structure-supporting thick cell wall fibres in bamboo, so if exposed to the heat of a fire the bamboo might soften more quickly in the direction of those fibres. This helps us work out how to reinforce the building appropriately.” 

At present, products such as laminated bamboo are most commonly used as flooring materials due to their hardness and durability. However, their stiffness and strength is comparable to engineered wood products, making them suitable for structural uses as well. “Cross-laminated timber is a popular choice of timber construction material. It’s made by gluing together layers of sawn timber, each at a right angle to the layer below,” said Shah. “Seeing this as a natural structure in bamboo fibres is inspiration for the development of better building products.”

The team of researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, also plans to look at what happens to heat flow in bamboo when its surface is burned and forms char. The use of scanning thermal microscopy to visualise the intricate make-up of plants could also be useful in other areas of research, such as understanding how micro-structural changes in crop stems may cause them to fall over in the fields resulting in lost harvests.

Shah is a member of the University of Cambridge’s interdisciplinary Centre for Natural Material Innovation, which aims to advance the use of timber in construction by modifying the tissue-scale properties of wood to make it more reliable under changing environmental conditions. 

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the Austrian Science Fund and the Lower Austrian Research and Education Society. 

Shah, al: “Mapping thermal conductivity across bamboo cell walls with scanning thermal microscopy.” Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-53079-4



Modified natural materials will be an essential component of a sustainable future, but first a detailed understanding of their properties is needed. The way heat flows across bamboo cell walls has been mapped using advanced scanning thermal microscopy, providing a new understanding of how variations in thermal conductivity are linked to the bamboo’s elegant structure. The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, will guide the development of more energy-efficient and fire-safe buildings, made from natural materials, in the future. 

Nature is an amazing architect. Bamboo is structured in a really clever way.Darshil ShahResearcher profile: Dr Darshil Shah


Dr Darshil Shah is a Lecturer in the Department of Architecture who loves nature. “Nature is the master creator and architect!” he says. “My research is focused on how we can better use our natural resources to produce sustainable materials, which can be used in high-end and high-performance applications.”

He studied Mechanical Engineering with Mathematics at the University of Nottingham, where a summer internship sparked his interest in real-world design.

“As an undergraduate student I had a fantastic opportunity to work on the design and manufacture of a five kilowatt wind turbine for the campus,” says Shah. “The day we installed it was so exciting. It made me realise the impact my work could have, and the importance of joining together fundamental and applied research.”

Shah’s subsequent PhD, on the low-cost manufacture of wind turbine blades for small-scale turbines, led him to think about using greener materials to avoid the blades ending up in landfill at the end of their life. He also spent time in Oxford University’s Silk Group, where he learned about natural materials.

“My time at Oxford plunged me into a whole new world. I started thinking about how our materials and built environment could be informed and inspired by the natural world – from the beautiful silk threads and webs of spiders and silkworms, to the magnificent ivory tusks of elephants,” he says.

In Cambridge, Shah is exploring how to use a wide range of virgin and waste bioresources, such as timber, bamboo and waste date palm fibres, to help create sustainable products - from buildings to boats. 

“At the fundamental level I’m exploring natural materials and structures for inspiration,” he says. “At the applied level, I’m working with industry to optimise materials for various sectors, from construction to transport.”

Shah believes that breaking boundaries between disciplines, particularly arts and humanities, and science and technology, is the only way to truly tackle some of the global challenges we face. 

“Cambridge has a rich mix of brilliant researchers, thinkers and doers,” he says. “I’ve made connections in so many different departments, and had the chance to work on a fantastic variety of projects that I don’t think would have been possible anywhere else.”

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


Did the Sixties dream die in 1969?

The Sixties are generally remembered as an era of freedom, innovation and visionary experience. It’s the period, after all, that gave us The Beatles, the Summer of Love, the civil rights movement, the Woodstock Festival and the Apollo 11 Moon-Landing. Scores of autobiographies, hagiographies and cultural histories have helped to further embellish this iconic status by presenting the Sixties as the crucible of the Hippie ‘dream’, a loosely defined, youth-led attempt to establish an alternative, harmonious, post-war world. It’s a glorious story, but one that tends to end in tragedy.

At ‘the end of the Sixties’, or so the story goes, the Hippie dream ‘dies’. It’s brought to a crashing halt in the latter half of 1969 thanks to the terrible murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and ‘the Family’, the deaths attributed to the so-called ‘Zodiac Killer’ and the violence at The Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway. These events appear to hold up a dark mirror to the positive social and cultural advances of the preceding years. 

While this narrative may suit the matrix of popular culture and nostalgia that constitutes the Sixties, it bears little resemblance to the historical actuality of the 1960s. The decade did indeed usher in a wave of progressivism and it also had its shadow-side, but such negativity was not limited to its final days. If anything the darkness, so to speak, was present from the start and across the 1960s it hovered particularly close to the decade’s much-vaunted counterculture.

Assassinations, nuclear tensions, globalised conflict, civil unrest, the growth of apocalyptic religious groups: the 1960s were suffused with violence, anxiety and a sense of looming doom. A fraught and difficult decade, the 1960s left a social, cultural and economic legacy of which still exerts a powerful influence on the contemporary world. 

The Sixties, by contrast, continue to exist in a bubble of comforting misremembrance, regularly offering up another anniversary, exhibition or reunion tour. Altamont and the Manson murders were of course very real events with a terrible human cost, but they have both become part of a narrative of disaster that helps to shore up this exceptionalism. What else are we to expect from such a supernova of an era as the Sixties than a spectacular curtain fall?

Imagining the disastrous end of both the hippie ‘dream’ and the wider countercultural project is ultimately a tool of celebration. If only Manson and the Family, hadn't appeared, the unique work of the Sixties would have carried on and given rise to a beautiful future.

For those invested in the period’s nostalgia industry, framing the sixties as a kind of cultural Shangri-La, a lost world that we strive to return to is, surely, better than acknowledging the pedestrian reality of how the 1960s actually ended. That’s the real horror: the slow, inconsequential shift of a dynamic counterculture into adulthood, suburbia and ‘proper’ jobs (the 1970s, in other words). Although misleading, this vision of flower power ending in blood-soaked catastrophe retains its grip on the public imagination. Case in point, the recent release of Quentin Tarantino’s Manson-era epic Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019).

The end of the 1960s did not mark the ‘death’ of the Hippie ‘dream’. As the 1970s took hold, the countercultural impetus merely recalibrated and flowed in different directions. That has not stopped contemporary culture from obsessively revisiting and repeating the events of 1969, as if they signal some kind of terminus, yet to be fully understood.

Meanwhile, the world of the early twenty-first century continues to plough headlong into its own deeply troubling period of postmodern politics, creepingly malevolent soft power and weaponised ‘fake news’. When we live in such interesting times, why dwell on the illusions and disillusions of the 1960s and its double?

Fifty years ago protests took place across reasonably well-defined battle lines against clearly identifiable targets. Now, in today’s sphere of edited reality and policies that change as fast as they can be tweeted it's difficult to pinpoint where the source of power is, let alone how to protest against it. To navigate this type of situation it's important to understand the mechanics at play – how representations are manipulated and how agendas are embedded in seemingly innocuous narratives. This is what the 1960s can teach us.

By interrogating and unpacking the link between the decade and the era, the 1960s and the Sixties, we can observe, in process, the forces that transform recent history into modern myth. It's also useful to be shocked by how much things have changed. If you are curious, look into the details of the Manson case and think about what it meant in 1969 to ‘follow’ someone. What you find might make you spend a little less time on Twitter. 

The year 1969 is held up as the end of an era, but fifty years on are we still buying into a dangerous myth? Counterculture expert James Riley delves into the darkness of the Sixties to sort fact from psychedelic fiction.

The 1960s were suffused with violence, anxiety and a sense of looming doomJames RileyDr James RileyThe author

Dr James Riley is Fellow and College Lecturer in English at Girton College. His book, The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties was published by Icon Books in 2019.

James will be speaking at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge on 6th November 2019.

This is an extended version of an article published in Horizons issue 39.

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Discovering a world of languages

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A Cambridge-led team seeks to revitalise languages in the UK with a series of interactive pop-up exhibitions designed to set tongues wagging.

An Alice in ‘Language Wonderland’ adventure; a ‘Lost in Translation’ untranslatable word challenge; a pool of creatures carrying words loaned to English like emoji, rucksack and graffiti; a ‘language family’ street; an ‘I Love You’ language line; and a Mr Tickle accent spotting game.

These are just some of the weird and wonderful hands-on experiences to be had in the first-of-its-kind “World of Languages” pop-up museum. Opening in Cambridge’s Grafton shopping centre for 2019’s October half-term week, the free attraction will then travel to Belfast, Edinburgh, Nottingham and London over the next five months.

An instant hit: the museum's word pool

An instant hit: the museum's word pool

The unique project, led by language experts at the University of Cambridge, aims to revitalise modern languages in the UK by showing they are fun, achievable and useful to learn.

“The UK has museums for some really niche things, including lawnmowers and dog collars. So it’s about time we had a museum of languages because they’re such a key part of who we are and how we relate to others, whether we’re at home, on holiday or in the workplace” says project leader Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett from the University of Cambridge.

“We aimed to make the museum as inviting and unstuffy as possible. Many people think learning languages is a chore. We want to show that it can and should be fun, and opens up exciting opportunities. So whether visitors are 4 or 84, we think they’ll find it really entertaining.”Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Behind the playful interactive displays – offering films, quizzes, listening challenges, word sorting games, speech bubble selfies and much more – lies a serious purpose. One of the project’s central aims is to challenge myths and prejudices including the idea that British people aren’t good at languages, and don’t need to learn them.

The UK is already a richly multilingual country but language learning is in freefall. Since 2000, entries for GCSE modern foreign languages have dropped by 44%, with French and German each suffering declines of over 60%. At undergraduate level, the situation is even worse: between 2008 and 2018, the number of modern languages undergraduates fell by 54%. This not only disadvantages individuals, it harms the UK’s standing in the world, says Ayres-Bennett.

“You can only truly see the world through other people's eyes and how other cultures work, if you know their language. More people in the world are bilingual than are not, and the idea that learning languages is too difficult or elitist is just ’cultural baggage’ which needs to be shaken off. The UK desperately needs more language skills for business, trade and diplomacy.”

Numerous studies have shown that learning a language hones analytical and problem-solving skills, cultural awareness and agility, as well as communication skills, important assets in all careers. But language learning can also help to break down barriers and has been shown to play a crucial role in social cohesion.

“Just knowing the word for hello can help to make someone feel more welcome in a community. Modest efforts can mean a huge amount,” says Ayres-Bennett.

The pop-up museum is part of a major research project called MEITS (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its team – linguists from the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Queen’s Belfast and Nottingham – investigate the role that languages play in society, while also seeking to inspire uptake at the grassroots and drive languages up the political agenda.

The team knows that shifting perceptions is a huge challenge, not least because there is significant inequality in access to language education in the UK. For this reason, the free museum will be popping up in accessible public spaces including shopping centres, theatres and libraries. The team is also working closely with state schools with a high proportion of Free School Meals pupils and in areas where relatively few people speak a language other than English.

World of Languages pop-up tour dates

Cambridge: ‘Escape At The Grafton’ space, The Grafton Centre, CB1 1PS (19th–27th Oct 2019)

Belfast: Accidental Theatre, 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, BT2 7DB (Public: 2nd–3rd Nov & School visits: 4-5 Nov)

Edinburgh: Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL (8th–10th Nov 2019)

Nottingham: The Gallery & Cecil Roberts Room (1st floor), Nottingham Central Library, Angel Row, NG1 6HP (2nd–7th Dec 2019)

London: The Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS (14th March 2020)

Follow the museum & share your experiences


Twitter: @meits_owri  Facebook: @meits.owri

Instagram: @popupworldoflanguages

With thanks to the pupils of Hardwick and Cambourne Community Primary School, the first visitors to the 'World of Languages' museum

With thanks to the pupils of Hardwick and Cambourne Community Primary School, the first visitors to the 'World of Languages' museum

Top Summary: 

A Cambridge-led team seeks to revitalise languages in the UK with a series of interactive pop-up exhibitions designed to set tongues wagging.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): School of Arts and HumanitiesFaculty of Modern and Medieval LanguagesLanguage Sciences Strategic InitiativePeople (our academics and staff): Wendy Ayres-BennettSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): languageEast of EnglandChildrenPublic Engagement

Vice-Chancellor’s awards showcase University’s societal impact and public engagement

Now in their fourth year, the awards were made in four categories: collaboration, early career, established researcher/academic champion and professional service.

Winners in the collaboration category included PhD student Christopher Franck for an initiative creating a global air pollution sensor network driven by citizen science.

The early career researchers included Jessica Miller whose project has changed understandings of mental health and trauma in UK policing, informing a new wellbeing service and leading to discussion in Parliament.

Among those commended as established researchers, Vincent Gnanapragasam developed a new tool to predict an individual’s prognosis following a prostate cancer diagnosis to help make decisions about the value of treatment. In a very different field, David Trippett was recognised for bringing an ‘indecipherable’ opera back to life through international performances, broadcasts and recordings.

In the professional services category Naomi Chapman from the Polar Museum Education team developed maps to enable young and partially sighted people to explore the Arctic and Antarctic by touch.

The announcement was made at a prize ceremony held at the Old Schools on 14 October 2019.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says: “This year’s nominations recognise impressive and inspirational individuals, and strongly reflect our mission to engage the public, tackle real-world problems and improve people’s lives. The award scheme focuses attention on the increasingly important role that institutions such as ours have to play in restoring faith in experts.”

The Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact and Engagement Awards were established to recognise and reward outstanding achievement, innovation and creativity in devising and implementing ambitious engagement and impact plans that have the potential to create significant economic, social and cultural impact from and engagement with and for research. Each winner receives a £1,000 grant to be used for the development and delivery of engagement/impact activity or relevant training.

This year’s winners are:

Collaboration Award Emily Mitchell (Department of Earth Sciences)

Researchers and museum specialists collaborated on a museum exhibition and public programme, engaging a range of public audiences with research on the earliest fossils to illuminate the start of complex life.

Helen Strudwick (The Fitzwilliam Museum)

This collaborative project engages audiences with our pioneering research on ancient Egyptian coffin construction and decoration, through a major exhibition, ‘Pop-Up’ museum targeting underserved audiences and digital resources.

Christopher Franck (Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology)

Open-seneca is a student-led initiative creating a global low-cost mobile air pollution sensor network driven by citizen science. The aim of the initiative is to empower citizens with air pollution data to raise awareness, initiate behaviour change, and inform policy makers on environmental issues.

Early Career Award Saumya Saxena (Faculty of History)

Saumya’s research focuses on family law and gender in India. She advised the twenty-first Law Commission of India on reform of family law and worked with the Verma Commission on amendments to law relating to rape in India.

Jessica Miller (Department of Sociology)

Jessica’s project involved engaging with over 18000 police officers and staff to change the face of trauma resilience in UK policing, and inviting commitment from decision-makers to inform national policy and operational change. 

Matthew Agarwala (Bennett Institute for Public Policy)

Matthew’s research on valuing natural resources is helping in the transition to sustainable economic growth. Having been adopted by the United Nations and other bodies, his work is shaping standards for measurement.

Zoë Fritz (School of Clinical Medicine)

Zoë developed the “Recommended Summary Plan for Emergency Care and Treatment” as an alternative to the widely used but problematic ‘DNACPR’ with tremendous impact on policy, practice, guidelines and beneficiaries.

Established Researcher and Academic Champion Nicholas Thomas (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

In 2018, Nicholas co-curated the landmark exhibition 'Oceania' at the Royal Academy in London. Based on collaborative research at Cambridge, the exhibition brought a dynamic, contemporary view of the art of an extraordinary region to European audiences.

Vincent Gnanapragasam (School of Clinical Medicine)

Vincent is the Chief Investigator for PREDICT Prostate, the first individualized prognostic tool accessible to both clinicians and patients to help make unbiased informed decisions about the value of treatment for newly diagnosed prostate cancer. 

David Trippett (Faculty of Music)

An unheard opera by 19th-century composer Franz Liszt languished silently in a manuscript thought fragmentary and illegible. David’s meticulous reconstruction brought it to life, to global acclaim, through international performances, broadcasts and recordings. 

Professional Service Oliver Francis (Centre for Diet and Activity Research, and the MRC Epidemiology Unit)

Oliver’s leadership in communications has transformed the impact strategies at CEDAR and the MRC Epidemiology Unit. His innovative contributions span all aspects of the communications and impact portfolio.

Naomi Chapman (Scott Polar Research Institute)

With a local artist, Naomi developed innovative maps of the Arctic and Antarctic with which hundreds of young and partially sighted people have enjoyed a touch tour of polar research.

Twelve students, academics and professional members of staff from across the University of Cambridge have received Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact and Engagement Awards in areas as diverse as prostate cancer, family law, museum public engagement and police mental health.

This year’s nominations recognise impressive and inspirational individuals, and strongly reflect our mission to engage the public, tackle real-world problems and improve people’s livesProfessor Stephen ToopeCandy WelzAiram Hernández and Joyce El-Khoury perform Sardanapalo at Staatskapelle Weimar

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