Monthly Archives: September 2015

One child on a beach

Darren Schreiber is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter, his research looks at how our brain’s process the world around us. Here he examines why one picture of a dead child captured such attention…

Refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria.

Refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria.

One child, face down in the water on a beach. In week where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing civil wars and genocide, where thousands are stuck on trains and in train stations as they try to escape to a better life, where seventy-one corpses are found abandoned by human traffickers in a truck on the side of road … why do photos of one dead child evoke such intense emotion and capture so much attention?

For the past decade and a half, I have been bringing together the tools of political science, psychology, and neuroscience to try to understand how our brains process the world. While we have language instincts, we are great at making tools, and we can do a range of other impressive things with the fantastic brains we have, my research has brought me to the conclusion that our brains are built for politics. We evolved the particular set of cognitive and emotional abilities enabled in our brains because we faced an environment where understanding how to form and manage coalitions was critical to survival.

A consequence is that we are constantly trying to assess who is an ‘us’ and who is a ‘them’. But this evaluation is complicated because coalitions are nested, overlapping, and dynamic. The person we rode with in the elevator today was a part of team ‘us’, even for just a few seconds. The people who didn’t get there before the doors closed were part of ‘them’. Similarly, it is easy to think of the streams of strangers at the ports and on the trains as ‘them’, with ‘their problems’.

One odd thing is that we have two different sets of tools for moral evaluations depending on whether someone is an ‘us’ or a ‘them’. When research participants are presented with the ‘train’ version of a famous moral dilemma, they decide to pull the lever and save the five people facing doom from a runaway train, diverting the train and sacrificing a person stuck on the other track. In this utilitarian judgment, the research participants were weighing the costs and benefits and sacrificing the one for the many. When we make such utilitarian calculations, we deactivate the Default Mode Network of the brain, just as we do when we are solving math problems.

But, when asked about pushing a person standing next to them over the edge of the bridge to stop a trolley that is heading towards five people, research participants refuse to sacrifice one for the many. Rather, they activate the brain’s Default Mode Network and make a judgment based on a categorical moral imperative akin to the type described by philosopher Immanuel Kant. It is simply wrong to push someone off a bridge, so we don’t.

When we hear about thousands dying in a war, it is easy to get out the mental calculator and run the sums. ‘They’ are suffering, but we calculate those losses, we don’t feel them. The social, economic, psychological, and political costs of the multiple crises feeding the influx of refugees are down the train tracks.

But that little boy, Aylan Kurdi, he is standing next to us on the bridge. We see through his eyes, through the eyes of his parents and family. We imagine his potential future or we hear his playful giggles when he is tickled.

Why this child when so many have died before him? One part of that Default Mode Network, the medial prefrontal cortex, activated when I showed photos of the faces of white people to white participants, but deactivated when they saw black faces. This specific brain region is involved in mentalising, the process of putting ourselves in the shoes of another, suggesting a tendency to objectify blacks and personalise whites. But, we don’t encounter abstract disembodied faces floating about, rather we encounter people, in contexts.

So in the next experiment I showed photos of blacks and whites, who were either fit social norms (students, doctors, families) or violated social norms (homeless people, gang members, criminals). The activity in the medial prefontal cortex followed the social norms, and the effect of race was erased instantly. They personalised the families, irrespective of whether they were black or white and they dehumanised the criminals, regardless of race.

Little Aylan, wearing clothes you could buy on the High Street, was dead, carried along with the waves of refugees and waves of an unforgiving sea. Our magnificent brains could add him to the incalculable tally of loss, but the gift this photo is that we can see him as one of us and we can realise a moral imperative to do the right thing.

IS destroy the shrine that unified a town

Last month, ISIS destroyed the 1,500-year-old Mar Elian Monastery in Al-Qaryatayn, Syria. Professor Emma Loosley, expert in Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, has lived in the area and has studied the sacred site. Here, in an article adapted from one first published in The Catholic Herald, she outlined the sense of loss to local people.

The Mar Elian Monastry

The Mar Elian Monastery has been destroyed by IS.

When I first moved to Dayr Mar Elian in the summer of 2001 I was slightly disconcerted when the Qurwani, as the people of Qaryatayn are known, kept asking me if I had met Mar Elian yet.

Since he is believed to have died over 1,500 years ago I thought that they meant had I seen the sarcophagus, which of course I had. When I said this I was somewhat perplexed to realise that I had misunderstood the question (complicated of course by my faltering Arabic and their thick regional dialect).

What the Qurwani meant was: ‘had I spoken to the saint personally?’ One man told me of walking in the vicinity when a stranger accompanied and blessed him, and he later realised that the man had been Mar Elian (St Julian) and the site guardian told me that late at night in the chapel a voice had repeated: “God give you health,” three times – which he took to be Mar Elian praying for him as he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

I recount these stories to try and impress on the reader how central the Monastery of Mar Elian was to the local populace. The saint was a much-loved figure in the town and treated more as a venerable uncle in most homes than a distant exemplar of the faith.

What is more, in the case of that first man who had seen Mar Elian, I don’t know whether he was Christian or Muslim. The Sunni townspeople named him Sheikh Ahmed Khoury (Sheikh Ahmed the Priest) and the Christians of the town allowed their Muslim neighbours to place the green satin shroud of a Muslim holy man over the Byzantine sarcophagus in the monastery church. There, on a Muslim satin shroud, rosaries and saints’ cards lay with votive candles lit by those of both faiths.

Much has been written in the last few weeks on the physical impact of the loss of the monastery but little consideration has been given to the psychological trauma that currently affects those of us who knew and loved the shrine.

Mar Elian or Sheikh Ahmed was a very real presence in the lives of all who knew the monastery and I know at least one family who credit the intercession of the saint for leading them to the doctor who was able to cure their young son and enable him to walk. IS has ripped the heart out of a poor desert community who were united in their pride in Mar Elian.

Qaryatayn is one of the remotest, poorest settlements in Syria. Located in the midst of the Syrian desert between Homs and Palmyra it only exists because the site has a modest oasis that has permitted limited agriculture. It was the centre of a kingdom in the Middle Bronze Age and, under the name Hazar-enan, appears in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 47:17, 48:1; Numbers 34:9-10). The monastery (Dayr) of Mar Elian almost certainly dates back to around the fifth century and is considered the last resting place of Mar Elian esh-Sheikh.

Dayr Mar Elian appears to have been inhabited from Late Antiquity until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, when it was abandoned at the time when many local Christians left the Syrian Orthodox Church to join with Rome as members of the Syrian Catholic Church.

In 2001 the Syrian Catholic Metropolitan of Homs, Msgr Georges Kassab appointed Fr Jacques (Yaqub) Mourad from the Community of Al-Khalil as parish priest. Fr Jacques was one of two founder members of the Community of Al-Khalil with his superior, Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ and the two of them believed in a vocation of Abrahamic hospitality and Christian-Islamic Dialogue. Both have now been kidnapped by IS – Paolo in July 2013 and Jacques in May 2015.

Until Jacques’ abduction Dayr Mar Elian had remained the heart of the town, comforting the local population and becoming home to hundreds of, mainly Muslim, internal refugees. It was a beacon of Inter-Faith co-operation with Jacques and the local Sheikh standing side by side to prevent the town splintering along sectarian lines.

Last week IS broke the heart of a whole town and only time will tell if it can ever be mended. A friend from Qaryatayn who has managed to escape to Europe sent me a text that says it all: “My heart keeps crying Mar Elian.”

Since the destruction of the monastery we have learned that IS have broken more hearts by destroying the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin and a series of tomb towers at Palmyra, and brutally murdering the man who had looked after them for more than 50 years, Khaled al-Asad.

This destruction has been dismissed as some as being irrelevant compared to the human suffering the Syrians are enduring, but if we think back to the emotional suffering of the people of Britain not only in London, but in Coventry, Exeter and many other places during the Second World War, we should understand that this destruction is robbing many Syrians of any hope that their lives will ever be the same again.

The beard has defied all predictions of its demise (again!)

Dr Alun Withey is medical historian, interested in facial hair as part of the history of health and hygiene. Here he takes a look at why the beard continues to be a popular accessory…

Head of a bearded man seen in profile,

Head of a bearded man seen in profile, with proportions mark.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

2015 has proved to be another year when the beard has stubbornly defied all predictions of its demise.

Facial grooming choices continue to provoke strong opinions. At the one end are advocates, from both sexes, who say that beards are the ultimate symbol of masculinity. At the other are those who can’t seem to bear either the look or feel of an abundant crop of facial hair.

Some trend spotters in the USA some say the beard’s fashion dominance is over, a victim of the rise of the so-called ‘Yuccie’ – (Young Urban Creative for the uninitiated), who sport a streamlined, clean shaven look, rather than a bushy statement beard.

Nevertheless, the beard remains a lively topic for debate…even science has become interested in the beard! A 2013 study explored the question of attractiveness, concluding that the optimum state of facial hair, the one at which women found men most attractive, was one of heavy stubble, rather than a five o’clock shadow or a full beard. Another article by social scientists has charted the effects of facial hair in voters’ estimation of politicians. Could we trust a bearded politician less than a clean-shaven one?!

Another effect has been a whole new market for beard grooming products. Where products to shave off stubble are ubiquitous, new ones have appeared to preserve and even beautify the beard. Everything from oils to pastes, lotions and even a beard moisturiser are finding their way into the ads pages of men’s magazines.

I’m a medical historian, interested in facial hair as part of the history of health and hygiene. Studying facial hair, however, can be challenging. Aside from the relative lack of existing historical research, it is difficult to get past the topic’s innate quirkiness. When I tell people I’m about to embark on a major three-year project of the history of facial hair in Britain, reactions range from genuine interest to the pig snort of suppressed laughter.

And yet it is an entirely serious subject. As unlikely as it might seem, facial hair, beardlessness and shaving, relate to many extremely important historical issues including masculinity, health and hygiene, medicine, and changing notions of the body. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and looks at everything from barber-surgeons’ roles in shaving to razor technologies, and how they influenced decisions to shave. It also explores styles in facial hair and their relationship to masculinity.

A man trying to shave himself with a blunt razor.

A man trying to shave himself with a blunt razor.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Charting the changing understandings of facial hair reveals much about body history. Tudor and Stuart people viewed the body as consisting of four humours. These existed in a delicate balance which, when upset, caused illness. Under this model, facial hair was sometimes seen as a type of waste product but also, more commonly, as an outward symbol of a man’s sexual potency. Heat arising from the ‘reins’ (the area around the lower abdomen and genitals) rose up through the body and manifested itself on the chin. A man’s virility was literally writ large across his face.

Before c.1750 too, shaving was effectively a medical matter, undertaken by medical practitioners – barber-surgeons. From large towns to small villages, men visited barbers for a shave. Only around the late 18th century did they begin to shave themselves using new, sharper razors made of fashionable cast steel.

Henry Bott, died 1928 age 91.

Henry Bott, died 1928 age 91.
Image from wikimedia

The changing styles of facial hair over long periods can be revealing, and often linked to specific male stereotypes. In the late 1700s, the ideal male was clean-shaven, with bushy sideburns later making an appearance. This was the age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on revealing nature’s mysteries and throwing all things open to view. Shaving literally opened up the face. After 1850, though, a huge, bushy beard was de rigeur, regarded as the God-given symbol of man’s authority. Was it simply coincidence that Victorian men covered their faces at the same time that bodies were covered up to avoid displaying too much flesh?

Why else have men grown beards? Emulation is important, and men have often looked to heroes for inspiration in appearance. Military regiments have long provided a ready source of rugged masculinity, with which men have wished to identify. Victorian explorers (and even politicians!) once inspired men to cultivate their whiskers. But in the 1960s, beards and long hair were potent symbols of dropping out of society. Here, the new heroes were often musicians. Many other factors have influenced beard-wearing, not least of which is the importance of religious belief.

Over the past thirty years or so, however, the pace of change has quickened noticeably. Once beard trends lasted for decades; now they can appear and disappear in months. That’s why this current period is so interesting. How it started is unclear; certainly it was already on the rise by the time George Clooney and Brad Pitt sported beards at the Baftas a few years ago, and is now in its third year.

Sometimes beard styles become synonymous with particular points in time; this seems to be happening at the moment. This is the age of the ‘lifestyle beard’! The style has been referred to as the ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard, and its wearer a new kind of male stereotype…the ‘urban beardsman’! In many ways deliberately altering facial appearance for fashion is nothing new. 17th and 18thc ladies, for example, wore black, silk ‘beauty patches’ to highlight the contrast with their white skin. But is the beard now simply an accessory, as ephemeral and transient as makeup or false eyelashes?

So the remaining question is how long will the beard trend last? History suggests that there will be a flight from the beard at some stage. But there is little to suggest that men are ready to ditch their beards just yet. Indeed, the popularity of events like local and even international beard championships, and their continued appearance in popular culture, suggests they may be around for some time yet.

To see the world in a grain of sand

What does air pollution have to do with building sand sculptures? At the Green Man festival 2015 a bunch of scientists from the Met Office, Royal Meteorological Society and University of Exeter collaborated with professional sand sculptors to show that playing with sand is not only for children but also for scientists. The unique project created a sand landscape to communicate the effect of air pollution to the environment. Felix Leung, a PhD student, tells us about the exprience…

Green Man festival took place at Glanusk Estate in Brecon Beacons National Park on 20-23rd August. It is an annual music, arts and science festival and is renowned for its ethical approach, support for the Welsh local economy and showcasing new talent.

At the festival there is an area called Einstein’s Garden, with interactive science stalls run by universities, academics, and a centre stage with science gig, comedies, debates, talks and even a ceilidh.

The theme for Einstein’s Garden this year was ‘future’. Thre were stalls demonstrating why insects should be the future food source or what human-body advancement in the future would look like. The stall I was involved with demonstrated how urbanisation affects the temperature in the city and the effect of air pollution on plants and human health.

Met Office scientists preparing the sand pitch for the workshop.

Met Office scientists preparing the sand pitch for the workshop.

Sandscape is a collaboration outreach project between Met Office, University of Exeter and the sand sculptors from Sand In Your Eye, it is developed as part of a Wellcome Trust funded grant awarded to Einstein’s Garden. The sand pit is a rectangular area of 10metres by 4metres. The sandscape had a mountain range in one side and it formed a valley with a ‘river’ flowing towards the city where one side of the river is the rural countryside and the other side is the downtown with tall skyscrapers and the industrial zone.

Children carving out the detail of the skyscrapers .

Children carving out the detail of the skyscrapers.

The sandscape. The Sandscape workshop had four one hour session per day. During each session around 15 children and their parents were taught that the principle of making a sand structure is using wet sand, wet sand allow the sand particles to bind together once it dry up and creating a firm and stable structure. Once you master the skill of building sand block, you can use wet sand to create skyscrapers using a long tube as a mould and build arches and bridges.

The children really enjoyed building sand houses and sand factories and they created an incredible landscape with features such as a church yard in the countryside, airport with highway full of traffic, cottage in the forest on the hillside and even a viaduct. The children showed unlimited creativity and enthusiasm, I am sure they are going to be great urban planners in the future.

The workshops ended with the Met Office scientists explaining the science behind the Sandscape project. We put a red flag at the metropolitan area, explaining urban heat island effect occur in the city centre where tall skyscrapers block the flow of air and the concrete release heat during night.

A green flag in the forest symbolised the production of pollens which causes hay fever. A grey flag on the highway and factories symbolise the air pollution such as ground level ozone which could cause asthma in people. We also used a bubble gun to demonstrate the difference of factories chimney height to the pollutant concentration in the surrounding area, if there is a low chimney all the bubbles (pollutants) land in the city centre but if we have a higher chimney the pollutants spread out.

The finale of the session involved of some dramatic smoke effects produced by dry ice placed on the top of the valley, it simulated how fresh cold air flow down to the city. The fresh air was first blocked by the dam on the upper course of the river but once the dam is removed the cold fresh air gradually flowed into the countryside and the city providing everyone’s fresh air.

Met Office scientists explaining the urban heat island effect to the parents and children.

Met Office scientists explaining the urban heat island effect to the parents and children.

Fresh air blocked by the dam in the valley.

Fresh air blocked by the dam in the valley.

Fresh air flow along the valley and into the city and countryside.

Fresh air flow along the valley and into the city and countryside.

This is one of the most unusual science-communication events I have ever done. I learnt a lot about how to communicate my research to the general public and how to engage with audiences from different age groups.

It was a really fun experience but also a lot of hard work, you have to bend down all the time, stand in an uncomfortable position to avoid trampling other structure, carry heavy buckets of water and deal with the Welsh weather. It was exhausting at the end of the day but worth every drop of sweat when you saw the Sandscape evolve over time and the kids learn some climate science. It will never be the same when I go to the beach again.

Discover the scary side of science at Science in the Square 2015

On 14 August 2015, the Penryn campus was transformed into an, at times scary, nature wonderland – full of erupting volcanoes and intestinal parasites for the annual Science in the Square event.

In this blog Stephanie Wheeler, Student Engagement, Widening Participation and Internationalisation Co-ordinator, writes about coordinating her first Science in the Square.

TarantulaI had never attended Science in the Square before so when I started my job, it was fairly daunting to think that I would be coordinating the event this year. I had only ever heard amazing things about previous events and seen the wonderful pictures and videos of everybody having a great time so the pressure was on!

After months of planning, I couldn’t believe how quickly 14 August came around. Bright eyed and excited for the day ahead, we arrived at Events Square at 7.30am to start the mammoth set-up.

Seeing the empty marquee, still scattered with sticky tables and empty beer glasses from the party the previous night, it was hard to imagine that in just a few hours the event would be underway. Yet, by 12 noon, it had been completely transformed by our army of staff and volunteers- the banners were hung in place to proudly announce that our scientists had descended for the afternoon, seven zones were set up around the main marquee with a whole host of hands on activities, and chairs were neatly lined up in front of the stage ready for the talks- we were all set!

At 12 we finally opened the gates, much to the delight of those who had been queueing outside for the past half hour, and within a matter of minutes the marquee was buzzing.

Visitors were able to hold insects and snakes in Live Zone, play with glacier goo in Earth Zone, examine critters under the microscope in Mini Beast Zone, inspect skulls in Bone Zone, and were transported to a jungle camp in Adventure Zone.

A few dedicated members of staff had even been out rock pooling until midnight the previous night to fill the tanks in Marine Zone with starfish, crabs, and other amazing sea creatures. This year, for the first time, we also set up a photo booth which was extremely popular and, thanks to a green screen, allowed visitors to act out fun animal encounters.

31As if this wasn’t enough, we also ran four interactive talks throughout the day, themed around ‘Scary Science?’. Dr Chris Lowe kicked things off with ‘Scary Seas’, taking a look at the frightening creatures, big and small, living in the marine environment.

Chris was followed by Dr Regan Early who explored ‘Petrifying Plants’, and at one point had three willing volunteers eating the world’s hottest chillies live on stage, and Dr Kate Smith, whose talk on ‘Violent Volcanoes’ involved a simulation of a volcanic eruption.

To round things off, Dr Andy Young delved into the world of ‘Perilous Parasites’, with tales of tapeworms in humans, a parasite that lives on fish tongues, and a ‘zombie disco snail’. Even though I have a science background, I learnt something new from each talk and I think it was a real testament to the speakers that they managed to engage an audience of children and adults for up to 30 minutes with everything else that was going on in the tent!

Science in the Square is great for so many reasons – it allows us to raise the profile of the Penryn Campus, to give back to the local community, but most importantly, in my opinion, it enables us to inspire and excite the next generation of scientists.

When Professor Brendan Godley kicked off the event he made the statement ‘Science is fun, science is everywhere, and science is for everyone’, and I hope we were able to prove that.