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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

15 September 2014

Our next TalkScience event - an issue to get your teeth into

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Rachel Huddart explores the future of meat production in advance of our upcoming TalkScience event on 30th September. Tickets are available from the box office.

When was the last time you ate meat? Today? Last week? Never? For most people in the developed world, meat is a major part of their diet as well as their food culture. In 2009, the average Brit ate almost 85kg of meat a year - double the global average of 42kg1. As a result of this, by 2050, the global demand for meat is expected to be 73% greater than levels in 20102. How are we going to meet this demand?

It’s not easy being green…

We use one quarter of the land on Earth to raise more than 70 billion livestock animals and one third of the total available arable land to feed them3,4. Livestock rearing is the cause of about 80% of deforestation in the Amazon5. We know deforestation is a big driver of climate change and this is exacerbated by the fact that meat production accounts for 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions6. Is meat worth all this damage or is there any way for us to reduce its impact on the planet?

Health risks

Several studies in recent years have linked red meat in particular to an increase in a person’s risk from certain types of cancer, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes7,8. On top of this, there are concerns that overuse of antibiotics in agriculture could lead to the evolution of more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like MRSA. This could to lead to an increase in untreatable infections and deaths and make simple medical procedures potentially lethal.

So, what should we do? Studies suggest that reducing or completely cutting meat, or even just beef, out of your diet can drastically shrink your carbon footprint9. However, there are no signs that global meat consumption is going to start decreasing in the foreseeable future. Could technologies or alternative sources of food help to reduce the effects of meat production?


The burger - Environmental menace? Health risk? Or just delicious? (Copyright Macko Flower: Shutterstock)

Meat of the future?

Genetically modified livestock, like flu-resistant chickens, could reduce losses from disease and could also grow more efficiently, meaning less feed is required to get the animal to market weight. Others, like the Enviropig, could be engineered to be less polluting. GM technologies have come a long way since the 90’s and are now capable of making astonishingly precise  modifications to an animal’s DNA10. But would we ever be completely happy to eat a GM sausage or would we prefer in vitro meat, like the “stem cell burger”11? Growing meat in a lab would massively reduce the number of animals we use as food (we’d still need some to provide the initial stem cells). However, that single burger cost £217,000 to produce and it’s unlikely that the process of growing cells will be easily scaled up any time soon. But how will we know that these technologies are safe and, even if they are, will we ever be happy to eat food produced in this way?

How about other sources of food? The idea of chowing down on a caterpillar might seem disgusting, but insects are high in protein, low in fat, and have a much lower environmental impact than livestock. Could we bypass the animal altogether and produce meat directly from plants12? Or give up plant and animal-based food altogether and eat synthetic food13? Is the only answer to go vegetarian?

What should we do?

How do we go about making changes? Should we, as consumers, vote with our wallets and just buy less meat? Can the food industry help by making meat-free alternatives more available and noticeable or should they price meat to reflect its true costs? Should the government, both at national and EU level, be more open to the use of new technologies or should they promote more sustainable farming methods? Whatever we decide to do, it’s clear that we need to make a decision soon to avoid any further damage to the environment and our own food supply.

Our 26th TalkScience event on September 30th will discuss the future of meat production with our expert panel of Professor Helen Sang(Roslin Institute, Edinburgh), Vicki Hird (Friends of the Earth) and Professor Richard Tiffin(University of Reading), chaired by Catherine de Lange(New Scientist). Tickets cost £5 and are available to book from the Box Office.

For those of you who can’t come along, we will be collecting questions before the event to ask during the debate. If you have a question for our speakers, send it to us by the 30th of September through our Facebook or Twitter pages using the hashtag #BLTalkScience. We’ll be live-tweeting the event using the hashtag, so you can follow the conversation wherever you are.

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29 August 2014

Seeing Is Believing: Picturing the Nation's Health

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Our latest Beautiful Science video looks back a fantastic evening in which we welcomed Professor David Spiegelhalter and Dame Sally Davies to the Library for a discussion with Michael Blastland about the way in which public health messages are communicated.

In our recent Beautiful Science exhibition, we brought together some classics of data visualisation in the field of public health, showing the impact that powerful images can have in transforming the way we think about our own health and that of our society. But is John Snow's map of cholera deaths, or Florence Nightingale's rose diagram of deaths in the Crimean War really better than a table of numbers, like John Graunt’s Table of Casualities, based on his amalgamation of the data contained within the London Bills of Mortality? When it comes to our health, how and why do we make decisions to reform, or not reform our unhealthy behaviours?

Discussing this important question are:

Sir David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor for the Public Communication of Risk at Cambridge University

Dr. Dame Sally Davies is the Chief Medical Officer for England

Michael Blastland, writer, broadcaster and author of the Tiger that Isn’t



Johanna Kieniewicz

26 August 2014

Isaac Newton is calling you…

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Rachel Huddart takes a call from one of history’s most famous scientists.

Visitors to the British Library will have probably seen the statue of Isaac Newton crouched over the piazza. Newton has been part of the Library since we opened in St Pancras in 1997 but has always stayed pretty quiet, until now.

As part of the ‘Talking Statues’ project which is running in London and Manchester, Newton has finally been given a voice by the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and the actor Simon Russell Beale. Anyone with a smartphone can scan the plaque on Newton’s plinth and receive a phone call from the great man himself, who talks about his early life, his scientific and mathematical discoveries and his work as Master of the Royal Mint.

  Newton statue

Newton’s statue in the British Library piazza (Copyright: Rachel Huddart)

Within the Library’s collections, there are several documents from Newton’s adult life. Amongst his scientific papers, there are early editions of his famous book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, where Newton described his laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation, as well as the less well-known but impressively titled volume: A New and most Accurate Theory of the Moon's Motion; whereby All her Irregularities may be solved. The British Library’s collection also contains Arithmetica Universalis, which is based on Newton’s lecture notes from his time as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and his book The Method of Fluxions, which details Newton’s work in the development of calculus. As Newton himself points out, we still use his discoveries every day; from satellites orbiting the Earth (using his law of universal gravitation), to the smartphone you use to hear his statue speak (which relies on calculus).


Title page of The Method of Fluxions (Copyright: British Library Board)

When I started work at the Library, Newton’s statue struck me as a strange way to honour one of our greatest scientists. He doesn’t stand proudly over the piazza, gazing out at the visitors, but is bent over his compass, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. There isn’t even any sign of the famous apple. Surprisingly, the sculptor who created the statue, Eduardo Paolozzi, used a picture that criticises Newton as his inspiration. William Blake’s study of Newton, which is on display in Tate Britain, shows Newton sitting on a rock, absorbed in his work and ignorant of the colour and beauty on the rock that he sits on. The print is believed to show Blake’s disdain for Newton’s scientific thinking at the expense of nature and creativity. Paolozzi saw the work as a connection between the arts and science and between two great historical figures, despite their differences.

At the moment, Newton is the only statue at the British Library to be given a voice but it won’t be too long before he is joined by the statue of William Shakespeare which stands in the entrance hall of the Library. Talking Statues are running a competition to give members of the public the chance to write the script for Shakespeare and three other statues involved in the project. The winning monologues will be recorded by a famous actor and Shakespeare will be chatting to the public before Christmas.