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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

11 April 2014

The Evolution of Evolution: Picturing the Tree of Life

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Johanna Kieniewicz introduces the section of Beautiful Science that explores the Tree of Life.

In our Beautiful Science exhibition, we explore the evolution of evolution, with a section of the exhibition dedicated to the ways in which we have pictured the tree of life—simultaneously image and metaphor for our relationship and connection to life on Earth.

We start out at the beginning, with an illustration of the universe by Renaissance alchemist Robert Fludd. The ‘Great Chain of Being’  is an ancient Greek concept that classifies life on earth into a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe. A great ladder links God and other divine beings to astronomical bodies, man, animals, plants and minerals. Each animal is fixed on a rung in order of perfection (upwards towards man). This sort of hierarchical organisation of life laid the groundwork for the development of biological classification systems and ultimately evolutionary trees.

Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris ... Oppenheim; Frankfurt, 1617

In On the Origin of Species (1859, 1st ed) , Charles Darwin famously used the metaphor of a tree to articulate his ideas around evolution.

‘The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree… The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state… As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.’


Darwin's diagram picturing his ideas of evolution from On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1850


German scientist (and talented illustrator) Ernst Heckel was greatly inspired by Darwin’s ideas and sought to devise a great number of trees organising all life on Earth. In The Evolution of Man, Haeckel illustrates the evolutionary history of humans with a great tree, whose trunk represents our ancestral history, as our progenitors moved through stages, such as primitive worms, amphibians and apes. This tree reflects Haeckel’s (albeit not terribly Darwinian) belief that evolution was a process of perfecting, and that humans represented the pinnacle of evolution. Although the diagram reflects the attitudes of its time, it may be seen as a link between the early attempts to hierarchically organise life and contemporary approaches based on ancestral relationships and genetics.


The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879.


Whilst the relationships pictured in early evolutionary trees were generally based on inference and shared traits, today’s phylogenetic trees are based on vast amounts of genomic data. In Beautiful Science, we show a ‘molecular time tree’ depicting the evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, illustrating when individual species diverged. The oldest species diverge closest to the centre of the circle, with more recent diversification closer to the edge.  Although modern birds first evolved some 145 – 66 million years ago, this diagram shows that they began to diversify exceptionally rapidly about 50 million years ago. This is particularly apparent for the songbirds, waterfowl, gulls and woodpeckers.


Avian Tree of Life (c) Gavin Thomas, Walter Jetz, Jeff Joy, Arne Mooers, Klass Hartmann, 2012. First published in Nature.


And, indeed here we are dealing with such vast amounts of information that one might begin to wonder whether there were any way in which we could meaningfully depict all of life on Earth on an A4 sheet of paper. There have been some attempts—but Imperial College London researcher James Rosindell has come up with an ingenious solution. One Zoom Tree, an interactive tree of life, allows viewers to zoom into the tree of life and explore the evolutionary relationships between tens of thousands of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  It  uses a branch of mathematics known as fractal geometry to create an attractive visualisation that can be explored by zooming in, to get ever more detail.  The data includes sounds from the British Library’s collections and evolutionary data from scientific literature including the ‘Avian Tree of Life’ showing how the same data can be pictured in different ways.


James Rosindell, Imperial College London, One Zoom Tree,

Highly engaging, One Zoom Tree shows how far we’ve come in our ability to rationalise our relationship to the rest of life on Earth.  As you move along the trunk of the tetrapod tree, you see where different branches diverge, and can see relationships between different species. Did you know that the elephant’s closest relatives are hyraxes and sea cows?


Darwin wrote at the end of On the Origin of Species,

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

These new ways of picturing phylogenetic data are allowing us to better understand this beautiful, messy, complex tangled bank of life on Earth- and equip us with new ways for protecting its incredible biodiversity.


 Beautiful Science, sponsored by Winton Capital Management, is on display at the British Library until 26 May 2014 in the Folio Society Gallery. Admission is free.

31 March 2014

Patently Obvious?

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Katie Howe reports on the latest event in our TalkScience series.

It’s been a busy few weeks here at ScienceBL. We have hosted a total of nine events as part of our Beautiful Science events season, welcoming over 2000 people to the Library to explore all aspects of science from family science shows through to serious debate and geeky science comedy.

One of these events was the latest instalment of our TalkScience debate series. On the 4th March we welcomed a range of scientists, policy makers and patent experts to debate whether biomedical patents are a help or hindrance to scientific progress and society more generally.

The debate was chaired by Professor Jackie Hunter (Chief Executive of the BBSRC) who was joined by three expert speakers: Professor Alan Ashworth (Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research), Dr Nick Bourne (Head of Commercial Development at Cardiff University) and Dr Berwyn Clarke (biomedical entrepreneur).

L-R (Alan Ashworth, Nick Bourne, Berwyn Clarke and Jackie Hunter)

Down to business

The panel started by giving a background to the area from their point of view and sharing their thoughts on whether patents are necessary to encourage innovation or if they simply stifle scientific progress. There seemed to be two key, and often conflicting, issues at play here: firstly, the potential commercial benefits of biomedical patents, and secondly, their societal impacts.

First up was Professor Alan Ashworth. Professor Ashworth was part of the team who in 1995 identified the BRCA2 gene at the same time as the American company, Myriad Genetics, sparking a 20 year long patent war over licensing. He has previously spoken of his disappointment with the recent Myriad vs US Supreme Court ruling but was of the opinion that in areas such as drug development patents are necessary to allow investors to recoup the money invested. However, in his view the nature of genetic material is ‘sacrosanct’ and this should not be overridden by commercial considerations.

Dr Bourne shared with the audience his experience of working in technology transfer. He noted that the recent REF2014 (Research Excellence Framework) required universities to report on the impact of their research. Importantly, this included both economic impacts as well as societal impacts and Dr Bourne noted that patent protection can be useful in furthering both these aims.

Dr Clarke has a background in the pharmaceutical industry and founded the diagnostics company Lab21 in 2005. Dr Clarke was firmly of the opinion that biomedical patents are necessary as they allow investors to recoup some of the money they spent on developing the drug in the first place. He also noted that much academic research is funded by the revenue generated from patent exclusivity or patent licensing. Dr Clarke also reminded that pharmaceutical companies' raison d’être is to develop drugs to help people and it is not solely about making money.

Questions from the audience at TalkScience@BL

Invention vs. discovery?

In the second part of the evening, a question from the audience shifted the debate to the issue of defining whether something is an invention or simply a discovery. Making this distinction is particularly difficult in modern biomedicine where we are now able to mimic naturally-occurring molecules and pathways synthetically.  Dr Clarke noted that in order to be patentable an invention must be ‘non-obvious’. But Professor Hunter countered this by pointing out that the definition of ‘obviousness’ is often anything but ‘obvious’!

At the end of the evening, the consensus was that biomedical patents are definitely not ‘patently obvious’!

If you were not able to join us for the debate then you can listen to the podcast here. The next TalkScience event will be held in late June so stay tuned for further information. Meanwhile, you can get your fill of data visualisation goodness by coming along to the Beautiful Science exhibition, which is open until 26th May.

Katie Howe

27 March 2014

Access to Understanding Awards 2014: Everyone’s a Winner

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The 2014 award winners for the Access to Understanding science writing competition are revealed....

Excitement mixed with nerves in equal measure on Monday night at the British Library. The ten short-listed scientists sat in the audience at the Access to Understanding Awards 2014, waiting to hear from Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, if their plain English research summary had won. But before the gold envelopes are opened and the winners announced, we reflect briefly on the competition as a whole…

Now in its second year, Access to Understanding is a science writing competition delivered by the British Library’s Science Team in collaboration with Europe PubMed Central (Europe PMC). We asked entrants to write a summary of a research article so that an interested member of the public would easily understand it. Entrants were required to explain the research and why it mattered in no more than 800 words. Ten articles, freely available from Europe PMC, were selected by ten different funders for inclusion in the competition.

It’s been a lot of effort all round. Effort from the 262 scientists who submitted an entry; effort from the Library’s Science Team and Europe PMC funders who honed these entries down to a shortlist of 10; and effort from our fantastic Judging Panel - ably chaired by Sharmila Nebhrajani, Chief Executive of the AMRC - who had the tough decision on picking first, second and third place. This year, we introduced the People’sChoice Award, which invited anyone to read the shortlisted articles online and vote for those that they liked.


So who won? Cue drum roll….and Sir Mark opening up the envelopes…

First place was awarded to Elizabeth Kirkham for her entry ‘Beat box: how the brain processes rhythm’, a brilliant piece explaining the brain structure involved in beat prediction. Judges awarded second place to Elizabeth McAdam for her entry ‘Reforming rheumatoid arthritis treatment: a step in the right direction’. And third place was awarded to Aidan Maartens for his entry ‘Populations within populations: drug resistance and malaria control’.

The People’s Choice award – which received 1350 votes from the public  in less than a month - went to Lucia Aronica for her entry ‘How healthy eating could starve out cancer’. Simon Denegri, Chair of INVOLVE, presented this award, noting some of the brilliant comments voters had made on the People’s Choice website about all ten articles.

Image2From top left clockwise: Sir Mark Walport and winner Elizabeth Kirkham; Sir Mark Walport and second place Elizabeth McAdam; People's Choice winner Lucia Aronica and Simon Denegri; Sir Mark Walport and third place Aidan Maartens

All the shortlisted articles, available in our downloadable competition booklet, provide excellent summaries of research covering blood vessel growth to neurone breakdown to novel cancer treatments. Each article also mentions the original research paper, freely available in Europe PMC.

Image38 of the 10 shortlisted scientists: (from L to R) Aidan Maartens (3rd), Clare Finlay, Elizabeth McAdam (2nd), John Foster, Claire Sand, Christopher Waite, Helle Bogetofte, Elizabeth Kirkham (1st)

We are incredibly grateful to the Access to Understanding Judges, Europe PMC Funders, and Sir Mark Walport who helped make the night so special. We are also really pleased that the scientists who authored the original research papers and attended the evening were thrilled to see these plain English summaries of their work. 

Most of all, we were yet again astounded by the enthusiasm, talent and motivation of all the scientists who entered the competition.

Given the overwhelmingly positive public response to the People’s Choice, we consider everyone a winner!


PS: Read more coverage of the evening on the Europe PMC blog: 'A night of winners!'