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  • UCL and Bright Club at the Green Man Festival

    By Meg J Dobson, on 2 September 2014

    10 UCL researchers, 2 Public Engagement staff members, one Welsh festival. What could go wrong?

    Armed with wet wipes, cereal bars and boxed wine, the ‘fun bus’ set off from UCL one Thursday afternoon, destination: the Green Man festival in Brecon, Wales, to present two performances of Bright Club*in the Omni tent of Einstein’s Garden**. The cheery smiles and getting-to- know-each-other chat faded to an apprehensive (maybe even regretful?) silence as we left the sunny skies of London behind and proceeded to drive into what was essentially a massive rain cloud. Rain drummed, nay pounded, the car and all we could see were dark threatening clouds on all sides. Putting up tents was going to be great fun in this.

    Image of the Omni tent at the Green Man festival

    The Omni tent where Bright Club was performed

    But, thankfully, by the time we were nearing our destination, the rain had cleared to a glorious evening. Upon arrival we picked up our ‘performer’ wristbands (me feeling somewhat of a fraud, not technically being a performer, more of a roadie), found a suitable patch for our group of tents (in the relative luxury of the performers camping area) and set up camp just as night fell.

    Now with the evening being sunny and dry, we were lulled into a false sense of security – and I think each and every one of us woke in the night due to being absolutely to-the-bone freezing. To quote one of our researchers, Rob: ‘I thought I was going to die’. So much so that he had to get up at 3 in the morning and walk around the site/ chat to a steward to warm up and convince himself he was not, in fact, going to die.

    Next day, with the relief of having survived a perishingly cold night, we had an early start involving copious amounts of caffeine. Members of the group headed off to see various bands, and to check out what else was going on, including saying hello to our UCL friends UCell who were powering the Omni tent (where Bright Club would later be performing) with their hydrogen fuel cell system, and stopping off to see Mel Bovis and colleagues from the UCL Division of Surgery and Interventional Science, and Meghan Shirley from the UCL Institute of Child Health, who were both running activities in Einstein’s Garden. But the day really revolved around our 6 o clock performance of Bright Club, including an afternoon run through, a recce of the performance area, and a pre-show warm up.

    So I return to my original question – what could go wrong? Unfortunately for the purposes of dramatic narrative (but fortunately for myself and all involved), nothing really did go wrong, and Bright Club’s excursion to the Green Man festival was, all in all, a huge and delightful success. This was partly due to minimum rain, and maximum beer, but ultimately down to some wickedly funny and fascinating sets from our intrepid researchers, and warm and enthusiastic audiences who packed out both the Friday and Sunday night performances.

    Our researchers’ sets covered topics as diverse as the wonders of hydrogen fuelled cars, doing a PhD on the neuroscience of speech when you’re profoundly deaf, phonology (the study of the sound system of languages), and executing a science stunt involving alka seltzer and a film canister in the presence of George Osbourne. Being the ‘James Bond of Biology’, badgers, and Tindr were also mentioned along the way, and I now know why ‘tlid’ could never be a word (at least not in English) but dilt could be (and according to Urban Dictionary, actually is).

    UCL researcher performing at Bright Club at the Green man festival

    Nick Neasom tells us all about phonology (UCL Linguistics)

    Other memories that will stay with me include: rehearsing the show with a water bottle as a mic (we’d try and find a quiet corner of the site, but inevitably, some poor member of the public would think we were doing a pop up performance and have to be ejected), witnessing the ritual (and slightly disturbing) burning of the Green Man at midnight on the final night, the smug feeling as you flash your wristband at a steward and get admitted to the ‘performers’ section of the campsite, and of course, the pride of watching our brilliant researchers not only smash their performances, but clearly enjoying themselves at the same time – and then having the privilege of sharing in their post-show euphoria.

    Bring on Green Man 2015.

    The Mountain Stage at the Green Man Festival

    The Mountain stage

    Meg Dobson is the Marketing Manager for UCL’s Public and Cultural Engagement department.

    *for those that don’t know, and really you should know, Bright Club is UCL’s thinking person’s comedy night, where UCL researchers and staff become stand up comedians and share their work with audiences who have no current relationship with academia. ‘Researchers being funny’ as one Green Man audience member succinctly put it. Green Man invited Bright Club to perform at the festival several years ago, and it has become an annual event in the Bright Club calendar. See www.brightclub.org for more info.

    **Einstein’s Garden is a performance and activity area at the Green Man festival, described on their website as ‘a creative fusion of science, art and nature’. See www.greenman.net for more info.

    Flinders Petrie: An Adventure in Transcription

    By Rachael Sparks, on 3 September 2013

    What could be nicer than to spend your day off measuring things with a stick?

    What could be nicer than to spend your day off measuring things with a stick?

    Flinders Petrie began his autobiography by warning that “The affairs of a private person are seldom pertinent to the interests of others” [1]Fortunately for both us and his publisher this proved no impediment, and Petrie went on to write about himself, his thoughts and his life’s work at great length.

    Petrie was a prolific writer, both in the public and private arena, and we are not short of material to help us learn about his life. But not everything he wrote was wordy. I’d like to introduce you today to a more unexpected side of his penmanship: his personal appointment diaries. (more…)

    Book Worm… Rat Island by William Stolzenburg: A Review

    By Jack Ashby, on 31 July 2013

    Book Worm

    Book Worm – that’s Grant and a lugworm

    Book Worm is our occasional series for reviewing books. Today I bring you my thoughts on William Stolzenburg’s Rat Island published by Bloomsbury in 2011.

    When I was about 13 I read David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. His telling of the history of island biogeography through the prism of extinction was a great influence on my becoming a biologist. When I came across Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue I was thrilled to return to where Quammen left off.

    According to Stolzenburg, islands harbour 20% of terrestrial biodiversity on just 5% of the land (read Song of the Dodo to learn why). They also account for nearly half of the world’s critically endangered species. One of the main reasons is the damaged caused by introduced species, most notably rats. (more…)

    Would zoologists survive an apocalypse?

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 May 2013

    Could knowledge of this water-holding burrowing frog save your life?

    Could knowledge of this water-holding burrowing frog save your life in the desert?

    It is a well known fact – based on on numerous scientifically accurate feature films – that in the event of the end of the world some people will survive the initial devastation only to find themselves barely surviving in some post-apocalyptic hell. Here I’m exploring whether zoologists would fare better than the average survivor. If the answer is yes, perhaps university biology admissions tutors can add a slide to their recruitment presentations to highlight this additional benefit in what is already the best subject in the world.

    I spent this weekend on a survivalist course deep in the Dorset wilderness for an old friend’s stag do. As kids, along with his two brothers, we had spent our time building shelters in the woods, making fires, distilling mud, firing bows and arrows and generally acting as if the world had already been taken over by luminous slime mould from the future. As teens and students (and occasionally still) we spent our holidays walking in the mountains and not really engaging much with humanity. Wildlife and wild-living have stuck with us all: the stag is now an ecologist, I run a zoology museum (and spend a couple of months a year living in a tent in outback Australia) and his brothers are biology and geography teachers. As a result we are all pretty cocky when it comes to hanging around in woodland areas. This weekend’s course made us all question our ability to actually survive.

    Should a virus/aliens/a powerful strain of concrete decay/zombies/frozen dinosaurs/Simon Cowell/nuclear war cause us to abandon human dwellings, shelter, water and food are the priorities. Would my academic and professional experiences as a zoologist make me Dennis Quaid? (more…)

    How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist

    By Mark Carnall, on 18 September 2012

    This post is something of a PSA to address a pet peeve of mine, the general confusion in the media about the difference between scientists working in biology and archaeology. Here’s a recent example of ‘archaeologists’ puzzling over Paleocene mammal remains. Puzzle they may because they’re literally 50 million years out of their depth. I doubt this post will really change anything and archaeologists will be digging up dinosaurs in press releases and science articles for many years to come particularly seeing as others have already covered this annoying and lazy habit that journalists, presumably covering the science desk vacation period, can’t seem to shake.

    So, as you might expect a joke to go, what is the difference between an archaeologist and palaeontologist? (more…)

    Animal record breaking

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 June 2012

    So far I’ve been very good at not linking activities at the Grant Museum to the Olympics. While I’m out here on ecological fieldwork in the remote northwest savannahs of northwest Australia, The Games have been very far from my mind. However, the phrase “new record” has been bandied about quite a lot here this month, and now I find myself writing a post that has nothing to do with the Olympics, but I’ve now already mentioned them three times. I appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of making a spurious link – something that everyone seems to be doing these days. Apologies.

    I’m currently working with a small team of ecologists catching animals on wildlife sanctuaries and cattle stations to monitor the effects of cattle and fire management on the ecosystem. This year we’ve caught a fair few animals in areas in which they’ve never been seen before. The excitement of being part of these new records is definitely personally valuable, but I’ve also been thinking about how these single pieces of data are potentially more valuable than all of the other single animals we catch.


    Catching dingoes in the dead of night

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

    I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

    In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience. (more…)

    Buried on Campus has opened

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 April 2012

    Excavation in the QuadTwo years ago rumours spread quickly around UCL that builders working in the Main Quad on Gower Street had discovered human bones while they were digging an access trench. Lots of human bones. As would be expected, theories abound as to what the story behind such a discovery might be.

    The police were immediately involved, and they consulted UCL’s own expert forensic anatomist, Dr Wendy Birch, and established that no foul play had taken place, and the remains were not of police interest. Since then, Dr Birch and her colleagues have been researching the remains and trying to piece together (often literally – many of the bones were highly fragmented) what they are and why they were buried.

    This is the topic of the Grant Museum’s new exhibition, Buried on Campus, co-curated by Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, our immediate Rockefeller Building neighbours in the UCL Anatomy Lab. (more…)

    Kangaroos cooked up by Cook / Strange Creatures

    By Jack Ashby, on 13 March 2012

    Seeing is believing, right? I’ve often looked at historic animal paintings and wondered “how come artists back in the day couldn’t draw animals?”. We’ve all seen images of animals that are extremely inaccurate, and our recent “Strange Creatures” event had works from UCL Art Museum pop-up in the Grant which included a poorly represented lion, simply because the artist had never seen one. This lack of first-hand inspiration is one reason that the paintings are unrealistic; artists were relying on written accounts by those who had seen the critters.

    UCL Art Museum EDC 4766 Anonymous (Dutch, late 17th Century), Lion in a Landscape, late 17th century Red chalk on paper

    A late 17th Century Dutch representation of a lion from UCL Art Museum. The opportunity to study lions from life in 17th-century Northern Europe was rare. Lions were kept at the Doge’s Palace in Venice and appear in Jacopo Bellini’s (1400–70/1) sketchbooks, but most Northern artists had to depend upon the accounts of other eye-witnesses.

    But reading these descriptions, another massive source of error is that those eye-witnesses are slaves to prior knowledge. When coming across new forms, unlike anything they’d seen before, many attempted to fit models of animals they already knew on top of what they saw. This is perfectly understandable, but in the end often unhelpful. It’s an interesting example of the brain over-riding the visual system and seeing what it thinks it should see.

    I’m reading Captain Cook’s account of his first voyage to the South Seas, on the Endeavour, which includes the first descriptions of kangaroos that he came across when he landed on the east coast of Australia, and he was particularly guilty of this: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Seventeen

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 6 February 2012

    Scary Monkey: Week SeventeenA week ago, the Grant Museum had a special family activities day called ‘Humanimals’, part of our exciting, and ongoing, Humanimals season which is investigating the influence that humans and animals have on each other. Our activities gave our visitors hands-on fun with furry, scaly, and boney specimens. One of the activities was a table covered in a jumble of bones from a real skeleton not too dissimilar to ours. The cunning idea behind the slyly educational activity was for our visitors to re-build the skeleton. We had our replica human skeleton standing next to the table for anatomical inspiration. It was so popular that it inspired this week’s specimen. The specimen of the week therefore is: (more…)