X Close

Science blog


News, anecdotes and pictures from across science and engineering at UCL


Scientific advice on cutting your Christmas cake

Oli Usher18 December 2014

Francis Galton was a pioneer of genetics and heredity (if you like him) or eugenics (if you don’t). He was also Charles Darwin’s cousin. Although Galton never worked at UCL, he was close to the institution, in particular as a close collaborator of Karl Pearson, the founder of UCL’s statistics department. Galton left his collections to the college on his death in 1911.

He was unquestionably brilliant, but also a problematic figure, particularly by today’s standards. In his partial defence, the term ‘eugenics’ – which he coined – was far less loaded in his time than it is today. The depravity of the Third Reich was yet to come, and the worst abuses of European colonialism were not widely known. Both, of course, were rooted in the ‘scientific’ racism of eugenics. Moreover, things which are quite uncontroversial today, such as contraception, were considered to be part of eugenics.

But for good reasons, he remains controversial.

Galton cakes

Galton was a polymath, working across disciplinary boundaries and making contributions to many areas of knowledge. One of his more offbeat proposals is reproduced above: a letter to Nature, proposing a new and efficient way of cutting cakes, based on ‘scientific principles’. ‘Scientific principles’ in this case appear to mean avoiding the cut surfaces drying out, no matter how ridiculous the method turns out to be.


Here at the UCL Science blog, we think his work on cake is like his work on heredity: historically interesting, but contentious.

We would also like to propose a more efficient way of slicing a cake, which like Galton’s, avoids the surfaces drying out, but unlike Galton’s, requires no elastics and produces equally-sized and shaped slices: cut the cake horizontally.

Merry Christmas.

Tip of the hat to Prof Joe Cain.




Fossil crab

Oli Usher17 November 2014

Fossilised crab. Credit: UCL Geology Collections

Fossilised crab. Credit: UCL Geology Collections

This specimen, from UCL’s Geology Collections, shows a well-preserved fossilised crab. Its legs are largely intact and even the texture of its abdomen can be made out. The claws, however, are missing.

Crabs’ claws are one way to tell male and female specimens apart (males’ claws are generally larger). Interestingly, the shape of a crab’s underside also hints at its sex in most species.

(Any amateur or expert determinations of this crab’s sex are most welcome in the comments below.)

Crabs have existed since the Jurassic period, 145-200 million years ago.


High resolution images

UCL’s first Nobel Prize

Oli Usher7 October 2014

William Ramsay's Nobel Prize

William Ramsay’s Nobel Prize certificate. Photo: public domain

This week is Nobel Prize week. Prof John O’Keefe (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology) has just been announced as the winner of the 2014 Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize for his work on positioning systems in the brain.

He joins a long list of Nobel laureates affiliated to UCL.

The very first of these was Sir William Ramsay, who won the 1904 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ramsay is seen as one of the fathers of chemistry at UCL, and he is responsible for the discovery of the noble gases. He also supervised two students who also went on to win Nobel Prizes themselves: Jaroslav Heyrovský and Otto Hahn.

Ramsay’s Nobel Prize certificate, pictured above, is held in UCL’s collections, along with his medal and some of the apparatus he used to carry out his research.


High resolution image

Mapping the Apollo landing sites

Oli Usher29 September 2014

Lunar Orbiter Photographic DataApollo 11, which touched down in the Sea of Tranquility on 20 July 1969 was the first manned landing on the Moon. But prior to the human spaceflight project, NASA explored the Moon with robotic probes. One key element of this endeavour was the Lunar Orbiter programme, which included five spacecraft that mapped almost the entire lunar surface in 1966 and 1967. This was in part in order to identify landing sites for Apollo, but the missions also had broader scientific goals.

Shortly before the first manned landing, NASA published a catalogue of all their data from the Lunar Orbiter programme, entitled Lunar Orbiter Photographic Data. This features maps of the entire Moon, with the locations, sizes and shapes of all Lunar Orbiter photos marked on them, along with extensive technical information.

Today, missions like this work entirely online, but in those pre-internet days, the data had to exist in hard copy.

A copy of this book exists in UCL’s planetary science archives, the NASA Regional Planetary Imaging Facility. Among its pages is the mapping of the area Apollo 11 landed in, the Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquilitas here). This is located towards the right of this sheet, where the imaging (marked in red) is densest.

Lunar Orbiter V - Sea of Tranquility


High resolution images