All posts by Dan Dobson

Dan is an undergrad student studying geography

Our future in the stars

In 2024, an unmanned robotic spacecraft will land at the South Pole of the Moon, where it will drill a borehole up to 100 metres deep, and analyse the spoil. This will be the most ambitious off-Earth excavation project ever attempted. In itself, this plan is ground-breaking – the Lunar Poles have never been explored – but the mission is also pioneering a completely new funding model for space exploration.

As Professor Ian Crawford explains, “Lunar Mission One is an attempt to see if it’s possible to finance a scientific mission to the south pole of the Moon, essentially through public subscription”. The independent British project hit its £600,000 Kickstarter target at the end of 2014, and the ten year process of making the mission a reality is now underway. Crawford, who is Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science, is a specialist in lunar science, and one of Lunar Mission One’s principle scientific advisers.

“Once the borehole is drilled, we’ll have this empty hole in the ground. So the idea was that people might wish to pay to put things down there. Essentially time capsules”. If successful, this finance model could conceivably pave the way for dozens more independent missions, to areas of space that might otherwise be ignored.

Much of the scientific interest in Lunar Mission One concerns its proposal to visit an as-yet unexplored part of the lunar surface. “All the Apollo sites are at low latitudes on the middle of the near side, so nothing has ever visited higher latitudes on the near side, the poles or the entirety of the far side. It is genuinely new terrain to be explored”.

The project comes at a time of increased interest in lunar science. It is now over 40 years since the last manned space mission to the Moon, and as the International Space Station nears the end of its operational life, there is much speculation on what the national space agencies will do next.

Britain’s future as a space-exploring nation will most likely be intertwined with that of the European Space Agency, and as a member of their Human Exploration Science and Advisory Committee (HESAC), Dr Crawford is well-placed to speculate on the EU’s future beyond the atmosphere.

“Europe’s been involved in human spaceflight for much of the duration of the space station programme. There is a European astronaut on the space station at the moment, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Tim Peak, a British ESA astronaut, is going up next year. The question now is what to do after the space station comes to an end in around 2024 or so, and world space agencies are looking for things to do. There are lots of ideas and I think ESA is aiming to be involved in what follows the space station. It’s just that no one knows quite what it is yet”.

There are several proposals for Mars missions, with both MarsOne and Elon Musk’s SpaceX seriously mooted. Both have been met with varying degrees of scepticism by members of the scientific community, including Professor Crawford, and, notably, Commander Chris Hadfield, who described the rush to send humans to Mars as a probable suicide mission. Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society soon after his retirement, having led the ISS team for 6 months, Hadfield noted “we don’t know what we are doing yet. We have to have a bunch of inventions between now and Mars”.

Hadfield has been a proponent of the idea of building a permanent living structure on the Moon, however, and Professor Crawford is quick to support the notion that humanity could have a lunar base in the next 30 to 40 years.

“Scientifically it would be very helpful to have a piece of infrastructure, in the form of a lunar base, or maybe several, because they would facilitate the exploration of the Moon in a similar way that the Antarctic research stations have enabled the scientific exploration of Antarctica, and if you think about what we’ve learned from Antarctica, we’ve learned a lot about past climate, the ozone hole, we find meteorites from other parts of the Solar System in the Antarctic ice. There’s a lot of biology in Antarctica that wouldn’t be on the Moon, but there are all these many different sciences and they’re enabled by having these permanent outposts in Antarctica which provide infrastructural support for scientific exploration over a wide range of fields, and so I think the same will be true of the Moon, and ultimately, the same will be true of Mars.

“Even beyond the merely scientific aspect, it’s entirely possible that there may be things on the Moon that are economically useful and could benefit the development of the world’s economy. Finding them, and ,if they are present, mining them, will also require, I think, a human presence on the Moon.”

He cautions that it won’t happen automatically. “In a sense, 40 years have been wasted already since the end of the Apollo programme. But setting up an Antarctic-style research station on the Moon within the next 30-40 years, yeah it clearly is possible, and it would be very good if it happened”.

Whatever ideas the space industry adopts, Crawford is adamant that a coordinated international effort is required, rather than disparate national projects. With both China and India having recently completed unmanned missions to the Moon, it makes little sense excluding either country from any future international space missions.

“Certainly the Indian and Chinese missions to the Moon have been very valuable. And actually you can see this coordinated world space effort is beginning to happen. There is something called the Global Exploration Strategy, drawn up by the world’s space agencies in 2007, essentially trying to lay a foundation for international collaboration in space exploration. And that has spawned an inter-agency working group called ISEC – the International Space Exploration Coordination Group – which is actively trying to channel all these different activities so they’re not in competition but are all pulling in the same direction. I think this is a very positive development”.

Professor Crawford’s interest in a cooperative global space programme is in part inspired by the idea that future missions to space could look down upon a politically unified planet. Indeed, he has written about his vision for a kind of world federalism. Additionally, he has advocated the potential economic benefits should resources be discovered on the Moon which could be used in Earth-orbiting infrastructure; what he has termed cis-Lunar resource utilisation.

From a spiritual perspective, space has a proven potential to inspire human endeavour, and Crawford is a keen supporter of its role in an education system that encourages children to imaginatively explore the universe using maths and physics. Projects like Lunar Mission One, which is running an extensive schools education programme, could recruit the future space engineers who will eventually take humans to the Moon, and maybe Mars.

Where do we go from there? Crawford sees these missions eventually leading us on to the stars. This has led to a broadening of his work into interstellar travel, including speaking at a conference on interstellar spaceflight.

Getting there will require an industrial infrastructure within the Solar System that is capable of producing the enormous amounts of energy required. “That requires us to make a start by building bases on the Moon and Mars and then gradually bootstrapping up.”

Time, then, to go back to the Moon.


Also check out Professor Crawford’s Prospect Magazine piece ‘swords to spaceships, on how the aerospace industry could divert its resources from developing heavy weapons to building space ships.

Chatime’s Latest Offering Is A Welcome Addition to London’s Bubble Tea Shops

A little late to the scene, it’s been about five years since bubble tea, or boba tea, started to take off in the UK. It was created in Taiwan in the 1980s when a dessert shop started putting left over tapioca balls in iced milk teas at the end of an evening*. Bubble tea has grown enormously popular in hotter climes, notably Hong Kong and Australia.

It has been slower to catch on in the UK, perhaps due to the weather. A hot chocolate with marshmallows is always going to beat an iced milk tea in winter. Despite this, a number of bubble tea shops have found success.

Soho has one of the highest concentrations including Bubbleology (which makes a fairly simple process look like a chemistry set), Bobajam, and Leong’s Legend (also a Taiwanese restaurant). Cafe de Hong Kong in Charing Cross is another hit, but the most popular remains Chaboba in Camden, frequently heralded as the best amongst bubble tea enthusiasts.

With shops in Soho, Chinatown, Portobello Road and the Brunswick Centre (a couple blocks from campus), Chatime has so far been one of the most ambitious. Its latest shop opened in April on Rivington Street in Shoreditch, five minutes walk from Old Street roundabout.

chatime manager
Chatime manager, Tao

Chatime describes itself as a franchise teahouse chain. While not technically a teahouse in the traditional sense, the décor is more traditional than other bubble tea shops, and it imports its produce directly from Taiwan and brews its own tapioca fresh each morning.

Bubble tea usually involves a cold milky tea or fruit tea served in frappe-style takeaway cups or tall glasses and includes tapioca (known in bubble tea shops as ‘pearl’), jellies or red bean toppings. The name bubble tea is often mistakenly assumed to refer to the toppings (which do look like coloured bubbles) but in fact refers to the drinks frothiness after being thrown around in a cocktail shaker. Because the tea is often very sweet, Chatime, like other bubble tea shops, offers you the chance to chose a sugar level – a particularly useful add-on.

Tao, manager of Chatime Shoreditch, gave me five drinks to try. The first, roast milk tea with grass jelly was pleasant but for a slight taste of cardboard. The second, Chatime milk tea with pearl, a more traditional option, was lovely and my favourite. Fruit tea options include mango, lychee, passion fruit, peach and lemon. These make very refreshing drinks, ideal for the incoming summer months. I found the lychee black tea with coffee, rainbow and coconut jellies a more refreshing drink than a frappe.

chaitime window

Other drinks suited a slightly different palette, with a few being particularly popular amongst Asian drinkers. Matcha milk tea with red bean is one example, and I found it left a nice aftertaste. However, the brown rice green tea tasted of bitter popcorn. I’m sure Chatime’s sugar options can remedy this, though, and I would suggest playing around with these levels.

I have only one misgiving about Chatime Shoreditch and that’s its location. It is not prominently situated and midweek footfall seemed almost completely absent along the road. Furthermore, for Birkbeck students a closer one can be found at the Brunswick Centre. Nevertheless, Chatime’s bubble tea is a welcome addition to the cities wondrous variety of drinks on offer.

Another growing trend has been expanding through London recently. Coconut water has become one of the latest ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ drink products hitting the shops.

MightyBee, a newcomer in the market, promotes its coconut water as a fresh, organic and refreshing drink made from coconuts picked green in Thailand. I was fairly confident I would like it as it contains coconut, which I like, and water, which I also like.

However, while I admire MightyBee’s organic and community-focused ethics (it is certified organic by the Soil Association and describes itself as ‘advocates of fair trade’) it has to be said the nicest description I could find for it was niche, and I’m not wholly convinced this will catch on.

cocnut water

Currently only delivering to stockists in London, I can imagine it being found on refrigerated lunch counters in high street shops. I just can’t imagine it competing for long with other, more refreshing drinks on offer, like water. I am happy to be proved wrong, but a drink that smells of tangy cheese doritos has a bit of a hill to climb.


*Bubble tea’s origins are disputed. 

Clerkenwell Design Week Returns for a Successful Sixth Installment

Several thousand designers and design enthusiasts descended on Clerkenwell last week for the sixth installment of Clerkenwell Design Week. Founded to showcase Clerkenwell’s burgeoning status as an international design hub, CDW provides an opportunity to look around the largest concentration of design showrooms in the world, and to hobnob with the world’s foremost architects and interior designers.

Larger in scale than previous design weeks, this year included over 80 showrooms, as well as the shared exhibition spaces in the Design Factory and the public installations CDW is famous for.

Highlights included Glaze, a multi-coloured glass pavilion installed on St John’s Square, the opening of Old Sessions House to the public by Icon Magazine, the Shed and five storey old warehouse at the Design Factory used for exhibits, and Buzzispace’s new outdoor work space the Buzzished.

The Shed in the Design Factory. Photo © Sophie Mutevelian, and used with kind permission
The Shed in the Design Factory. Photo © Sophie Mutevelian, and used with kind permission
Glaze public pavilion on St John's Square, created by architects Cousins & Cousins and glaziers GxGlass
Glaze public pavilion on St John’s Square, created by architects Cousins & Cousins and glaziers GxGlass

One installation of particular note was the wooden Invisible Store of Happiness installation underneath St John’s Arch, created by sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon and furniture maker Sebastian Cox.

The Invisible Store of Happiness by Laura Ellen Bacon and Sebastian Cox
The Invisible Store of Happiness by Laura Ellen Bacon and Sebastian Cox

Named after the invisible store of happiness a craftsman leaves in each piece of work they produce, the installation had an additional function as an example of diversifying the range of timber used by furniture makers, so that an overemphasis is not made on a select few species. In this case, Laura and Sebastian used maple and cherry as an alternative to a current trend for white oak and walnut.

A deeper exploration of the Clerkenwell shows a unique emphasis on materials, with organisations such as the SCIN Gallery holding one of the only material libraries in Britain, this shared emphasis is part of the explanation for the exponential growth in design firms moving to the area. The other explanation is the unique relationship between architects and interior designers that has encouraged firms to cluster around each other.

A simple walk along Clerkenwell Road through to Old Street will reveal dozens of showrooms all in close proximity to one another, and it is not just Clerkenwell Design Week that will enable you to poke around a bit deeper.

Clerkenwell Design Quarter is another popular event in designers diaries as an official destination within the London Design Festival this September. And Craft Central, an unique charity-supported building in Clerkenwell Green that provides studio and workshop space to artisan design-makers, regularly opens its doors to the public. Here you can find hand-crafted jewellery, gold, silver and copper engravings, ceramics and fashion, and take away something truly unique.

Icon's House of Culture, in the Old Sessions House. Photo © Sophie Mutevelian
Icon’s House of Culture, in the Old Sessions House. Photo © Sophie Mutevelian

The energy in Clerkenwell can be summarised by several out of town designers who were overheard saying ‘we just have to move here’. With space still relatively cheap and designers desperate to get in on the Clerkenwell design scene, Clerkenwell looks set to grow even further as a design hub, and CDW 2016 will definitely be design event of the year for architects, interior designers, and anyone with an enthusiasm for design in the UK and beyond.

Laughter And Curiosity – Birkbeck Science Week

Birkbeck Science Week has now come to a close, and what an exciting week it’s been. Birkbeck has gained internationally recognized excellence in a number of scientific fields, and it was a treat to be able to see this on display.

Dr Tim J. Smith from the Department of Psychological Sciences began the series with ‘Attention Machine: The science of cinematic perception’ on Monday. Participants were able to become both scientist and subject whilst watching one of the trippiest films I’ve ever seen, The Fountain.

The event had a double focus: testing and demonstrating how filmmakers create shots and scenes in order to keep our attention by manipulating our gaze, whilst also investigating how the use of mobile phones in a cinema is received by other cinema goers. Filmmakers today tend to keep shots very short, rarely lasting more than 2-3 seconds to keep our gaze in the centre of the screen. It was encouraging to find out that the cinema still retained a certain amount of sanctity as far as mobile phone use was concerned, remaining a big no no for most people.

A log of viewers gaze points shown as a heat map (courtesy of Tim J. Smith)
A log of viewers gaze points shown as a heat map. (Courtesy of Tim J. Smith)

Tuesday started with a tour of the Department of Biological Sciences’ electron microscopy lab. This new technology puts Birkbeck at the tip of cutting edge science and enables researchers to study cells closer than ever before and in much greater detail. We saw, for example, how electron microscopes could magnify a red blood cell by up to 132,000 times so that we could see not only the details of the cell but also the malaria parasites this sample had been infected with.

It’s not only malaria parasites that biologists can see in greater detail. Birkbeck has been at the forefront of research into cell-attacking proteins. These are proteins that essentially punch a hole through a cell’s membrane, leaving it open to infection. In the talk that followed the lab tour, Dr Helen Saibil detailed how a team of researchers, using electron microscopy, had been able to see for the first time how proteins can do this.

A cell that has been attacked by a protein called Perforin. The turret at the top of the cell is the protein. (Source: Nature, 2010)
A cell that has been attacked by a protein called Perforin. The turret at the top of the cell is the protein. (Source: Nature, 2010)

Fortunately, it is not just the cells we need that get attacked. As Dr Saibil revealed, the body also produces natural killer cells as part of its innate immune system. These killer cells use the exact same punching-method to destroy infected and tumorous cells as part of an ongoing arms race.

Science Week continued on with more interesting talks and events. Professor Karen Hudson-Edwards gave a talk on ways in which Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science are investigating geochemical pollution from mine waste, and looked at ways the mining industry needs to manage this.

On Wednesday, Professor Martin Eimer looked at the complex ways in which the brain achieves facial recognition, and Dr Alan Lowe continued the theme of investigating cells by looking at ways in which researchers are now able to visualize the inner workings of a living cell.

Thursday kicked off with the second lab tour of the event, this one at the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging (BUCNI) lab, which looked at the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners that the Department of Psychological Sciences use to image the human brain. MRI allows neuroscientists to image brain activity as well as brain structure without having to use invasive surgery or radioactive materials, and enables several centres of brain research within the School of Science to conduct its work.

One of these centres is the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) whose BabyLab has been exploring the cognitive development of babies. Dr Esha Massand from CBCD started Thursday’s talks on babies with a look at what infants with Down Syndrome can tell us about dementia. In people with Down Syndrome, the APP gene which contributes to plaques and tangles associated with dementia is over-expressed so that by the time they reach the age of 30-40, they exhibit Alzheimer’s brain pathologies. However, not all individuals with Down Syndrome go on to develop dementia. BabyLab has been studying babies with Down Syndrome to try to uncover what risks and protective factors may exist in the brain, so that in the future early interventions can be made.

It seemed only fitting, however, to end Science Week with two talks, focusing on curiosity and baby laughter. Katarina Begus, a PhD student at BabyLab, spoke about the research that the lab has been undertaking to test for babies curiosity. The research found that babies have a strong tendency to try to interact with adults who are most likely to satisfy their curiosity by, for example, naming the things that a baby points at.

A curious child inspects pet dog. (Source: depositphotos)
A curious child inspects pet dog. (Source: depositphotos)

Katarina also left an open question to us that sent a warning about the future of curiosity. By asking us to write a question on a piece of paper that only we individually probably knew the answer to, and then passing it to the person next to us, she was able to demonstrate just how important it was to us to find out the answers. When then asked to rate from 1-10 how much we wanted to know the answer (10 being very much, 1 being not at all), my neighbour and I both put 9. It was clearly important, and in fact other neurological research has shown that curiosity in adults elicits the same response from the brain as when we yearn for chocolate, nicotine or sex.

However, with information so accessible now it has become necessary to ask: What will happen to curiosity? Is there an incentive to remember when even infants know you can get the information you need on your phone? No one really knows the answer to these questions but Begus reminds us that greater knowledge can help protect against dementia and she finishes by imploring the audience to never stop being curious.

If curiosity is the first message from Science Week, the second is to laugh together. Dr Caspar Addyman gave the final talk, on the surprisingly serious science of baby laughter. He asked us to keep in mind a quote from Victor Borge who said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Dr Addyman’s initial research into a largely overlooked but defining characteristic of babies has highlighted several very important qualities that incentivise laughter.

The two YouTube clips below, which Dr Addyman has shown on his BabyLaughter blog were favourites from his talk.

Laughter is essentially a social process. For babies it not only encourages parents to spend time with them, but is a way for parents and babies to give each other their fullest attention. It is also a powerful learning tool. As Dr Addyman says: ‘babies are little scientists; they have to teach themselves an awful lot of stuff.’ And the most important thing for any human to learn is how to understand other people. Laughter, and the ability to make others laugh is one of the best tools that babies have in order to do this.

Keep laughing, and always be curious!

Still Places Available for Events at Birkbecks Science Week

We’re now halfway through Science week and the events have been thought provoking and well worth attending.

Today’s talks look at how the brain recognizes faces, and gives you an opportunity to see how scientists are able to look closer at cells than they’ve ever been able to before.

Thursday is all about babies: How the baby brain can help us understand dementia, the development of human curiosity, and the surprisingly serious science of baby laughter.

All events are free but make sure you book! And hurry! There are only a few days left to do so.

The Parasites of Malet Street: And other creepy crawlies

Science fiction is full of stories of insects and weird creatures of the imagination using human hosts… The Body Snatchers, Alien, Spiderman to name a few. However, most of us are unaware of the sheer amount of uses and ailments stemming from the arachnids and microscopic worms of the insect world around us.

One might think the idea of testing them on yourself would also be confined to the realm of science fiction. But if you were to look just a metre below Malet Street behind Birkbeck University, you’d find a series of labs and insectaries that would make you question that supposition.

Here, mosquitos (malaria free you’ll be pleased to know) too numerous to count, bed bugs, house dust mites, cockroaches, house flies and a host of other creepy crawlies are kept so scientists can learn more about the insect world.

The insectaries belong to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on Gower Street. You may have seen the school’s medical entomologist Dr James Logan give himself hookworms as an experiment on Embarrassing Bodies. Dr Logan runs a research team investigating new ways of controlling infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever which are spread by insects and parasites.

That’s not the only type of testing they do on themselves under Malet Street. After the hookworms experiment Dr Logan also tried leech therapy to cure a muscle injury. By stimulating the flow of blood to an infected region, he found that after just a week his muscle injury had disappeared. Another member of the team slept in a bed for several nights that had been deliberately infested with bed bugs.

Whilst a strong constitution is probably required to work in the labs, it is not just ailments the research teams are investigating. Scientists are still only beginning to understand the positive relations that exist between ourselves and our parasites. Dr Logan points out that “we evolved with parasites. It’s only recently that we’ve had the medication and hygiene to get rid of them. Our bodies are designed to live with parasites… just by studying them and understanding their fascinating biology we can find things that benefit us”.

Some hypotheses suggest the cleansing of parasites from our bodies is one of the main reasons for increases in allergies and asthma. There are many other studies – as the science writer Ed Yong pointed out in a brilliant TED talk on the subject – have discovered the astonishing abilities of some parasites to bend the will of their hosts towards enabling their reproduction.

These creatures, some just a single cell, do not necessarily spread disease like mosquitos do. As Ed Yong describes them, “they are part of an entire cavalcade of mind-controlling parasites, of fungi, viruses, and worms and insects and more that all specialize in subverting and overriding the wills of their hosts.”

No doubt many of these questions will be answered by the intrepid scientists working unnoticed so close to where we study. When walking along Malet Street, I can’t help but wonder about what’s going on beneath my feet. The types of experiments being planned and executed to delve deeper into the world of human and insect relations. Perhaps they might even discover a parasite to aid our memory for exams!