Tag Archives: Birkbeck science

The Birkbeck Student Geological Society



The Birkbeck Student Geological Society (BSGS) is at the heart of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Malet Street. It is dedicated to those studying and undertaking extensive environmental research, and the society organises a vast array of field trips, lectures, social nights and committee meetings throughout the year. Dr Simon Drake has led a successful field trip to Ramsgate, where the BSGS explored the chalk tunnels built during WWII, taking in the view of the local environment around Ramsgate Harbour, Pegwell Bay, the Cretaceous Tertiary (known as the K-T boundary) and Monkton Wildlife Reserve. International visits have included a trip to Tenerife in December 2015, where students examined the powerful impact of local volcanoes, and  the block and ash deposits that are produced throughout the Tajao region. The group undertook a trip to Cuevas Negras, Las Canadas, and Teide, examining obsidian flows, lava and phreatomagnetic sequences.

BSGS lectures have included talks on the East Antarctic ice sheets, and the Earthquakes and Geohazards in Northern Italy. Talks have been led by Professor Gerald Roberts (Birkbeck College), with contributions from Dr Tina Van der Fleidt (Imperial College) and Dr Chiara Petrone (The Natural History Museum).

The society recently went on a field trip to Cornwall between 10-12 June 2016, which was organised by MSc Geochemistry Professor Karen Hudson-Edwards and post-doctoral research assistant David Kossof. The trip allowed students to explore the old tin mines and china clay pits of the 19th century Wheal Maid trail, where dams have managed the ongoing issue of pollution from the Wheal Jane mine. The trail forms an essential part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site.

The mine has provided a rich source for tin, copper, zinc, silver and arsenic over the last two hundred years, although it officially closed in 1985 when the world tin price collapsed, and the groundwater levels rose, washing over the exposed rock faces.

The society also visited The Wheal Martyn Heritage Museum in the Ruddle Valley in St Austell. The major constituent of china clay (kaolin), it was discovered by Quaker minister and pharmacist William Cooksworthy in 1746. By 1910,  half the world’s china clay was produced from St Austell deposits, which now accounts for approximately 120 million tonnes of china clay used in dye, cosmetics, paints, porcelain and paper-making. The society enjoyed the major exhibitions which provided an in-depth analysis of how production methods have changed considerably over the centuries as one of Cornwall’s major industries.

The BSGS held a follow-up workshop on the weekend of the 18th June to evaluate the former mining sites and to assess possible remediation. Professor Hudson-Edwards discussed the society’s field observations and recordings, and David Kossof produced Cornish mineral samples from the Department of Earth and Planetary Science mineral stores.

It was determined that the preservation of the Wheal Maid had suffered from a lack of funding (the site is owned by the local parish council). Also, being a world heritage site, it is severely affected by changes to the environment. The society agreed that certain measures had to be implemented including prominent signs on toxic hazards, increased fencing, a ban on motorbikes and trail bikes, and better awareness of the hazards around the site.


The 2016 BSGS committee consists of Liz Pedley (marketing), Kirsty Harrington & Ben Dixon (membership and events planning) and Felicity Benson (finance). Friday lectures take place in Malet Street Room 612, and the committee holds meetings in The George Bar. The annual membership fee stands at £9, but talks are free for members of the public to attend.

For more information, follow:


Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BirkbeckStudentGeolsoc

Photo: Felicity Benson

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.

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.

Human Spaceflight, Babies and Birkbeck Science

London is one of the greatest cities in the world for science and technology research, development, events, workshops and festivals. This includes not only the London Science Festival, London Technology Week and the Science Museum, but also hubs of scientific innovation within a few hundred metres of Birkbeck, including UCL, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and The Wellcome Trust.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Behind Birkbeck, just a metre below Malet Street, insectaries at LSHTM house numerous insects which are used to research the relationships between humans and insects (you may have seen its Professor James Logan swallow hookworms on Channel 4’s ‘Embarrassing Bodies’).

Birkbeck – Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Within Birkbeck itself, some of the most amazing scientific research is being conducted. In the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, for example, Professor Ian Crawford was appointed in January to the European Space Agency’s advisory committee on Human Spaceflight and Exploration, and has also been involved in looking at the possibility of intergalactic spaceships. Another professor in the department, Gerald Roberts has been appointed as a project scientist on the joint NASA/UK Space Agency mission to use seismic technology to collect data on quakes on Mars, with the aim of trying to clarify the likelihood of active volcanism on the planet.

Birkbeck BabyLab – Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development

Birkbeck’s BabyLab has been undertaking ground-breaking research on detecting autism in babies. Currently one of the major problems in autism diagnosis is that children who will go on to develop autism rarely show signs of the disorder until the age of two.

Researchers at BabyLab placed passive sensors on babies between the ages of six and ten months old who had a family history of developing autism. These sensors then picked up the babies brain activity when they were shown images of an adult whose eyes first looked at them, and then looked away, or vice versa.

Three years later, by looking at which babies had gone on to develop autism, the researchers were able to compare and contrast the brain activity of the babies who had and the babies who hadn’t developed the condition. The results showed that while children under the age of two who went on to develop autism did not display any outward signs of developing the condition, they were, however, already beginning to process information in a very different way. And in 2012, BabyLab’s parent department, the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD), became part of a five-year, €29 million EU project to investigate autism.

The Department of Psychological Sciences

You yourself can also contribute to some of the scientific research being conducted at Birkbeck: the CBCD’s Alpha Lab is looking for volunteers to do a 30 minute listening experiment. Volunteers will receive £5, and the Department of Psychological Sciences encourages you to register for and take part in other current or future experiments (often for remuneration). In addition, you will occasionally receive emails from your own department with requests from fellow students to complete a survey for their research. I urge you to do these. Who knows? One day you may well also be requiring your fellow students’ help with your own research.

Image credit: Sweetie187 — CC BY 2.0