Thursday, 31 July 2014

Spare the Rod, School the Child

In 1998, a young American biologist named Justin Brashares, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, went to Ghana to research antelope behavior. But, as he hiked the West African forests and savannahs, he didn’t see many antelope. He also didn’t see many hippos, leopards, duikers, or lions. What he did see were large, aggressive troops of olive baboons. They had recently begun to raid maize crops and steal chickens, causing such serious and persistent damage that many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.

How had baboons gained influence over the education of Ghanaian children? In search of an answer, Brashares dug into the fantastically detailed records of wildlife populations and hunting activity that Ghana has kept since its days as a British colony. He found that as populations of large mammal species had declined in the country’s national parks over the decades, baboon populations had expanded into the newly predator-free habitat. Hunting intensified by human population growth was one reason for the over-all declines, but the mammal numbers didn’t follow a straight line toward extinction: they rose, then fell, then rose again.

Brashares asked Ghanaian farmers about the pattern. “Oh, it’s the fish,” he remembers them saying dismissively. Poor fishing on the Atlantic coast, they told Brashares, drove more people into the forest to hunt for bushmeat. More hunting meant fewer large mammals, more olive baboons—and, eventually, more kids kept home from school. Brashares’ analysis of data collected by researchers from his lab and elsewhere showed that, in 2009, sixty-five per cent of school-age children in sixty-four baboon-affected villages were withdrawn from school for at least one month, and many for much longer than that.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

There’s a method to the madness of the teenage brain.

Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?

In the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, a few hours east of San Francisco, are the Moaning Caverns, a cave system that begins, after a narrow, twisting descent of 30-some feet, with an abrupt 180-foot drop. The Park Service has found ancient human skeletons at the bottom of the drop. Native Americans living there at the time didn’t make human sacrifices. Instead, these explorers took one step too far in the gloom. The skeletons belonged to adolescents.

No surprises there. After all, adolescence is the time of life when someone is most likely to join a cult, kill, be killed, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, care for the needy, transform physics, adopt a hideous fashion style, commit to God, and be convinced that all the forces of history have converged to make this moment the most consequential ever, fraught with peril and promise.

For all this we can thank the teenage brain. Some have argued adolescence is a cultural construct. In traditional cultures, there is typically a single qualitative transition to puberty. After that, the individual is a young adult. Yet the progression from birth to adulthood is not smoothly linear. The teenage brain is unique. It’s not merely an adult brain that is half-cooked or a child’s brain left unrefrigerated for too long. Its distinctiveness arises from a key region, the frontal cortex, not being fully developed. This largely explains the turbulence of adolescence. It also reflects an important evolutionary pressure.

The frontal cortex is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. It’s where the sensible mature stuff happens: long-term planning, executive function, impulse control, and emotional regulation. It’s what makes you do the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do. But its neurons are not fully wired up until your mid-20s. Why?

Friday, 25 July 2014

How playing an instrument benefits your brain

When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What's going on? Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians' brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout.

Why children with autism often fall victim to bullies

Bullying can affect anyone at any time, but young people with autism are especially vulnerable. The results can be devastating. Not being able to keep up with the teasing banter that often takes place among groups of young people can make the social world a very daunting place for children with autism. Being at odds with their peer group can lead to social isolation, rejection, and a lack of the supportive friendships that can protect against bullying.

Autism (including Asperger syndrome) is a developmental condition that the National Autistic Society describes as affecting “how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them”. It is on a spectrum, meaning that although there are common areas of difficulty, people with autism are affected in very different ways, with widely varying degrees of severity.

As a consequence, while approximately 30% of young people with autism spectrum conditions attend special schools, around 70% are in mainstream settings, according to the government.

Worryingly, there is a growing body of research that indicates that young people on the autism spectrum are considerably more vulnerable to bullying than their peers.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Who are more likely to be bullies – poor kids or rich kids?

Bullying is the repeated and systematic abuse of power with the aim of causing intentional harm. Examples of bullying have been found in all societies, including among modern hunter-gatherers and in ancient civilisations. But new research has shown that in the modern age, we can draw few strong conclusions about whether bullies are more likely to come from richer or poorer families. In hierarchical social settings, anybody can be at risk of bullying.

Some researchers consider bullying to be an evolutionary adaptation, designed to gain access to resources, secure survival, and allow for more mating opportunities. Bullying can also reduce stress upon bullies: by enabling them to develop a culture of fear and respect it deters others from attacking them and means they have to spend less of their time fighting.

While children diagnosed with conduct disorder or delinquency are more often found in socially disadvantaged groups, such as among families with low socioeconomic status, it is less clear whether bullies are also more likely to come from these backgrounds.

If bullies are motivated by the desire to obtain greater status and dominance, and use strategic behaviour as a means of gaining social success and romantic partners, then it is likely they will be found in similar numbers among all socioeconomic groups.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

10 must see ancient greek temples

Back in Ancient Greece the temple was the most important building. The first temples to be constructed from stone began to appear in the 6th century. The Greek temples were not used as places of worship, but rather as monuments to their beloved gods and goddesses. Some of the best examples of Greek temples standing today are located not only in Greece, but in what would have been their ancient empire that stretched to various other locations including Italy, which is home to some of the most well-preserved Greek temples.
1 Parthenon, Acropolis

The Parthenon, located atop the Acropolis is a monument dedicated to the goddess Athena, a goddess of wisdom.


The Parthenon is an example of an early temple, being built in the mid 5th century and was originally constructed to replace an older temple that was destroyed by the Persians. The statue of Athena that stood in the temple was made from ivory, silver and gold but was unfortunately stolen and later destroyed. 

Better at reading than maths? Don’t blame it all on your genes

I disliked and feared maths for most of my school career and dropped it as soon as I possibly could. My mother recalls me crying as a five-year-old because: “I can’t do the people-on-the-bus sums”. If the bus has 12 passengers and three get off, how many are left? English, by contrast, was a breeze. At seven, I stood on a chair with a microphone and read my version of Sleeping Beauty aloud to the entire school. Reading and writing already ranked high among my passions.

Mine isn’t an unfamiliar tale. Many people label themselves as “not a maths person” or “not much of a reader”, often while they are still children. And yet, in a recent study published in Nature Communications, scientists showed that around half of the genes that affect how well 12-year-olds in the UK perform in maths also affect how good they are at reading. And they showed this in a new and important way.

For the first time ever, this study – led by UCL’s Oliver Davis, Chris Spencer at Oxford and Robert Plomin at King’s College London – was able to estimate genetic influences on learning abilities using DNA alone. The implications of this for future genetically sensitive research in the behavioural and social sciences are highly significant. It is certainly much easier to get hold of DNA than it is to get hold of a results from a large twin sample – another good way of researching this area.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Look out behind the bus stop, here come guerrilla gardeners digging up an urban revolution

Lurking beneath the authorities' radar is a vast, international underground movement that stretches from Africa and Europe to the Americas: guerrilla gardening, the un-permitted colonisation of land, is still a mysterious activity about which little research is undertaken.

The movement brings together students, academics, businessmen, planners, architects, chefs, community workers and many more professions making up the ranks. Would-be guerrillas can enlist in a troop online through sites such as; a forum established by Richard Reynolds (“Britain’s 24th most influential gardener”), deemed the father of the modern guerrilla gardening movement. The movement has grown in recent years, fuelled partially by the rise of Twitter and other forms of social media which make it much easier to organise digs.

Generally speaking, guerrilla gardeners either aim to beautify a neglected patch of land or, increasingly, pursue the cultivation of space via urban agriculture by growing fruit and vegetables in a city context. A somewhat famous example of this is Incredible Edible Todmorden, a guerrilla gardening project started in 2008 where residents “adopt” areas of the town and plant without permission. Impressed by the displays and ideas, the local authority started to work with the guerrillas and the Incredible Edible Network was soon born – now an international movement promoting the idea of urban agriculture.

School libraries must be 'fit for purpose' says cross-party report from MPs

Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group says 'it is vital that all schools have a good library to ensure children develop essential literacy and digital literacy skills'.

A cross-party group of MPs and peers has called for there to be a good library in every school in the UK in a new report which says that libraries make "a huge contribution to young people's educational attainment".

The call follows a long-running campaign from authors, who believe primary and secondary schools should be required by law to have a school library and a trained librarian, and comes in the wake of new figures from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport showing a "significant decrease" in the number of adults using a library. In the year to March 2014, just 35% of adults had used a library, compared to 2005/2006, when 48% had used a library, said the DCMS's Taking Part survey .

The new report, The Beating Heart of the School, comes from the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, and states that "it is vital that all schools have a good library to ensure children develop essential literacy and digital literacy skills in order to fulfill their potential".
Although there are no new figures about the number of school libraries in the UK, the report says recent surveys show that 40% of primary schools with designated library space have seen their budgets reduced, and that almost a third of libraries have insufficient space. It also pointed to "one of the most concerning trends": the fall in the number of librarians in English schools, with data from the Department for Education showing a reduction of 280 librarians in two years.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

30 Days of “Quantum Poetry” Celebrating the Glory of Science

From black holes to DNA to butterfly metamorphosis, bewitching verses on the magic of nature.

“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper,” the influential biologist E.O. Wilson said in his spectacular recent conversation with the former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, exploring the shared creative wellspring of poetry and science. A beautiful embodiment of it comes from 30 Days, an unusual and bewitching series of “quantum poetry” by xYz — the pseudonym of British biologist and poet Joanna Tilsley, who began writing poetry at the age of eight and continued, for her own pleasure, until she graduated college with a degree in biology.
 In April of 2013, while undergoing an emotional breakdown, Tilsley took a friend up on a dare and decided to participate in NaPoWriMo — an annual creative writing project inviting participants to write a poem a day for a month. Immersed in cosmology and quantum physics at the time, she found herself enchanted by the scientific poetics of nature as she strolled around her home in North London.
 Translating that enchantment in lyrical form, she produced a series of thirty poems on everything from DNA to the exoplanet Keppler-62F, a “super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a star smaller and cooler than the sun,” to holometabolism, the process by which the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, to the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to see Earth from space.

Einstein Hated Quantum Mechanics. Brian Greene and Alan Alda Discuss Why

Albert Einstein was not a fan of quantum mechanics. He was annoyed by the uncertain, random nature of the universe it implied (hence the famous quote “God does not play dice with the universe”). So, Einstein tried to develop a unified theory that would circumvent what he saw as quantum mechanics’ flaws.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Picking Lesser of Two Climate Evils

Climate scientists long ago settled among themselves the question of whether human emissions of greenhouse gases are a problem, concluding that we are running some grave risks. But the field still features vigorous debate about how bad global warming will get, how quickly, and how to combat it.

One of the biggest fights involves how much effort to put into stopping leaks of methane gas into the atmosphere. It may sound like an obscure topic, but the leaks could have a great effect on the climate that people living today experience.

This issue has grown in importance with the release of President Obama’s new climate plan. It calls for greater use of natural gas, which consists mostly of methane. Among a few academics and on the far left of the environmental movement, cries are going up that the president is about to lock America into a supposed solution to climate change that will be worse than burning coal.

Is that claim plausible?

The basic scientific facts are pretty clear. By far the most important greenhouse gas that humans are spewing into the atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which comes from burning fossil fuels. The second most important is methane, which comes from many sources. It is released when coal is mined; it escapes when wells are drilled for oil or natural gas; and it leaks from pipes that distribute natural gas. Certain agricultural practices also throw up a huge amount.

How to teach … water safety

The warm weather and school holidays are the perfect recipe for a summer outside. Ensure your students stay safe while they have fun by water with our lesson ideas.

Accidental drowning causes more than 400 deaths in the UK every year and is the third highest cause of death in children, according to the Royal Life Saving Society UK.

The risk is particularly high during warmer weather and the school holidays, so this week we have a range of resources to help you teach young people how to stay safe whether they are in, on or beside water this summer.

School swimming is a great form of exercise for children of all abilities – it boosts confidence, improve concentration and is the most effective way to teach children how to be safe around water. But a recent survey conducted by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), the national governing body for swimming in England, revealed that 1.1 million school children cannot swim.

With this in mind, the organisation has created a number of resources including a school swimming and water safety guide for teachers and a primary school learn-to-swim guide aimed at anyone involved with school swimming at key stage 1 or 2. It addresses some of the barriers to school swimming, such as a lack of facilities or high transport costs, and makes suggestions for raising the profile of swimming and water safety by linking it to other parts of the curriculum. In science, for example, students can explore the idea of propulsion; in maths they can make estimates and calculations based on the dimensions of a pool; in ICT they can design achievement charts or certificates; and in PSHE they can explore the health benefits of swimming.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Poor progress of disadvantaged pupils a waste of talent, says Alan Milburn

Disadvantaged children who achieve highly at primary school in most cases then fall behind their less able but better-off peers.

England's education system is wasting young talent "on an industrial scale" because of poor progress made by the brightest disadvantaged children once they leave primary school, Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said after publication of a report detailing the educational differences that emerge by the age of seven.

The report found that children from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve the highest levels at primary school have in most cases fallen behind their less able but better-off peers by the time they sit GCSE exams five years later.
Of almost 8,000 disadvantaged students who achieved top grades in English and maths standardised tests at age 11, only 900 went on to study at an elite university. But if disadvantaged children performed as well at secondary school as their better off peers, another 2,200 would later study at the likes of Oxford or Manchester universities.

The commission's research follows recent data published by the Department for Education (DfE) showing that just 50 children on free school meals were admitted to Oxford or Cambridge last year, compared with 60 from Eton alone.

"The early promise of top-performing poorer children is being squandered," Milburn said. "It is vital that secondary schools focus harder on helping disadvantaged children convert high results at age 11 to excellent GCSE and A-level results in academic subjects, and that all high attainers are given advice, opportunities and support to progress to elite universities."

Friday, 11 July 2014

Vancouver shelter-benches show up London’s ‘anti-homeless’ spikes as how not to deal with rough sleepers

When the management of a block of luxury flats in London felt they had an issue with homeless people sleeping on the doorstep, their solution was apparently to install a set of spikes that were later branded “ugly, self-defeating and stupid” by Boris Johnson.

The Mayor faced criticism himself for not doing more to deal with the growing number of people sleeping rough in the capital – so perhaps he could look to the work of a charity in Vancouver for inspiration.

RainCity Housing, which provides specialised accommodation and support services for homeless people in the Canadian city, has set up instant pop-up shelters that take the form of an ordinary park bench.

During the day, the innovative design simply works as the back support to benches where people might sit and eat lunch or while waiting for a bus.

But at night, the boards fold out upwards, providing emergency cover in what is – like London – a notoriously rainy city.
The dual use of the bench has been highlighted in one of the designs from Vancouver creative agency Spring Advertising. UV letters react with sunlight and read “This is a bench” during the day. At night, a separate set of glow-in-the-dark letters emerge to say “This is a bedroom”, and directs rough sleepers to RainCity’s website.

Why the World Cup Suddenly Has So Many Goals

NASA engineer Rabindra Mehta explains the aerodynamics of the World Cup soccer ball.
You know the star players’ names of this World Cup: Brazilian forward Neymar, United States goalkeeper Tim Howard, Argentinian forward Lionel Messi. But there is one star that you may not have heard of, even though it has played in every single game this year. It’s called Brazuca, and it is a soccer ball.

When the World Cup was first played, in 1930, balls came in all sorts of designs, the most popular featuring 11 interlocking T-shaped leather panels laced together by hand. Legend says that when Italy hosted the second World Cup in 1934, Mussolini required that an Italian-made ball be used. France demanded a locally-made ball as well, when it played host in 1938. In 1970, the era of standardization started when Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) named Adidas as the official ball provider for the World Cup.

For the 2006 World Cup, Adidas introduced a new ball called Teamgeist, which created some turbulence off the field. With its 14 panels and glossy texture, Teamgeist was the smoothest ball ever—which proved to be a disaster. Shots did not fall where strikers expected them to, and goalkeepers struggled to predict flight patterns. Even David Beckham struggled to “bend it like Beckham.” While Adidas attempted to address these complaints with their 2010 ball, called Jabulani (or “rejoice” in the Bantu languages of South Africa), players still complained the ball felt “supernatural,” and had a mind of its own. The 2010 tournament ended with 147 goals, fewer than any other since the tournament was changed to the 64-game format in 1998.

Earth’s generation next will be wealthier, but not always healthier

Our Tropical Future: A new report on the State of the Tropics has revealed rapid changes in human and environmental health in the Earth’s tropical regions. This is the second in a four-part series about the new report, based on the work of 12 universities and research institutions worldwide, which shows the challenges facing diverse nations such as Burma/Myanmar to manage those changes.

If you’re looking for a good news story about the health of the world, then consider taking a trip to the Tropics.

An end to world poverty is still a long way off, but poverty is falling in the Tropics. Among people living in the 130-plus tropical nations and territories, shown below, the proportion living in extreme poverty has almost halved since the 1980s.

The rates of infectious diseases are also declining, along with maternal and child mortality rates. Life expectancy is on the rise.

All of those trends for the better have global significance, given that by 2050 three out of every five children will be living in a tropical part of the world.

However, it’s not all good news on human health, according to the inaugural State of the Tropics Report, launched this week by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Biggest bird nests in the world are kept together by family ties

How can animals, from ants to people, form social groups with individuals working successfully together for a common good?

So Charles Darwin asked in 1859, perceiving the existence of cooperative behaviour as a threat to his theory of evolution. Such behaviour remains one of the biggest unanswered questions in science – one that our study, published in Ecology Letters, set out to answer with the help of a highly social bird, the sociable weaver.

It’s easy to see why animals should behave selfishly: if you are to pass on your genes to the next generation you should aim to look after yourself, protect your resources, find a mate and reproduce – why would you care about others? As a result of such selfish interests conflict is rife in nature. But what is less well known is that cooperation is also widespread and can be observed at almost any level of biological organisation.

There has been much progress since Darwin, and we now understand a great deal more about how animals may benefit from working together. Although several important theories have been developed and tested over the past decades, kin selection theory has perhaps caused the greatest advance in our understanding of cooperation in animals. Introduced by Bill Hamilton in the 1960s it states that if an individual cooperates with its relatives, this individual may indirectly pass on its genes to the next generation. This is now generally accepted as the main explanation behind cooperation at the family level.