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The Environment Agency is consulting on a new flood alleviation scheme for Reading, to be sited on the banks of the River Thames in Caversham, and they’re inviting local residents to look at the proposals online and give feedback. Reading environmental scientist and Caversham resident Dr Liz Stephens gives her thoughts on the scheme.

Credit: The County Borough of Reading, via Bob Jones

There are plenty of photographs of the 1947 flood in Reading, including this one taken from a plane. Credit: The County Borough of Reading, via Bob Jones

Caversham may have been fortunate to miss out on the worst of the flooding along the Thames in recent memory, but the scale of the flooding experienced in 1947 shows that many people in lower Caversham may unknowingly live in areas at high risk of flooding.

The extraordinary level of the 1947 flood is marked on a pole by Reading Bridge/Whittington’s Tea Barge, which is visible from the Thames Path. It wasn’t a one-off either, as photographs in Reading Museum point to significant flooding in 1894.

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The NHS turns 70 this year, giving us the chance to appreciate the fact it is there to turn to whenever we get ill. But what did people do before the NHS and the luxury of modern medicine? University of Reading historian Dr Hannah Newton reveals her findings from studying diaries and letters written by Early Modern families who faced serious diseases armed with little more than their faith.

Cancer survival has doubled over the last 40 years, and death rates from stroke have halved since 1990. These positive trends are reflected in the upsurge of survivor stories in social media, where individuals broadcast their experiences of illness and recovery, and describe how the close shave with death has changed their outlook on life. ‘I don’t let little things get on top of me as much anymore’, reflects Keith Hubbard, a musician from Merseyside, 14 years after treatment for prostate cancer.

Misery to Mirth, by Dr Hannah Newton, was published in June 2018

We might assume that this is a recent phenomenon. In more distant times, when epidemics were rife and medicines ineffective, it would seem likely that death was the only possible disease outcome. However, a foray into the diaries and letters of seventeenth-century patients and their families reveals a happier history. My new book, Misery to Mirth, shows that getting better was a widely reported occurrence at this time, and one which gave rise to emotionally-charged outpourings comparable to those produced today.

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Records have been tumbling this year at the University of Reading’s weather station. Just days after the coldest March day since records began, a new record hottest recorded temperature was set for an April day. With the sun beating down on the UK over the Early May Bank Holiday weekend, the question was whether it could break yet more records. Stephen Burt from the Department of Meteorology explains.

Bank holiday weather is normally a cause for national despair, but not this last weekend I’m sure you’ll agree.

Monday was the warmest Early May Bank Holiday on record – and also the sunniest

Monday’s maximum of 27.6 °C (from the automatic weather station) made hotter than any previous Early May Bank Holiday day since the national holiday was introduced in 1978 – the previous highest temperature for the bank holiday weekend being 25.9 °C, set on the Saturday, 6 May, in 1990. It was also the warmest day in the month of May since 2005.

Additionally, unbroken sunshine on all three days this year – Saturday 14.2 hours, Sunday and Monday 14.1 each (total 42.4 hours) – recorded by the electronic sunshine sensor, made this by far our sunniest early Early May Bank Holiday ever.

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By Adam Koszary, Museums and Special Collections Services

The tweet sent from The MERL account that went viral

look at this absolute unit.

Our tweet from the Museum of Rural English Life account was a simple enough command. It accompanied a black and white photo of an Exmoor Horn aged ram found in the archives of the museum, located on the University of Reading’s London Road campus.

But this tweet had a satisfying pay-off. One day on, our Twitter followers had increased by more than 50% – 16,000 and counting – and the tweet itself had surpassed 68,000 likes and 20,000 retweets.

This is not normal for The MERL twitter account, in case you haven’t guessed.

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One of the earthworms found in a soil sample in Shropshire

By Jeremy Lelean, Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading

Soil, from being an overlooked area of research, is now considered an area of vital interest in the solution to many of the global problems of we currently face. A key idea of how to manage our soil is the notion of soil health, which was referred to regularly in the newly published DEFRA Twenty-Five Year Environment Plan.

Measuring soil health, however, is a vexed question as there are a number of potential indicators that can be used. One of these is earthworm numbers, but numbers alone may not give a good picture of soil health overall. As part of the Soil Security Programme, fellow Dr Jackie Stroud has developed a method that is more indicative of soil health than simple earthworm numbers.

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Dr Hella Eckardt, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, has just been named Archaeologist of the Year by Current Archaeology magazine. Part of her research is focused on uncovering evidence of how diverse the Roman Empire was, which in turn informs modern-day discussions about immigration. Here, Dr Eckardt discusses the scientific techniques used in her research and how the findings can be best communicated in schools.

Dr Ella Eckardt was awarded Archaeologist of the Year by Current Archaeology

There has been recent discussion about the importance of bringing the past to life for school children. One way to do this is to examine how archaeology might provide a different perspective on some major current debates, for example around migration.

A few years ago, I worked with my colleagues Gundula Müldner and Mary Lewis on around 150 burials from Roman Britain, trying to learn more about their geographical origin and cultural identities.

As an artefact specialist, I am quite used to identifying apparently exotic or unusual objects, but it was really fascinating to test whether the people buried with them were immigrants or not.

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By Stephen Burt, Department of Meteorology

Snow on the ground in Reading’s Atmospheric Observatory site

Weather records began at Reading University College (as it was then) back in 1901, but in all the years since we’ve never had a March day as cold as yesterday, Thursday 1 March 2018.

At noon yesterday, the temperature stood at just -3.5 °C, and with a strong north-easterly wind the windchill value made it feel more like -10 to -12 °C – approaching frostbite thresholds. Snow fell and drifted throughout the day, although fortunately Reading didn’t see as much snow as in other parts of the country, and the temperature rose very slowly throughout the day and into the night as less cold air associated with storm ‘Emma’ began to push in from the south.

The temperature finally reached a balmy (or it is barmy? This is the first month of Spring, after all!) -0.9 °C at 2am, according to our automatic weather station within the campus’s Atmospheric Observatory. In over a century of weather records, this was only the third March day to remain below freezing throughout, and easily surpassed the previous coldest March day – 6 March 1942, when the day’s highest temperature was only -0.6 °C.

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50 million people around the world are living with dementia and that figure is set to reach 152 million by 2050. Ahead of tonight’s public lecture, neuroscientist Dr Mark Dallas tells us how understanding ‘brain glue’ could hold the secret to detecting dementia decades before the first symptoms appear.

Our brains are made up of 170 billion cells – that’s 24 times the population of planet Earth. We now know that there is roughly a 50:50 split of nerve cells to other cells. These other cells are collectively termed glia after the Greek word for glue, because they were once thought of as the glue that helped to hold the nerve cells together.

Dr Mark Dallas will explain the research at his ‘Brain Glue’ public lecture on Wednesday night (28 Feb)

Scientists now know that these cells are in fact key players in brain function, maintaining a healthy environment for the nerves cells to communicate with each other.

Of interest to dementia scientists is that fact that these cells may be first responders to signs of damage. Why does this matter? It matters because it is about this point in time that scientists believe an individual living with Alzheimer’s disease today would start experiencing subtle, almost undetectable changes in their brains.

Therefore, if we know more about these cells and what they do, we may be able to detect dementia some 20 years before current diagnosis.

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by Professor Peter Stoneley, Head of Department, English Literature, University of Reading

A poem about a man who murdered his wife isn’t an obvious choice for Valentine’s Day, but Oscar Wilde made it clear that his The Ballad of Reading Gaol was, in fact, about love:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.

Written after his two years of imprisonment with hard labour from 1895 to 1897, and first published on February 13th 1898, Wilde’s poem focused on an execution by hanging that was carried out in Reading Prison during his own incarceration. Charles Thomas Wooldridge was a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards who, out of jealousy, stabbed his wife to death. Wooldridge thought his death sentence was right, and he did not seek clemency. He was hanged on 7 July 1896, and buried in an unmarked grave within the Prison walls.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘love poem’ was also a plea for prison reform

In the present climate, where attitudes and behaviour towards women are rightfully being challenged, presenting Wooldridge as a hero, or suggesting his actions were a “crime of passion”, seems abhorrent.  Wilde, though, draws Wooldridge with sympathy.  The trooper seems haunted by his crime, as he looks “with such a wistful eye/Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky”.

Further, Wilde chooses to explore the thought that all people fail their love in one way or another: “each man kills the thing he loves”.  The paradox of the poem is that Wooldridge becomes the hero of love because he, out of the intensity of his devotion, commits the greatest crime.

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Multi-award-winning author Eimear McBride is the inaugural Creative Fellow at the University of Reading’s Samuel Beckett Research Centre. This role allows her exclusive access to the University’s Beckett Archive and leading Beckett academics, and will see her produce a brand new piece of work inspired by the work of the Irish playwright. Here, in part one of her monthly journal, she talks about the daunting, and fascinating, task of following in Beckett’s footsteps.

Eimear will get to explore the University’s Beckett Archive

I have the good fortune to be in receipt of the inaugural Creative Fellowship at the University of Reading’s Beckett Research Centre.

From now until the summer I’ll be haunting their reading room and ordering as much material by, and about, Beckett from their archive as I can possibly read – having already cast an eye over the fascinating ‘German Diaries’ and seen Beckett’s handwriting up close, it’s fair to say, the reading itself may prove something of a challenge.

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