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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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By Dr Helen Dacre and Dr Andrew Prata, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading

Mount Agung is erupting in Bali

The volcanic ash being spewed out by Mount Agung in Bali has brought back memories of the 2010 eruption in Iceland, which caused chaos for holidaymakers in Europe. Airlines operating flights to and from Bali and its neighbouring Indonesian islands have again been hit this week, however research is being carried out to reduce the impact of eruptions in the future.

Mount Agung had been showing signs of increased seismic activity since mid-September, but last Tuesday it moved into a new phase and began releasing steam and volcanic ash into the atmosphere. Denpasar International Airport in Bali has reported ash at ground level accumulating on aircraft and satellite images show glimpses of an ash-rich plume, but it is often obscured by meteorological clouds.

Due to the damaging effect of volcanic ash on jet engines – molten ash blocks engine cooling holes causing engines to overheat and shutdown – air travel is restricted in ash contaminated airspace. A prolonged eruption, such as the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption in Iceland that grounded flights across Europe, will lead to inevitable economic damage to Bali and the surrounding area due to lost tourism and productivity.

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By Dr Teresa Murjas, Department of Film, Theatre and Television, University of Reading

Image from the Huntley and Palmer archive held at the Museum of English Rural Life

Over the last couple of months, I have been working with Reading Museum and The MERL to support and advise colleagues from The National Archives during the development of their Edible Archives theme. This is part of the national Explore your Archive campaign, which is aimed at raising awareness of, and increasing public engagement with, archives and collections. (see last month’s blog post)

This exciting collaboration arose from my ongoing creative work with the University of Reading’s Huntley & Palmers archive, which is entitled ‘The First World War in Biscuits’. A 100-year-old ration biscuit, put on display at Reading Museum as a result of the project, was modified by young Private George Mansfield during the war to hold his photograph.

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By Professor Tim Dixon, School of the Built Environment, University of Reading

Is this how Reading will look in 2050?

As the world’s urban population continues to grow, it will be increasingly important for the built environment sector to offer solutions that work for individual streets as well as whole cities.

Buildings already make up 20% of global emissions, and the world’s population will be 70% urban by 2050. So, understanding how we can join up our thinking and disciplinary understanding from individual building level to neighbourhood level and at the urban level will be essential to make the built environment work better for society and create more resilient and sustainable places.

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By Professor Roger Matthews and Dr Wendy Matthews

Bestansur site in Iraq

The transition of humankind from mobile hunters to settled farmers after the Ice Age is a period in history still shrouded in mystery. Very little evidence exists to shed light on what life was like in the world’s first villages in the Middle East 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

But our archaeological research, carried out in collaboration with local communities in Iraq and Iran, is uncovering clues that will help us understand how ancient civilisations developed. We will be presenting our findings at a public lecture on Wednesday 22 November, as part of the national Being Human Festival.

Earlier this year, we conducted excavations and interdisciplinary research at the Neolithic site of Bestansur, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is in the eastern Fertile Crescent – one of the areas of the Middle East where farming originated. Our aim is to learn more about how humans first started farming in this region, taking steps towards a more domesticated lifestyle.

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