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In the days before the Internet and peer-reviewed science, rumours of exaggerated proportions were able to spread around the world with longer lasting legs. An example of this would be the legend of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary that most likely spread along the ancient silk road.

Tartary is an old name for much of the central Eurasian region associated with the various ethnic groups that speak Turkic languages. And it is in this region that the incredible vegetable lamb tree was to be found.

The story of this peculiar creature/plant comes in two flavours. The first iteration describes a plant that grew little lambs in pods like peas. The other version of the story – which went to even more outlandish measures – describes a plant like structure with a lamb growing out the top of it, suspended helplessly above ground.

To sustain the plant-lamb at the top of the plant, it would have to move to find food to graze on. The plant-lamb and its stem were part of one and the same and if the stem were cut or severed, the lamb would die. The only way to separate the lamb from the plant would require a careful aim from afar with a bow and arrow.

The curious case of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary will be of interest to students of history and literature degrees who want to talk about less heard of myths to distinguish them as candidates at interview.

WhatsApp and other social media platforms have often been criticised before in the past because users are obliged to use one of four or five distinct skin tones that do not adequately cover the richness of human diversity.

2019 sees WhatsApp listen to the criticism and progress towards being more encompassing. With the new updates, people with disabilities will have more representation than before with options for hearing aid and deaf person emojis, probing case and service dogs. There are also options for people with mixed skin tones in manual and motorised wheelchair.  

The LGBT community is also receiving a positive update that encompasses the diversity of interracial relationships that have hitherto been ignored.

It’s also pleasing to see more international communities being represented with Sari and Hindu temple emojis being in the roster.

It’s clear the WhatsApp labs have been keeping an eye on food trends as the milennial’s favourite snack falafel and the health conscious tea lover’s maté have also been included.

Researchers in Edinburgh have discovered that the option to include a diverse array of skin tones is one that social media users want to engage with. They collected a billion tweets and discovered that users often use the skin tone that correlated with their real skin tone.

It’s very clear that diversity and representation on social media is an important concern for people. Computer Scientists may profit from delving into the Edinburgh study and understanding their experiment. Those students going for HSPS, Human Science or Anthropology may want to look at social media representation through academic social lenses.

In a tiny town by the name of Nuanquan, not too far from the sprawling metropolis of Beijing, a curious tradition of throwing molten iron pulls in a growing crowd of tourists every Lunar New Year. The tradition is called da shuhua (树花) which has the literal translation of ‘hitting tree-flower’ and is named after a forgotten technique of shaking trees to retrieve their blossom.

When the molten iron is thrown against an icy wall, it produces an incredible explosion. The sparks in the explosion are said to resemble falling blossom in the fashion of da shuhua.

Once being dubbed the “poor man’s fireworks”, this dangerously thrilling activity comes from the creativity of its residents from centuries before, who could not afford the luxurious fireworks made from gunpowder packed into hollow bamboo stems. Thanks to Nuanquan’s enterprising nature, the town resorted to its steel works and Blacksmithing heritage to find an alternative. Hence throwing molten iron for entertainment was born and helped to forge the town’s identity. Year upon year, town dwellers would donate their scraps of iron for a spectacular fireworks show during the Lunar New Year festival.

China’s firework obsession at the time of New Year has a dubious future due to the government’s recent crackdown in banning firework displays. Fireworks release the pollutant PM2.5 into the air which contributes to some of the worst cases of pollution on the planet.

However, da shuhua shows no signs of stopping as more and more tourists flock to Nuanquan in an act of re-discovering their Chinese traditions. The shows are becoming extravaganzas in their own right with a variety of acts and music around the staple event of throwing molten iron.

Students interested in reading AMES or Oriental Studies would do well to consider the act of da shuhua in its cultural and historical context. Geographers and Human Scientists may be interested in the conflict of tradition and environmental pressures in modern China.

The loyal disciples of  veganism grow in their numbers with every passing year. Talks of veganuary – an annual event where individuals are encouraged to graze on a plant-based diet – are all over social media, Internet ads and Youtube pop-ups. It’s the age of the herbivore and a rebirth of social consciousness.

The latest meat-free breakthrough comes from global corporation McDonald’s who have released a McFalafel happy meal in Sweden.  Since the turn of the millenium McDonald’s has tried to ‘clean up its act’ by offering ever healthier options alongside its naughtier staples. 

Let it not be misunderstood that the cause of innovation is more likely to be attributed to the forces of supply and demand rather than an initiative of good conscience. Animal Rights Sweden reports that almost 10% of the population now follows a vegan diet – that’s obviously a huge market for McDonald’s to tuck into (pardon the pun) but at least the by-products are beneficial to animals and mother nature. 

The McFalafel come in decent sized chunks of mashed up chickpeas, parsley, garlic and cumin. You can complement your Levantine nuggets with fries, some fruit and some exclusive dips. Hungry? 

McDonald’s has recently introduced a new ‘El Veggo’ burger in Finland a new Indian-inspired vegan burger ‘McAloo Tikki’ in Chicago. Could McDonald’s in 50 years be entirely vegan? 

Students of social sciences and Economics may find the rise of veganism and vegetarianism within businesses to be something worth researching. Earth scientists and geographers may want to consider the environmental impacts that the meat industry has on the planet. 

Fuel for your all night-er to make your coursework submission deadline? A necessary pick-me-up before your French oral? Coffee for many of us is the answer. But it’s important to consider the sustainability of this beverage that has been a staple in most of our busy lives.

According to recent papers that have been published in Science Advances and Global Change Biology, a large proportion (around 75) of the world’s coffee bean species are close to extinction. Many types included are wild and have never been harvested and cultivated, but there is one variety by the name of Coffea Arabica that plays such a vital part in today’s global coffee culture, that without it the face of cafés will be altered forever. The team behind Global Change Biology estimate that the population of Arabica beans could reduce by half in 2088.

So what can be done to save the Espresso? Well, firstly, it’s important to be conscious about one’s environmental impact. Global warming and rising temperatures put pressure on coffee farmers to reach new physical heights so being aware of one’s carbon footprint is a good first step. Aiding the environment will also help wild strains whose populations tend to be concentrated in one particular environment which when destroyed by rising sea levels and dried out terrain will lead to species extinction.

Biologists might be intrigued to hear about genetic interbreeding between Arabica beans and other wild varieties. Certain wild varieties have been identified as having particular genetic traits that could be advantageous to Arabica bean populations. Breeding a more sturdier kind of bean could be essential to keeping up those Flat White orders on the daily.

So it appears that we are at a critical point with coffee. Sustainable living and making choices for the environment could be enough to turn the tide and keep our coffee consumption possible in the future.

Biologists, Geographers and social sciences students would be wise to use this story as a spring board for more in-depth research into ecological sustainability and our relationship with the environment.  

William Taylor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has recently carried out research on the impressive horse burial sites of the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Culture (ca. 1300-700 BC).  Examination of skeletal remains from horse burials showed the oldest known examples of veterinary dental practice.

This study forms part of wider examination into a people from eastern Eurasia that are the first known communities to rely on horses for livestock and food products.  They are also thought to be the first to mount ride horses.  It was the mounting of horses that led to nomadic lifestyle and the development of a horse-based pastoral economy.  These advancements led to the horses becoming a valuable commodity resulting in increased equine veterinary care. 

The dental care identified is shown to be temporally linked to the development of horse control.  Herders and riders used, as they do today, metal and bronze mouthpieces for bridles.  These allowed for nuanced control but with this came regular contact with the vestigial tooth known as a “wolf tooth”.  This interaction would have caused pain and even prevented young horses from feeding, leading to other health complications.  This potentially serious issue led to the removal of these teeth and Taylor has drawn a contemporary parallel stating “herders in Mongolia today practice relatively sophisticated procedures using very simple equipment”.  In fact the methods of extraction used are considered to be very similar to modern Western forms of veterinary dental extraction.

These findings come centuries before the sedentary civilizations of China and the Mediterranean and riding aided the movements of these people of the 1st millennium BCE, which shaped the cultural and biological landscapes of Eurasia.

Veterinary Medicine applicants can research the current methods of dental care and the development on pain management at the point of care.  Human Sciences applicants may wish to consider the ways in which the evidence of burial sites can be interpreted and what importance these findings have in our understanding of ancient civilisations.         

The photograph is a medium that has fascinated human beings for over a century. The entrancing way in which a photo captures a fleeting moment or a single second in time is part of the snapshot’s enormous charm, but also is its curse…

There’s nothing worse than taking a picture one fraction of a second after the candles on birthday cake have been blown out, the instant your favourite celebrity blinks, or just when some overenthusiastic tourist wanders into the background of your perfectly framed shot.

As technology has developed, we have found ways new ways of achieving the perfect picture, from trigger burst modes on digital cameras and smart phones, to clever patching and healing tools in photo editing software. Until now though, nothing has been very effective in repairing an already spoilt photo.

The image above, taken in Wales in 1853,  shows the very first recorded instance of a ‘photobomb’, an occurrence when someone deliberately or accidentally ruins a photo by entering the camera’s field of view. This concept has become such a part of our image-obsessed modern culture, that ‘photobomb’ was made the Collins English Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’in 2014. The term might be new, but the concept is not… New AI technology may now be able to, not only convincingly repair the area of the photo in which the unwitting intruder has featured, but also to accurately predict what might have been behind them.

Developed by NVIDIA, this innovative artificial intelligence goes beyond copying from neighbouring pixels, but instead uses a deep learning system (which involves studying libraries of other photos) to produce often truly amazing repairs. The NVIDIA technology, unlike its early predecessors, is also not purely limited to tackling boxy areas or spaces in the centre of photographs.

Future Historians should compare and contrast the benefits of uncovering hidden information within photographs, with the challenging idea of whether or not we should attempt to ‘rewrite history’. Aspiring Art Historians should weight the benefits of restoring damaged film and photographic artworks against the potential loss of the creator’s desired artistic effect. HSPS and Psychology students may wish to examine if our recent improvements AI photo technology will further proliferate the idea that we have to present the image of perfect lives online.

A new study conducted at Northwest University has indicated that children in the US are drawing more female scientists than they did in previous decades. In the 1960s and 70s, less than 1% of children who were asked to draw a scientist chose to draw a woman. Over the past 40 years, this figure has risen to 28%. Despite this progress, children are still more likely to depict scientists as male — especially older children, who are more aware of the gender imbalance in these professions. Indeed, the study’s lead author David Miller points out that equal representation in drawings cannot be expected while inequality persists in the real world of science. When children taking part in one particular study were asked to draw teachers, only 25% of children drew men, demonstrating that at least among children certain gender stereotypes are being dispelled at a slower rate than others.

It was also observed that while girls on average draw 42% of scientists as women, boys only draw 4% as women, despite the fact that women represented 49% of biological scientists, 35% of chemists, and 11% of physicists and astronomers in the United States by 2013. Researchers also noted that on average 79% of the drawing depicted white scientists.

Bianca Reinisch, a scientist at the Free University of Berlin, expressed some scepticism at the study, arguing that children’s responses could be influenced by the way in which the task was explained to them, as well as objects and posters they see in the room.

Applicants hoping to study Psychology and those interested in gender and women’s studies may wish to keep this study in mind as they think about how children absorb and perpetuate cultural information such as gender and race biases, and whether their perceptions can constitute a useful measure of social progress. Students interested in Art could consider whether children’s drawings can be considered “art”, and how some artists’ use of abstraction and “naïve” styles could be compared to how children express themselves and reflect the society around them.

The Chinese government plans to launch its Social Credit System in 2020. Many recent news reports have looked into exactly what this means for the inhabitants of China and whether it is a force for good or bad.

The scoring of this system is fundamentally wrapped up in the increasing technological world that China has come to represent.

The online website ‘Wired’ has explained that ‘The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

The result of this social credit system and the rating an individual is given could then be used by employers to decide whether to offer you a job, by banks to decide whether to give you a loan, or even by prospective partners.

However, many other news outlets have argued that this is draconian and poses a threat due to being far too pervasive into individual liberties. Students that are hoping to study HSPS may want to look into the tension and judgement shown by western news outlets on their opinion into these changes within Chinese society. Furthermore, are these comments truly reflective or understanding of Chinese society and showing it in a truly holistic picture, or merely placing western views onto the new system?

Students hoping to study Sociology or Computer Science may want to think more closely about the potential effects, risks and potential power that technology can have in the 21st Century world. China has shown control over what its citizens see (with the banning of sites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter) and also know is using forms of technology to track and monitor citizens thoughts and movements.

Matthew Walker writes in his fantastic new book ‘Why We Sleep’ that two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain eight hours of sleep a night. This short article is to give a flavour of the effects of a lack of sleep, and what medical treatments are being developed as a result.

Lack of sleep has an adverse affect on literally every biological system in the human body.

A study quoted by Walker (2017) shows that men who sleep 5 hours a night have much smaller testicles than those who sleep 8 hours or more. Those men who routinely sleep 5-6 hours a night has a level of testosterone of someone 10 years older. This gives an insight in to the impact of sleep on hormonal regulation.

The amygdala is a brain structure responsible for strong emotional reaction. In sleep deprived people, you see around a 60% increase in responsiveness, leading to a lack of regulatory control of emotional response and increased extreme response. You only need to speak to an Oxford or Cambridge University student after pulling an ‘all-nighter’ to find this out for yourself.

The hippocampus – the ‘memory inbox’ of the brain – is particularly affected by lack of sleep. Without sleep, the memory circuits of the brain become ‘waterlogged’ preventing you to absorb new information. For this reason, sleep is incredibly important in education. Schools in the town of Edina, Minnesota, decided to try an experiment to test this. They shifted their school start times from 7.25am to 8.30am, and measured the difference for SAT scores. The result was a positive increase of over 200 points – enough to open up a different tier of university.

As we age, our cognitive ability declines. Another physiological signature of ageing is that sleep also gets worse, especially the deep quality of sleep. It has been discovered that these two aspects of ageing – cognitive decline and worsening sleep – are actually interrelated rather than simply correlated. Most recently discovered, a lack of sleep is a contributive factor to Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (see the bibliography below for some of this evidence).

These discoveries are startling and frightening, but they are also exciting because they allow researchers to develop ways to do something about it.

What is now in the pipeline of being approved for public use is a technology called ‘direct current brain stimulation’, in which electro-pads are applied to the head and a small amount of voltage is inserted to the brain. Current tests of this technology are very promising, showing a measurable impact to physiology. If you apply this to healthy adults, for example, deep sleep brain waves can be amplified, and you can nearly double the amount of memory benefit.

Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. The decimation of sleep is having a catastrophic impact on our health. Sleep is also a fascinating realm of study, in which new discoveries are occurring all the time. These discoveries are, in turn, leading to the development of new treatments, such as ‘direct current brain stimulation’.

Applicants for Psychology, Human Sciences, Medicine, or Natural Sciences are encouraged to explore this topic further and pick up a copy of Matthew Walker’s book, ‘Why We Sleep’ (2017).

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