It’s sometimes difficult to imagine how the planet we call home, with its megalopolis cities and serene farmlands, was once dominated by dinosaurs as big as buses and five-storey buildings. But recent research has helped deepen our understanding of why dinosaurs prevailed: the answer may lie in their special bones, structured like Aero chocolate.
Brazilian palaeontologist Tito Aureliano found that hollow bones filled with little air sacs were so important to dinosaur survival, they evolved independently several times in different lineages.
According to the study, aerated bones evolved in three separate lineages: pterosaurs, technically flying reptiles, and two dinosaur lineages theropods (ranging from the crow-sized Microraptor to the huge Tyrannosaurus rex) and sauropodomorphs (long-necked herbivores including Brachiosaurus). The researchers focused on the late Triassic period, roughly 233 million years ago, in south Brazil.
Charles Darwin believed evolution created “endless forms most beautiful”. But some adaptations emerge spontaneously time and time again, a bit like getting the same hand of cards on multiple occasions. When the same hand keeps cropping up, it’s a sign that evolution has hit upon an important and effective solution.
The variant the Brazilian team studied was aerated vertebrae bones, which would have enhanced the dinosaurs’ strength and reduced their body weight.
Light but mighty
Your regular deliveries from Amazon or other online retailers come packed in corrugated cardboard, which has the same advantages as aerated bones. It is light, yet tough.
Corrugated cardboard or as it was first known, pleated paper, was a man-made design experiment that was hugely successful and is now part of our everyday lives. It was patented in England in 1856 and was initially designed to support top hats which were popular in Victorian England and the US at the time.
Three years later, Darwin published his On the Origin of Species which outlined how evolutionary traits that create advantages are more likely to be passed on to future generations than variants which don’t.
CT scan technology allowed Aureliano and his colleagues to peer inside the rock-hard fossils they studied. Without the modern technology, it would have been impossible to look inside the fossils and detect the air sacs in the spinal columns.
The study found no common ancestor had this trait. All three groups must have developed air sacs independently, and each time in slightly different ways.
The air sacs probably enhanced oxygen levels in the dinosaurs’ blood. The Triassic period had a scorching hot and dry climate. So more oxygen circulating in the blood would cool dinosaur bodies more efficiently. It would also allow them to mover faster.
The air sacs would have buttressed and reinforced the internal structure of the dinosaurs’ bones while creating a greater surface area of attachments for large, powerful muscles. This would have enabled the bones to grow to a far larger size without weighing the animal down.
In living birds aerated bones reduce overall mass and volume, while enhancing bone strength and stiffness – essential features for flight.
Palaeontology not only tells the story of what might have been for Earth, had it not been for that infamous asteroid, but also helps us learn about the evolution of still living creatures.
Echoes of this dinosaur legacy lie in many animals alive today. It is not only long-dead animals which found this type of adaptation useful. Many bird species living today rely on hollow bones to fly. Others animals use the air sacs to buttress and strengthen their large bones and skulls, without weighing them down.
An excellent example of this is the elephant skull. Inside elephant skulls are large air sacs which allow the animal to move its massive head and heavy tusks without straining the neck muscles.
The human brain is also protected by two layers of hard, compact, bone (inner and outer tables) which sandwich a layer of softer, spongey and aerated bone in between, known as the diploe. This allows our skulls to be light, but strong and able to absorb shocks to cranium.
These are examples of convergent evolution in which animals are faced repeatedly with the same problem, evolving similar – but not always identical – solutions each time. Animals today are playing by the same evolutionary playbook as the dinosaurs.
Rugby has a higher rate of injury than most other sports frequently played in schools in the UK. It is a collision sport where players purposefully tackle each other, which can result in serious injury, such as to the head and neck.
The risks of injury, and particularly brain injuries, from playing rugby are now widely recognised. And yet it remains a compulsory sport in many schools.
Tackle rugby should not be compulsory in any school, for any age of children. Where rugby is compulsory, it should be non-contact.
What’s more, schools should provide children and their parents with information on the dangers involved with playing sports like rugby at school.
Research with 825 teenage school rugby players over one season found that more than one in three of the children suffered an injury from playing full-contact rugby. Almost half of these injuries were serious enough that the child could not return to play rugby for 28 or more days.
These injury concerns are also recognised by teachers. Our research has found that 67% of teachers in charge of school PE believe rugby union is the sport that puts children at the greatest risk of harm.
Despite the high risks involved with playing rugby, our research also shows that it is one of the most common sports in schools. We surveyed 288 state-funded secondary schools in England and found that rugby union was played in 81% of these schools. It is more common for boys to play rugby, but over half of the schools offered rugby for girls.
What is more worrying is that rugby is compulsory in the majority of the secondary schools we surveyed. Where schools offered rugby for boys, in 91% of cases it was compulsory. And 54% of schools that taught rugby to girls made it compulsory.
The risks of playing
In elite sport, understanding of the risks of playing rugby is growing. Concussion is the most common injury suffered by elite-level rugby players according to the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the governing body of rugby in England. Professional rugby union players are more likely than not to have suffered a concussion after playing just 25 matches.
But research has found that lowering the tackle height might not reduce the number of concussions suffered by players.
Repetitive head impacts, such as those that happen in rugby, can also cause neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and dementia.
Nearly 200 former players are suing the governing bodies of rugby. These players are suffering from neurological impairments and claim that World Rugby, the RFU and the Welsh Rugby Union did not protect players enough from permanent injuries.
Current England player Courtney Lawes has recently said that he would have reservations about his children playing professional rugby, because the financial benefits are not worth the injuries that come from playing the sport.
The risks remain at amateur levels. Amateur rugby players are also taking legal action against the same governing bodies who, they say, did not protect them from brain injuries during their playing careers.
Rugby, particularly at school level, does not need to include tackling. Safer versions of the sport, such as tag rugby, already exist.
Rugby can be played without tackling and still provide a wide range of physical and mental health benefits that help children stay physically active and maintain psychological wellbeing. School rugby must change to keep children safe.
It is notoriously difficult to work out how and why someone becomes a terrorism risk. While attacks cause immense pain and suffering, the actual number of terrorist incidents in the western world is small. That makes it difficult to arrive at reliable, quantified evidence.
But in our research, we’ve started to identify important patterns when it comes to different journeys into extremist offending. Most notably, we’ve found that in recent years, people who go on to be convicted of terrorist offences are far more likely to have been radicalised online – without any offline interactions at all – than was the case in the past.
While the seeming ease with which this can happen is worrying, we’ve also found that people recruited purely online are less likely to commit violent attacks and less committed to their extremist causes than those recruited via in-person meetings. While face-to-face radicalisation continues, the process is now found to take place primarily online.
Our work, which uses detailed risk assessment reports on people sentenced for terrorist offences in England and Wales, draws on 437 cases between October 2010 and December 2021. These reports, written by trained prison and probation professionals, focus on the pre-history of an offence and the current circumstances of the offender. As well as a detailed narrative, they also contain estimates of the levels of risk that the individual poses.
The shift online
We wanted to look into how people became radicalised in the outside world before they committed an extremist offence. We found that, over time, it is less and less the case that people are radicalised offline, such as at local meeting places or via direct contact with peers and relatives.
Mixed radicalisation, where extremist offenders are subject to both online and in-person influences, has also been declining. It is now much more common for people to be radicalised online. They might learn from online sources or engage with extreme views on social media. They might also use internet forums and chat groups that provide easy access to like-minded others.
While encrypted applications will always play their role, monitoring and regulating the more public online spaces is likely to make the most difference.
It was also interesting to note that those radicalised online consistently showed the lowest level of estimated risk. They were less engaged with extremist causes than those radicalised offline. They were also the most likely to have committed a non-violent offence, such as inciting and encouraging others to commit terrorism or possessing terrorist material, and to have committed their offences solely online.
They were also far less intent on committing further offences after leaving prison than those who were radicalised offline – and they appeared to have the lowest capacity to commit further crimes because of having less access to the knowledge, networks or materials they might need.
So it seems that while online radicalisation is the most pervasive form at the moment, it is not overly effective at permanently immersing people in an extremist mindset. Nor is the online approach particularly successful for conveying the skills and knowledge necessary to commit graver offences.
Disrupting online plots
In order to check for potentially more dangerous sub-groups, we also focused on those offenders classed as attackers. These were people who did not necessarily carry out full attacks but had, at the very least, cast themselves in such a role and had pursued attack plans.
The online group showed the lowest frequency of attack-related activities, and attackers in this group were least successful in progressing plots for attacks. Only 29% of these plots moved from planning to the execution stage and only 18% were successfully carried out.
All the plots we studied, which were not successful, had been disrupted by the police or other security services. The online world is, after all, not a perfect hiding place. Online activities often leave traces that can be detected by counter-terrorism practitioners.
While this could all mean that online radicalisation is comparatively harmless, there is a thin line between a relatively ineffective online-only radicalisation and a much more effective mixed radicalisation that includes both online and in-person influences. Online communication can slide into real-life interactions, and people radicalised via the latter technique were assessed as being highest in engagement and intent.
This article is part of the Insights Uncharted Brain series.
Jill* looked drained as we sat down to speak about her late husband. It had been a long day. It was February 2020, and we had been conducting interviews at the Concussion Legacy Foundation family huddle.
Despite being tired, Jill, 47, was keen to be interviewed. She wanted to share what she had gone through and hoped her story might help others. We sat down in a quiet corner of the foyer of the Rosen Centre hotel in Orlando, Florida, and I listened to her speak for over 90 minutes.
You can listen to more articles from The Conversation, narrated by Noa, here.
She told me all about her husband, Michael, a larger-than-life character who was the “life and soul of the party”. She spoke about how he had played many sports and had experienced multiple diagnosed concussions playing American Football and lacrosse – but this never dimmed his enthusiasm for sports.
Jill described how his behaviour gradually changed. How he forgot simple tasks. How he became aggressive. How his behaviour had become so erratic, she didn’t feel they were welcome at social events anymore. She said:
You’re just watching somebody you love disappear before your eyes and it’s hell.
Then one day she was on the phone to her husband while he was at work and the call went quiet. Jill rushed to his office, only to find that he had taken his own life.
Jill was one of the 23 interviews we conducted with family members over the three days our research team spent at the Concussion Legacy Foundation event. Our conversations provided an insight into what it was like living with a former athlete with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s that has been caused by repetitive head impacts in contexts like sport and the military.
This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.
The people we spoke to had been through so much. The confusion, hurt and despair of seeing the mind of someone they love gradually deteriorate seemed overwhelming. But we also saw some positive signs, such as how they wanted to share their stories to help others, and how there appeared to be a shared determination to change things for the better and to make sport safer so other families wouldn’t have to go through what they’d experienced.
Head injuries in sport
Chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing has been known about for around 100 years. In 1928, Harrison Martland first described chronic traumatic encephalopathy in retired boxers. It was first referred to as “punch-drunk syndrome” or “dementia pugilistica” and sometimes develops in boxers as a result of long-term sub-clinical concussions (not detectable by the usual clinical tests).
In 2002, neuropathologist Bennet Omalu examined the brain of Mike Webster, a former National Football League (NFL) player who died from a heart attack after his physical and mental health had rapidly deteriorated. Subsequently, former NFL players sued the league, claiming that they had received head trauma or injuries during their football careers, which caused them long-term neurological problems.
The VA-BU-CLF UNITE Brain Bank at Boston University is the largest tissue repository in the world focused on traumatic brain injury (TBI). In a 2017 study into the first 202 donated brains, high rates of CTE were found, with 177 diagnosed with CTE, including 110 of 111 from the NFL players (99%). The brain bank now has over 1,000 brains from donors as young as 14 who have been exposed to brain traumas, primarily from playing sport. Studying these brains is crucial, not only for preventing, diagnosing and treating CTE, but also understanding the long-term consequences of concussion and traumatic brain injury.
Subsequent research from Boston University’s CTE Center in 2019 found that every year of playing full tackle American football increases the risk of developing CTE by 30%. So for every 2.6 years of playing, the risk of developing CTE doubles.
But the problem is not isolated to American sports. Compared with most other sports, rugby union has a relatively high injury rate, including at school level in the UK where it is often a compulsory sport. In addition, it has been reported that there is about one brain injury per match in international rugby.
Demise of England’s ‘lions’
In football, concussion often results from accidental head impacts (like head-to-head collisions or collisions with the goalposts). But a growing number of studies have shown that detrimental sub-concussive impacts (a bump, blow or jolt to the head that does not cause symptoms) may result from repeatedly heading the ball. And there have been an increasing number of high-profile examples in recent years who have been raising awareness of this issue.
In late 2020, three incidents shifted attitudes on the dangers of football. First, Norbert “Nobby” Stiles, a member of England’s 1966 Fifa World Cup winning team, died. Stiles had been diagnosed with dementia and the cause of this disease was linked to repeated heading of the ball in his career.
Then, it was announced that Sir Bobby Charlton, another World Cup winning hero, had also been diagnosed with dementia. He was the second member of his family to suffer with this disease as his brother, Jack (who played in the same winning team) had died earlier in the year after his own battle with dementia.
Bobby Charlton was thus the fifth of the 11 starting players in the 1966 final to have been diagnosed with neurological diseases. Media reports have linked all of these cases to the repeated heading of footballs during their playing careers.
But the first case that drew attention to the link between football and traumatic brain injury was that of Jeff Astle. Following his death in 2002, the coroner’s verdict at the inquest into his death at the age of 59 recorded a verdict of “death by industrial disease”, linked to heading heavy, often rain-sodden, leather footballs. Astle’s health had deteriorated – he had struggled with an eating disorder and was unable to recognise his children.
Astle’s daughter, Dawn, has become a leading figure in the campaign to protect footballers. She presented evidence to the 2020 DCMS committee on concussion and brain injury in sport. Her submission to the committee included the following comment:
My dad choked to death in front of me, my mum and my sisters. Please think about that for one minute. He choked to death because his brain had been destroyed. Destroyed because he was a footballer. I don’t want any other family to go through what my family went through, and continue to go through every day. Please don’t let my dad’s death and all the other footballers deaths be in vain. My dad was my hero and my best friend. His death will haunt me forever.
Families speak out
In February 2020, our team of five researchers were invited by Chris Nowinski, the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, to Orlando. The CLF is an international non-profit organisation that aims to support athletes affected by head injury, and to assist patients and families by providing personalised help to those struggling with the outcomes of brain injury.
Our interviews were conducted at their “family huddle”, which was a support event for family members to allow them to share stories and connect with others who have had similar experiences.
We were given the opportunity to talk to family members, and build trust and rapport. This gave us a greater insight and understanding of their world. We conducted interviews with the partners, parents, siblings and the children of the deceased athletes.
Our research, published in The Qualitative Report, was presented as an ethnodrama (playscript) to best allow the stories of the family members to be heard. This also showed the distinct temporal phases that these family members went through, and by sharing these stories we hope this raises awareness of the powerful emotions they have experienced.
Many of the people we spoke to said the initial stage, when they started to see changes in the behaviour of their loved one, created very strong emotions because they couldn’t understand why this was happening. They had seen someone they loved decline in front of their eyes. Alice, 68, reflected on seeing this change in her husband: “He went from functioning perfectly, to struggling to remember or do anything he was so used to doing.”
People went on to recall specific instances when this behavioural decline became noticeable. For example, David told us this about his brother: “Once when he went to the airport to pick up my aunt. He proceeded to drive her around, and she finally said, ‘Where are we going?’” He replied that he didn’t know.
There was evidence of a mounting feeling of hopelessness that declines in neurological functioning were causing. Another striking, distressing example was this story Sophie told about her husband:
One weekend, I had 12 big black trash bags to go out to the garbage. And I told him when I got up and went to work on Monday morning, I said, ‘those are going out to the trash tomorrow’. I came home after work and he had unpacked every trash bag … I just sat there and cried … I’d worked a 12-hour day. I said, ‘why did you unpack all that trash?’ and he couldn’t tell me why. He just didn’t know.
Others reinforced other emotions at seeing this happening to their loved one. Emily explained how she felt: “I do think at the start you are in this sense of disbelief because the person you love is doing these things that are out of character.” And Evelyn reflected on the sadness of seeing such changes:
I was shocked, but also felt like the world had been turned upside down. We were so happy. I remember just sobbing.
Researchers have previously highlighted the emotional consequences that family members experience when they witness the decline of their loved one. For example, one 2019 study involving interviews with 20 wives of either current or retired professional American football players, revealed their serious concerns about the cognitive, emotional and behavioural decline of these players. Some wives identified behavioural changes that included rage, reduced positive social interactions and various erratic behaviour, like starting risky business ventures.
As we also found, deterioration in cognitive functioning meant that those affected by traumatic brain injury were no longer able to carry out simple household tasks and often struggled with language problems.
Anger, guilt and fear
Another study, which examined families who have experienced a severe traumatic brain injury outside of sport highlighted the difficulties caused by the uncertainty of the situation – both in terms of the progression of the illness and how to support and deal with the cognitive, physical and behavioural changes exhibited after the injury.
All of this presents huge challenges to families. Negotiating appropriate treatment is hard and the emotional and physical exhaustion of dealing with these difficulties just keeps mounting up for the people involved.
Our participants explained the toll it took on them as they saw first-hand the severe changes in behaviour as their loved one experienced further decline. For example, Katherine said she felt drained and responsible. “It’s hard because you don’t know what’s happening,” she said. “So you just blame yourself and think you are the reason. And that’s not good for your own wellbeing.”
Helen spoke about her intense feelings as her partner drank as a response to his condition:
I was so angry at him for making the same choices over and over with drinking though. Like, “you’ve drank so much that you fell down the stairs in front of me at home, are you kidding me?” And it hurt, you know, and left a lot on my plate, so I was really, really, angry. And that didn’t help things.
Changes in behaviour created further problems for family members, such as how their loved one was perceived in social situations. Elizabeth described one specific incident at a party:
We went to a catered event, and he would take the top of the [burger] bun off, take the meat out to eat, put the bun back, and then go to the next one. And someone caught him and was like, “what is he doing?” Of course, we never got invited back to any of those people’s homes. No one wanted to have anything to do with him because they couldn’t understand him.
Laura also spoke about the implications of a lack of understanding of this condition, highlighting how others would misinterpret her husband’s actions. This led to feelings of sadness as they became socially isolated from their friends. She said: “When we went to events, a lot of people thought he was an alcoholic, because he could have one cocktail and then he’d fall. They had no idea that the falling had nothing to do with that one drink that he had. And it became very sad because people didn’t want to have us around.”
Our participants also spoke of the burden as a result of effectively becoming their partner’s primary caregiver. Sophie spoke about the struggles she faced with supporting her husband with daily tasks. “I couldn’t physically handle him,” she said. “At that point he was unstable. He would shuffle, and fall, and he couldn’t get in and out of the shower. He was also incontinent, and I couldn’t handle him by myself. I felt so weak.”
Evelyn also spoke of these experiences, highlighting that the physical size of her partner caused significant strain. “The sheer problem with these guys was their physical size. As the disease progressed, he fell probably 10-15 times a day, and we’d have to figure out how to get him up. I was both physically and mentally exhausted,” Evelyn said.
Meanwhile, others spoke of the physical fear of danger they felt. Like Emily who told us:
I did become scared of him. I hate to say that, but I did. He made me sign some papers and I had no idea what they were. He was just escalating and escalating, and he was standing over me and I just knew if I didn’t sign that paper, I was in physical danger. Which was an awful thought to have about your own husband that you love.
Our interviews gave family members the chance to reflect on their time living with and caring for their loved one, and also, how they might approach the situation differently. Helen told us she wished she had taken more time for herself, and advised anybody going through a similar situation to “get into therapy, to help you process everything and to let you have an outlet”.
Katherine agreed, saying: “You’ve got to try and take some time for yourself. I remember I took a trip with a girlfriend once and I was scared to death the whole time I was gone, but I went, and we had a wonderful time, and I’m so glad I did it. You know, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in your life for yourself, for your own good. Try to keep yourself healthy, eat healthily, work out. Keep yourself well because there really was nothing, I could do for him except be present. I couldn’t make him well.”
Other family members reflected on the dangers of certain sports. For example, Alice highlighted how her awareness had increased, giving her the knowledge and understanding to allow her to come to terms with her husband’s situation. She realised there were “significant pathologies” that he had no control over that affected his decision-making.
His brain was still functioning, and he was still able to make decisions, just the wrong parts of the brain were directing his decisions. That totally makes sense now, so that’s been a huge relief, that he wasn’t just an asshole in his own right, he really just couldn’t control it.
While our data contained accounts full of sadness, participants also reflected on different ways they were moving forwards in a positive way after experiencing the death of a loved one. Laura detailed the benefits of attending the huddle and being with people who had been through similar struggles: “Everyone here is in the same boat. It may not have looked exactly the same for us, but we don’t have to explain for once. And just the support I’ve got from the people here has been great.”
Others talked about how the support helped the grieving process and inspired them to get involved and help other families. For example, Evelyn spoke of the need to make changes at a junior sport level: “I’m just so concerned this horrible disease is hitting younger and younger people, yet no one knows about it … giving people the information to be able to make the correct decision is super important.”
The final word goes to Elizabeth, who had become involved in the support work of the CLF, and spoke of her new found purpose to help others. She said it helped make her loss “bearable” because “millions” might benefit and “hopefully not have to experience the kind of tragedy that affected our family”.
I feel like part of the reason this happened is for me to be part of raising more awareness and be a part of this movement towards new culture change. I can help families navigate … the difficult waters of dealing with this. And so, I feel like it speaks to sort of a calling … I have in life or part of my purpose.
What is clear to us after concluding this research project is that greater recognition of the challenges faced by both those living with diseases of the brain, such as CTE, and their carers is needed.
We heard about the devastating losses and tragedies. But we were also privileged to highlight more positive stories that showed how people were able to move forwards and help others to create a constructive change in sport so others won’t have to suffer.
It also illustrates how neurodegenerative disease resulting from head trauma as a consequence of impact sports has far reaching effects – not only the athletes, but also those around them. This represents a growing public health concern and societal problem.
It shows that greater recognition of the challenges faced by both those living with diseases of the brain, such as CTE, and their carers, is needed.
We hope their stories will stimulate discussion and be used to support people who might be going through similar experiences. Our findings might be used to help practitioners, sporting governing bodies and charities such as the CLF, to understand more fully these negative emotional responses and, in turn, consider strategies that might be developed to support people. In turn, these organisations must also act to address the causes of head injuries to make sports safer.
All names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved.
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This autumn, visitors to Weston-super-Mare on the west coast of England will be confronted by the strangest of sights, a repurposed oil rig and temporary art installation and high-rise garden dubbed the “See Monster”.
Located in a shallow pool at the former Tropicana open-air swimming baths, once home to artist Banksy’s Dismaland, it is one of ten major commissions that comprise Unboxed: Creativity in the UK. A £120 million year-long programme of free events and activities, Unboxed was conceived and funded by the UK government as a post-Brexit celebration with a mission to inspire conversations and future careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
See Monster is a huge, ambitious project. It is one of the UK’s biggest public art works and the first to reuse a structure synonymous with fossil fuels to raise awareness of the climate emergency, renewable energy and sustainability.
But questions have been asked about the project’s impact and legacy. Particularly, critics have mentioned how the decision to tear it down after only six weeks of operation (on November 5) appears wasteful and counter to the environmental message – although this is necessary to avoid any impact on the wading birds that migrate to the area in the winter.
The See Monster has also been caught up in criticism of the Unboxed festival itself, which has been branded “an irresponsible use of public money” at a time of great economic uncertainty and hardship.
Like London’s controversial Marble Arch Mound, an artificial hill designed to attract shoppers to Oxford Street that came in over-budget and which was widely panned, the See Monster calls into question the value of “pop-up” attractions in revitalising our towns and cities, and of culture-led urban regeneration in general.
At 35 metres tall and weighing 450 tonnes, the See Monster is split over four levels with a 10-meter waterfall cascading from the lowest level. It features small trees, plants and grasses. There is a playground slide and animated sculptures, including some 6,000 “scales” attached to the exterior that move in the wind. There are also water atomisers to generate clouds and numerous vantage points offering unrivalled views of the resort and surrounding countryside. It attracts a range of visitors, from curious tourists to organised visits by school groups.
These “here today, gone tomorrow” visitor attractions are the extension of a trend that began in the 1990s with pop-up shops in empty units along high streets and in shopping centres and precincts. The “experience industries”, including tourism, have long been used as a tool of urban regeneration, with former factories, warehouses, harboursides and deep mines rebuilt into museums, bars and restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls.
Structures like the See Monster take this one step further. Instead of a permanent change of use, they temporarily occupy, reuse and adapt existing structures and infrastructure in towns and cities left redundant or in danger of redundancy by economic and financial crises and other triggers of change, such as the pandemic.
These temporary installations are made for the Instagram age, generating countless selfies, positive comments and “likes” on social media.
Research has shown that pop-ups can attract significant footfall, spending and publicity for the host town or city. They can also help reimagine a run-down or underutilised site, as with the Tropicana, with a view to attracting private investment and a permanent change of use (such as Castlefield Viaduct park in Manchester). More altruistic possibilities include creating open space for communities for recreation, promoting behaviour change (for example taking up exercise or sustainable living) or raising money for good causes.
The ‘cult of the temporary’
Despite the reported benefits, geographers Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki question whether the pop-up phenomenon is good for cities. Temporary urbanism, they argue, promotes short term fixes to complex and enduring urban problems. It can also create precarity (think zero hours jobs and short-notice evictions).
These pop-ups are a distraction from the deeper problems of capitalism and the pathologies of urban life, such as air pollution and grinding poverty. In this, they tend to perpetuate inequalities rather than tackling their root causes.
A lot depends on the pop-up. Ambitious, expensive projects like the See Monster can struggle to live up to the hype and are vulnerable to the criticism that the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals. Smaller, community-led schemes with modest ambitions, or serendipitous events like Dismaland that seem to come out of nowhere, are likely to be better received and to leave a positive legacy.
While pop-ups are themselves transitory in nature, the trend towards ephemera, simulation and event-based tourism in urban areas is here to stay. That means the debate on whether they are good or bad for our towns and cities will carry on, long after the See Monster has retreated from public view.
Mobile phones, computers, social media and the internet are part of the daily lives of children and young people, including at school. Concerns over the risks of too much screen time or online activity for children and young people have been tempered by the reality of technology use in education and leisure.
The experience of life during the pandemic, when much schooling and socialising went online, has also changed attitudes to technology use. UK communications regulator Ofcom reported that in 2020 only a minority of children and young people did not go online or have internet access.
Teachers are in a unique position when it comes to assessing how children and young people use technology such as mobile phones and the effect it has on them. They see how children and young people use technology to learn, socialise, and how it affects their relationships with their peers.
Together with colleagues, I carried out in-depth research with eight teachers from different backgrounds, ages, years of professional experience, and type of educational institution from across the UK. We asked the teachers about their experiences of children and young people’s use of technology: how they thought it affected their emotions, behaviour and learning both before and during the pandemic.
The teachers talked about the importance of technology as a tool in the classroom and learning and the opportunities it provides for creativity. As one teacher put it:
It is what the children are used to, and it engages them more – it is a useful tool that can add to our teaching.
Empowered through tech
We also found that teachers were optimistic about the role technology could play in empowering children and young people. One said:
They use social networking sites to learn from one another and to express their beliefs – even children who are quiet in the classroom, they find it easier to express themselves online.
They thought that children and young people could learn to understand and recognise the signs of unhealthy technology use from their own emotions and behaviour when using technology. This included showing empathy and care through noticing how they and others feel. One teacher said children and young people were becoming more compassionate and offering their help to friends who were showing signs of distress through their online posts.
However, some teachers did express concern about how interacting online affected children and young people’s social skills. One teacher said:
They don’t know how to have proper conversations with their friends. They don’t know how to resolve anything because it’s easy to be mean behind a screen and not have to resolve it.
Another questioned how technology use was affecting play. They said:
They don’t know how to play and actually you will see groups of them surrounding a phone.
Teachers also pointed to the problems of disengaging from technology use. One teacher stated:
The parents have ongoing battles trying to pull their children away from screens and the next day they are exhausted, and they find it difficult to get them into school because the children are so tired.
Teachers discussed how they encouraged their pupils to take part in team sports as a way to encourage face-to-face communication and conflict resolution. However, while some online safety and internet use is covered at school, guidance on how to live with technology, be resilient towards challenges and use technology in a balanced could be more explicitly taught.
The PHSE Association – a national body for personal, social, health and economic education – offers guidance on online safety and skills for the curriculum, such as the potential harms of pornography but there is much scope to develop a broader approach to supporting healthy technology use.
In class, this could be as simple as working on how to make informed decisions about technology use – such as being more cautious if online activity involves talking with strangers, or recognising if spending time online is a large time commitment. It could include using social media posts as real-world examples to encourage childrenand young people to be informed, critical and resilient towards content they are likely to see and interact with.
Teachers felt that adding online safety to the curriculum would be valuable, as would providing opportunities for children and young people to talk about their experiences and content of technology. One teacher said:
There are predators out there and we do discuss online safety issues with my students, but some stuff should be part of the curriculum as well, and parents should access it too.
The teachers highlighted that they, too, needed support in their knowledge about technology and suggested this should be more incorporated into teacher training. One teacher said:
We need to keep up with the times and if there is something this pandemic taught us, is that not all of us are keeping up… one-off training is not adequate, schools need to invest in continuous professional development activities related to technology.
Children and young people can get significant benefits from technology, but it has risks, too. More attention to how teachers can address this in school can be an invaluable way to help children and young people understand and balance their time online.
A sudden change on 29 August 2022 in the colour and smell of Lake Kuk, in north-west Cameroon, has caused anxiety and panic among the local residents. Fears are driven by an incident that happened 36 years ago at Lake Nyos, just 10km away.
On 21 August 1986, Lake Nyos emitted lethal gases (mainly carbon dioxide) that suffocated 1,746 people and around 8,300 livestock. It wasn’t the first incident like this. Two years earlier, Lake Monoum, about 100km south-west of Lake Nyos, killed 37 people.
Research into the cause of the Lake Nyos disaster concluded that carbon dioxide gas – released from the Earth’s mantle – had been accumulating at the bottom of the lake for centuries. A sudden disturbance of the lake’s waters due to a landslide resulted in a sudden release of around 1.24 million tonnes of carbon dioxide gas.
Survivors briefly heard a rumbling sound from Lake Nyos before an invisible gas cloud emerged from its depths. It killed people, animals, insects and birds along its path in the valley before dispersing into the atmosphere where it became harmless.
Both Kuk and Nyos are crater lakes located in a region of volcanic activity known as the Cameroon Volcanic Line. And there are 43 other crater lakes in the region that could contain lethal amounts of gases. Other lakes around the world that pose a similar threat include Lake Kivu at the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Ngozi in Tanzania and Lake Monticchio in Italy.
After Lake Nyos erupted, its water turned a deep red colour and survivors reported the smell of rotten eggs. These are the same characteristics to have recently manifested at Lake Kuk. The change in colour of Lake Nyos was only noticed after the gas burst.
In an official press release, heavy rainfall was linked to the odour and change in colour of Lake Kuk. The tens of thousands of people living around the lake were urged to “remain calm while being vigilant to continuously inform the administration of any other incident noted”.
As a geologist and disaster management expert, I believe that not enough is being done to address and manage the potential danger from crater lakes in the region.
To start with, it’s important to know which lakes are at risk of “exploding”.
Initial checks in some of the lakes were done more than 30 years ago and not thoroughly – it was just one team and on one occasion. Further investigations and regular monitoring are required.
Currently it’s believed that, of the 43 crater lakes on Cameroon’s Volcanic Line, 13 are deep and large enough to contain lethal quantities of gases. Although 11 are considered to be relatively safe, two (Lakes Enep and Oku) are dangerous.
Research has revealed that the thermal profile (how temperature changes with depth), quantity of dissolved gases, surface area or water volume and depth are key indicators of the potential for crater lakes to store large quantities of dangerous gases.
The factors that lead to the greatest risk include: high quantities of dissolved gases, held under high pressures, at great depths, in lakes with large volumes of water. They are at an even greater risk of explosion when the lakes sit in wide or large craters where there are disturbances.
The two lakes that caused fatalities (Nyos and Monoum) are deep and have thermal profiles that increase with depth. Other lakes are too shallow (less than 40 metres) and have uniform thermal profiles, indicating they do not contain large amounts of gases.
Investigating all the crater lakes in Cameroon would be a logistical challenge. It would require significant funding, a diverse scientific team, technical resources and transportation to the lakes. Since most of the crater lakes are in remote areas with poor communication network (no roads, rail or airports), it would take a couple of years for the work to be completed.
Since Cameroon has many potentially dangerous crater lakes, it is unsatisfactory that 36 years after the Lake Nyos disaster, not much has been done to mitigate the risks in other gas-charged hazardous lakes.
Managing dangerous lakes
Lake Kuk was checked shortly after the 1986 Lake Nyos disaster and found not to contain excess carbon dioxide. Its relatively shallow depth and surface area means the risk of gas being trapped in large quantities is low.
Nevertheless, authorities should have immediately restricted access to Lake Kuk pending a thorough onsite investigation. The official press release urging calm was sent just one day after the incident was reported. It’s not possible that a scientist could have carried out a physical examination of the lake. The release said that rainfall was responsible for the changes, but this will be based on assumptions.
Lake Kuk might be considered safe, but due to the dynamic and active nature of the Cameroon Volcanic Line, there is a possibility that volcanic gases can seep into the lake at any moment.
An onsite scientific investigation would determine with certainty the abnormal behaviour of Lake Kuk. Keeping people away from the lake until a swift and credible investigation had been done would be the most rational decision.
An additional step would be for a carbon dioxide detector to be installed near Lake Kuk and other potentially dangerous crater lakes. This would serve as an early warning system for lethal gas releases.
A carbon dioxide early warning system is designed to detect high concentrations of gases in the atmosphere and to produce a warning sound. Upon hearing the sound, people are expected to run away from the lake and onto higher ground. After the Lake Nyos disaster, carbon dioxide detectors and warning systems were installed near Lakes Nyos and Monoum. Nevertheless, no simulation has been conducted to determine their effectiveness.
The Directorate of Civil Protection is the designated agency responsible for coordinating disaster risk management in Cameroon. The agency should liaise with other stakeholders in the government and private sector to ensure the safety of Cameroon’s dangerous lakes. If the authorities are not proactive, the Lake Nyos disaster scenario may repeat where thousands of people and livestock are suddenly killed.
It’s a crime story fit for the digital era. It was recently reported that a number of restaurants in New York had been targeted by internet scammers threatening to leave unfavourable “one-star” reviews unless they received gift certificates. The same threats were made to eateries in Chicago and San Francisco and it appears that a vegan restaurant received as many as eight one-star reviews in the space of a week before being approached for money.
It’s surprising this sort of thing hasn’t emerged before. An over-reliance on the “wisdom of the crowd”, whereby many people measure things by the approval of the rest of the community, leaves us vulnerable to this kind of fraud.
It’s all about numbers. Products and companies are measured online by the number of stars they get on a five-star scale, influencers are measured by numbers of followers, posts are measured by the numbers of likes or retweets. The satirical Kardashian index provides a quantitative measure for academics by comparing citations of their research papers with their number of Twitter followers.
But why are these systems considered to be of value and why do we consult them almost blindly? In an age of information overload, feedback and reputation systems enable fast decision-making, providing us with the sense (or illusion) that we are in control as the decision taken is perceived to be informed.
Another idea at play here is the “attention economy paradigm”. Under this way of thinking, human attention is a scarce commodity and – as with all resources that are limited on this planet – it is of high value.
Businesses compete for a high as possible place on the first page of Google’s search results in order to capture this attention. And user feedback is one of the many parameters that influence the search engine’s secret ranking algorithms.
The notable success and acceptance of such reputation systems is grounded in the idea of the wisdom of the crowd comes in. If a sufficiently large sample of the population is asked to estimate something, the average of these estimations is expected to be very close to the actual value. This is because any personal bias becomes insignificant when a considerable amount of opinions is collected.
But all systems that come along with successful business models are open to abuse and can attract opportunistic and malicious actors, to an extent that organised criminal groups may form and systematically exploit such systems. For example, business opportunities that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic were instantly matched by an assortment of criminal activities including shopping scams, disinformation, illegal streaming and even child sexual exploitation.
There are several reasons and motivations for fake reviews. Business competitors may try to flood a business target with negative reviews in order to harm their competitor. Others may attempt, by creating fake profiles or “bribing” customers with free or discounted products, to engineer positive reviews and misrepresent the quality of their products.
But extortion via threats of negative review is particularly insidious. A surge of negative reviews on a business’s Google profile not only affects its search engine ranking, but significantly influences the potential customers’ purchase decisions.
Although these practices are reported to have been streamlined from organised groups in India, variations of this have also been observed from other countries. Amazon recently sued 10,000 Facebook group administrators exceeding 43,000 members who allegedly solicit fake (positive) reviews in exchange for free products.
What can be done?
The abuse of online feedback and reputation systems has grown to epidemic proportion. Countering it will require the coordination of everyone involved.
Google and other feedback and reputation service providers need to invest more resources into the prevention, detection and removal of fake reviews. Machine learning technologies have made impressive leaps in recent years and could help in weeding out fake content.
Tighter rules governing the selection of reviewers enabling their participation under specific conditions. We’ve seen this with verified buyer schemes that aim to provide assurances that the reviewer has had a genuine experience with the business.
The presentation of the feedback and particularly the star scoring system could also have more contextual information, say through additional colour coding to communicate the sentiment mined out of the textual comments. In this case, highly emotional comments based on less factual or useful information could have a different colour from those trying to be impartial and objective.
Businesses also need to embrace the system for reporting problem reviews and use it responsibly. They should not report negative feedback if it is genuine, as this affects the relationship with the feedback platform, which will understandably be more distrustful to the business.
And consumers should be more alert and educated about this rather than following these rankings religiously. There are many telltale signs of a fake review, including simply checking the language to see if they are generic. It’s also instructive to check whether the reviewer produces a lot of negative reviews across many and seemingly unconnected products in a short time.
We, the crowd should be active participants by being always fair with our purchase experiences and acknowledge and support business when they exceed our expectations – but also provide candid negative reviews and recommendations for improvement. Only then the wisdom of the crowd will truly serve us.
For a newcomer to the wonderful world of Middle-earth, the universe created by the British author and academic J.R.R. Tolkien can seem as large and unwieldy as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (currently in Phase Four with more still to come). And, there is a new addition as Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) hits screens.
The series comes eight years after the concluding film of The Hobbit and 19 years after the last Lord of the Rings film. So if you want to watch the series and keep up with inevitable social media debates, here is a guide to this sprawling world to initiate newcomers to Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The Hobbit follows the adventures of the eponymous creature (short of stature, hairy feet), Bilbo Baggins, on a quest with a party of dwarves to reclaim lost treasure. Along the way, he finds a ring that gives him the power of invisibility.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
The Lord of the Rings picks up the story many years later as Bilbo’s ring is revealed to be the One Ring, forged by the evil dark lord Sauron as a source of power. Bilbo’s nephew Frodo embarks on a dangerous journey to destroy the ring and save Middle-earth. He is aided by his gardener Sam Gamgee as well as representatives of the other chief races of Middle-earth: two further hobbits, the dwarf Gimli, elf Legolas and two human men, Boromir and Aragorn.
Tolkien served during the first world war and his experiences on the battle-field shape the numerous conflicts depicted in the stories as well as the various forms of heroism that are displayed. In Tolkien’s world, moral courage is just as important, if not more so, than physical prowess for the enduring heroes of Middle-earth.
The close bonds between serving soldiers also inform the interpersonal relationships that are central to The Lord of the Rings – it is evident in the devotion between the hobbits Frodo and Sam and the enemies-to-friends narrative of Gimli and Legolas.
What is Middle-earth?
Middle-earth is the fictional setting for Tolkien’s invented mythology, which made its debut in The Hobbit. However, the term Middle-earth was not used in that book – that came later with The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was a professor of English literature and an expert in language, especially in written and oral histories. His mythology for Middle-earth is filled with poems, songs and oral history traditions that help to build the world of different cultures and races (hobbits, elves, dwarves, men) that inhabit his universe. Norse mythology, Anglo-Saxon epic poems, fairy tales and the Finnish mythic poem the Kalevala are all influences on the stories, characters and languages found in Tolkien’s work.
Although The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are the best known stories, they’re not the complete history of Middle-earth. The Silmarillion (1977), which was published after Tolkien’s death and edited by his son Christopher and the fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, outlines the thousands of years of history of Middle-earth.
The book charts the creation of Arda, where the continent of Middle-earth is located, and covers the First and Second Ages of the world (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place in the Third Age). Arda starts as a flat disc and evolves into something more recognisably planet-like over the course of cataclysmic events during repeated battles between forces of good and evil. Further events and characters that shape Arda and Middle-earth feature in Unfinished Tales (1980).
However, as Amazon has only acquired the rights for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, none of the stories from either Unfinished Tales or The Silmarillion will feature in the new series. The extensive appendices to The Lord of the Rings are the source of the material for the new show.
Set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, The Rings of Power takes place thousands of years before either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings so there will be few recognisable characters. Sauron, who appeared in The Lord of the Rings as a flaming red eye, is still the big bad.
The creator of the corrupting rings of power and of the infamous One Ring that controls the others, Sauron may not be front-and-centre as an antagonist but his actions and desire for control of Middle-earth will drive much of the action.
The other two familiar names are the elves Galadriel and Elrond, here much younger than they appeared in the films. Galadriel is established as a warrior – which is true to her history as Tolkien wrote it – and there is a lot of scope in the series to see how she develops into the wise ruler of the elven realm Lothlorien.
Elrond Half-elven, the ruler of the enclave of Rivendell, is shown as more optimistic than in The Lord of the Rings and with closer links to the human kingdom of Númenor, whose rulers are descended from his twin brother, Elros.
As the brothers were half-elven, they could choose which of their kindred they would identify as. Elros lived as a mortal and eventually aged and died. Elrond chose to live as an immortal elf and the emotional toll of those decisions will be explored in his story arc.
Fans might be concerned that Tolkien might have disliked some of the liberties taken with his works. While his estate is known to be protective (and litigious) over the original works, Tolkien stated that he wanted other hands to add to his universe. In light of that, he would probably have been delighted to see his creation still so beloved and still expanding.
Most analysis of Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis has been skewed towards the socioeconomic, cultural and political ramifications of the conflict.
But, based on my work on natural, environmental hazards and disaster management in Cameroon over the past two decades, I would argue that the environment in the Anglophone region is a silent casualty of the conflict. And it has largely been ignored.
Our recently published research on the crisis showed that over 900,000 people had been internally displaced. Eighty percent of the inhabitants of villages that were conflict hot spots had fled into adjacent forests. The research investigated the consequences of the Cameroon Anglophone crisis and determined it to be an acute complex emergency.
These developments are leaving huge environmental footprints and causing serious damage. This will get worse if the armed conflict escalates into a “complex disaster emergency”.
I have identified six environmental consequences of the Cameroon Anglophone crisis. These range from failures in environmental governance to increases in deforestation, unmet measures in Cameroon’s climate action plan, poor municipal waste management, the effects of scorched earth tactics and the impact of improvised explosive devices.
There is a need to address these environmental oversights and build them into resolving the crisis. This would prevent the environmental legacies of the armed conflict from haunting the region’s population after the crisis has ended.
The fallout for the environment
One of the effects of the fighting since 2016 was that it brought conservation activities to a halt in the country’s biodiversity hot spots in the Anglophone regions. Cameroon has around 14 national parks, 18 wildlife reserves, 12 forest reserves and three wildlife sanctuaries hosting rare and threatened species.
Before the crisis, many of these protected areas were still in a pristine condition because Cameroon had less tourism than other regions of Africa.
But the crisis has stalled several environmental projects.
For example, violence forced environmentalists and NGOS operating in the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Lebialem to flee. The Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the critically endangered Cross River gorillas and other endangered wildlife like the African chimpanzee and elephant.
These gorillas are also under increased threat from militias such as the “Red Dragons” which have set up camps within the sanctuary (see Figure 1).
Likewise, efforts to protect the Mount Cameroon National Park, which hosts endangered primates, have been hampered. This poses a threat to the Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzee, which already faces extinction.
Insecurity in areas hosting wildlife has led to a rise in uncontrolled illegal hunting. Poaching of endangered chimpanzees (see Figure 2) and elephants increased in the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary and the Takamanda and Korup National Parks after state rangers and eco-guards fled.
The rise in the number of internally displaced people has had a number of consequences.
Deforestation has risen as relocated communities have cut down trees to provide shelter and firewood.
They are also putting pressure on access to water. Toilet facilitates are inadequate in areas hosting large numbers of people. Drilling of wells, sometimes in unhygienic surroundings, and defecation in streams are also responsible for the poor water quality in the region.
Thirdly, measures in Cameroon’s climate action plan have been halted by the crisis. The measures include providing fertilisers and improved seeds to farmers; installing renewable energy in rural areas; and restoring mangrove forests along the Limbe coast.
Fourthly, the crisis has worsened the problem of municipal waste management.
Separatists have threatened to burn the garbage collection company, HYSACAM. Some of its workers have been attacked. This has affected the collection of municipal waste in Bamenda and Buea, capitals of the Anglophone northwest and southwest regions.
Fifth, military forces are using scorched earth tactics that could create serious environmental harm. The military has destroyed houses, crops and livestock in several villages perceived to be strongholds of militia groups.
Likewise, militias have destroyed property owned by the state and that of civilians suspected to be colluding with security forces.
Satellite images from February and March 2021 confirm the destruction of multiple villages in the northwest region.
Lastly, the use of improvised explosive devices by militia groups against Cameroon’s military vehicles has been increasing and getting more sophisticated.
Explosive remnants and munitions can make the land uninhabitable, severely harm wildlife, and contaminate the soil and watercourses. Clearance of devices can also cause localised pollution, soil degradation and negative land use consequences.
Contingency plans being put in place by the Cameroon government for a potential complex disaster emergency should consider the environmental aspects of the conflict.
First it’s necessary to empirically diagnose the environmental ramifications and how they can be resolved.
When seeking political solutions to the crisis, stakeholders should also incorporate measures to mitigate the environmental consequences.
But it would be almost 100 years before similar numbers of spectators were seen again at women’s sports matches, and in 2022 crowds are now breaking world records. In March, for example, 91,553 people watched Barcelona play Real Madrid in the UEFA Women’s Champions League – the highest attended women’s football match of all time.
The reason why it took so long to get here is that after the first world war progress for women slowed, and even went backwards. By 1921 there were 150 women’s football teams, often playing to large crowds. But on December 5 1921, the English Football Association’s consultative committee effectively banned women’s football citing a threat to women’s health as medical experts claimed football could damage women’s ability to have children. This decision had worldwide implications and was typical of attitudes towards women’s sport for many decades.
Women’s professional sport is now seeing dramatic changes. England will host the 2022 Women’s Euros later this year, and tickets for the final sold out in less than an hour. There is clear demand from fans and not just for women’s football, but other professional women’s sports.
In 2021, 267,000 people attended the women’s matches in English cricket’s new domestic competition, The Hundred, making it the best attended women’s cricket event ever. A year before, another cricketing record was set with 86,174 spectators at the Women’s T20 World Cup final between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Record crowds for professional women’s matches have also been seen recently in rugby union.
In a sign that the times really may be changing, the current minister for sport, Nigel Huddleston, and the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced that they are minded to add the (FIFA) Women’s World Cup and the Women’s Euros (UEFA European Women’s Football Championship) to the list of protected sports events. Set out in the 1990s, these are the “crown jewels” of English sport, deemed to be of national importance when it comes to television coverage. The list has not included any women’s events until now, and the proposed change is crucial to keep women’s sport visible for as large an audience as possible.
Football has also seen considerable growth in participation. In 2020, 3.4 million women and girls played football in England and the world governing body FIFA aims to have 60 million playing by 2026.
The wider picture is perhaps less rosy. There are 516,600 more inactive women than men in England. Girls are less active than boys, even though their activity levels increased comparatively during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, this pandemic-related increase also points to positive changes. During the lockdowns, there was a shift away from traditional team sports to fitness classes and walking, which have traditionally appealed more to women and girls. In a similar way Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, which was relaunched in January 2020, aimed to break conventional ideas that physical activity and sport are unsuitable for women. Sport England’s evaluation states that 2.8 million women were more active due to the overall campaign.
With traditional masculine ideals slowly being replaced across society, these changes can also be seen in sport. Sport is also becoming more inclusive for minorities.
And, as happened around 100 years ago, women’s rights and equality in society and workplaces are improving. The #MeToo movement has brought sexual harassment to the forefront of public awareness and is gradually shifting workplace culture.
However, this is not time for complacency. The pandemic has affected women more than men and in different ways, slowing progress. Greater domestic responsibilities impacted on women’s free time more than men, reducing time for physical activity. Similarly, funding cuts in sport may threaten the gains that have been made in women’s sport. And many males continue to hold unfounded, stereotypical views such as women in sport being more emotional than men.
Recently, my colleagues and I mapped out five actions needed to make sure that recent gains for women’s sport are not lost, see below. With changes in society, widespread support for gender equality, and the current popularity of women’s sport, now is the time to act on these changes to ensure that it is not another 100 years before we see the recent attendance records broken. Gender equality is a societal goal and it should be in sport too.
We’ve all heard of the psychotherapy couch, and the dynamic between a client and their human therapist. But perhaps less well known is the increasingly popular pet therapy. And no, that’s not therapy for your pet – it’s the relatively new phenomenon of therapy for humans, which involves animals.
These animal assisted interventions (AAIs) – which also include a trained human professional – are proving beneficial to people of all ages, leading to significant reductions in physiological responses to stress – such as heart rate – and associated emotions, such as anxiety.
It’s a longstanding and widely accepted fact that people of all ages can benefit from partnerships with animals as pets. From the joy of the human-animal bond, to companionship and improved mental health, there is no doubt that cats, dogs and other pets enhance our lives immeasurably.
But over the last ten years or so, animals have started to help humans in settings away from the home – such as hospitals and care homes for the elderly, as well as schools, universities, prisons and rehabilitation services.
The Royal University Hospital Emergency Department in Saskatchewan, Canada, for example, has been welcoming therapy dogs (and their handlers) since 2016.
A recent study based at the hospital set out to investigate whether canine therapy had any impact on the wellbeing of patients – the majority (around 70%) of which had been admitted and were waiting for a hospital bed, and all of whom were experiencing pain.
They each received a ten minute visit from a St John Ambulance therapy dog in addition to the usual hospital care. Using a detailed psychometric survey, the researchers assessed patients immediately before the visit, immediately afterwards and 20 minutes afterwards. They were encouraged to find that the patients reported a significant reduction in pain, anxiety and depression following the visit by the therapy dog – and an increase in general wellbeing.
Over the last ten years, cats have also joined the AAI movement – and have been used in settings such as schools and care homes to improve wellbeing. Just being in the presence of a cat has been shown to improve mood and reduce feelings of loneliness. Playing with a cat, and physical contact through stroking and hugging, can induce a sense of calm, especially for children and frail elderly patients in long term care.
In fact, even a cat’s purr can bring emotional relief, especially when we’re feeling stressed.
One study – with patients living with chronic age-related disabilities in a nursing home – found that those who were assigned a cat therapy session three times a week, for six weeks, had improved depressive symptoms and a significant decrease in blood pressure.
Horse assisted therapy is particularly useful for young people experiencing mental health and behavioural issues. In many cases, those who have not benefited from traditional, talk-based therapy, may experience benefits – particularly an increased feeling of calm and emotional control – when participating in horse therapy, during which they learn how to communicate with and care for the horses.
Similarly, therapeutic horse riding therapy provides physical and emotional benefits to children with disabilities, helping to improve their balance, posture and hand-to-eye coordination. It can also help children to learn to trust and become more socially aware.
Therapeutic horse riding has been shown to improve symptoms of PTSD in adults, too. And equine therapy, where there is no riding – but instead feeding, grooming and leading the horse – can help people to process and change negative behaviours, such as those associated with addiction.
Why pets are good therapists
Building relationships and social connections through socialising and human interaction is a key part of maintaining and improving our mental health.
Animals, when left to their own devices, also make and work to maintain and enhance emotional relationships and connections with others. We are extremely lucky that – when it comes to dogs, cats and horses – this tendency also extends to humans, as long as we behave in a way that is comfortable for the animal.
And science has shown that they can understand what is happening in our interactions with them, too.
Horses can read and tune into human emotions. They can even learn about a person from watching them interact with another horse, and adjust their behaviour accordingly – such as approaching and touching the person more if they appear to display discomfort around the other horse.
Part of the joy of building a connection with an animal is discovering who they are and what they enjoy – and it goes without saying that their welfare must always be a top priority. But if think you have a superstar therapy pet in the making, then do consider reaching out to a pet therapy organisation in your area, such as Pets As Therapy in the UK. They’d be glad to meet you and your animal companion.
In a recent BBC news investigation, a reporter posing as a 13-year-old girl in a virtual reality (VR) app was exposed to sexual content, racist insults and a rape threat. The app in question, VRChat, is an interactive platform where users can create “rooms” within which people interact (in the form of avatars). The reporter saw avatars simulating sex, and was propositioned by numerous men.
The results of this investigation have led to warnings from child safety charities including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) about the dangers children face in the metaverse. The metaverse refers to a network of VR worlds which Meta (formerly Facebook) has positioned as a future version of the internet, eventually allowing us to engage across education, work and social contexts.
The NSPCC appears to put the blame and the responsibility on technology companies, arguing they need to do more to safeguard children’s safety in these online spaces. While I agree platforms could be doing more, they can’t tackle this problem alone.
Reading about the BBC investigation, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I was surprised that anyone working in online safeguarding would be – to use the NSPCC’s words – “shocked” by the reporter’s experiences. Ten years ago, well before we’d heard the word “metaverse”, similar stories emerged around platforms including Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel.
These avatar-based platforms, where users interact in virtual spaces via a text-based chat function, were actually designed for children. In both cases adults posing as children as a means to investigate were exposed to sexually explicit interactions.
The demands that companies do more to prevent these incidents have been around for a long time. We are locked in a cycle of new technology, emerging risks and moral panic. Yet nothing changes.
It’s a tricky area
We’ve seen demands for companies to put age verification measures in place to prevent young people accessing inappropriate services. This has included proposals for social platforms to require verification that the user is aged 13 or above, or for pornography websites to require proof that the user is over 18.
If age verification was easy, it would have been widely adopted by now. If anyone can think of a way that all 13-year-olds can prove their age online reliably, without data privacy concerns, and in a way that’s easy for platforms to implement, there are many tech companies that would like to talk to them.
In terms of policing the communication that occurs on these platforms, similarly, this won’t be achieved through an algorithm. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near clever enough to intercept real-time audio streams and determine, with accuracy, whether someone is being offensive. And while there might be some scope for human moderation, monitoring of all real-time online spaces would be impossibly resource-intensive.
The reality is that platforms already provide a lot of tools to tackle harassment and abuse. The trouble is few people are aware of them, believe they will work, or want to use them. VRChat, for example, provides tools for blocking abusive users, and the means to report them, which might ultimately result in the user having their account removed.
We cannot all sit back and shout, “my child has been upset by something online, who is going to stop this from happening?”. We need to shift our focus from the notion of “evil big tech”, which really isn’t helpful, to looking at the role other stakeholders could play too.
If parents are going to buy their children VR headsets, they need to have a look at safety features. It’s often possible to monitor activity by having the young person cast what is on their headset onto the family TV or another screen. Parents could also check out the apps and games young people are interacting with prior to allowing their children to use them.
What young people think
I’ve spent the last two decades researching online safeguarding – discussing concerns around online harms with young people, and working with a variety of stakeholders on how we might better help young people. I rarely hear demands that the government needs to bring big tech companies to heel from young people themselves.
They do, however, regularly call for better education and support from adults in tackling the potential online harms they might face. For example, young people tell us they want discussion in the classroom with informed teachers who can manage the debates that arise, and to whom they can ask questions without being told “don’t ask questions like that”.
However, without national coordination, I can sympathise with any teacher not wishing to risk complaint from, for example, outraged parents, as a result of holding a discussion on such sensitive topics.
I note the UK government’s Online Safety Bill, the legislation that policymakers claim will prevent online harms, contains just two mentions of the word “education” in 145 pages.
We all have a role to play in supporting young people as they navigate online spaces. Prevention has been the key message for 15 years, but this approach isn’t working. Young people are calling for education, delivered by people who understand the issues. This is not something that can be achieved by the platforms alone.
There’s no question that finding yourself covered in mosquito bites quickly takes the shine off a pleasant summer evening. But mosquitoes are more than a nuisance. They’re also the deadliest creatures on Earth, owing to the diseases they spread.
A lot of research on mosquitoes is dedicated to understanding their behaviour and preferences for who they bite. Vision is an important sense in biting insects, including mosquitoes. Although they don’t rely on their vision alone – smell and temperature work with visual cues to help mosquitoes locate a host.
Previous research has sought to link particular colours (or the wavelengths of light which we see as distinct colours) to mosquitoes’ host-seeking behaviour. However, the results have been mixed, with the same mosquito species showing preferences for different colours in different studies.
A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications is the latest to explore mosquitoes’ attraction to different colours. Could this research tell us how to avoid being bitten simply by adjusting the colours we wear? Let’s take a look.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments on three disease-spreading mosquito species: primarily Aedes aegypti, but also Anopheles stephensi and Culex quinquefasciatus.
In one experiment they used a wind tunnel equipped with cameras to track the mosquitoes’ flight patterns. The tunnel was designed to encourage them to behave as naturally as possible.
On the floor of the tunnel were two small coloured spots; one to represent the colour (wavelength) of interest and a control (white). Some of the colour samples were chosen to mimic different skin tones, including one to represent the colour of tanning lotion.
In mosquitoes, only the females bite, because in most species they require a blood meal to complete the reproductive process. So 50 mated but unfed female mosquitoes were released into the wind tunnel, where they would naturally search for a host.
After an hour carbon dioxide (CO₂) was released into the wind tunnel. CO₂ is exhaled by humans and other mammals. While it’s odourless to us, mosquitoes can smell it and use this scent to help guide them to a source of blood.
Before the odour stimulus was released, the Ae. aegypti mosquitoes largely ignored the coloured circles on the floor, instead exploring the ceiling and the walls of the tunnel. But once CO₂ had been introduced they started to investigate the coloured circles, particularly as the wavelength increased from 510 nanometres (nm) to 660nm.
These longer wavelengths represent colours in the orange and red end of the spectrum, though the Ae. aegypti mosquitoes were most attracted to the red, and then black. Notably, these orange to red wavelengths are the same as those given off from human skin tones. Blue, green and violet weren’t any more attractive to the mosquitoes than the control.
When the skin tone spots were used, they were more attractive to the mosquitoes than the control, but no preference was observed for any particular skin tone.
Previous experiments have shown mosquitoes are more attracted to contrasting colours, like a chequerboard pattern, than one solid colour. The researchers also showed the mosquitoes different spots against both similar and contrasting backgrounds. Ae. aegypti were more interested in spots with a high contrast to the background. Scientists believe this helps the mosquitoes distinguish between an object (person) and the background, even in low light. The contrast was more important in attracting the mosquitoes than the colour itself.
Similar to Ae. aegypti, An. stephensi were attracted to black and red, with little interest in the lower wavelengths. Cx. quinquefasciatus showed interest in violet/blue and red (interestingly, opposite ends of the tested spectrum).
The researchers conducted a separate experiment in insect cages to explore the mosquitoes’ attraction to real skin tones. Six volunteers from different ethnic backgrounds were recruited to help with this test. The control was a white glove in one window and the volunteers’ hands were held one at a time in the other window to see if the mosquitoes were attracted to any particular skin tone.
The mosquitoes were more attracted to the hands than the white glove, but as with the dots, there wasn’t a preference for a particular skin tone.
What does this all mean?
This study shows that mosquitoes are attracted to the colours found in human skin, but only in the presence of CO₂, suggesting the smell of human or mammal respiration may act as the initial cue. This confirms previous research which has found CO₂ attracts mosquitoes.
The researchers found that colour and contrast were important factors for Ae. aegypti who showed a preference for red, then black. An. Stephensi were interested in colours similar to Ae aegypti, though preferring black over red. Meanwhile, Cx. quinquefasciatus were interested in a range of colours.
As the researchers recognised, their experiments didn’t account for some of the other factors that affect mosquitoes’ choice of host. These include chemicals released from human skin, the temperature of the skin, and sweat on the skin. It would be interesting for future experiments to include these factors.
So what does this mean for the average person who doesn’t want to get bitten? You could try wearing white, blue or green and avoiding black, red and orange. Definitely avoid red and black checked patterns. If there are plenty of mosquitoes on your property, pest control experts wisconsin can help.
While adjusting your clothing may reduce your risk of being bitten, there’s no guarantee it will, or how effective this will be, particularly given the apparent variation in colour preferences between species. But these findings do suggest that with more research, colour could potentially be used as a tool in mosquito control.