You can now view Broadsheet Issue 20 (Summer 2021) in Issue Archive.
Click the following link to view Broadsheet issue 20
You can now view Broadsheet Issue 20 (Summer 2021) in Issue Archive.
Click the following link to view Broadsheet issue 20
You can now view Broadsheet Issue 19 (Autumn 2020) in Issue Archive.
Click the following link to view Broadsheet issue 19
Hyde Park, London, Summer 1851— Atop the grassy plains stands a quite remarkable structure; a regimented iron skeleton adorned with glass of bewildering grandeur. Catching the sun, the Crystal Palace lords over Knightsbridge. A greenhouse of unimaginable proportions, the building stretches almost 40 metres into the sky, engulfing the tallest trees, and stands upon 90,000 square metres of earth.
Within, the forefront of human endeavour in industry and manufacturing is housed. Nation’s flags and canvas awnings add a shock of colour to the engineered interior. Items from all around the modern world are paraded to the tens of thousands of astonished visitors that mill by every day, their echoes hovering amongst the rafters.
Organised by Prince Albert and Henry Cole, The Great Exhibition celebrated Britain’s and the world’s advances in various industries. Rapid printing machines, carriages and intricate French tapestries are just a fraction of some of the sights that were on offer. It was an unmitigated success. Opening in May 1851, the 5-month exhibit saw 6 million people pay entry, raising a profit of £186,000. This money would not be squandered. Prince Albert’s ambition was to use it to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”.
An area of London’s prime real estate, totalling 87-acres and stretching from Kensington Gore to Cromwell Road, was bought up and developed. The area became, first satirically then more affectionately, known as ‘Albertopolis’. Today, it is more commonly referred to as London’s Museum Quarter and is the home of world-leading institutions for art, music, design, science and engineering.
“You mean those tiny bumps on my tongue mean I can taste chocolate?”
The girl’s face flushes with excitement as she beckons for the handheld camera to continue examining her taste buds.
It’s mid-August and the summer holidays are in full swing at the @Bristol science centre. Children swarm around the benches and stools that make up the open plan LiveLab area, as they attempt various taste and flavour-themed experiments.
The centre is packed; the noise and energy levels indicate clearly that the interactive science on offer is being wolfed down more enthusiastically than the remains of the strawberry dissection.
However, these scenes contrast sharply with recent reports detailing how a lack of technical expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is threatening to jeopardise economic recovery.
Earlier this year Semta – the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies – forecast that it would be faced with a shortfall of 80,000 workers in the next two years. On top of this, the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) has warned that four out of five manufacturers are experiencing recruitment difficulties, with two thirds claiming that this is because candidates lack technical skills.
This demonstrates a glaring lack of appropriate careers guidance. Traditionally, the most coveted professions by children – astronaut, vet and zookeeper for example – all require a STEM-based education.
Many organisations have mirrored concerns about an impending ‘skills gap’, but what are the underlying issues that have caused it? What’s stopping children from pursuing their natural curiosity into adulthood? And most importantly, what can be done to bridge this gap between taste bud examiner and world-renowned sensory neuroscientist?
A survey by the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre in 2012 found that around 50% of 6-16 year olds thought that STEM subjects were too difficult or boring, and 15% thought they were only relevant to jobs in medicine.
The 2011 Education Act took the responsibility for careers advice away from the independent, Department of Education funded Connexions service and placed the duty solely on schools. Last year a committee of MPs claimed that this was a serious mistake, voicing concerns about “a worrying deterioration in the overall level of provision for young people.”
However with regard to STEM subjects, David Cameron’s administration would keenly point out several ongoing initiatives designed to engage young people in this key area.
The STEM Network, STEMNET, is a UK-wide organisation that aims to promote STEM subjects to children through extracurricular clubs, while also providing teachers with resources that will engage students more effectively in the STEM curriculum. Inspirational role models can have a profound effect on the engagement of children, and the team of 28,000 volunteer STEM ambassadors representing thousands of employers across the UK aim to provide this inspiration. The plan seems to be working, as a recent evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that 82% of teachers thought that STEM ambassador activity improved pupils’ motivation to study STEM subjects further.
‘Your Life’ is a campaign designed to encourage young people to study maths and physics, with the ambitious goal of increasing the number of students studying these two key STEM subjects by 50% in the next 3 years. At its launch on the 12th November, Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan claimed that the campaign will dispel rumours that STEM subjects are “stuffy, boring subjects for people who don’t get outdoors much,” and instead promote them as “the keys to the most cutting edge, fast-paced areas of work.”
In order to succeed, the campaign will need to harness the tremendous sway that social media holds over the youth of today. Some science-based Facebook groups, such as ‘I fucking love science’, regularly produce content for audiences in the millions, providing a ready-made platform for the Your Life campaign to target. The website features quirky videos and articles with titles such as ‘Inventor makes Braille printer from Lego’, however it remains to be seen whether this content can be communicated effectively.
The role of universities in engaging with young people is also of vital importance. Lizzie Morcom is a third year Imperial Chemistry student, and works as a mentor for the university’s STEM Outreach programme.
“Outreach is vitally important for enthusing pupils who don’t necessarily have the access to people in their community to quiz about studying science,” Lizzie says. “The student mentors provide a more attainable vision of a potential future and can relate to the pupil in a way that classroom teachers can’t necessarily.”
It is clear that a coordinated effort involving more targeted careers advice, implementation of government policies using social media and involvement of universities are required in order to get young people excited about the wealth of opportunities that STEM subjects provide.
Centres like @Bristol show that children are born scientists, however the measures described will hopefully ensure that this passion is encouraged, not downtrodden, as children make crucial educational decisions later in life.
The John Sevier apartment complex in Johnson City, Tennessee, is home to a unique combination of different types of people, ranging from disabled veterans to the unemployed. Amongst them, lives artist Bryan Lewis Saunders. His fourth floor flat is both his home and studio, filled with art materials and the sketchbooks in which he has visually documented most of his adult life. Saunders started his collection of self-portraits when he was 26 and has drawn pieces of himself during events throughout his life. The eclectic range of portraits catalogue an unusual life and feature himself on the Appalachian hiking trail, seeing a rattlesnake for the first time, and during a visit to China to become a stand-up comedian.
Of these hundreds of self-portraits, 50 of them have become particularly famous. In a disturbing and frankly dangerous art project, Saunders experimented with a huge range of drugs to explore the effect they had on his pieces. Saunders snorted, smoked and popped pills of a different cocktail of drugs every day, for 50 days, from which the brain damage caused “fortunately wasn’t irreparable”. As usual, Saunders drew daily self-portraits, but did so under the influence of these substances, and their diverse effects on the brain are reflected in the strange and varying styles of portrait.
One of Saunders’ portraits stands out as particularly harrowing, he created it after taking half a gram of cocaine. Unlike most of his pieces, it is monochromatic and dark, with heavy shading and nightmarish surrealism. The subject bears little resemblance to himself, and is covered with strange symbols and numbers. Conversely, as a mess of scattered scribbles and smudges, his portrait after taking phencyclidine (PCP), other wise known as Angel Dust, is barely recognisable as a figure. One of the only obvious indications of how Saunders was feeling whilst drawing, is the eerie pair of glasses lying haphazardly on the floor.
The erratic nature of these pieces provides evidence for the mechanisms in the brain that would normally allow artists to create and design. As in this case they have clearly been disrupted by mind-altering drugs. The neurology underlying the creation of artworks has scarcely been studied by neuroscientists, despite it providing a unique portal into the complex and otherwise difficult to research processes of creativity. This may have been a result of the longstanding idea that art and science do not correlate. The contrast between art and science is so large that it was theorised they were processed in completely separate halves of the brain, but assigning creativity to one half of the brain is far too simplistic. Realistically, the artistic process requires both the conscious and unconscious, and a combination of complex models, such as memory, emotion and knowledge.
So how does the brain enable us to create masterpieces? It was Leonardo da Vinci who first inadvertently began answering this question, when he theorised the human method of depth perception in order to represent it on a canvas. The method of sfumato, the gradual change in tone and colour, arose from this, and is most famously seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. More modern explanations for vision of depth are known as depth cues, and include binocular parallax, which describes the physical phenomenon that is the creation of depth using the eyes as two separate vantage points.
Additionally, to visually represent a subject the brain must co-ordinate further processes that are essential in the creative process. These are organised into three networks, spanning a large proportion of the brain. The Executive Attention Network focuses the artist’s attention and regulates their working memory, which is the short-term storage of information for a certain task. This enables the artist to retain the image of their subject. The action of this network is shared between the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain, and the parietal lobe, which is located towards the back of the top half of the brain. Therefore, the Executive Attention Network overlaps with the Default Network, which is active in the temporal lobe, in the middle of the bottom half of the brain, prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe. This network is responsible for imagining new scenarios, such as visualising the future. This ability to imagine directly leads to the ability to create. Finally, the Salience Network acts deep in the centre of the brain, in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices, in the upper region towards the front, and anterior insular. This network is the regulator, and is necessary to control the actions of both aforementioned networks. It is believed the communication and balance between these networks are predominantly responsible for the creative process.
However, as well as large regions of the brain, small chemical neurotransmitters in the synapses between neurons must contribute to the creation of art. When released in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for new ideas, decision-making, planning, and inventing, dopamine causes a feeling of elation therefore rewarding these behaviours. As these activities are all components of the creative process, an artist is likely to feel rewarded in response to working on a piece of art. Another important neurotransmitter in the brain is glutamate, which is necessary for the processes of perception, memory, and emotion and therefore will therefore heavily influence the creation of artwork. With the knowledge that PCP alters glutamate and dopamine activity, it is clear to see why this drug had such a detrimental effect on Saunders’ portrait, almost to the point where he couldn’t draw at all. Saunders felt these effects in a way that made him lose “mobility, because it separates your brain from your body”. Similarly, cocaine increases activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe and therefore interferes with both the Executive Attention Network and the Default Network. This may explain the particularly strange imaginings present in the Saunders’s cocaine-influenced portrait.
The causal relationship between the brain and the creation of art can be inverted, meaning that not only does neurology influence creativity, but the process of creating art can affect the mind. Art and creativity is often encouraged in therapy, and the natural relationship between art and the mind may be why, albeit surprisingly, Saunders prefers art therapy over drug therapies. Many of the drugs Saunders drew under the influence of were prescribed anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety medications. Even after these treatments he believes art is “like the best therapy in the world”, and it is the power of art which has saved him from an unstable life.
“What were they thinking about? What were their concerns? How did they understand the universe?”
These are the questions that Richard Barnett asks as a medical historian. In his most recent book, The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, he asks these questions of anatomists through the 18th and 19th centuries. He uses medical illustrations from this era to tell the story of the changing perception and understanding of human disease. Over a cup of tea, we spoke about this book, medical illustrations and some of the ethical and philosophical questions they raise today.
Richard started off as a medical student. He has said that his initial drive to study medicine came from the mystery-solving aspect of the profession, uncovering a narrative in something so complex as a human body. However, ultimately dissatisfied, he made the switch into history of medicine. In so doing, Richard discovered a discipline that provided the opportunity to uncover narratives in medicine as a whole, and to tell stories that could offer new and exciting perspectives on human health and disease.
The latest story to grab Richard’s attention was “the way in which new views of the body, especially new understandings of the body as a material, secular system of organs and tissues, start to shape the way that we represent the body in art and culture”. The Wellcome Library’s vast collection of images relating to medicine has become freely available online, and The Sick Rose is the first of a number of projects aimed at bringing some of these images to a wider audience. Anatomical and pathological illustrations fill the pages of this book, ranging from a beautifully curated double page spread of heart tissue pathology, through to the almost unrecognisably human faces of those afflicted with severe skin disease.
This kind of material holds an enormous amount of power to elicit strong reactions in its audience, ranging for morbid fascination to outright disgust, everything in between or both simultaneously. In spending so much time with these images while creating this book, to his surprise, Richard began to feel a sense of unease. Ethical questions regarding how images of this nature should be used outside of their original intended context – in this case, for educational purposes in the medical profession – arose in his mind and wouldn’t budge. In a piece he wrote for the Wellcome Library, Richard emphasised that all of the images contained in his book “depict something that happened to someone, somewhere”. For the reader, this recognition of the “humanity” in each of these images when viewing them is one step towards ensuring that their power and the sense of their original context aren’t lost entirely. These images are often “the only mark that these people have made on the historical record”. The individuals behind the images are no longer around to object to their use. They have no voice.
When considering the idea of the person behind these images and what they may and may not have consented to – for how could they consent to the use of these images in an online environment, when no conception of the internet existed at the time – I was taken back to my first experience in the dissection room: Cadavers, chest open with string attached to tie it back together at the end of the session; a dissected spine; male and female genitalia lying next to each other on a bench. I remember feeling surprised, but not in the way I had expected. I hadn’t imagined how un-human body parts would be when they were carefully dissected and displayed in isolation from their owner, nor how the sense of individuality of each of the cadavers would be carefully hidden in the covering of their faces. I remember wondering whether or not these people, when they had decided to donate their body to science, had fully understood the context in which their physical remains would perpetuate – reeking of formaldehyde, passing through uncountable pairs of students’ hands, being handled with varying levels of care and respect.
Although the questions around how to use these images in an ethically sound way remain unanswered, Richard sees them rather as “questions to think with”, something to consider as we cast our gaze over depictions of the suffering of others. He says “it seems that these questions aren’t just worrying me as an academic, these are questions that, in this visually saturated age, we’re all asking about images that are powerful; images that move us.”
These universal questions raised by The Sick Rose are just one example of how the history of medicine is about so much more than the well-told, and often misconstrued, tale of medical progress through the ages. “The history of medicine, considered in a wider sense as the history of life and death, health and disease and the body, has this great potential to be a unifying force”. We, as humans, are united in our experiences of health, disease, birth and death. In looking back in time, we can appreciate how people’s understanding, interpretation and representation of the human endeavour to understand and overcome disease has changed and evolved. This discipline, where the human, cultural, fallible and subjective side of science is exposed, critiqued and celebrated provides us with a moment to pause and reflect on what it means to be human. As Richard puts it, “there’s so much that unites us, so much we share and yet at the same time, this single few tens of pounds of flesh that we all walk around in has been thought about in so many different ways in so many different times and places, and that’s what makes it so exciting”.
You can find a copy of The Sick Rose on Richard’s website: www.richardbarnettwriter.com. Richard’s first poetry collection, Seahouses, will be published by Valley Press in April 2015.
In a dark laboratory in Paris, Pascal Cotte sat back as his prized invention, a multispectral camera, performed its final scan of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. With the imaging complete, he was ready, with the help of some self-coded computer programmes, to unearth each individual brush stroke behind one of the most iconic pieces of the art in the world.
Cotte is not your typical art historian. Achieving significant success in the field of optics developing the first Macintosh webcams, the bowtie-clad Frenchman has over 20 years experience in the technology industry. He now finds himself as Director of Research at Lumière Technology, the leading company for the digitisation of artwork. Cotte’s path to the art history world has been far from conventional. But his self-taught engineering skills combined with modern technologies may revolutionise the way we understand our cultural heritage.
His greatest success in the study of fine art to date is the development of a revolutionary camera, one that records 13 wavelengths of light. An impressive feat compared to the 3 used by an average camera. With each scan at a particular wavelength, the camera produces a spectrum based on the reflected light for each individual pixel of the image. This allows Cotte to uncover the exact materials – the pigments and oils – used to produce that region of the painting, helping conservators better preserve it for future generations.
Using his camera, Cotte can perform the layer amplification method (L.A.M.). This technique is based on the idea that different colours absorb specific wavelengths of light, meaning that pigments are opaque at one wavelength but transparent at another.
“[It] gives us the capability to peel the painting like an onion,” says Cotte, “removing the surface to see what’s happening inside and behind the different layers of paint.”
Cotte scans the painting in the visible light range, then the ultraviolet light range, a shorter wavelength, that allows detection of details on the surface determining areas that have been retouched or restored. Finally, infrared light, which has a longer wavelength than both UV and visible light, is able to penetrate the different layers of the paint, revealing the painting’s bottom layers, including preliminary sketches or hidden details.
With a prototype of his revolutionary camera complete, Cotte set out to uncover the secrets hidden within the famous Mona Lisa and create a complete digitisation of the portrait. His analysis provided scientific evidence to confirm Da Vinci’s unique painting technique called sfumato. Derived from the Latin word fumare, ‘to smoke’, the Master blended colours to make realistic shapes and shadows, without using harsh outlines. Martin Kemp, an Emeritus professor and world-renowned Da Vinci expert, describes the painting to be ‘like stained-glass’ as Da Vinci layered faintly tinted semi-transparent oils on top of one another, allowing light to pass through each layer, reflect off the white base and back through the oils, providing the portrait with a sense of realism that few painters have been able to replicate.
With the fame of his analysis and the respect of the art community behind him, Cotte’s services were called upon once again; this time to validate the authenticity of a chalk drawing of a young girl, La Bella Principessa. Once thought to be a sketch of 19th century German origin, sold as such in a 1988 auction, various experts, including Kemp, later attributed the work to Da Vinci. The validity of this portrait was highly controversial: the age of the materials were appropriate and the shapes and shadows, particularly around the very realistic eye, seemed to indicate Da Vinci’s hand. But the soft subject matter and unusual use of animal skins placed doubts in critics’ minds.
Working with Kemp, Cotte’s L.A.M. revealed the layering true to Da Vinci’s left-handed mastery. Additionally, the realism of the eye was brought to light, uncovering how a complete iris was drawn with the eyelid layered on top. This is truly an indication of Da Vinci’s technique in which he drew in details, not always obvious to the naked eye, to add to the realism of the portrait. Whilst the authenticity of the drawing is still in dispute, Cotte and Kemp’s work adds to the mounting evidence that Da Vinci is the artist behind this beautiful work.
Most recently, Cotte put L.A.M. to the test by analysing another Da Vinci masterpiece, The Lady with an Ermine. His scans revealed the sketches underneath, helping historians unravel the story behind this painting. Initially, the painting was a simple portrait of the mistress of the Duke of Milan, one of Da Vinci’s patrons with the nickname ‘The White Ermine’. However, a small ermine was added in, symbolising the young woman’s attachment to the artist’s patron. A third version of the portrait was layered on top, in which the ermine is larger and more muscular, emphasising the Duke’s power. According to Kemp, this new information “tells us a lot more about the way Leonardo’s mind worked when he was doing a painting. We know that he fiddled around a good deal at the beginning, but now we know that he kept fiddling around all the time and it helps explain why he had so much difficulty finishing paintings.”
Whilst using scientific methods to analyse paintings is still a relatively underdeveloped field, in his book Lumière on the Lady with an Ermine, Cotte predicts that “in the years to come, the L.A.M. technique is destined to become an indispensable complement to the analysis, study, certification and authentication of easel works.”
A tall, dark-skinned man shudders with the discomfort of a deep fever. His brow furrows as he paws at his aching limbs with clenched fists. Alongside him is a topless boy, his stomach covered by an angry red rash. Nearby, another man is doubled over, vomiting blood. A vacant face in a bed beside stares on over the scene before him, unseeing with his bleeding eyes. People in white protective suits, gloves and masks huddle nearby with bowed heads. Set further away beside the whitewashed walls of the health centre is a person, wrapped loosely head to toe in a white sheet.
Thankfully, these images are merely a series of sketched cartoons. The large illustrated posters depicting the symptoms of Ebola which line the walls of buildings in West Africa are graphic, and rightly so. For people living there, Ebola is a terrifying reality, the threats of which must be understood by all.
Mention Ebola anywhere in Africa and fear flashes in people’s eyes. In a remote Tanzanian town, thousands of miles from the outbreak, one man shakes his head at the mention of the virus.
“You bleed through your eyes, and through your mouth, then through your skin. It’s a terrible thing,” he says, rubbing his hands down his face and shuddering with seemingly genuine fear. The belief within African communities that those who contract the virus will be quarantined and left to meet a gruesome end is causing those within the affected areas to flee in fear, driving the outbreak further. A successful solution will be one that combines an effective treatment with education.
* * *
In Sierra Leone, governmental posters advise that ‘with good care, some patients will survive Ebola and re-enter their communities. Make them welcome and do not stigmatise them.’ The media in countries affected directly by the epidemic are reporting on more than just a far-off story; the way in which Ebola is portrayed to the public there can affect people’s attitudes and actions, and ultimately the eradication of and recovery from this outbreak.
The danger to the Western world is far less real than in West Africa, yet almost without exception it is the few Ebola victims from the Western world who are singled out, with names and faces put to them. The media attention is focussed on those few people who connect the otherwise far-off disease close to home. The cases in Africa are merely numbers alluding to a nasty underbelly of racism in some news outlets. News reports express concern over the spread of the disease to the West ahead of concern for the places the outbreak is currently rife.
Regrettably, the picture of African people painted in the media is one of ignorance. Many journalists have cited ‘cultural’ differences — including burial rituals, bushmeat consumption and reaction to quarantine — as reasons for the spreading of the virus and adds to a history of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place.
The progression of the outbreak continues to concern health officials with citizens of 5 out of the 54 African countries in total (including Nigeria which has since been declared Ebola free) being infected. But it is the public perception of the disease that is having a continent-wide effect. The association of ‘Ebola’ with ‘Africa’ is proving detrimental across the continent, with people cancelling holidays, and safari companies reporting significant drops in bookings, even in countries further from the outbreak than some parts of Europe. For these countries with a high dependency on tourism, this could have serious economic and developmental impacts reaching far into the future.
Just as Africa as a continent has fallen foul of generalisations, people of African descent have been subjected to racism, xenophobia and abhorrent discrimination. In Berlin, 60 police and firefighters were called and a building locked down after a dark-skinned woman collapsed in a meeting. In Brussels, a man of African descent with a nosebleed in a shopping centre was cornered and the shop he was in sterilised. Unsurprisingly, having not visited West Africa, both these people then tested negative for Ebola. Ebola doesn’t choose its victims based on the colour of their skin; the media has a responsibility to educate and avoid such outrageous discrimination.
* * *
The three main countries affected by the current outbreak — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — are developing countries, all still recovering from recent lengthy periods of conflict and instability. They lack infrastructure and have weak health systems, leaving them ill equipped to handle the outbreaks. The bottom line is that in the West we’re well equipped to deal with the few cases that might appear, and have systems already in place to prevent spread of infectious diseases. Direct comparisons between spread of Ebola in Africa and potential spread in the West are therefore ridiculous, uninformative and frankly counterproductive.
There is a clear disparity between reality and the views represented in the mainstream media. Fear grabs people’s attention, and it is this attention which ultimately increases viewers and readership. For example, the story of Kent Brantly was documented meticulously by the media: the American doctor and missionary contracted Ebola in Liberia and was flown back to the US for treatment. Press helicopters followed his short journey from the airport to the hospital reporting on the apparent severity of his condition, and repeatedly posing the terrifying possibility that he could infect others, potentially sparking an American outbreak. His ambulance journey to the hospital culminated, somewhat anticlimactically, in him walking in through the back entrance. Three weeks later he was discharged, Ebola free.
It does seem that media hype over Ebola has been a much more serious issue in the US than here in the UK. American news anchors have said, “spiralling out of control” and “all hell is about to break loose” when talking about the outbreak – statements that clearly exaggerate the truth. A survey by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that 39% of adults worry about a large outbreak of Ebola in the US, with 26% concerned they will fall ill in the next year.
Despite a variety of reliable sources ensuring that an outbreak in the West is highly unlikely, people continue to fear for their own safety. Why? Because the mainstream media have cultivated this perception. A story without a potential threat to us would not gain traction. The stories show selfishness and a lack of compassion for people far removed from our own lives. It makes one beg the question: where’s the humanity?
* * *
Despite news of this outbreak dominating recent headlines, Ebola isn’t new. Research into prevention and cures has been ongoing; merely accelerated by the scale of the latest outbreak. Since its discovery in 1976 there have been many small-scale outbreaks of Ebola in African countries, each ranging from one to a few hundred cases. But none compare to the current outbreak, whose death toll now stands above 5000, with nearly 3000 in Liberia alone.
We are bombarded by the media with grizzly facts and inconceivable statistics, so many seemingly indicating a serious threat to the West. So where does 5000 deaths stand in comparison to other deadly diseases? According to the World Health Organisation, since the beginning of this year’s Ebola outbreak in March, HIV/AIDS has claimed the lives of 620,000 people in Africa, with Malaria killing in the region of 320,000. But unlike Ebola, in the Western media these diseases are old news posing little threat to our own everyday lives. The scale of this Ebola outbreak is unprecedented, and it is the uncertainty of the virus’s potential to become a global pandemic and to affect us directly that has caught the media’s attention.
Of course, mortality rates of diseases tend to increase during unexpected outbreaks, and also often fluctuate as an outbreak progresses. Estimates of Ebola’s mortality rate range from 50% to as high as 90% at the peak of certain outbreaks. The rates reported are mostly based on figures specific to West Africa, where health facilities and knowledge are significantly less developed than in the Western world. Still, countless reports claiming a definitive 90% mortality have been released, leading people to believe the risk of Ebola to us in the UK and other Western countries is higher than it is. Selective journalism is rife in recent media coverage, and this can significantly impact on our perception of the true dangers posed.
Most, if not all of what we understand about the current Ebola epidemic comes from the mainstream media. Of course, news outlets have a vested interest to publicise what will appeal to their target audience, and the resulting selective journalism has inevitably affected perceptions.
The role of social media in this is not one to be underestimated. It allows people to talk about and share exclusively the stories they find interesting, regardless of their motivation or the reliability of the source. On sites where anyone and everyone have free roam, it is easy for non-reliable information to be shared to perpetuity and to become ‘fact’.
Stories which evoke strong feelings in people are often popular; the media is very good at singling out and stirring hatred for particular people. Where Ebola is concerned, it is those allegedly putting others at risk who are most likely to feel the media’s wrath. More often than not, these have been the people who have been most selfless and determined to help: the American nurse, Kaci Hickox, despised for leaving her house for a bike ride after returning home from treating Ebola patients in West-Africa, despite testing negative for Ebola; the West-African health workers working with Ebola patients for whom abusive taunts in the street have become the norm. It seems people are always keen to point fingers and place blame, and the media is simply feeding this eagerness.
The same Ebola-related stories crop up time and time again in Western media. A frequent topic is the speed at which the illness can progress. Early symptoms are often nothing extraordinary, and are by no means categorically Ebola. For example, fever, headaches, joint pain and muscle weakness can be easily associated with common colds and flu. By its nature as a haemorrhagic virus, Ebola can cause both internal and external bleeding in its later stages. In most cases however, the bleeding you can actually see is minimal, even after death. There is still a tendency to only discuss and report the most extreme symptoms, fuelled by our macabre interests.
The media has also latched onto the idea that people can walk around in public undetected as a carrier of Ebola, supposedly passing it on to whoever they come into ‘contact’ with. The implication is often that simply travelling in the same train carriage or even walking down the same street as someone is enough for infection to occur.
What often goes unmentioned is that although people can carry the virus for 2-21 days before potential manifestation, they are not contagious until symptoms show. Even then, spread of Ebola is limited to contact with infected body fluids, so simply walking past someone would unlikely be sufficient for transmission. Professor Peter Piot, the scientist who co-discovered the Ebola virus has expressed publicly how he would happily sit next to an infected person on the train, highlighting the ability of the media to over-exaggerate the risks.
Still, even the chief scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US suggested that Ebola has mutated to become airborne – a claim refuted by multiple other scientists, but which has still managed to cause panic, especially in the US. The broader issue here is more complex than simply scientists versus journalists.
* * *
With so much media coverage focussing on the supposed threat to the Western World, key issues surrounding the epidemic for West-African people are often disregarded. This has led many to believe that eradication of the outbreak in Africa will end the suffering and problems, which is clearly not the case. Far more time and money will need to be spent, even after the epidemic has ended. For example, since many schools closed to prevent Ebola spread, a large proportion of a generation have ended their education prematurely, leaving a gap in the educated workforce, key to countries’ development. Disruption of vaccination programmes and replacement of health clinics by specialist Ebola treatment centres is also expected to increase mortality of other health issues, such as Malaria and malnutrition, as well as increasing mortality during pregnancy as mothers are forced to give birth unassisted at home.
Although exaggerations and poor use of facts and statistics have encouraged fear and stigmatisation, some good has come of the media coverage in the West, with many successful charity campaigns to raise money to help those affected, and to prevent further spread.
The most recent high profile charity and awareness campaign has been launched by Sir Bob Geldof, with the Band Aid 30 single looking set to be a strong contender for the Christmas number one spot, despite being met by strong criticism. This will bring Ebola still further into the media spotlight, though whether the lyrics “where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear” will do more harm than good to the Western public’s perception of Ebola remains to be seen.
Sea snake toxins are far more venomous than the toxins of land snakes. While some species have gentle dispositions and bite only when provoked, others are much more aggressive, especially during mating season. Postsynaptic neurotoxins in the venom are capable of paralysing the respiratory system of the victim.
All sea snakes have paddle-like tails and many have laterally compressed bodies that give them an eel-like appearance. They do not have gills and must surface regularly to breathe. They are found in warm coastal waters from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
Box jellyfish are well-known for their incredibly potent venom. The species Chironex fleckeri, Carukia barnesi and Malo kingi are among the most venomous creatures in the world. Stings from these and a few other species in the class are extremely painful and can be fatal. Each tentacle includes about 500,000 cnidocytes. Each cnidocyte contains a nematocyst, a harpoon-shaped microscopic mechanism that injects venom into the victim.
The amount of venom in one box jellyfish is said to be enough to kill 60 humans with one sting. Deaths attributed to box jellyfish range from 20 to 40 annually in the Philippines, but the US National Science Foundation believes this figure could be a serious underestimate. Notorious species of box jellies are restricted to the tropical Indo-Pacific, with other species found in tropical oceans worldwide.
The name of the stonefish originates from the stonefish’s ability to camouflage itself with a grey and mottled colour similar to that of a stone. It is one of the most venomous fish currently known in the world. Stonefish secrete potent neurotoxins from glands at the base of thirteen dorsal spines which stick up when disturbed or threatened.
When the stonefish is disturbed, the amount of venom injected into the victim is proportional to the amount of pressure applied. Muscle weakness, shock and temporary paralysis are all symptoms of stonefish venom, though their severity depends on the number of spines involved and their penetration depth.
Stonefish are primarily marine and found in the coastal regions of Indo-Pacific oceans as well as off the coast of Florida and in the Caribbean.
The tiger shark is a large macropredator, capable of attaining a length of over 5 m (16 ft). The dark stripes on its body resemble the patterning of a tiger, lending themselves to the shark’s name. The stripes fade as the shark matures.
The tiger shark is a solitary and mostly nocturnal hunter. They probably have the most perfect teeth structure of all sharks. Due to its tendency to eat virtually anything it encounters, including inedible man-made objects that linger in its stomach, the tiger shark has been nicknamed “the garbage can of the sea”. Even terrestrial mammals have been found in their stomachs.
Tiger sharks are second only to the Great White in terms of numbers of human fatalities recorded. The tiger shark is found in many tropical and temperate waters and is especially common around central Pacific islands.
Pufferfish are generally believed to be the second-most poisonous vertebrates in the world, after the golden poison frog. Internal organs such as the liver, and sometimes the skin, are highly toxic to most animals when eaten. Nevertheless, the meat of some pufferfish species is considered a delicacy in Japan, called fugu.
Pufferfish ‘puff up’ to protect themselves by ingesting large amounts of water, causing them to expand to several times their normal size.
Pufferfish tetrodotoxin paralyses the diaphragm muscles and stops any human victim from breathing. Tetrodotoxin is up to 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide to humans and has no known antidote. People who live longer than 24 hours typically survive, although possibly after a coma lasting for several days. Pufferfish are most diverse in the tropics, relatively uncommon in the temperate zone and completely absent from cold waters.
Stingrays are usually very docile and curious. Their typical reaction is to flee any disturbance. Nevertheless, certain larger species may be more aggressive and should be approached with caution as the stingray’s defensive reflex – use of its poisoned stinger – may result in serious injury and death. The location of the penetrative injury caused by the stinger can also play a role in any fatal accidents, as was the case in the death of wildlife personality Steve Irwin.
The venomous barb is covered in many flat spines that feature two grooves on their undersides. These contain venom-secreting cells, enclosed in an epidermis that rips open when embedded in flesh. Furthermore the spines are made of vasodentin, a cartilaginous product that easily cuts flesh.
Stingrays are common in coastal tropical and subtropical marine waters throughout the world.
The existence of the colossal squid is no myth. Current estimates put its maximum size at 12–14 metres (39–46 ft), making it the largest known invertebrate. Unlike the giant squid, whose arms and tentacles only have suckers lined with small teeth, the colossal squid’s limbs are also equipped with sharp hooks: some swivelling, others three-pointed.
The colossal squid also has the largest eyes documented in the animal kingdom; the eyes of one partly collapsed specimen measured 27 cm (11 in). The beak of the colossal squid is the largest known of any squid.
It is believed that the colossal squid’s main predator is the sperm whale. Much of the information known about the colossal squid has been garnered from samples taken from the stomachs of sperm whales. Primarily, the colossal squid is an inhabitant of the entire circumantarctic Southern Ocean.
The Moray eel’s jaws are wide and frame a protruding snout. They are fierce predators with most possessing large teeth used to tear flesh or grasp slippery prey items.
Morays are frequently thought of as particularly vicious or ill-tempered animals. In truth, morays normally hide from humans in crevices and would rather flee than fight. They are shy and attack humans only in self-defence, or when they have lost their fear of humans. One occasion in 2005 when a Moray eel bit off the thumb of a diver was due to a lack of caution – divers often fed one particular large Moray eel and when struggling to open a packet of sausages for the eel the diver suffered a regrettable but perhaps predictable misfortune.
Eels that have eaten certain types of toxic algae can cause ciguatera fish poisoning if eaten. They are present in warmer oceans all around the world and typically found around coral reefs.
Amongst the inexhaustible list of attractions that London has to offer, a habitat rich in natural aquatic wildlife is not one. Yet, just a few metres from the bleak, murky waters of the Thames sits London Sea Life Aquarium – an experience which promises the discovery of “a magical underwater world filled with a dazzling array of amazing creatures”. With such a claim, what better place could there be to review for this issue of Broadsheet focusing on the oceans?
Keener than the keenest parent, I arrived just minutes after the aquarium opened, managing to beat the half-term queues to get in. Immediately after passing the ticket desks, you get a glimpse of the underwater world which awaits, having to walk over a glass platform covering the main shark tank. And just round the corner, two wildly enthusiastic employees direct you to throw some shapes for a quick photo shoot.
The next steps to the main aquarium exhibits aren’t quite so glamorous; descending poorly lit, well-worn stairs, it feels more like entering an underground car park than “the jewel in the crown of the SEA LIFE attractions”.
However, once you get over the fact that the aquarium is located under County Hall, the old home of London’s local government, and learn to excuse the narrow walkways and dark décor, there is plenty of wildlife on offer to ogle at.
Taking you through multiple geographic regions including a Pacific Ocean tank, Rainforests of the World and even the River Thames Story, the exhibits are well organised and include a huge variety of aquatic animals from seahorses and sharks to penguins, and even a crocodile.
With a section titled “Nemo’s Coral Caves” teeming with clownfish and surgeonfish, it is clear that the aquarium is targeted at kids. But this definitely doesn’t have to stop you having fun; just be aware that joining in with the cries of, “Look daddy, Nemo, Nemo, Nemo!” may get you some odd looks.
All of this led to the final exhibit: Penguins, Ice Adventure. Having never been there, I can’t comment on how close they have come to their aim of “recreat[ing] a taste of the Antarctic in the heart of the city”, but being newer than the rest of the aquarium, and with plastic “ice” walls along the walkway, the area was definitely a pleasanter environment than what had preceded.
The highlight of the trip followed at the end: the aquarium’s Gentoo penguins! Admittedly, the “ice cave” they were kept in seemed small and dark for what we were told are the world’s third largest species of penguin, and the viewing area got extremely congested, with young children literally crawling through our legs to get a better view during feeding time. But the penguins were a major hit, bringing more life and energy to the aquarium experience.
On the world stage, London Sea Life Aquarium almost definitely would not be major contender for Best Aquarium. But, they have done a great job with the space on offer in the heart of the capital, and the huge emphasis they place on the importance of conservation throughout the attraction is commendable. As LSE student Sabrina succinctly put it: “If you like animals, you’ll love the aquarium.”