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Festive findings


Festive findings



From the history of Christmas and shopping to find the perfect gift, to snow density and the engineering behind chocolates, research across the UK has found some innovative ways to ensure your December celebrations run smoothly. Here, we highlight a few UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) projects.


Deciding on presents? Sleep on it

Deciding on what to buy your granny, the work secret Santa or even your best friend can be a tricky decision. Research has found that rather than making a snap decision, it might be better to sleep on it.

A paper released in January from the Network for Integrated Behavioural Science (NIBS) project, led by the University of Nottingham, found that the old adage rings true.

"If we take a break for a few nights this allows us to gain a fresh perspective," explains Dr Dennie van Dolder, who was a postdoctoral researcher on the project.

The new method draws on the 'Wisdom of Crowds' principle, a well-established decision-making technique that has been used to improve the accuracy of economic forecasts, medical treatments and weather forecasting.

"Many human decisions, whether in business, politics, medical or personal domain, require the decision-maker to estimate unknown quantities," says Dennie van Dolder. "According to the Wisdom of Crowds principle, more accurate estimates can be obtained by combining the judgments of diverse collections of individuals than by experts alone." 

The principle is based on the statistical fact that the average of a number of imperfect estimates is more accurate because it reduces the effect of errors.

The project was funded by UKRI’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).


Remember your reusable bags when shopping for presents

The introduction of a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags to cut down their use has proved so successful that it could pave the way for other measures to reduce waste, according to research released last year.

In 2014, 8.5 billion single-use plastic bags were used by customers in British supermarkets. After the introduction of the 5p English plastic bag charge in October 2015, plastic bag use fell by almost 80%.

Importantly, says Professor Wouter Poortinga from Cardiff University, the 5p charge also made people think more about the environment and become more supportive of other environmental policies.

The study shows plastic bag charges actually increased in popularity after they were introduced. In England, a majority (52%) already supported the charge before it was introduced, but support increased to 60% one month after. A similar effect had occurred earlier in Wales when it introduced charging in 2011.

"One reason why people became more positive was that it is easy for them to adapt to the charge," Professor Poortinga points out. "Shoppers quickly found new routines, such as keeping bags in the car.

He says: "Our research found that the charge was effective at breaking old habits – it acted as a 'habit disruptor' and made people stop and think about waste."

Support for the plastic bag charge has 'spilled over' into increased support for other charges to reduce waste, say researchers. Support for a hypothetical additional 5p charge on each plastic water bottle purchased increased from 34% to 40% six months after the plastic bag charge was introduced. Similar increases in support were found in Wales (from 44% to 50%) and in Scotland (from 25% to 34%).

The project was funded by UKRI’s ESRC.


Have you put your tree up yet? Daresbury apprentices make their own

Apprentices from different fields – electrical, mechanical and electronics – based at UKRI’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Daresbury Laboratory were given the unusual task of creating a light-up Christmas tree.

Watch the video here.

The team used their different areas of expertise to carry out the project from start to finish, from designing the circuit board, programming it to make the lights work and assembling it.

This task was designed to teach the young apprentices to work together as a team to hone some of the skills they are learning as part of their apprenticeship, including laser printing, soldering and CAD drawings.

STFC Apprentice Co-ordinator Jonathan Aghanian said: “This project allows them to think outside the box and come together as a team. It is important for the apprentices to work on their problem-solving skills, because every project we work on here at Daresbury is unique and has its own challenges so they have to be prepared for that.

“This type of application of skills and thought process is really useful in industry, so it helps to set them up for their future careers.”

There are currently 28 apprentices at Daresbury, who each have the opportunity to work with some of the most advanced technologies in the world and support international science projects, including working at CERN and ILL.

As well as receiving accredited training, the apprentices also get on-the-job training and mentoring from STFC’s world-class workforce.

Find out more about the STFC apprentice scheme here.


Feeling full? Look after your gut

Tucking in to a second box of chocolates while glugging on an eggnog might be the highlight of the festive season for many, but you should keep your gut and all the hard work it will have to do in mind.

Our gut hosts a community of trillions of microbes, called the gut microbiota, and this has significant effects on many aspects of our health. However, the molecular mechanisms underpinning this interaction remain elusive.

New research led by Dr Nathalie Juge at the Quadram Institute has identified some of the molecules used to ensure bacteria in the gut microbiota maintain healthy populations, in the correct locations in the body. This helps to ensure a continuing mutually beneficial relationship with our gut microbiota.

The research was funded by UKRI’s Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC.)


How your yummy chocolates are made

Do you ever wonder how the chocolate shapes on your tree or in your advent calendar are made? It could be by DPS Designs Ltd, a British confectionary design mould manufacturer.

Michelle Fanzi Down is the Commercial Director of the company, and was made a Women in Innovation Award holder in 2017, by UKRI’s Innovate UK. The team, based in the Forest of Dean, use precision engineering to create moulds including stilettos, the Gruffalo, Baftas and Santas.

A design could start as a hand carved sculpture that is scanned into the 3D environment by using a 3D scanner. It can also start out as a 2D sketch and built into a 3D model using a computer software.

Next, the physics behind how chocolate flows through the mould must be considered. This looks at the fluid dynamics of the liquid chocolate. Once cooled, the solid structure of the chocolate must be able to come out of the mould without breaking. Engineers must also think about the design of the tool that makes the mould. They look at how plastic would flow inside injection mould tooling or form over the tooling of thermoform moulds.

So have a think about the engineering that goes into your next chocolate reindeer or coin.


The darker side of Christmas

Emma Butcher, an Early Career Researcher at the University of Leicester, is also a UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council New Generation Thinker. Here, she looks at the darker side of a Victorian Christmas.

Before 1837, there were no Christmas cards, no crackers and no turkey. But by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, the ancient midwinter festivities had been transformed into something we'd all recognise as Christmas today.

What underpinned these changes may have been industrialisation and economic progress: during the period giving gifts became more affordable – and more popular – through mass production, while the introduction of the 'Penny Post' in 1840 made sending cards much cheaper. 

But much of the aesthetics and atmosphere of the Victorian Christmas came from somewhere far older – and a lot stranger. 

When Prince Albert brought over the Christmas tree from Germany, he brought with it German traditions and the booming popularity of these decorated trees was only one manifestation of a much wider Victorian fascination with legends, folk stories and the supernatural. And while the Victorian Christmas was definitely a time for family, presents and good cheer – it was also a time when the natural order was turned upside down, and some very weird things going on as well. 

One of the oddest to modern sensibilities was the Krampus, a bizarre anthropomorphic figure, described as half goat and half demon, who was the devilish opposite of St Nicholas. 

While the charitable St Nicholas rewarded children who had been good by giving them presents, Krampus punished those who had been bad by drowning them, eating them – or dragging them off to hell – and the Victorians loved him. 

The popularity of these cards was possibly as a reaction to the more widespread representation of a very romantic, chocolate box Christmas, with its robins and carol singers and fresh fallen snow. And Krampus cards are one aspect of a whole range of – to modern eyes at least, very bizarre – alternative Christmas Cards, featuring anthropomorphised beetles and insects, as well as human-like root vegetables wearing hats. This dark figure of Germanic mythology even starts to appear on Christmas cards in the period and there are lots of “Greetings from Krampus” cards that feature him with his long tongue sticking out, leering over screaming children. 

The rapid spread and rising popularity of these strange, supernatural traditions was made possible by the growth of printing in the period and the publication of cheap books, pamphlets and papers. It was part of a wider obsession with the past, with Egyptology and mysticism. And while we may see the Victorians as quite serious and stuffy, they actually had a very romantic – mischievous – sensibility as well.

Read the full piece on the AHRC website.


'Twas the night before Christmas… and children’s hearts are racing

Researchers at UKRI’s Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit often ask people to wear devices that allow them to measure their physical activity. Sometimes they get unexpected results, as Physical Activity Specialist Kate Westgate and Communications Manager Charlotte Ridgway recall.

Some data that baffled the team was a heart rate trace of a four-year old child. "We couldn’t understand why on two nights the sleeping heart rate was noticeably higher than the other nights - unusual given that sleeping heart rate is fairly stable from night to night."

In most cases this is explained by parents saying that the child had a fever, but this child was fine. "After much puzzling, we finally noticed the dates… the 24 and 25 December! It seems that Santa’s imminent arrival was causing so much excitement that the child’s heart rate was high even when asleep."

Read the full story on MRC’s blog.


Snow density in Greenland

If you think it’s cold today, have some sympathy for the scientists who braved temperatures as low as -29°C in Greenland to measure snow density. The team from the Centre for Polar Observation & Modelling collected samples and data from three sites along a transect which goes from the ice sheet’s margin to the dry snow zone at its summit.

The vital fieldwork was part of a project between UKRI’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and CryoSat, a European Space Agency environmental research satellite – to calibrate and validate measurements taken by the satellite.

Read more on NERC’s website.

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