8 Amazing Research Findings from UK Universities in 2017

Universities do so much more than just teaching, and UK universities have had a great year in terms of the research they produce.
Some discoveries are deeply important but not all that exciting – for instance, proving that an experiment done previously has an outcome that can be replicated is vital for science, but not likely to make headline news. And there are always the discoveries that seem to be made for tabloids to make fun of, such as the Imperial College London finding that eating more fruit and veg is definitely good for you (though the suggested amount – 10 portions a day – may seem daunting). Among the hundreds of thousands of publications up and down the country in dozens of disciplines, we’ve looked at the top findings from the four universities in which Oxford Royale Summer Schools runs courses – here are the ones that are strangest, most interesting, and most exciting for the future.

1.The use of the concept of 0 is a lot older than we thought (Oxford)

The Bakhshali manuscript.
Zero has been around since the Romans were in Britain.

Every mathematician is aware of the importance of the concept of zero. It initially evolved as a placeholder in larger numbers – such as its use in the number 10 to indicate a greater order of magnitude than 1 – until, in seventh century India, it started to be used in mathematical calculations in its own right. Zero allows mathematics to evolve beyond basic arithmetic, engaging with negative numbers and complex fractions. That’s vital for applications as diverse as engineering and calculating debt.
The Bakhshali manuscript, held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library since 1902, is broadly recognised as the oldest Indian mathematical text still existing. It features the first instance of the symbol that would later become zero. While the Mayans and Babylonians used a version of zero as a placeholder still earlier, the Bakhshali manuscript is the first example of the symbol that was ultimately used by Indian mathematician Brahmagupta to use zero as a number in calculations in its own right, in the early seventh century. In September 2017, the Bakhshali manuscript was carbon dated, and it turns out that it dates to three different periods – the newest between 885 and 993 AD, and the oldest, astonishingly, from between 224 and 383 AD. That makes the proto-zero that it uses remarkably old, and the Bakhshali manuscript about five hundred years older than anyone realised.

2.There are exoplanets that could sustain life just 39 light-years away (Cambridge)

CG image of planets.
The discovery of seven new earth-like worlds is exciting.

Cambridge scientists were among the international team who made a sensational discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting the star Trappist-1. An exoplanet is a planet in orbit around any star other than the Sun, but most of the exoplanets discovered so far have been huge gas giants in the manner of Jupiter; being larger, they’re easier for astronomers to spot. Planets at this distance are typically spotted not by observing them directly – they’re much too far away for that – but by observing the fluctuations in the light cast by the star they orbit, which suggest the presence of a planet dimming the light.  
What’s notable about the Trappist-1 exoplanets is their size and their distance from the star. They’re all roughly the same size as Earth (ranging from 25% smaller to 10% larger) and while they are very close to their star, it’s what astronomers call an ultra-cool dwarf; it’s much dimmer and colder than our Sun. The result? These planets are probably at a temperature that allows for the presence of liquid water, and their gravity is such that humans would find them comfortable to walk on (unlike, for instance, Jupiter, where the gravitational pull would crush us to death). They’re in what’s known as the Goldilocks Zone – not too hot and not too cold – which means they could sustain life, the nearest exoplanets for which this is the case. Astronomers hope to find out within a decade not only whether they could sustain life, but, even more excitingly, whether they already do.

3. Quantum computing might soon be possible at room temperature (Imperial)

A man fixes a quantum computer.
Quantum computing is about to hot up.

Quantum computing is perhaps the most exciting technology being developed today. A conventional computer works on the basis of binary, where each bit is either a 1 or a 0. A quantum computer uses qubits instead, which instead of being either 1 or a 0, can be many different states. This is hugely complicated, but the end result is that a fully functional quantum computer could carry out processes thousands or even millions of times faster than even the best computers can today.
Some basic quantum computers already exist, but they’re hampered by needing to operate at cryogenic temperatures of minus 270 degrees Celsius – which means they can’t process many qubits. Quantum computing is possible when Rabi oscillations can be observed, which show that a quantum particle is jumping between quantum states. Until recently, they’ve only been observed at temperatures far below freezing. But scientists from the Department of Materials at Imperial College London have managed to use microwave laser technology to produce Rabi oscillations at room temperature. They’re still very far from producing an operational quantum computer under these circumstances, but the discovery demonstrates that it could be done – bringing the computers of the future that step closer.

4. Whales learn their songs like children learn language (St Andrews)

A whale's tail protruding from the sea.
Less linguistically random than previously thought.

Whale song is a fascinating phenomenon, and the most striking of those songs are the ones produced by male humpback whales, possibly as a mating ritual as they’re mostly performed during the mating season. These songs have a complexity that some scientists have compared with human music. They also evolve over time, and that has been a key mystery for scientists to unravel: it’s long been known that songs travel eastwards from Australia to French Polynesia – it seems that Australian whales are the trendsetters – but how the movement from old songs to new songs happens has been less clear.
What scientists from St Andrews did in 2017 was investigate cases where there were hybrid songs: an old song and a new song combined. This involved investigating thousands of hours of song for the rare instances where this occurred. What they discovered is that sometimes whales will sing part of an old song and part of a new song, spliced together, while on other occasions they import a new theme into an old song. There seem to be guiding rules underlining the ways in which new songs could be combined with old songs, with new songs learned in segments; scientists observed that this was like the way that children learn to speak.

5. The symptoms of trench foot are caused by damage to sensory nerve fibres (Oxford and Imperial)

Soldier's feet with their boots off.
The cause may not lie simply in the trench.

Trench foot is best known as a condition affecting thousands of soldiers over a hundred years ago during the First World War. Called ‘non-freezing cold injury’ by doctors, it’s caused when your feet are persistently exposed to cold, damp, unsanitary conditions (like those of a WWI trench). It doesn’t require freezing temperatures, just persistent cold and damp, but its effects can be deeply unpleasant, going from swelling to infected sores, potentially – if untreated – to gangrene that may require amputation. Though it’s usually curable if treated rapidly, it can cause chronic pain, especially during later exposure to the cold – to the extent that people with these after-effects of trench foot can struggle to hold down a job.
What’s been a mystery is what causes this underlying damage, why trench foot affects some people and not others, and why people with African ancestry are typically worse affected than Caucasians. This is important because trench foot didn’t die out with the end of the First World War; it’s still an active danger for people in some professions, especially the armed forces. Scientists from Oxford, Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University discovered in 2017 that people with trench foot have a reduction in their intraepidermal nerve fibres, or the sensory nerve fibres in the upper layer of the skin. That’s what causes their chronic pain. This new understanding will help diagnose cases quicker, develop more appropriate treatment, and hopefully even keep people at risk of trench foot from developing it in the first place.

6. Men getting involved with raising their babies helps boost cognitive development (Imperial)

A man reads a picture book to a baby.
Paternal interest is a largely unstudied factor.

The different approaches taken by mothers in raising their babies is a subject that’s been studied extensively, and from almost any angle you can imagine – from breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, to the advantages and disadvantages of mothers working, to the ideal length of maternity leave. But the role of fathers in child development is relatively understudied. That’s what this research from Imperial College London aimed to address.
Researchers looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age, and found that the babies whose fathers had been more engaged and active in playing with them in these early months performed better on standard cognitive tests when they were two years old. What was noteworthy is that this trend held even once researchers accounted for factors like income and age that could affect both child development and the way in which fathers interact with their children. Nor was there any difference in impact based on whether the child was a boy or a girl, as some researchers had theorised would be the case; both girls and boys seem to benefit from having fathers who are more engaged with them at a young age. This study had a small sample size of 128 fathers, so it will be interesting to see if it replicates in different cultures and with a larger group.

7. The cultural heritage of CEOs affects their performance at work (St Andrews)

A man in a suit adjusts his tie.
Cultural history may have an effect on financial success.

Does the culture of our parents and grandparents make a difference to our behaviour at work, even if we were raised in a different culture? This study from the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh looked at CEOs from the USA whose parents and grandparents came from immigrant backgrounds but who were themselves brought up in the USA, and compared their performance with that of CEOs whose families had been US-based for considerably longer. In both cases the CEOs led banks where performance could be measured quantitatively in terms of investment performance.
Surprisingly, researchers discovered that for some backgrounds, there was a difference in performance from the baseline: specifically that CEOs whose families had emigrated from Germany, Italy, Poland and Russia did better under pressure than those with British, Irish, or longer-term American ancestors, whose recorded return on assets (ROA) was approximately average for the sample. The researchers theorised that coming from a family with cultural roots that promote restraint and avoidance of uncertainty might contribute to better banking results; at the very least, it demonstrates a potentially under-explored benefit of immigration in providing diverse viewpoints even after one or two generations.

8. Not all Mycenaean chamber tombs have been looted or damaged (Cambridge)

A tomb entrance at Mycenae.
There may well be undiscovered tombs in existence.

Cambridge archaeologists made a rare and notable discovery in the summer of 2017, finding a Mycenaean chamber tomb on a mountainside in the Greek National Park of Tzoumerka, Peristeri and Arachthos Gorge. Around 4,000 such tombs have been excavated in the last 150 years in Greece, but this tomb is the ninth largest, and the first to be found, uncovered and documented intact without looting or damage.
That makes this discovery hugely significant in enhancing our understanding of the Mycenaeans – the last Bronze Age civilisation in Ancient Greece – and their funerary practices. Mycenaean Greece, spanning approximately from 1600 to 1100 BC, was an advanced civilisation consisting of a network of palace states, which traded extensively over the Mediterranean and left behind the first written records of the Greek language, Linear B. This tomb dates from the palatial period of 1370 to 1200 BC, when Mycenaean civilisation was at its peak – but only a couple of hundred years before its abrupt fall. It’s located near the site of ancient Orchomenos, a major centre that controlled this region of Mycenaean Greece and achieved astonishing works of architecture and engineering, but about which little is otherwise known. The project of studying the tomb and its surroundings is only in its first year of five, and so this discovery represents an auspicious start to learning more about this fascinating ancient civilisation.
Images: researchermycenean tomb; man in suit adjusts tieman with baby; soldier’s feetwhaleman fixing a computerthe bakhshali manuscriptexoplanets;