STEM Outreach Notts

UoN's Science Outreach Society


November 2016

How to Make a Best Friend, Part One.

Image result for cute dogsThe phrase “Man’s best friend” is a common phrase popularized by the poet Ogden Nash, and has become a familiar saying when referring to dogs. Unquestionable in their greatness, the domestic dog exhibits a close relationship with humans, showing loyalty, companionship and unconditional love.

The domesticated dog (Canis familiaris) is a direct descendent of the grey wolf (Canis lupus), but over thousands of years, dogs have evolved not only in their behaviour, but also in their appearance – developing shorter teeth, shorter muzzles, and let’s face it – enhanced cuteness levels. But why did this evolution take place, and how did dogs make the journey from feared predator to lovable pup?

This journey is not fully understood and there are many controversies surrounding the separate theories – some of which (and the reasons they are not 100% accepted) are as such:

  • When humans arrived in Europe 43,000 years ago most large predators were wiped out, why weren’t wolves?
  • Humans used wolves to hunt and they formed a working relationship, for example leaving some meat for wolves – but humans were successful hunters without wolves – and wolves eat a lot of meat.
  • Humans have a long history of eradicating wolves – almost all cultures in the last few centuries have hunted wolves to extinction.

Some scientists believe that it was wolves that first approached humans – possibly when scavenging around the garbage dumps of human settlements – bold aggressive wolves would have not been tolerated and would have been killed – but friendly wolves per se could have been tolerated and therefore selected for.

Image result for wolfsImage result for mans best friend

Selecting for the friendlier wolves caused strange things to happen within them, thus triggering domestication, and these wolf-dogs (for want of a better description) quickly became cuter, fluffier and got waggier tails. But not only this, these wolf-dogs developed the ability to read human gestures and speech.

As a culture that is now used to having domesticated dogs, the ability of dogs to be able to read human gestures is taken for granted, and the fact that this is a truly remarkable ability is lost. Dogs can read our facial expressions, certain words and the intonation of human speech. Even our own closest relatives – bonobos and other primates such as chimpanzees are not as good at reading our gestures as dogs do. In this way, dogs have evolved to become eerily similar to our own children, and this accounts for the extraordinary relationship we have today with our dogs.

Due to this ability, these friendly wolf-dogs were worth knowing to our ancestors, and people who had dogs during a hunt would likely have an advantage over those who did not. Even today, tribes in the Congo and Middle America depend on dogs to hunt. Moose hunters in the alpine regions have been observed to bring home 50% more prey when they are accompanied by dogs.

Wolf-dogs could have also served as an early warning system to their human counterparts – barking at hostile strangers from other tribes, and potentially defending their humans from predators, thus earning them a place at our fire.

I will leave you with this quote from Voltaire – “DOG – it seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defence and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful: is the best friend man can have” (1764).

This is part one of a series of blog posts on the evolution and domestication on dogs by Dr Matthew Yates. Matt gained his PhD in 2014 studying the role of macrophage migration in neuropathic pain and atherosclerosis. His interests lie in psychobiology, haematology and dogs. He is currently working in a clinical haematology field.



Science meets art – Volunteering with my digestion diagram at the S.T.E.A.M Big Draw.

Way to go Morwenna! Fantastic job!

Morwenna's Nutrition

Last Saturday as part of STEM outreach Nottingham (Student society dedicated to student led public engagement and outreach projects) I volunteered at Lakeside arts as part of The Big Draw 2016. The Big Draw is a country wide event and this years theme was S.T.E.A.M – Bringing together Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths.

All of us on the STEM Outreach team created science activities to teach the visitors on the ‘science station tables’. The Artist had then created a giant wicker sculpture representing the human body. The aim was to inspire the visitors to do some art to add to the sculpture by teaching them some science and then letting them get creative!


My fellow nutrition student friend and I had set to work the weeks before thinking of an idea for a digestion/gut health table as we thought this would be a good topic! I made a digestion diagram with labels and…

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Guest Blog: A Case for Caution on Consensus

There is plethora of problems one could point out about the reporting around climate change, many of which are a lot worse than that which is the subject of this blog post. However, the media often portrays the scientific consensus surrounding climate change as evidence. For example, the Guardian newspaper features a blog entitled “Climate Consensus – the 97%”, referring to the percentage of research agreeing with the idea that global warming is human made. The subject of scientific consensus may not have been communicated as effectively in other media outlets but I will outline in this post why I believe its use in this fashion is a deeply unscientific one.

The Ptolemaic, or geocentric, model of the solar system said that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system and the other planets wandered the heavens along epicyclical orbits. It may seem laughable to us now that people believed this was the case but the theory was mathematically beautiful; epicycles are used to describe the path of stars orbiting the centre of mass of a galaxy. More importantly, Ptolemy’s model agreed with observation. That’s what made it so persuasive. In fact, during ancient times the Ptolemaic model was the scientific consensus.

I can’t help but draw parallels between this historical example and the current consensus concerning climate change. A recent study published in the Institute of Physics journal says 97% of current research agrees humans are driving global warming. As an ardent believer in the science I am easily persuaded of the existence of anthropogenic climate change when hearing statistics such as these. It is taken, almost on faith, that when so many scientists agree it must, unequivocally, be the truth. It is the nature of science and the scientific method that a theory can never truly be proven to be true, we can only offer our best guess at how a certain process works.

Copernicus overturned hundreds of years of scientific hegemony by breaking with the assumption that the Earth was at the centre of the solar system. He said it was the Sun around which the rest of the planet traveled. When combined with early telescopic observations by Gallieo Galileli it was shown to more accurately reflect the nature of the solar system. Modern climate science could be stuck in a similar state of stagnation; a deeper truth could be out there waiting to be discovered. Hence the use of “the 97%” as evidence for climate change is a deeply unscientific argument. Opinion portrayed as fact.

Having personally reviewed some of the evidence I agree climate change is still our best theory to describe the unprecedented rise in temperatures. It’s pleasing to see that, at the time of writing, 79 of 197 signatories have ratified the Paris climate agreement. Instead, this post is a case for caution on the consensus concerning climate change. “Consensus as evidence” is a manifestation of a deeper problem with communicating science in the media from climate change to GM crops and vaccinations.

Keir Birchall is a student at the University of Nottingham in his last year of MSci Physics. When not doing Physics, he enjoys practicing photography and listening to live music.

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