Time to think about visual neuroscience

by Poppy Sharp, PhD candidate at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.

All is not as it seems

We all delight in discovering that what we see isn’t always the truth. Think optical illusions: as a kid I loved finding the hidden images in Magic Eye stereogram pictures. Maybe you remember a surprising moment when you realised you can’t always trust your eyes. Here’s a quick example. In the image below, cover your left eye and stare at the cross, then slowly move closer towards the screen. At some point, instead of seeing what’s really there, you’ll see a continuous black line. This happens when the WAB logo falls in a small patch on the retinae of your eyes where the nerve fibres leave in a bundle, and consequently this patch has no light receptors – a blind spot. When the logo is in your blind spot, your visual system fills in the gap using the available information. Since there are lines on either side, the assumption is made that the line continues through the blind spot.

Illusions reveal that our perception of the world results from the brain building our visual experiences, using best guesses as to what’s really out there. Most of the time you don’t notice, because the visual system has been adapted over years of evolution and then been honed by your lifetime of perceptual experiences, and is pretty good at what it does.

WAB vision

For vision scientists, illusions can provide clues about the way the visual system builds our experiences. We refer to our visual experience of something as a ‘percept’, and use the term ‘stimulus’ for the thing which prompted that percept. The stimulus could be something as simple as a flash of light, or more complex like a human face. Vision science is all about carefully designing experiments so we can tease apart the relationship between the physical stimulus out in the world and our percept of it. In this way, we learn about the ongoing processes in the brain which allow us to do everything from recognising objects and people, to judging the trajectory of a moving ball so we can catch it.

We can get insight into what people perceived by measuring their behavioural responses. Take a simple experiment: we show people an arrow to indicate whether to pay attention to the left or the right side of the screen, then they see either one or two flashes of light flash quickly on one side, and have to press a button to indicate how many flashes they saw. There are several behavioural measures we could record here. Did the cue help them be more accurate at telling the difference between one or two flashes? Did the cue allow them to respond more quickly? Were they more confident in their response? These are all behavioural measures. In addition, we can also look at another type of measure: their brain activity. Recording brain activity allows unique insights into how our experiences of the world are put together, and investigation of exciting new questions about the mind and brain.

Rhythms of the brain

Your brain is a complex network of cells using electrochemical signals to communicate with one another. We can take a peek at your brain waves by measuring the magnetic fields associated with the electrical activity of your brain. These magnetic fields are very small, so to record them we need a machine called an MEG scanner (magnetoencephalography) which has many extremely sensitive sensors called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices). The scanner somewhat resembles a dryer for ladies getting their blue rinse done, but differs in that it’s filled with liquid helium and costs about three million euros.

A single cell firing off an electrical signal would have too small a magnetic field to be detected, but since cells tend to fire together as groups, we can measure these patterns of activity in the MEG signal. Then we look for differences in the patterns of activity under different experimental conditions, in order to reveal what’s going on in the brain during different cognitive processes. For example, in our simple experiment from before with a cue and flashes of light, we would likely find differences in brain activity when these flashes occur at an expected location as compared to an unexpected one.

One particularly fascinating way we can characterise patterns of brain activity is in terms of the the rhythms of the brain. Brain activity is an ongoing symphony of multiple groups of cells firing in concert. Some groups fire together more often (i.e. at high frequency), whereas others may also be firing together in a synchronised way, but firing less often (low frequency). These different patterns of brain waves generated by cells forming different groups and firing at various frequencies are vital for many important processes, including visual perception.

What I’m working on

For as many hours of the day as your eyes are open, a flood of visual information is continuously streaming into your brain. I’m interested in how the visual system makes sense of all that information, and prioritises some things over others. Like many researchers, the approach we use is to show simple stimuli in a controlled setting, in order to ask questions about fundamental low level visual processes. We then hope that our insights generalise to more natural processing in the busy and changeable visual environment of the ‘real world’. My focus is on temporal processing. Temporal processing can refer to a lot of things, but as far as my projects go we mean how you deal with stimuli occurring very close together in time (tens of milliseconds apart). I’m investigating how this is influenced by expectations, so in my experiments we manipulate expectations about where in space stimuli will be, and also your expectations about when they will appear. This is achieved using simple visual cues to direct your attention to, for example, a certain area of the screen.

When stimuli rapidly follow one another in time, sometimes it’s important to be parse them into separate percepts whereas other times it’s more appropriate to integrate them together. There’s always a tradeoff between the precision and stability of the percepts built by the visual system.  The right balance between splitting up stimuli into separate percepts as opposed to blending them into a combined percept depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve at that moment.

Let’s illustrate some aspects of this idea about parsing versus integrating stimuli with a story, out in the woods at night. If some flashes of light come in quick succession from the undergrowth, this could be the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of a moving predator. In this case, your visual system needs to integrate these stimuli into a percept of the predator moving through space. But a similar set of several stimuli flashing up from the darkness could also be multiple predators next to each other, in which case it’s vital that you parse the incoming information and perceive them separately. Current circumstances and goals determine the mode of temporal processing that is most appropriate.

I’m investigating how expectations about where stimuli will be can influence your ability to either parse them into separate percepts or to form an integrated percept. Through characterising how expectations influence these two fundamental but opposing temporal processes, we hope to gain insights not only into the processes themselves, but also into the mechanisms of expectation in the visual system. By combining behavioural measures with measures of brain activity (collected using the MEG scanner), we are working towards new accounts of the dynamics of temporal processing and factors which influence it. In this way, we better our understanding of the visual system’s impressive capabilities in building our vital visual experiences from the lively stream of information entering our eyes.


Not anonymous enough? Research data and issues of anonymity.

by Carol Robinson, doctoral researcher, University of York.


Recently, I settled down to enjoy an article by one of my favourite academic writers. It was everything I’d hoped it would be: well written, thought provoking and interesting. It took a new approach to its subject and had a campaigning edge that I sympathised with.  And then, towards the end of it, I realised that I knew one of the people who had participated in the study being reported. Not that I knew them in terms of recognising a type, but that I actually knew them. My first response was one of disappointment. I want my academic heroes to be flawless. My next thought was along the lines of ‘will anyone else know them?’ followed quickly by the question ‘does it matter?’

A quick search on-line resulted in a Wikipedia page that confirmed other people would be able to identify the participant if they wished. The academic had not revealed their interviewee’s age or location, but from the context it was clear that they were referring to a member of a small group and once more specific information was given, anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection could produce a name. From my knowledge of the individual, further details in the article then confirmed what I had found.  Anyone else would be able to identify them, even if they lacked my certainty.

So, does it matter? The article probably won’t be widely read, even in academia, and it’s therefore doubtful that anyone else will do the searching to put a name to this participant. It’s possible the participant wouldn’t mind if they were named, although the author gave no indication that they’d consented to this. The encounter that was described didn’t include anything particularly controversial or personally revealing. If they read it, the person might not like some of the ways they were portrayed but there was no obvious information that could be used against them. But shouldn’t the participant have been assured of anonymity regardless?

Anonymity is one of the things I have to think about in my own research, which is around deaths in prison, two subjects with particular sensitivities. It is one of the hallmarks of ethical conduct, together with confidentiality and informed consent, necessary not least because twentieth century history has too many examples of exploitation and damage occurring in the name of ‘research’. Anonymization arguably has a value in its own right.  Attempting anonymization, even if we secretly admit we may fail, is a way of preserving the idea of academic integrity, of seeking to avoid the exploitation of other people’s generosity that would taint our work. It is evidence of academic vigour. This links back to my initial disappointment that an experienced academic had made a mistake. If the anonymization was ineffectual, were there other aspects of this article that were in some way dubious?

Demonstrating that we have followed the conventions of academic research, whether by correctly referencing our sources or by using recognised methodologies, is part of staking our claim to be academics. It shows a respect for the traditions of our particular discipline, and in the case of techniques such as anonymization, establishes our research as ethically valid. And if ethical validity is lost, it is arguable that other forms of credibility are lost too.

Research ethics committees usually insist on anonymity and confidentiality for people participating in any research, especially vulnerable participants, as a way of protecting them. It is assumed that some harm or loss may befall an individual if their identity is known, if the stories and experiences they share and which become the researcher’s data are in some way linked backed to them as a person living in the real world, beyond the study report or academic article. Sometimes, as in my own research, this is associated with taboo subjects or criminal activity, where there may be very real consequences if anonymity is not maintained.

In seeking ethical approval for research involving prisoners, deemed to be vulnerable because of their incarcerated status, I am encouraged to think through how I will record and store my data in a way that protects their identity. The specific threat is rarely stated. Although it may be poor practice, is failing to anonymise a person really putting them at risk of harm? In many cases, there is perhaps no direct link between a possible failure to anonymise effectively and a harmful consequence for the participant; the information revealed has to have the potential to be used in a way that would confer harm. However, there is often a simple presumption that all people participating in research should be protected, which ignores the question of whether harm is likely to follow from identification.

In all aspects of our lives, most of us share personal information continually.  We willingly offer up personal information all the time, giving our names, addresses and even bank account details to near strangers, trusting without evidence that they will be used for the purpose we intend. We share our views in conversations that can be overhead by others and via on-line discussions with unknown interlocutors. We post pictures on social media, link them to others without their consent, and live surrounded by cameras. Why do we persist in thinking we can anonymise research participants?

Researchers may use pseudonyms, but often a participant’s gender, age, nationality, race or class are pertinent to the research and so cannot be hidden. We can limit access to some findings, but that poses its own ethical dilemmas. And when the research needs to focus on participants from a small group, as in the case of the article I was reading, anonymization becomes so much harder to achieve.

I have experienced this in my own research. Last year, I interviewed uniformed prison staff with experience of working with terminally ill prisoners, in a prison where there were few female officers. The interviews gave really useful insights into the work prison officers perform with dying prisoners but I was painfully aware that the female interviewees may be identifiable by other staff in the prison, despite my best efforts at anonymization, simply because they belonged to such a small group. Even with a wider pool of participants, in a tight-knit world such as a prison anonymization is hard to maintain. Surely we should not abandon useful research because it involves a small group or close-knit communities?

Indeed, should we even try to anonymise our research participants? Most of the time I would say yes, but there are times when far from protecting our participants, doing so actually risks inflicting a harm.  As researchers, we promise anonymity to ethics committee on behalf of other people, who may not wish for it. Very often, participants may have offered to help the researcher because they too care about the issue that is driving the research and want to have an impact on the situation. They may want to have their voices heard, and by extension, themselves credited. When we anonymise them, we keep their voices, but hide their faces. For vulnerable participants in particular, this is potentially a misuse of power. It is a way for the researcher to exert their positional power and claim control. Nicely anonymised, our participants may not even be able to spot themselves in our final reports and presentations. They can’t see how they are represented, and so they can’t hold us to account. There are ways round this, involving them in the production of the final report, but in my discipline at least, few researchers seem to opt for these approaches.

Lastly, I found myself thinking ‘what does one do if one spots that an academic has not sufficiently anonymised their data?’. It is not easy to be certain what responsibility we have when we spot something problematic with someone else’s work. In the case of the article I read, the peer reviewers had been content with the text, the editorial board satisfied and the article is now published. The damage, if there were any, is done and in an age of on-line journal access, probably un-doable.

I asked colleagues, and was struck by two responses in particular, widely divergent but both from science faculties. One, coming from a discipline where the professional accountability of practitioners is paramount, felt strongly that I should contact either the author directly to alert them to the problem, or the journal anonymously to suggest they review their procedures. From another department, a colleague suggested I keep quiet, and not draw attention to the problem or myself. For them, raising the matter with the author would only make things worse. Each response of course reflected the culture and values of the particular academic disciple. In some academic disciplines, where the use of human participants is rare, the question of the quality of participant anonymization may rarely come up. But for many disciplines, including my own, where the involvement of human participants is so often essential to a research project, this is an issue that can occur at any time. Do we as academics have a collective responsibility to revisit anonymization?


Emotion Rules in Feminist Book Reviews: An Inroad to Improving Feminist Relationships

By: Lisa Kalayji

WAB 2Swimming through the endless tidal wave of demoralising political think pieces and scholarly jibber-jabber in my mostly academic Twitter feed, I came upon an account called ‘ShitMyReviewersSay’, which features the cruelly scathing comments that anonymous peer reviewers write about the hopefully-to-be-published academic journal articles of their colleagues. The account’s handle? @YourPaperSucks.

Its purpose, other than to give us an opportunity to chuckle at what, under different circumstances, makes us want to either cry or set a university building ablaze, is to highlight the absurd magnitude of the viciousness that peer reviewers will direct at their colleagues when given a chance to do so anonymously.

It’s cathartic to have a laugh at this sort of thing, but when it doesn’t come in the form of a satirical Twitter account, our reaction is a lot different. ‘What the hell?!’ we wonder incredulously. ‘Couldn’t you express your criticism in a less ruthless and petty way? What good does it do you to ruin someone’s day and treat their carefully nurtured brainchild of a paper like garbage?’

ShitMyReviewersSay reminded me of the book reviews in Trouble and Strife, the radical feminist magazine I’m doing my PhD research with.

Trouble and Strife published a fair number of book reviews – feminists write a lot of books! – and over the course of my research I’ve found that there’s a vast deal we can learn about a group of people, be they academics, radical feminists, or any other group, from the way they review each other’s writing.

My research is about emotion culture: the system of rules and social norms that prevail in a society or social group which affect how people feel emotionally and how they express those emotions. Book reviews contain a treasure trove of clues about the emotion culture of the social group that the reviews come from, but in order to see those clues, you need to know some of the things sociologists have learned over the last few decades about how emotions work.

Emotions are relational

As the term ‘relational’ suggests, emotions come up in relationships between people. Because psychology dominates the popular lexicon we use to talk about and make sense of emotions, we tend to think of emotions as states which exist inside of us, are linked to our neurochemistry and our personal histories, and are mostly governed by things like innate human needs for social bonding. All of those things are partially true, but what the sociological study of emotions has revealed is that emotions are actually relational.

Why we feel the way we do in any given situation is constituted by our relationships to the people and things around us and what we understand those things to be and mean.

There isn’t anything in our genetic code that makes us get annoyed when a friend we’re supposed to meet for lunch shows up half an hour late (though our biology is necessary for us to be able to experience feelings), and the feeling of annoyance isn’t something inside of us that emanates outward through the things we say or do (though we do express emotions in that way). We’re annoyed at someone (that’s the relation), and the reason for that annoyance is what we think the lateness signifies. We’re busy people! Don’t they think we have better things to do than sit around waiting? We have to be back at work soon – now we’re going to have to rush through lunch! Our awareness that our friend knows that it’s considered rude to keep someone waiting and that it’s an inconvenience to us is what makes us annoyed – their indifference to our needs and to the agreed conventions of how keeping a lunch date with someone works creates our feeling. Likewise, though, if we found out that they’d been delayed because a stranger attacked them on the street and nearly broke their jaw, our annoyance would quickly give way to concern – what their lateness showed about our relationship to them would have changed, and with it, our feelings about it.

Emotions are subject to rules

Much like there are social rules about how we’re supposed to behave in different sorts of situations, there are also rules about how we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to express feelings. If an adult is audibly crying at, say, a fancy restaurant or a business meeting, that would seem inappropriate, and probably make everyone around them quite uncomfortable. If they were at a funeral, however, that would be considered normal and appropriate, and no one would be bothered.

Even if feelings aren’t expressed, there are rules about how we’re supposed to feel.

If, for example, you’re a bit off your game at work because your sister died last week and you’re in grief, and while not actually admonishing you for it, you get the sense that your boss is annoyed with you for not being your sharpest self right now, you might get upset or angry at them. When someone is in grief, we expect others to respond with compassion, even if that grief peripherally causes some inconvenience to others – it’s a violation of the social norms of compassion and empathy to get annoyed at someone for being grieved, even if the annoyance is mostly hidden and not openly expressed. The rules are also different depending on what the characteristics of the people involved are. If that person crying in the restaurant is an infant, while people might still not be pleased about the noise, it wouldn’t make them feel awkward and uncomfortable, because we consider it normal behaviour for babies to cry regardless of time or place.

These are all some general aspects of how emotions in social life work in ordinary social situations. What my research is about, though, is the specifically political dimension of emotions in social life.

Social norms about emotions are deeply political, even in most seemingly innocuous daily interactions like those I described above. Rules about who is allowed to feel or express what feelings towards whom divides along a lot more political lines than the differences between adults and children. Anger is generally considered more appropriate in men than in women (and in women is more likely to be characterised as histrionics or emotional instability), and vulnerability more appropriate in women than in men (with men’s abilities to be ‘proper’ men called into question if they cry, especially in public). Rules about emotions are also racialised – even very slight expressions of anger from black men are interpreted as very threatening because black men are culturally conceived of as inherently threatening, while much stronger expressions of anger from white men (or women) are regarded as less threatening and are more likely to be considered justified. Our prevailing cultural conceptions about what characteristics different kinds of people innately have give rise to specific, and often strictly socially enforced, rules about who can feel what and how their feelings can be expressed.

Emotions in feminist book reviews

Feminists do a lot of writing, and a lot about how emotions work in feminism can be learned from examining the books, magazines, pamphlets, manifestos, and websites they write. I’m researching radical feminism, a specific type of feminism (there are a lot of them) which emerged during the ‘second wave’ of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, and continues today. From 1983-2002, a radical feminist collective the UK published a magazine called Trouble and Strife, and a lot of radical feminist political thought from that period can be found there.

WAB 1Because feminist politics is so substantially borne out through reading and writing, one of the central strategies that feminists use to think through politics is by reading and debating one another’s writing. For that reason, unsurprisingly, Trouble and Strife published quite a few book reviews, wherein contributing authors to the magazine reviewed books authored by other feminists. By comparing these reviews, and the responses to them that readers communicated to the magazine through letters to the editors, we can see radical feminist emotional politics in action.

What I’ve found is that the emotion rules in radical feminism are different for relationships between radical feminists than they are when dealing with someone outside that political community. When dealing with fellow radical feminists, they’re more considerate of one another’s feelings, express their criticisms more hesitantly and gently, and are more appreciative of the aspects of the work that they agree with. On the rare occasion that someone breaks this rule and is harshly critical of someone within the radical feminist community, there’s a strong backlash, with others writing letters to the magazine to express strong objections to those criticisms having been published, and some questioning the political identity of the magazine as a whole in light of their decision to publish exacting reviews.

This will ring true for many feminists who currently engage in online activism, who are familiar with the more receptive audiences within their own political communities, and harsher (and sometimes outright vitriolic) criticism from feminists who have a fundamentally different set of political values.

This has profound implications for the future of feminism: if feminists who disagree on crucial political issues are more willing to upset one another, and less desirous of understanding where others are coming from, then we’re likely to see a continuation of the entrenched infighting that has plagued feminism for decades. I’m not suggesting here that we should return to the ‘happy sisterhood’ of yesteryear (which, as many feminists have pointed out, never actually existed). What I do want to highlight, though, is that if we want to understand why conflicts between feminists get so heated and can be so divisive, understanding the emotion rules which give shape to feminists’ relationships with each other is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Once we become more aware of these rules and how our own feelings are shaped by them, we can act to change them, and while this won’t solve all of feminism’s problems, it can go a long way toward generating more fruitful dialogues between feminists who belong to different political communities.

This strategy can be extended to other social movements as well, and it has rarely been a matter of more urgency than it is right now for social movements to be able to prevent the breakdown of their political projects due to irreconcilable conflicts from within their communities. During the currently ongoing period of rapid and disorientating social and political change, understanding the emotion rules of social movements can help us to ensure that efforts to enact positive social change are successful, and examining the way we speak to, speak of, and write about one another is one tool we can use for making sense of our emotion cultures.

You can find all issues of Trouble and Strife on their website at troubleandstrife.org.

Women are literally boring….

By: Laurie Winkless

Tunnels, that is. All over the world, Tunnel Boring Machines (or TBMs) are chewing their way through the packed subterranean network of your nearest city. But something you might not know is that they’re all given women’s names. Naming a machine after a human isn’t that weird, right? Many of us have named our cars after all, but it goes a bit deeper for TBMs. According to tunnelling tradition, a TBM cannot start work until it is officially named. But exactly where we got the tradition of naming them after women remains a bit of a mystery.

Some sources suggest that it comes from the 16th century, when miners, armourers, and artillerymen prayed to Saint Barbara. Legend has it that Barbara’s father had locked her in a windowless tower when he found out about her conversion to Christianity. Later, a flash of lightning struck him dead, and since then, all trades associated with darkness and the use of explosives have recognised Barbara as their patron saint. Today’s tunnel engineers see themselves as fitting that description, and so give TBMs women’s names in Barbara’s honour. Others suggest that the tradition comes from the link between miners and ship-builders – their physical strength and similar skills often saw men switch between trades as the need arose. Boats have long been given the pronoun ‘she’ (again for reasons unknown), so perhaps using women’s names for tunnelling machines started there?

Regardless of its beginnings, this tradition is carried out throughout the world today, as a sign of good luck for the project ahead. And, perhaps surprisingly in our increasingly secular world, most tunnelling projects still erect a shrine to Saint Barbara at the tunnel entrance.

I am a massive fan of TBMs. Here I am looking very excited in a TBM- tunnel under the streets of London. If I lived my life again, I think I’d be a tunnelling engineer. (Credit: Laurie Winkless)

Anyway, before we meet some of the First Ladies of the Underground, let have a quick look at how they work. First off, TBMs are huge. Bertha, the largest TBM in the world, is currently working her way under Seattle. She has a diameter of 17.5m, is 99 m long, and weighs over 6,000 tonnes. If we measure her in units of ‘double decker buses’ – she’s as tall as four parked on top of one another, as long as eight parked nose-to-tail, and weighs as much as 467 of them. So it’s no surprise that she’s usually referred to as ‘Big Bertha’.

So what do TBM’s like Bertha do with all that…girth? In their simplest form, TBMs are cylinder-shaped machines that can munch their way through almost any rock type. As I mentioned in my book, Science and the City, TBMs are generally referred to as ‘moles’, but I prefer to think of them as earthworms. Worms eat, push forward and expel whatever is left over, and while there are lots of different types of TBM, they pretty much all do those same three things.

Image credit: Crossrail

At the front, TBMs have a circular face covered in incredibly hard teeth made from a material called tungsten carbide. As the cutter-head rotates, it breaks up the rock in front of it. This excavated material is swallowed through an opening in the face (some would call it a mouth) and it is carried inside the body of the TBM using a rotating conveyor belt. There, it is mixed with various additives (rather like saliva or stomach acid in some animals) that turn the rock into something with the consistency, if not the minty-freshness, of toothpaste. After digestion, this goo is expelled out of the back of the TBM, and it travels along a conveyor belt, until it reaches a processing facility above ground. There, the goo is filtered and treated, with much of it reused in other building projects.

Because of their shape, TBMs produce smooth tunnel walls, which can then be lined using curved segments of concrete. TBMs manage this part of the process too – many metres behind the cutter-head, large robotic suction arms called erectors (stop giggling) pick up and place the concrete panels, to form a complete ring. As the TBM moves forward, more and more of these rings are put into place, until the tunnel is fully clad. In this way, cities across the globe can produce fully-lined tunnels at the rather impressive rate of 100 m per week.

Enough background. Time to meet some of the TBMs boldly going where no machine-named-after-a-woman has gone before.

London – Ada, Phyllis, Victoria, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia, Jessica and Ellie

Crossrail is Europe’s biggest engineering project. Since 2009, they’ve constructed two brand-new, 21 km-long tunnels across London, running east-west. To do this, they used eight TBMs, and as tradition dictates, each was given a woman’s name, selected by members of the public. The first six machines were named after historical London figures, whilst the final two machines were named after ‘modern day heroes’. Because two TBM’s excavate parallel tunnels at the same time, they’re also named in pairs.

Image credit: Crossrail

– Mary and Sophia: These two excavated Crossrail’s new Thames Tunnel, between Plumstead and North Woolwich. They were named after the wives of Isambard and Marc Brunel, the famous engineers who constructed London’s first Thames Tunnel over 150 years ago. The women were a lot faster than their hubbies though – the original tunnel took 16 years to construct. This one was completed in just eight months.

Victoria and Elizabeth: Can you guess which women from history these TBMs were named after?! Yep, Queenie #1 and #2. In the citation, the reason given was that “Victoria was monarch in the first age of great railway engineering projects and Elizabeth is the monarch at the advent of this great age.” Victoria and Elizabeth excavated the tunnels that run between Canning Town and Farringdon, finishing the job in May 2015. As an aside, the Crossrail route itself will appear on tube maps as ‘The Elizabeth Line’, which is disappointingly predictable. I was rooting for ‘The Brunel Line’ myself, but hey.

Ada and Phyllis: These may be my favourites – named after the world’s first computer scientist, Ada Lovelace, and Phyllis Pearsall, who single-handedly created the London A-Z. Lovelace was a woman before her time – without her work, Charles Babbage and his ‘analytical engine’ would have been nothing more than a rich-man and his hobby. Pearsall, on the other hand, got lost on the way to a party in 1935, and decided the maps were inadequate. She walked a total of 3,000 miles to compile the first comprehensive street map of the city. Their Crossrail reincarnations drove west from Farringdon station, laying the groundwork for the second stage of the project.

Jessica and Ellie: These names were selected by primary school children from East London, and they come from heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who won gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics held in the city. Like their human counterparts, these TBMs were hard-working, each excavating two sections of Crossrail’s route.

London has two brand-new TBMs too, which will be working on the extension to the tube’s Northern Line – the line I spent almost all of my 13 years in London living on. Like Crossrail’s Jessica and Ellie, the names of the newbies – each weighing in at 650 tonnes (or 50 double-decker buses) – were selected by schoolchildren. They drew inspiration from pioneering women in aviation. One is named Amy, after Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia. And the second is Helen, named after the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman.

Seattle – Big Bertha

What more can I say about Bertha? Well, she was named after one of Seattle’s early mayors. In fact, Bertha K. Landes was the city’s first and only female mayor…. And she’s still widely regarded as one of the best they ever had. She fought against police corruption and dangerous drivers, and advocated for municipal ownership of the Seattle City Light and street railways. In 2013, Bertha-the-TBM started her long journey across the city, excavating a multilevel road tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But just six months into the project, Bertha ground to a halt. Investigations showed that some of Bertha’s cutting teeth had been severely damaged by a large steel pipe embedded in the ground that hadn’t shown up on surveys. Over the next two years (yes, really), construction engineers dug a recovery pit, so that they could access the machine’s cutter-head, and partially replace it. Bertha resumed tunnel boring in late December, 2015. As I type, she’s also on a pause because of some misalignment, but this stoppage is expected to be temporary. Poor Bertha.

Image credit: Washington State Department of Transportation

Auckland – Alice

Since moving to New Zealand in December, I’ve had a bit of rail-infrastructure-shaped gap in my life. Thankfully, Kiwis are also fans of TBMs, but they tend to use them for road tunnels. The latest one to finish her work is Alice – a 3200 tonne (246 buses) TBM that spent the last two years carving a path between Auckland’s major transport routes. Alice’s tunnel connects State Highway 16 and State Highway 20, and once it opens in April/May 2017, it will complete the city’s ring road. Having recently spent more than an hour in Auckland traffic heading to the airport, I can attest to how much the road is needed! Since finishing her tour of duty, Alice has since gone to a farm when she can roam free amongst all of the other TBMs…. Oh if only this were true. In reality, the largest sections of the machine are being shipped back to her German manufacturer. There, her components will be used to build another TBM. So it’s not been a bad life, I guess.

San Francisco – Mom Chung

Mom Chung is another TBM that has already done her job and is now ‘in retirement’. She is named after Dr. Margaret Chung, the first American-born female Chinese physician, who practiced medicine in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. During World War II, she took lots of American servicemen under her wing, earning her the nickname ‘Mom’. Legend has it that when one of her ‘sons’ became a congressman, he filed the legislation to create a female branch of the Navy, in response to pressure from Mom, who was a firm supporter of women in the military. Mom Chung-the-TBM built the southbound central subway tunnel in San Francisco, and even had a Twitter account for a while.

Of course, actual, real-life women work alongside (and inside) these machines. As more women are attracted into engineering, tunnelling is no longer solely a male pursuit. Women still make up a small percentage (around 11% of the UK construction sector, for example), but those numbers are slowly growing. So no matter which way you look at it, women are literally boring. Tunnelling is awesome.

*** You can follow Laurie on Twitter @laurie_winkless. She also wants to say thank you to Dr Jess Wade for inspiring this article. If you love science and very cool doodles, you can also follow Jess on Twitter – she’s @jesswade


Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

beyonce P1

A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.


George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.

‘When you know better, you do better’: Tackling inequality in secondary schools

by Holly Foley, PhD candidate in Sociology at TCD, Project Co-ordinator at The Rising Tide Project and Junior Chambers Ireland ’10 Outstanding Young People’ 2017 nominee.

‘When you know better, you do better’ – Dr. Maya Angelou


Schools are the battleground where inequality can be eradicated and the students’ right to equality can be won. Society can judge its most vulnerable members with a very harsh eye. Nobody wishes to live in poverty, raise their children in poverty and be judged by their peers for the size of their TV, the food on their table and the clothes on their back. Let us imagine that we were all genuinely doing our best with the skills and knowledge that we had, however limited or however bountiful, but accepting that we were nonetheless doing our best. Maya Angelou bestowed many pearls of wisdom upon us, one of which resonates with me daily “When you know better, you do better”. It can be that simple. Schools bring our young people together to educate them; education in its many forms helps us do better.

There is a growing body of literature which explores the influence of school in the lives of young people. Now we know better, let us do better. Let our schools raise our young women and men up from their first steps on their educational journey until they march out the door, heads high armed with the knowledge and power to do better.  Sounds lofty? I am a realist, so let’s get practical. Our teachers must teach the curriculum, but in what environment, with what expectations and with how much awareness of “the hidden curriculum”?

Let us explore class inequality first. Research in an Irish context found that irrespective of social background and Leaving Cert grades, young people attending a school with a high concentration of working-class students were much less likely to go on to higher education than those who attended middle-class or socially mixed schools. In Ireland, students from middle-class schools were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training. It is not the bricks and mortar or the tables and chairs of the school that is creating such an obvious divide. Schools need to examine their culture.  Is everyone present because it is compulsory, or because they want to teach and learn and grow and do better? What is the belief system in the school? Do the teachers believe in their students? Do the students believe in themselves? Schools cannot control the messages students are getting in the media, in their neighbourhood or in their homes. They can, however, carefully craft the messages that students receive during their day of learning and they can encourage students to control how they receive positive and negative messages about themselves. What subjects are schools offering? Is the school offering a higher-level option to junior and senior cycle students? Schools which do not offer a European language and higher-level subjects to their students are sending a loaded, negative message to their students: these are not for you. Schools which do not offer and actively encourage students to study higher-level subjects are curbing the future life-chances of their students and need to hold themselves to a higher standard. What types of guidance does a school offer? Research tells us that working-class students and students from ethnic minorities are more heavily reliant on formal guidance in schools for making educational decisions. Does the school have a college-going culture? Are students exposed to different types of pathways? Visibility is crucial when planning post-school pathways. If a student does not know a certain career or profession exists, how can they pursue that pathway?  Simple answer: they cannot and so they do not. Instead they follow the familiar pathways that have been worn before them but, no more! Now they will know better and they will do better.

This leads us to the issue of gender inequality. Research suggests that male students achieve more success than female students in co-educational schools. Reasons for this include teachers calling on male students more frequently to answer questions, allow male students to speak over or ‘shout-down’ female students and dominate the discourse. Not only is this further reinforcing gender inequality in the classroom, but it internalises the power structure for females who carry this experience of subordination into higher education and the workplace. Are co-educational and single sex schools fighting gender bias in subject choice? There is a disservice being done to all students by not fostering a culture in which male and female students can actively engage in traditionally highly-gendered subjects.  If a school is not challenging gender bias in subject choices the message is clear to students from a very young age.  Students make distinctions between what is for them and not for them; thus, their pathways become gendered which is not in the best interests of the students, the school or wider society. Gender inequality damages everyone and stunts our growth as people and as a society.

I attended a single sex school, and I lament the wasted opportunities that a ‘better’ culture and a ‘better’ understanding of our agency in society could have created. There were approximately 700 young women in my school. Can you imagine the change 700 young women could make in the world if they were armed with the tools to tackle inequality in its various forms? Prescribed prose and poetry on the curriculum in my time did not speak to young working-class women and their place in the world, or the power they possess. Geography seemed a somewhat abstract subject, mountains, rivers,  and lakes unfamiliar from my own vantage point in a housing estate. And of course, the Leaving Certificate “points race”, a tall-tale of meritocracy, which in reality is run on a two-tier track and never the twain shall meet.

We do a disservice to our young students by not acknowledging the power to create change that they possess. One young person working in isolation to tackle inequality will undoubtedly face an unrelenting path. A school of 700 young people, hungry for more, has the power to create a tsunami of change in their community, to empower their peers to go forth and demand better. Schools must acknowledge their unique position in shaping these future agents of change. Over the course of a lifetime a school has daily access to young people, where they can empower them with the knowledge to create change, consistently reinforce these values and lift their aspirations to previously unimaginable heights.

Let us end on a reflection of the school as the ‘battleground’ where equality can be won. If a school makes it their mission to wage war on inequality, their students will carry this victory with them. Empowered and emboldened by this victory, students can assert their place in society and challenge inequality on a global stage with confidence and eloquence because these students will know better and these students will do better.