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PubhD at The Vat and Fiddle: Cultural Astronomy, Osteoarthritis and Kindertransport

7 November 16 words: Gav Squires

Every month, some of the city’s cleverest clogs meet up in the pub to share, in layman’s terms, what they’ve been researching for their PhD. The next one is on Wednesday 16 November at The Vat and Fiddle if you fancy getting down to learn a thing or two…

The first speaker of the evening is Dan, who’s researching cultural astronomy.

"Archeo-astronomy" is looking into how past societies and people explored the sky above. Digging things up to look at them is one way to investigate. There is also an anthropology element such as looking at tribes in the jungle. People have always been fascinated by what's out there. It was thought that astronomy started with the Egyptians and Greeks, and even Stonehenge is 6,000 years old, but early cave paintings show constellations. 4,000 years ago people didn't perceive astronomy as a science. In fact, there wasn't really science at all, it was just trying to understand your world. Everyone was a scientist. Astronomy still impacts us today – satellites make your phone work and houses with south-facing gardens are more expensive.

It impacted people in the past even more, and sites like Arbor Low, the Stonehenge of the north, were incredibly important places. There is a triangulated stone there, oriented north-south, with one side very smooth and tilted. At noon around midsummer, when the sun is at its highest point, it's high enough to shine down the slanted side – only for a few days a year does it get any light. So, at noon at midsummer the stone has no shadow – it becomes its own shadow and shadows were perceived to be very powerful things.

This stone was special – it was used in rituals. It is held in place by smaller packing stones so it's not naturally occurring. Other big stones found naturally in the area are all rounded so it was either transported there or worked on at the site so there is clear intentionality of the stone's use. This shows that astronomy at the time was all about watching rather than observing. Investigating places like this require a mix of the hard and soft sciences – it's all about the combination of sky, land, people and culture to create the "skyscape".

Key learning: Arbor Low dates back to before 2000BCE, before written records existed.

After a brief break to top-up on drinks, we have Holly, who has recently passed her viva and is speaking at her second PubhD, talking about her research into catastrophizing and pain in osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a disease that can effect several joints in the human body – including the hands, knees hips and spine. Bony spurs cause patients lots of pain and it is most often diagnosed via X-ray or MRI scan. Catastrophizing is having a negative mindset and there are three main manifestations – ruminating (thinking about the osteoarthritis a lot), magnifying (reporting the pain as being worse that it should be) and feeling helpless. These psychological factors can have a huge impact – some people who have no damage can report a lot of pain and vice versa.

Holly's research has been built around questionnaires and genetics, looking at age, gender, BMI etc. Looking at the people who catastrophized the effects, the catastrophizing was independent of other potential issues such as sleep, depression and anxiety. However, there is a link with hyper-tension, which could be caused by the stress and worry element.

When it comes to the genetics, everyone has a double helix but these are different by person. Do these differences have any correlation with osteoarthritis? There seems to be a gene that is related to the adrenal system, which also deals with the heartbeat, that may be involved. There are also genes involved when bones don't form well and the creation of collagen. You wouldn't be able to see either of these genes with an X-ray, but they were both found in people suffering from osteoarthritis.

Key learning: It wasn't possible to tell where the causation was between the hypertension and the catastrophizing

Finally, we have Amy who is researching Kindertransport

What would you pack if you were a refugee? If you had to go to a different land with people that you didn't know, how would you feel? Kindertransport saw 10,000 Jewish children sent to the UK, along with others who went to Canada, Australia, America, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium and Sweden to escape Nazi persecution. There were also some non-Aryan children such as those with one Jewish parent and one Christian or those who just had Jewish ancestry. They were all under eighteen and were transported between 1930 and 1940, the effort intensifying after Kristallnacht in 1938 when Nazi party members smashed up Jewish businesses and Jewish men were thrown into internment camps.

In Britain, from 1933, there were organisations that were trying to get Jews out of Germany. For example, the Central British Fund was made up of 175 local authorities in the UK. At this time there were stories of parents queueing up for hours at embassies to get out of Germany. The priority was the boys in the camps and then orphans. While Kindertransport is seen as a redemptive story in Britain, there were actually many barriers this country put in the way: parents weren't allowed to come with the children and the children were put with non-Jewish families, resulting in some children being converted to Christianity. They had to adapt to a completely new way of life.

These children came from all walks of life and they would start by taking the train to the Hook of Holland. From there, they would get the ferry to England and then a train to Liverpool Street station in London. Some went to Dover Court – a holding base. Those children without foster homes arranged were essentially selected like dogs from Battersea Dogs Home. After war was declared, some came through Spain while all those that went to the US had to come through the UK.

After the outbreak of war, many of the children were sent to the Isle of Man along with British Nazi sympathisers. Some were also shipped to Australia or Canada because it was feared that they might be spies. However, at eighteen, they were allowed to join the army and thirty of them died in battle.

Key learning: Lord Alfred Dubs, who is working on getting refugees into this country, is a Kindertransportee

PubhD returns to The Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 16 November at 7.30pm where there will be talks on Health and Social Work, Social Sciences and Mathematics.

PubhD website

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