University of Reading Research Blog

Discovering evolution’s rules for sculpting the natural world

Look at a horse’s front leg – it has just one toe. A horse stands, like a ballerina, ‘en pointe’, but for its entire life, not just during moments of a ballet. Horses, humans and all mammals share an ancestor with five toes, so how did the horse end up with just one?

How to answer questions such as this one, about how much and how fast species can evolve, is the subject of a new research study by University of Reading scientists Professor Mark Pagel and Dr Ciara O’Donovan. They want to know more than just how horses got a single toe – their work is ultimately aimed at discovering general rules that will predict how rapidly animals can adapt, a question of particular interest in a time of looming climate change.


Understanding Equality: From Distribution to Relationships

Many of us believe that we should try to create a more equal society. But it’s not always clear what we mean when we say that we care about equality. Do we want people to have more equal shares of income and wealth? Or is it more important that we treat one another as equals, so that nobody is looked down on or seen as inferior? Politics researcher, Alice Baderin, describes her recent work on material inequality and how it affects people’s social relationships.

Mind the gap alert. Ondrej Miksovsky ©


In refugee camps as well as lockdown, gardening helps pass time in limbo

For the last few years, Yasmine Shamma has been interviewing Syrian refugees about their experiences of displacement. One of the things that struck her the most is the common desire to create a garden – and that talking about gardens breaks down barriers and allows neighbours to connect with each other in difficult times.

© Yasmine Shamma
Shoes left outside to preserve the cleanliness of the inhabited interior space, with marigolds and other plants grown in the background of the man-made courtyard. Photograph taken in Zaatari Refugee Camp, 2019. Author provided.


Heatwaves often end with spectacular thunderstorms and lethal floods – but where and when they’ll strike is hard to predict

If you’re in the UK, you may not have slept well this week. According to the weather gauges at the University of Reading, Tuesday 11 August was the third hottest night in records that date back to 1908. But it seems that, as is often the case with summer hot spells, the heatwave is ending with some spectacular thunderstorms. Tragically, downpours in Scotland are even thought to have played a part in a landslide that derailed a train – although it is still too early to say for sure.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay


‘I don’t care about Hitler’: Wiley and the rise of antisemitism

“There are two sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge. Jewish and KKK … Red Necks are the KKK and Jewish people are the Law … Work that out.”

This was one of the weirder recent tweets from the grime artist Wiley which caused outrage and resulted in a Twitter boycott by many Jewish users and their supporters. Wiley has subsequently been deleted from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and dropped by his management. But what is going on here? We certainly do need to work out why such bizarre antisemitism seems to be the soundtrack of our abnormal times, from the 2008 recession and subsequent austerity to COVID-19. This is not simply about Wiley having a meltdown in the twilight of his career.

interracial hands lifting world planet stop racism campaign vector illustration design


How to help someone you live with who has depression

The coronavirus pandemic has meant sudden changes to our daily lives, with restrictions on free movement, imposed lockdowns and social distancing. Many of these measures will have taken a toll on people’s mental health. These changes have increased our exposure to known risk factors for developing depression, such as physical inactivity, lack of structure and routine, lack of social supportloneliness, and limited opportunity to do enjoyable and valued activities.


Pandemic landscapes

In the last few weeks many people have ventured out into the countryside who would never normally do so. Historian Jeremy Burchardt has noticed that walking over the usually deserted Pewsey Downs in Wiltshire in recent weeks, he has met dozens of walkers and cyclists, while paragliders swooshed past overhead, and the same was true, minus the paragliders, on Ladle Hill in Hampshire a fortnight earlier. It’s not just the numbers – regular walkers get used to seeing certain sorts of people out in the countryside, mainly middle-aged and white. Since the lockdown began, Jeremy has noticed many more people in their teens and twenties, many more families and more BAME people.  Ironically and exhilaratingly, the lockdown has unlocked the countryside for millions of people who have previously been or felt excluded from it, that it was in some sense not available to them, ‘not theirs’. Read more on the Changing Landscapes project blog…


Building on the positives – the Impact of housing design and placemaking during lockdown

When COVID struck, our homes became our offices, schools and gyms. But for many people living without gardens and sometimes even natural light, the conditions were grim. Here, Professor Flora Samuel explains how new research will capture positive aspects of neighbourhoods during lockdown and will help planners design resilient homes and neighbourhoods for a greener future.

old red phone box with posters in windows
A lockdown Library in a disused phone box


A year in the life of the earliest Europeans

The latest archaeological and geological studies are helping us discover more about Europe’s first ‘early human’ (hominin) occupants and highlighting how they coped with the practical challenges of life such as finding food and staying warm. In his new book Dr Rob Hosfield explains that early humans were more sophisticated than you might think.

H. heidelbergensis child and adult female (© Mark Gridley).


How much do clouds weigh?

Torben, aged 10, from London wrote to The Conversation to ask ‘How much do clouds weigh? Dr Rob Thompson from the Meteorology Department responded, explaining how maths coupled with information about different types of cloud, can give us the answer, which might come as a surprise to some.

landscape with farmland and trees, blue sky and clouds