University of Reading Research Blog

Impressionism’s sibling rivalry

Sixty world-famous impressionist paintings arrived at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from Copenhagen in March last year, a whisker before the first lockdown was imposed. Instead of drawing box-office crowds, they sat in storage for four months. But then the Academy reopened its doors in August with the Covid-secure “Gauguin and the Impressionists.” That this exhibition sold out so quickly is testament not only to our hunger for unmediated culture after a period of captivity, but also to the enduring popularity of impressionism. What many in those socially-distanced crowds may not have realized is that impressionist painting has a less widely appreciated younger sibling, literary impressionism. While this literary category can encompass a range of canonical writers—Flaubert, Proust, James, Mansfield, and Woolf, for example—it has nothing like the fame of simple “impressionism,” in which painters recorded their first impression of a scene with hasty and broad brushstrokes. Why?


Coronavirus: is the Kent variant responsible for the rise in cases among young people in Israel and Italy?

At the start of the pandemic, one of the first questions scientists asked was: “What is the risk to children?” Information emerging from China was that – pre-existing conditions aside – the younger you are, the lower your risk of getting severe COVID. While children’s lives have been taken by the coronavirus, the numbers are low.

This mirrors the situation seen with influenza. Children do get sick with that virus, but the effects on pre-teens, if any, are much less severe than they are for adults. But that doesn’t mean that flu in children is not a problem – quite the contrary.


Climate change is making extreme cold much less likely, despite the UK plummeting to -23°C

The UK, along with large parts of northern Europe, is in the grip of an unusually cold period of weather thanks to a flow of cold easterly winds from Siberia. On the morning of February 11, the village of Braemar in the Scottish Highlands recorded -23.0°C, the UK’s coldest temperature since 1995 and coldest February temperature since the 1950s.

The cold air outbreak has been dubbed “The Beast from the East Two”, the sequel to another extremely cold spell in late February-early March 2018 (although it should be noted that outbreaks of cold easterly winds have occurred more than twice, and indeed much more severely).


The science behind why hobbies can improve our mental health

The pandemic has taken its toll on many peoples’ mental health. Given the fear of the virus and the government restrictions on movement many may understandably be feeling more lonely, anxious, and depressed than usual. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even issued guidance on how people can look after their mental health during this difficult time. Key advice includes trying to keep a regular pattern of eating, sleeping, hygiene and exercise.

But a less obvious recommendation is to make sure you’re still finding time to do the things you enjoy. In fact, research shows that having a hobby is linked to lower levels of depression – and may even prevent depression for some.


Nature: how do you put a price on something that has infinite worth?

There’s a new nature conservation strategy in town – and it means business. During the 1970s, 80s and 90s the main tactic to protect wildlife was to highlight the plight of charismatic “flagship” species (remember the WWF Save the Panda campaign?). Since the millennium, however, a new strategy backed by major conservation organisations such as The Nature Conservancy is to price the benefits that nature provides.

Not all conservationists agree, as borne out by fierce debates in a major international initiative assessing global biodiversity. Yet the idea is now mainstream, as evidenced by the high profile Economics of Biodiversity: Dasgupta Review commissioned by the UK government and lead by the economist Partha Dasgupta.

nmilligan / wiki, CC BY-SA


Cocaine: falling coffee prices force Peru’s farmers to cultivate coca

A slump in world coffee prices has pushed farmers in Peru’s central jungle to rip up their plants and replace them with coca leaf – the raw material used in cocaine. This countrywide trend has driven coca leaf production close to 55,000 hectares or up to 500 tons of cocaine annually – enough to satisfy annual demand in the United States three times over.

As drug trafficking routes shrank due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the price of coca leaf plummeted to half its previous levels. Although it has slowly recovered, it finished 2020 by 23% lower than a year earlier. But even so, coca offers poor farmers more security than any other crop as demand is constant.



The Dig on Netflix: a refreshingly accurate portrayal – according to an archaeologist

Edith Pretty was convinced that the mounds on her land in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, held important archaeological secrets. In 1939, on the eve of the second world war, she was proven right as the sumptuous ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon king was uncovered. For a nation on the brink of war and facing its own “dark age”, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was a source of pride and inspiration, equivalent to the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Netflix’s The Dig, based on the novel of the same name by John Preston (2007), recounts the tale of this remarkable find. It transformed understanding of the “dark age” of the seventh century. Before this discovery, a dearth of written sources was presumed to signal an absence of culture in this period.

Basil Brown (front) excavating the burial ship at Sutton Hoo in 1939. Wikimedia



Beyond COVID-19 – the importance of ‘urban futures’ thinking for our towns and cities

In many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us some valuable lessons about how we can do things differently in our towns and cities: homeworking, active mobility such as walking and cycling, reduced congestion and emissions, and better air quality (at least for a time) were all a direct consequence of the first 2020 lock down, and many people were able to enjoy parks and green spaces. But for others, such luxuries were few and far between as COVID exacerbated the real inequalities in income, health, and wellbeing we see in so many of our towns and cities.

Then and now: Spanish Flu (1918) and COVID-19 (2021) .



Teaching Holocaust Testimonies

As an adolescent boy, growing up in the 1960s, I used to enjoy playing with my newly minted Action Man. I would dress him up in various army uniforms and enact battles behind cushions. He was rugged and square-jawed, unlike me. My sister played with dolls. One day, I dressed my Action Man in a Wehrmacht Army uniform, an option that came with the figure. My Irish-Jewish mother, who never raised her voice, saw me playing with the German soldier and shouted. “Why is he wearing that uniform”? Her reaction has stayed with me. This was one of the few times when the Holocaust was articulated in our Jewish household. Much later she recounted hearing the Luftwaffe bombing a Dublin Synagogue. It haunted her childhood. My father, born in the East End of London, was an evacuee as a budding teenager but ran home twice from rural Wales and a pig-centred household. Not that he ever spoke a word about his experience.


Why a green electricity grid depends on weather forecasts improving

Boxing Day 2020 was so blustery that more than half of the UK’s daily electricity was met by wind power for the first time. Just over a week later, the wind died as a cold snap kicked off 2021 with sub-zero temperatures and scattered snow. With most people stuck at home due to a new national lockdown, demand for heating and electricity rose just as the conditions for generating renewable energy abated.

Cold snaps with very light winds tend to cause the most stress to the UK’s national grid. These weather systems usually form when regions of high pressure engulf the atmosphere around the UK, causing temperatures to plummet as cold weather arrives from Scandinavia and Russia. The prolonged cold weather associated with these events is sometimes dubbed “Beast from the East” by the British media, after similar atmospheric conditions brought snowstorms and travel chaos in February 2018. This time around, the UK’s large offshore wind farms in the North Sea were among the biggest losers.