The Life of Leonardo Da Vinci


Jonathan James

Leonardo da Vinci is the archetypal renaissance man, a master of painting, sculptor, architecture, invention, and engineering. His work, which spanned multiple disciplines, informed not just art and design, but also contributed greatly to our understanding of zoology, botany, biology, anatomy, engineering, and physics. He filled dozens of notebooks, which continue to surface to this day, containing hundreds if not thousands of drawings, sketches and ideas based on human anatomy, architecture, and mechanics. Whilst most of his work was not experimental – rather based on theoretical concepts, his work went into extreme detail, and provide some of the first explorations of many fields.

Under the apprenticeship of Andrea del Verrocchio, Da Vinci began what would become a lifelong appreciation of anatomy and physiology, which show up repeatedly in his notebooks; some of his most famous sketches include pictures of a foetus in a womb, the human brain and skull, and a series of topographic images describing muscles, tendons, and other visible anatomical features. It’s a common myth that to carry out these studies, Da Vinci stole corpses on which to perform illegal autopsies – the truth is much less exciting. He was in fact given permission, first by hospitals in Florence, and then later in Milan and Rome, to dissect human corpses. As well as studying ‘healthy’ specimens, disease also fascinated Da Vinci, being the first person to define atherosclerosis (thickening of the arterial wall) and liver cirrhosis, and is known to have constructed models that depicted the flow of blood through the vessels of the heart. His work was published in De humani corporis fabrica (The Human body) in 1543.


Anatomical Drawings of the Neck and Shoulders

Perhaps Da Vinci’s most famous scientific exploits come from the field of Engineering. In 1488, he developed a design for a flying machine, whilst also developing plans for a parachute, giant crossbow, and what has been described a ‘tank’, but which represents a moveable cannon. He worked as an Engineer, when, in 1499 he was forced to flee to Venice, where he developed a system of moveable barricades to shield the city. He worked with Niccolo Machiavelli on a project to divert the flow of the Arno River near Florence, as well as a design, produced in 1502, of a 720-foot bridge developed for the Sultan of Constantinople intended to cross the mouth of the Bosporus, the straight that separates the bulk of Turkey from central Europe. Whilst never constructed, Da Vinci’s work would later be vindicated, when, in 2001, a bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Da Vinci also worked in botany – where he paid attention to the action of light on plants. He also had an excellent understanding of geology, a particularly famous story exists of him frequently exploring caves around the Apennine mountain range. His observations of layered rock also convinced him the biblical story of the great flood could not be true. In addition, he was an accomplished cartographer, producing a map of Chiana Valley in Tuscany from eye, rather than using any modern surveying equipment. Elsewhere, he studied mathematics heavily, becoming particularly interested in geometric forms such as the rhombicuboctahedron, a 26-sided object made up of both square and triangular faces. An accomplished musician, Da Vinci also invented the viola organist, the first bowed keyboard instrument to ever be designed and developed.


Map of the Chiana Valley, Tuscany.

Da Vinci kept his personal life very secret. As a result, his sexuality has been the subject of much analysis and speculation. Whilst he had few close relationships with women, his most intimate relationships are said to have been with his pupils Salai and Melzi. Court records from 1476 show that Da Vinci and three other young men were charged with sodomy – whilst the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, there remains considerable speculation around his presumed homosexuality. In any case, the influence of Da Vinci cannot be understated; he made enormous contributions to a vast range of scientific disciplines, not to mention his artistic endeavors not mentioned here. As a result, to this day he remains an iconic figure and a key player in the Renaissance period.

Accidental Genius: Science in Serendipity

Alice Whitehead

Many of the biggest discoveries in the science community have been borne out of the accidents of scientists or development of unrelated technologies. There have been countless examples over the past few centuries. Here we recount, arguably, the ten most important serendipitous discoveries:

10. Corn Flakes

Corn flakes


Image Credit:

One day in 1895, Will Keith Kellogg was experimenting and attempting to perfect some cereal recipes when he forgot about some boiled wheat that was left on the side. The wheat had become flaky, but to not be wasteful, Kellogg and his brother cooked it nonetheless. The result was crunchy and flaky, yet it went on to become one of the biggest and most popular breakfast cereals, Corn Flakes.

9. Viagra


Image Credit: Online Doctor

Viagra must be in the running for the most inadvertent drug side effect ever. In the early 1900s, Simon Campbell and David Roberts had made a drug that was designed to treat high blood pressure and angina. But at the time they had no idea of the popularity their creation would have. Originally called UK92480, the pair discovered the powerful side effects that patients were experiencing during human trials. They had accidentally invented a drug to treat erectile dysfunction and subsequently the little blue pill was named Viagra.

8. Teflon


Image Credit: Makeaheadmealforbusymoms

Teflon, or ‘polytetrafluoroethylene’, is the slippery non-stick coating used in cookware. It was stumbled upon in 1938 by Roy Plunkett while he was trying to create a way to make refrigerators home-friendly, with a safe refrigerant. Plunkett found that the resin was resistant to extreme heat and chemicals but it wasn’t until the 60s that Teflon was employed for non-stick cookware, as we know it today.

7. Vaseline


Image Credit: Liftable

In 1859, Robert Chesebrough was a 22-year-old British chemist visiting a small town in Pennsylvania where petroleum had recently been discovered. He became intrigued by a natural by-product of the oil drilling process. This product, petroleum jelly, appeared to be remarkably useful for healing skin cuts and burns. In 1865, after purification and patenting, Vaseline was complete.

6. Dynamitedynamite.jpg

Image Credit: The Specialists Ltd

Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, was transporting the highly flammable liquid ‘nitroglycerin’ when he realised one of the container cans had broken, leaking the liquid. However, by chance the material in which the cans were being transported – a rock mixture called ‘kieselguhr’ – was able to absorb and stabilise the liquid nitroglycerin. The product was patented in 1867 and Nobel named it dynamite.

5. Anaesthetic


Image Credit: Kinja-img

Without this hysterical accidental discovery, medicine would not be the same today. Ether and nitrous oxide were extensively used for recreation in the early 1800s. Gatherings called ‘laughing parties’ – where groups of people would inhale either of the gases – became increasingly popular. Coincidentally, it was found that those under the influence of these compounds didn’t feel any pain.

4. Super Glue

super glue

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During World War II, Dr Harry Coover mistakenly came across an extremely quick and strong adhesive. Initially considered for clear plastic gun sights for allied soldiers, the product appeared to have great commercial potential. However, it wasn’t until 1951 that the product was rediscovered and was eventually rebranded to ‘Super Glue’ in 1958.

3. Microwave


Image Credit: Ytimg

In 1945, Percy Spencer accidentally stumbled upon discovering the cooking abilities of microwave radiation when working in a radiation laboratory. While fiddling with an active radar, again during World War II, he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Originally almost 1.8 metres tall and weighing 340kg the microwave oven was first sold in 1946 under the name ‘Radarange’.

2. Renewable energy


Image Credit: Pop.h-cdn

In October last year, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee were attempting to make methanol from carbon dioxide when they realised their small catalyst had, in fact, turned the carbon dioxide directly into liquid ethanol. The reaction uses tiny spikes of carbon and copper to reverse the combustion process. Unexpectedly, they had stumbled upon a way to convert a potent greenhouse gas into a sustainable renewable energy source – a well deserving second place.



Image Credit: Emory Magazine

But, of course, the title of number one accidental genius has to go to Sir Alexander Fleming. In 1928, Fleming was a Professor of Bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital in London. While experimenting with the influenza virus, Fleming had colonies Staphylococcus bacteria growing in Petri dishes around his lab. During this time, he decided to take a two-week holiday.

When he returned, he found that, oddly, the bacteria he was growing in cultures had been contaminated. Not only this, but the bacteria appeared unable to grow on or even near this contaminant! Fleming went on to culture this contaminant and discovered it was Penicillium mould. And so, the first ever antibiotic, Penicillin, was found.




James Vines

In Britain, 165 million cups of tea are consumed every single day, with English Breakfast tea being the most common. The matter of a perfect cup of tea is a highly contentious topic. There are so many variables. Do you add sugar? What’s the perfect amount of milk? And maybe the most contentious of them all, how long do you brew for?

98% of us take our tea with milk, but one of the first to scientifically investigate the effects of adding milk to tea was statistician Ronald A. Fisher in 1935, who was interested in the effects of adding milk before or after the water. His study was only conducted upon one participant, Muriel Bristol, who claimed she could taste the difference. While the finer intricacies of Fishers experiments were really concerned with statistical probabilities, he also concluded that Bristol could, most probably, tell the difference between the two different types of tea.


Image Credit: Flickr

There are many arguments both for and against pouring the milk in first. Tradition dictates that milk is added first. One theory for this concerns the delicate nature of early teacups, which were prone to cracking under a sudden influx of recently-boiled water. Another theory suggests that milk which is creamy or warm may rise to the surface of a cup of tea as globules of fat. This was also thought to kill bacteria by boiling them, which may be lurking in questionable milk.

While these arguments all seem reasonable, in 1946, George Orwell argued “by putting the tea in first and then stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is liable to put in too much milk the other way round”. In 2008, the Royal Society of Chemistry also got involved suggesting that adding milk second could ‘cook’ the milk, giving it a boiled taste due to greater denaturing of the proteins. Whether this ‘boiled’ taste is preferable however, was not mentioned. Of course it is important to mention, that the above only concerns tea poured from a pot; milk must be added second if brewing in the cup, or else the tea bag will not reach a hot enough temperature to infuse properly.

Another hot topic in the tea drinking debate is whether to add sugar. 41% of tea drinkers take sugar; as a result the issue of sugar is somewhat down to personal preference. For certain however, sugar should be added in the cup, and only once the tea bag has been removed. This prevents any sugar getting caught up and wasted inside the tea bag.

A less contentious area is the question of loose tea versus tea bags;  most tea lovers will agree that loose tea leaves make for a better brew. The tea in teabags is normally made from the “dust and fannings” from broken tea leaves, rather than the leaves themselves. This affects the quality of the tea. Finely broken leaves loose their oils and aroma, resulting in a more bitter taste. While tea bags are somewhat inferior, their cost and convenience make them more desirable for millions of us, with loose tea making up just 1% of all tea purchases.

It is almost without question among tea connoisseurs, tea should be made in the pot, not in the cup, but how long should you brew for? Studies from 1981, by Prof. Michael Spiro showed tea needs to brew in the pot for a minimum of 2 minutes. However even after 2 minutes, only 64% of caffeine has been removed from the leaves. In fact, it will take a whole 15 minutes of brewing to remove 100% of the caffeine. Further studies by Hicks et al. in 1996 shows it’s even worse for tea bags, with only 33% of caffeine being removed after 2 minutes. It is worth noting, caffeine levels vary naturally in types of tea and levels in one type may overlap with another type. All the types of tea are produced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, including including white, green and black teas. It is the differing processing methods which result in variations in tea type.
To conclude, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on how to make the perfect cup of tea. There’s certainly areas where a cup of tea can be unquestioningly improved, such as by using tea leaves instead of a tea bag, but other areas are down to personal preference, such as whether to put milk or water in first, or whether to use sugar. But, however you take your tea, don’t take it from me, it’s mine.

Pseudoscience – Why Are We So Easily Fooled?

Jamie Hakham

From Astrology to Homeopathy, people believe a wide variety of things that have no basis in any concrete science. With the world currently in a furore over ‘fake news’, we thought we’d take an analytical eye over why people believe in bad facts and faulty logic.

Pseudoscience takes many forms, and affects practically every group of people, from the poorly educated all the way up to Nobel Laureates. Take Francis Crick’s belief in directed panspermia (remember the beginning of Prometheus, where the Engineer ‘seeds’ Earth? That.), or Luc Montagnier’s ‘experiments’ in homeopathy with DNA. Clearly, one’s scientific literacy might not have much to do with a belief in pseudoscience.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We’re going to look at one strand of pseudoscience, and tease out the different ways its proponents make it look appealing, and the different ways they use to convince themselves of it. Let’s take a look at Homeopathy, one of the more enduring pieces of unsubstantiated drivel to have emerged as pseudoscience, in a very long time.

Quickly though, let’s do the one thing that pseudoscience aficionados rarely do well; research: first preached in 1796 by one Samuel Hahnemann, with the premise that ‘like cures like’. His ideas were based on Paracelsus’s work in the 16th century, and before that possibly even Hippocrates around 400BCE. Basically, what Samuel postulated was the law of similars; where a thing that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure those same symptoms in sick people. So, if you have a cold, you can cure it by taking something that would also give you a runny nose, watering eyes and a sore throat – like a chili pepper.

The other core tenet of Homeopathy is ‘dynamisation’, or serial dilution. Practitioners hold that the more diluted a substance is, the more powerful it becomes. Usually these dilutions are presented at ‘30C’, or 1060 times dilution. For reference, the theoretically maximum possible dilution of anything is one molecule of substance against the entire universe; or 40C. Moreover, in 1L of water, the lowest amount of detectable substance is about 12C. Homeopathic treatments can go up to 200C.

“But wait! You just said -”

We know.

It’s worth pointing out that there isn’t a single well-substantiated piece of evidence even suggesting that homeopathy is anything more than a sham. So, why do people believe in it? We’re going to break down these reasons into three main camps, but they aren’t exclusive groups; people who believe in one camp may very well believe in the others.

The first, and a major one, relies on an appeal to nature. This is the belief that because a substance is naturally derived, like many homeopathic substances, it is better for the human body than something artificial or man-made –  like practically all conventional forms of medicine. Following this faulty logic then, while anti-venoms are almost always particularly artificial and therefore bad, cobras are entirely natural, and should be hugged at all times! This is a depressingly common tactic, ranging outside of ‘traditional’ pseudoscience – ever seen a food packet proudly proclaiming that it’s ‘all-natural’, instead of telling you it’s good, or otherwise why it’s better than its competitors?

Secondly, word of mouth & the placebo effect plays a big role in all of this. For example; “I took this homeopathic remedy, and it cured my flu! Amazing!”. As humans, we instinctively rank personal stories highly when it comes to making our own decisions. It’s a useful trait; it stops us making mistakes other people do. But, as in this example, we can’t make a properly reasoned, informed judgement from a personal story. That’s the reason why eye-witness testimony isn’t considered ultra-reliable evidence any more. That’s why it’s so important that we remember that just because A happened, and then B happened, it doesn’t mean that A caused B to happen. This is almost certainly happening here. Doctors’ recommendations for mild flu are usually just fluid and rest. In most of us it clears up on its own. Taking your homeopathic remedy might appear to work, because your body is already on the way to clearing the infection naturally. Correlation, not causation.

The third, and perhaps the most interesting, are the conspiracists; those who believe that ‘Big Pharma’ are out to silence or otherwise denigrate homeopathy on the grounds of relentless capitalism. In this, they are no different from the other ‘Big Pharma’ that works on GMOs, or the ‘Big Oil’ that quashes solar development, or ‘Big Energy’ which ignores cold fusion. Here, they set themselves up as the underdog, another position we as individuals overwhelmingly take the side of. They set themselves as David against Goliath, fighting the good and righteous fight. For those already sceptical of big business, this is an attractive proposition. It’s related to a distrust of authority, whether that’s distrusting the ‘established science’ or the veracity of official statements. It’s not limited to pseudoscience of course. It’s a core tenet of all conspiracy, and makes about as much sense there as it does in our examples. That is to say, none.

Add in an unhealthy amount of fearmongering (Vaccines cause autism, fluoride makes you stupid, GMO’s will destroy everything), the ability to selectively hear the facts you want to hear, and you have the basis of practically all pseudoscience, from biological (Antivaxxers, Neopanspermia, AIDS denialism, etc.) to physical (false moon landings, climate change denialism, flat earthiers), and beyond into the social sciences.

Now that we’ve given you all the facts, we’ll bet you’re wondering how to fix it; how to change these hearts and minds – how to show them the light. We’d like to say that we can do it through improving education, by engaging in honest debate and discussion and by opening access to science for the layperson. But, until more people make make science more accessible, all we can do is be vigilant. Try to make sure we’re not spreading pseudoscience to people who haven’t heard it yet – to catch those fence-sitters before they make the leap to the wrong side.

Women in STEM: in Sheffield and Beyond

Emily Vincent

Most of us have seen the statistics and stereotypes surrounding women studying or working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) fields; it can sometimes seem an inescapable reality that these areas are male-dominated. The obvious male bias in science raises lots of important questions.


Image Credit: MaxPixel

What are the issues?

In the UK around 20% of A Level physics students are girls, and women make up only 25% of those choosing STEM subjects as a degree. Just 12.8% of the STEM workforce are women, and the number falls to 9% when considering those specifically involved in engineering. These figures only scratch the surface, as a quick internet search will show.

Less quantifiably, we live in a culture which promotes the stereotyping and belittling of women in STEM fields. We’re used to seeing memes joking about “that one girl in your mechanical engineering lecture” alongside those suggesting that women in such classes are less desirable than others, and we cannot forget Tim Hunt’s controversial claims that when women are present in the lab, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”.

Do we need to even it out?

Is it a problem that things aren’t 50:50 when it comes to gender in the world of STEM? We need to question whether anything would be better if more women were engaged with STEM.

Women in STEM have changed the world we live in and have been doing so for a long time. Lovelace and Curie are names synonymous with the computer programming and the fight against cancer respectively. As for the present day, lists like this, this and this illustrate how women in STEM are contributing to work on HIV treatments, testing DNA for mutations, distributing technology worldwide, and understanding the human brain.

The film Hidden Figures has brought attention to black women’s major contributions to space exploration; reminding us that there are yet more inequalities where gender and race intersect. Women have contributed an incredible amount to our world through STEM and therefore we need them to keep doing so.

Employers are struggling to fill STEM roles: 32% of companies struggle to recruit experienced STEM staff; and 64% of engineering firms say a shortage of engineers threatens their business. Annually there is a shortfall of tens of thousands with STEM skills. We need to increase the STEM capability of the UK workforce, and discovering the potential of our women and girls would greatly assist this.

Not forgetting, STEM careers are great for women! 84% of women in engineering were happy or extremely happy with their career choice, and STEM careers offer benefits such as great salaries, work in interesting and innovative fields, travel opportunities, and a wide variety of roles.

What is being done to fix it?

Sadly, there is no simple solution, but there are a huge number initiatives to encourage more women and girls into STEM, on every scale.

The University of Sheffield supports women in STEM initiatives in a number of inspiring ways – the Wall of Women showcases the work of our female engineers and allows them to act as role models for younger generations, and the Women in Engineering Society has seen students write a children’s book to act as inspiration to young girls.

Staff in the Faculty of Engineering, such as Dr Rachael Rothman, speak out about the issue using prominent public platforms, and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon’s advocacy encompasses the additional issues affecting LGBTQ engineers. A variety of open days, workshops and events are held at the university to encourage girls into STEM, along with outreach work where students and staff visit local schools.

Many bodies in the UK provide inspiration and resources to encourage girls into STEM, and the UK government is supportive of these. Lots of companies now have comprehensive diversity policies and foster inclusive workplaces, proudly supporting and showcasing their female STEM staff. However, alongside inspiration and encouragement, changes to stereotypes are also being pursued.

Toys are a major player in this game. Lego’s female NASA mini-figures have recently been announced, but Barbie’s STEM attempts have attracted criticism. They include a kit focussed on repairing washing machines, and an “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” story where Barbie relies on men for computer programming.

There is still a long way to go before we reach gender equity in STEM, but the almost unanimous enthusiasm to get more girls into the fields is surely a positive sign. When combined with attempts to change stereotypes alongside direct methods such as events in schools and the provision of prominent female role models, things will hopefully move in the right direction.

Here is something that everyone can make a difference in – we all have the responsibility to challenge those who suggest that STEM is for men, and to provide positive role models, we need to be positive role models!

How to Live on Planet Earth

Bethany Torr

In a very over simplified, and arguably unhelpful manner, Google provides this definition of urbanisation: “the process of making an area more urban”.

Nevertheless, let’s put some numbers to this definition. One-hundred years ago only 20% of the world population lived in a city. Factor in one industrial revolution, the emergence into the technological era and a massive increase in GDP per capita (wealth of people) and the result today? Over half of the world’s population live within urban areas.

This number is not set to remain here, however. In 2017, the global population size is ~7.5 billion and this is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. It is also expected by this date that over 75% of the world population will live in urban areas. It is expected that we’ll see for the first time, the majority of people in developing countries living within urban areas.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst increasing world population is a driver in urbanisation. The greater availability of resources, wider job opportunities and higher salary pull people into cities. You only need to look at the number of graduate opportunities in London to know that cities pull people in this way.

Geoffrey West*, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, and colleagues identified that doubling the size of a city increases wealth, income, the number of available workers and creative people etc. by 15%. Essentially this equates to a 15% saving on all city infrastructure. This makes urbanisation increasingly attractive, especially for lower economically developed countries (LEDs).

On the surface, all of this makes urbanisation look desirable for increasing prosperity of countries and people. There are, however, a wide range of issues for both people and the environment that come alongside increasing urbanisation.

Beside the 15% increase in availability of people and wages upon doubling city size, a similar increase is observed in the amount of domestic and sewage waste. The major issue is that correct management of waste comes with a large price tag and for developing countries this cost can be too high.

Improper waste management may lead to issues with poor sanitation and disease. For example, during the 19th century when London’s population was dramatically increasing, there was a severe outbreak of Cholera in the Soho district. This was due to improper disposal of waste and excrement entering the water systems. This case, labelled the Broad Street cholera outbreak, was a large influence in increased investment into public health and improved sanitation in the UK.

There are also implications for the environment from improper waste management. Domestic waste that is not recycled is either placed into landfill sites or incarcerated. During the decomposition process, methane is released. A greenhouse gas that strongly contributes to global warming.

Leachate fluids are also produced during decomposition of waste. A term that refers to any liquid containing environmentally harmful substances. These fluids are a particular issue if the landfill sites are not properly contained, allowing the fluids to pass into water streams. This may alter oxygen content and be damaging to water species, as well as being damaging to the environment through evaporation and the water cycle.

The major environmental impact of urbanisation is loss of green space and natural habitats. The impact this has on the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is two-fold. A bigger city requires more energy and thus increasing the production of greenhouse gases from non-renewable fuel source. Additionally, as vegetation is removed for buildings, there is less atmospheric carbon dioxide taken up by plants and converted to oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. The potential loss of species through removing natural habitats is, also, a major issue.

The University of Sheffield are researching green roof technology designed specifically to overcome these environmental impacts of urbanisation. Extensive green roofs are composed of drought and weather resistant, small-growing plants, that require very little support from building structure. Allowing vegetation to be added to pre-existing buildings more easily than intensive green roofs, that are similar to normal ground landscapes, composing of trees and shrubs. The green roof technology aims to replace ground habitats onto rooftops, avoiding loss of species and reducing carbon dioxide levels within cities. The technology, also, has economic value by providing insulating properties to buildings.

The increase in urbanisation is happening so quickly that, in many places, the number of slums have also been increasing due to lack of available housings. These slums are formally known as “informal settlements” and pose huge health risks because of the lack of proper infrastructure, sewage and water systems and inadequate food storage. The overcrowding and lack of legal health and safety services are also likely to lead to increased violence, drug usage and negatively impact mental health.

While many countries are increasingly facing the struggles of urbanisation and major cities across the world are attempting to overcome pollution and climate change. Many pre-existing urbanised countries, such as the UK (90% of the population live in cities or towns), are seeing a greater movement in counter-urbanisation. With statistics suggesting that more people are attempting to move out of cities to the edge of urban areas instead.

The predicted increases in urbanisation and the impacts are most likely to be seen in African countries, where the 3bn increase in global population between now and 2050 will be concentrated.
*More from Geoffrey West about the maths of cities and corporations here.

The Science of Crowds

Jonathan Cooke

If you’re a Premier League Football team, you must follow a simple formula for winning the title. First, you win at home against other teams. Then, against lower league opposition you win at their ground as well.

The ability of a crowd to motivate players has long been established as a factor that rival managers consider when they visit a home ground. The fan base is often described as a ‘12th man’, spurring their team on to do incredible things. But do crowds really have that effect? And can crowds have more palpable effects on the world than simply winning football games?

crowd pixnio.jpg

Image Credit: Pixnio

The concept of ‘crowd wisdom’ can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, but the most quoted example comes from 1906 and Francis Galton, a famous statistician. He observed that the median and mean guesses of a crowd that were attempting to guess the weight of a cow came astonishingly close to the actual value –  within 1%.  

It doesn’t really matter whether your crowd is made up of Nobel Prize winners or the people from your local pub (who may or may not be prize winners). Imagine you are asking several people how many jellybeans are in a jar. You’ll get a few people overestimating and you’ll get a few people underestimating. Whilst you would imagine this would skew the results away from the actual number of jellybeans, it doesn’t really. In fact, you tend to get a similar number of each type (overestimates and underestimates) of poor guess, so they cancel each other out when it comes to working out your average.

To put it another way, as an individual you may never win a ‘guess how many of x is in this jar’, but get a big enough crowd together and you’ll get an average which is close to the actual answer.

It’s for this exact reason that the votes of Dixville Notch in New Hampshire U.S.A are broadcast ahead of the rest of the country. Prior to the 2016 election, this small village had successfully predicted the eventual winner of the presidential election eight out of fourteen times the results were broadcast, (to those interested, they didn’t predict Donald Trump, but then again who did?) and is generally seen as a predictor of how the rest of election will go.

Collectively pooling our intelligence has helped us in many numerous ways. Wikipedia is the greatest example of them all. An encyclopaedia that is generated, and edited, by an internet population of 3.2 billion people. Now of course, as your professor will tell you, never source directly from Wikipedia. Many pages, particularly small ones that are very specific and dull to the clear majority of the population, are trustworthy; they are maintained only by those who care about it.

Popular pages, on the other hand, such as those of celebrities or politicians, are regularly accessed and edited by individuals with agendas, or just those who want a laugh. In doing so, they can rapidly spread false information which quickly becomes group intelligence, which can have disastrous consequences.

“Crowd crushes” were for a long time seen as the main result of large crowds working towards a singular goal (indeed, for a long time, crowds have been seen as being more stupid than individuals). A crowd can act as a ‘wave’, which can ebb and flow and is a danger to itself. It’s been observed that if you put more than 7 people within a square meter, then when you apply force to them then they’ll act as more of a wave than individuals. This can result in people literally being crushed to death as the pressure of crowds forces the air out of their lungs, or industrial strength fencing being bent by the sheer weight being put on them.

Thankfully, modern studies of crowd behaviour focus on modelling natural patterns when groups of people walk in a similar direction. For instance, much like geese, it’s been observed that when a group of people, three or larger, walk in a similar direction then they’ll naturally form a V-shaped formation, which forces crowds to part around them and facilitates faster movement. This information is being used to better coordinate fire exits.

The key ingredient for crowd intelligence to work is that all decisions taken by the individuals must be independent of one another. To take the jellybean example, the best way to ensure you get a more accurate estimate is to hide participant’s answers from one another. Individuals when given more information tended to group towards a similar set of answers, which means you get a narrower range of answers, but the accuracy can get worse.

The stock market crash of 2008 was largely down to this problem. Many banks followed the example of a few, loaning out unsecure loans and mortgages, falsely believing that because others hadn’t failed, neither would they. This incorrect consensus amongst banks meant none saw the inevitable crash coming and so therefore were unable to respond to it.

‘The wisdom of the crowds’ is routinely used by politicians and those who do not wish to listen to experts on subjects. Whilst crowds can be smart, they are only useful for numerical decisions that have one simple answer. However, studying crowds and crowd behaviour will allow us to ensure the safety of every individual caught within the group-think.