Professor Stephen Hawking 1942-2018

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 03/14/2018 - 04:57

Widely regarded as one of the world’s most brilliant minds, he was known throughout the world for his contributions to science, his books, his television appearances, his lectures and through biographical films. He leaves three children and three grandchildren.

Professor Hawking broke new ground on the basic laws which govern the universe, including the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation, now known as Hawking radiation. At the same time, he also sought to explain many of these complex scientific ideas to a wider audience through popular books, most notably his bestseller A Brief History of Time.

He was awarded the CBE in 1982, was made a Companion of Honour in 1989, and was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was the recipient of numerous awards, medals and prizes, including the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the Albert Einstein Award, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Fundamental Physics Prize, and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Basic Sciences. He was a Fellow of The Royal Society, a Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

He achieved all this despite a decades-long battle motor neurone disease, with which he was diagnosed while a student, and eventually led to him being confined to a wheelchair and to communicating via his instantly recognisable computerised voice. His determination in battling with his condition made him a champion for those with a disability around the world.

Professor Hawking came to Cambridge in 1962 as a PhD student and rose to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a position once held by Isaac Newton, in 1979. In 2009, he retired from this position and was the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics until his death. He was active scientifically and in the media until the end of his life.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, paid tribute, saying, “Professor Hawking was a unique individual who will be remembered with warmth and affection not only in Cambridge but all over the world. His exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge and the popularisation of science and mathematics have left an indelible legacy. His character was an inspiration to millions. He will be much missed.”

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 in Oxford although his family was living in north London at the time. In 1959, the family moved to St Albans where he attended St Albans School. Despite the fact that he was always ranked at the lower end of his class by teachers, his school friends nicknamed him ‘Einstein’ and seemed to have encouraged his interest in science. In his own words, “physics and astronomy offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we are here. I wanted to fathom the depths of the Universe.”

His ambition brought him a scholarship to University College Oxford to read Natural Science.There he studied physics and graduated with a first class honours degree.

He then moved to Trinity Hall Cambridge and was supervised by Dennis Sciama at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for his PhD; his thesis was titled ‘Properties of Expanding Universes.’ In 2017, he made his PhD thesis freely available online via the University of Cambridge’s Open Access repository. There have been over a million attempts to download the thesis, demonstrating the enduring popularity of Professor Hawking and his academic legacy.

On completion of his PhD, he became a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College where he remained a fellow for the rest of his life. During his early years at Cambridge, he was influenced by Roger Penrose and developed the singularity theorems which show that the Universe began with the Big Bang.

An interest in singularities naturally led to an interest in black holes and his subsequent work in this area laid the foundations for the modern understanding of black holes. He proved that when black holes merge, the surface area of the final black hole must exceed the sum of the areas of the initial black holes, and he showed that this places limits on the amount of energy that can be carried away by gravitational waves in such a merger. He found that there were parallels to be drawn between the laws of thermodynamics and the behaviour of black holes. This eventually led, in 1974, to the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation, now known as Hawking radiation, a discovery which revolutionised theoretical physics. 

He also realised that black holes must have an entropy – often described as a measure of how much disorder is present in a given system – equal to one quarter of the area of their event horizon: – the ‘point of no return’, where the gravitational pull of a black hole becomes so strong that escape is impossible. Some forty-odd years later, the precise nature of this entropy is still a puzzle. However, these discoveries led to Hawking formulating the ‘information paradox’ which illustrates a fundamental conflict between quantum mechanics and our understanding of gravitational physics. This is probably the greatest mystery facing theoretical physicists today.

To understand black holes and cosmology requires one to develop a theory of quantum gravity. Quantum gravity is an unfinished project which is attempting to unify general relativity, the theory of gravitation and of space and time with the ideas of quantum mechanics. Hawking’s work on black holes started a new chapter in this quest and most of his subsequent achievements centred on these ideas. Hawking recognised that quantum mechanical effects in the very early universe might provide the primordial gravitational seeds around which galaxies and other large-scale structures could later form. This theory of inflationary fluctuations, developed along with others in the early 1980’s, is now supported by strong experimental evidence from the COBE, WMAP and Planck satellite observations of the cosmic microwave sky. Another influential idea was Hawking’s ‘no boundary’ proposal which resulted from the application of quantum mechanics to the entire universe. This idea allows one to explain the creation of the universe in a way that is compatible with laws of physics as we currently understand them. 

Professor Hawking’s influential books included The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime, with G F R Ellis; General Relativity: an Einstein centenary survey, with W Israel; Superspace and Supergravity, with M Rocek (1981); The Very Early Universe, with G Gibbons and S Siklos, and 300 Years of Gravitation, with W Israel.

However, it was his popular science books which took Professor Hawking beyond the academic world and made him a household name. The first of these, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988 and became a surprise bestseller, remaining on the Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. Later popular books included Black Holes and Baby Universes, The Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time, and My Brief History. He also collaborated with his daughter Lucy on a series of books for children about a character named George who has adventures in space.

In 2014, a film of his life, The Theory of Everything, was released. Based on the book by his first wife Jane, the film follows the story of their life together, from first meeting in Cambridge in 1964, with his subsequent academic successes and his increasing disability. The film was met with worldwide acclaim and Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking, won the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 2015 ceremony.

Travel was one of Professor Hawking’s pastimes. One of his first adventures was to be caught up in the 7.1 magnitude Bou-in-Zahra earthquake in Iran in 1962. In 1997 he visited the Antarctic. He has plumbed the depths in a submarine and in 2007 he experienced weightlessness during a zero-gravity flight, routine training for astronauts. On his return, he quipped “Space, here I come.”

Writing years later on his website, Professor Hawking said: “I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work. I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope.”

At a conference In Cambridge held in celebration of his 75th birthday in 2017, Professor Hawking said “It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics. Our picture of the Universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution.”

And he said he wanted others to feel the passion he has for understanding the universal laws that govern us all. “I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest. So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Friends and colleagues from the University of Cambridge have paid tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking, who died on 14 March 2018 at the age of 76. 

Graham CopeKoga/Cambridge University LibraryStephen Hawking pictured with Newton's own annotated copy Principia Mathematica as part of Cambridge University Library's 600th anniversary.

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Council helps more than 85 people fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere to resettle in Cambridge

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 03/13/2018 - 16:27

A TOTAL of 85 people in 18 families from Syria and other countries have so far been resettled in Cambridge as part of Cambridge City Council’s response to the government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees.

Cambridge City Council had earlier pledged to resettle at least 100 people fleeing wars in Syria and elsewhere under the Home Office’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

The council has worked closely with many volunteers, voluntary organisations and housing providers to help the newcomers with the major transition of settling in Britain and Cambridge.

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Ultra-white coating modelled on beetle scales

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 03/13/2018 - 11:04

The material – which is 20 times whiter than paper – is made from non-toxic cellulose and achieves such bright whiteness by mimicking the structure of the ultra-thin scales of certain types of beetle. The results are reported in the journal Advanced Materials.

Bright colours are usually produced using pigments, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, which our eyes then perceive as colour.

To appear as white, however, all wavelengths of light need to be reflected with the same efficiency. Most commercially-available white products – such as sun creams, cosmetics and paints – incorporate highly refractive particles (usually titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) to reflect light efficiently. These materials, while considered safe, are not fully sustainable or biocompatible.

In nature, the Cyphochilus beetle, which is native to Southeast Asia, produces its ultra-white colouring not through pigments, but by exploiting the geometry of a dense network of chitin – a molecule which is also found in the shells of molluscs, the exoskeletons of insects and the cell walls of fungi. Chitin has a structure which scatters light extremely efficiently – resulting in ultra-white coatings which are very thin and light.

“White is a very special type of structural colour,” said paper co-author Olimpia Onelli, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “Other types of structural colour – for example butterfly wings or opals – have a specific pattern in their structure which results in vibrant colour, but to produce white, the structure needs to be as random as possible.”

The Cambridge team, working with researchers from Aalto University in Finland, mimicked the structure of chitin using cellulose, which is non-toxic, abundant, strong and bio-compatible. Using tiny strands of cellulose, or cellulose nanofibrils, they were able to achieve the same ultra-white effect in a flexible membrane.

By using a combination of nanofibrils of varying diameters, the researchers were able to tune the opacity, and therefore the whiteness, of the end material. The membranes made from the thinnest fibres were more transparent, while adding medium and thick fibres resulted in a more opaque membrane. In this way, the researchers were able to fine-tune the geometry of the nanofibrils so that they reflected the most light.

“These cellulose-based materials have a structure that’s almost like spaghetti, which is how they are able to scatter light so well,” said senior author Dr Silvia Vignolini, also from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “We need to get the mix just right: we don’t want it to be too uniform, and we don’t want it to collapse.”

Like the beetle scales, the cellulose membranes are extremely thin: just a few millionths of a metre thick, although the researchers say that even thinner membranes could be produced by further optimising their fabrication process. The membranes scatter light 20 to 30 times more efficiently than paper and could be used to produce next-generation efficient bright sustainable and biocompatible white materials.

The research was funded in part by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the European Research Council. The technology has been patented by Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.

Matti S. Toivonen et al. ‘Anomalous-Diffusion-Assisted Brightness in White Cellulose Nanofibril Membranes.’ Advanced Materials (2018). DOI: 10.1002/adma.201704050

Researchers have developed a super-thin, non-toxic, lightweight, edible ultra-white coating that could be used to make brighter paints and coatings, for use in the cosmetic, food or pharmaceutical industries.

These cellulose-based materials have a structure that’s almost like spaghetti, which is how they are able to scatter light so well.Silvia VignoliniOlimpia OnelliCyphochilus beetle with cellulose-based coating

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A Stray Sumerian Tablet: Unravelling the story behind Cambridge University Library’s oldest written object

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 03/13/2018 - 09:52

A Stray Sumerian Tablet has been published today by Cambridge University Library and focuses on a diminutive clay tablet, written by a scribe in ancient Iraq, some 4,200 years ago. A description of the tablet along with high-resolution images and a 3D model can also be seen on Cambridge Digital Library.

Containing six lines of cuneiform script, and roughly the size of an adult thumb, it was donated to the University Library in 1921 but then lost to sight for many years before its rediscovery in 2016, during research for the Curious Objects exhibition, held as part of the University Library’s 600th anniversary.

The full translation of the laconic text runs as follows: 18 jars of pig fat – Balli. 4 jars of pig fat – Nimgir-ab-lah. Fat dispensed (at ?) the city of Zabala. Ab-kid-kid, the scribe. 4th year 10th month.

The man named Balli turns up regularly in other texts from the same area during the same period of history, and seems to be an official in charge of a wide range of oils: from pig fat and butter to sesame oil and almond oil.

Professor Nicholas Postgate, a Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge, who has studied the tablet, said: “This little piece of clay is packed full of information from 4,200 years ago. The language is Sumerian, the oldest written language, and there are six professionally written lines of cuneiform script on it.


MS Doc. 829 Sumerian clay tablet by Cambridge Digital Library on Sketchfab

“In the early years of the 20th century, the antiquity market in the west was flooded, disastrously, with thousands of cuneiform tablets which had been ripped out of their original context from sites where illicit robbers were working. These tablets were then distributed across the world from Moscow, to London to Chicago.

“The content is very simple, it mentions a large quantity (22 jars) of lard or pigs fat and gives the name of the responsible official (Balli). It states that this fat was dispensed in the city of Zabala. We think these jars were eighty litres each, so that means we’re talking about hundreds of litres of lard.”

Since it was displayed as part of Curious Objects, Professor Postgate has conducted further research on the tablet and plans to publish an academic paper on both the tablet and its text later this year.

“We may be able to reconstruct what’s going on in individual tablet, but we can never reconstruct the physical archaeological context from which they came, so there’s a great loss of information there,” he added.

“Since the 1920s, many other tablets from the same archive have surfaced all over the world and our own small tablet makes its own contribution to the reconstruction of a government office more than 4,000 years ago.”


The story surrounding the oldest written document at one of the world’s great research libraries has been unravelled in a new film.

This little piece of clay is packed full of information from 4,200 years agoNicholas Postgate Cambridge University LibraryThe 4,200-year-old Sumerian tablet, the oldest written object belonging to Cambridge University Library

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YesLicense type: Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlikeRelated Links: Curious Objects: Sumerian Tablet
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Max Planck Cambridge Centre launched

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 03/13/2018 - 09:00

Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPS) met with University of Cambridge counterparts on Tuesday 6 March for the formal launch of the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change.

The launch event, held at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, was attended by Professor Martin Stratmann, President of the MPS, and by Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

The new Centre began its operations in July 2017. One of its aims was to deepen researchers’ knowledge of social change by complementing the Cambridge Anthropology Department’s expertise in the anthropology of ethics with research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religion and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, and economic anthropology research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle.

The Centre is the latest of the MPS’s international partnerships. It is funded jointly by the University of Cambridge (including the Isaac Newton Trust) and the MPS, and has an initial budget of £2 million. The funding will allow six postdoctoral fellows will undertake field research at sites around the world. Over the coming four years, public lectures, workshops and larger conferences will be hosted both in Cambridge and the two German locations. It is expected that the Centre will, in the future, expand its activities to offer positions for visiting scholars, and to make the Centre a hub for further initiatives beyond the life-span of the initial projects.

Speaking at the launch event, Professor James Laidlaw, Head of the Department of Social Anthropology and co-director of the new Centre, said:

“This new Max-Cam Centre is the most ambitious and important of a number of initiatives the newly restored Department is embarking upon. It is an attempt… to show that ethical values and practice are just as pervasive in economic life as they are in religion, or the family… Morality is as crucial to explaining when people behave badly as it is to explaining when they behave well; as crucial to understanding how they cope with adversity as it is to understanding the ambitions they pursue. This is especially important when those hopes and ambitions are radically different from our own: when people’s values seem to us to be perverse, shallow, distorted, or plain incomprehensible.”

Fellow co-director Professor Chris Hann, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology at Halle, described the new Centre as an opportunity to renew the moral sciences, and expressed his hope that, in the wake of Brexit, the new Centre will demonstrate the value of continued European collaboration in science and society:

“When we prepared the proposal over two years ago, few observers anywhere imagined that citizens of the UK would vote in a referendum to leave the European Union... In this uncertain climate, we would be very happy if the launch of our modest Centre can be a catalyst for further collaboration between the Max Planck Society and this great University.“

Addressing this point, Professor Martin Stratmann said: “I am delighted that, in this period of uncertainty caused by Brexit, we have established another highly visible collaboration with top British scientists”.

He added: “Without any doubt, in today’s globalized world, the dynamics between ethics, religion and economy have reached an unprecedented complexity. This makes the research of the new Max Planck Cambridge Centre very relevant for our times. This cooperation brings together the complementary skills of outstanding scientists of the Max Planck Society and the University of Cambridge.”

Bringing the launch event to a close, Professor Stephen Toope remarked: “The more incomprehensible the world about us seems, the more we need to employ our anthropological imagination to appreciate its depth and diversity. This new joint venture with the Max Planck Society helps us do just that.”

The collaborative venture will offer insights into the links between ethics and social change

The more incomprehensible the world about us seems, the more we need to employ our anthropological imagination to appreciate its depth and diversity. This new joint venture with the Max Planck Society helps us do just that.Prof Stephen ToopeMartin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society, and Stephen Toope, Vice-ChancellorSix research projects currently underway at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social, Change
  • Patrice Ladwig is studying the influence of economic modernisation on Buddhist rites of passage in urban Laos  By focusing on funerals and ordinations into monastic life, he explores how the ritual and moral economy that connects monasteries and laypeople has been affected by economic growth, and how increasing wealth, but also social inequalities are expressed and negotiated in rituals.
  • Johannes Lenhard is working towards an anthropology of the international venture capital industry with field research in London, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong. The focus of his project will be on the values and ethics behind the investors’ decisions: Why do VCs support certain startups - for instance Uber, AirBnB and Transferwise - and not others? What kind of a (better) future do investors want to create? 
  • Anna-Riikka Kauppinen is studying the emergence of new banks led by Ghanaian capital owners in Accra. With a focus on networks of institutional and personal exchange between banks and Charismatic Pentecostal churches, which have become major focal points of urban life in West Africa, the project will generate novel approaches to the study of African capitalism. 
  • Patrick McKearney is developing a comparative anthropology of cognitive disability through fieldwork on Christian NGOs that support these individuals in situations of economic change and development. He will focus on the strategies these organisations develop as they seek to change the role these individuals play in social life, and the practical consequences their ethical projects have on the lives of some of the most dependent in different social settings.
  • Samuel Williams will study the social and economic significance of gold in Turkey over recent decades of market-driven development. Working closely with Turkish goldsmiths in Istanbul and London who help intermediate the scrap gold trade through Turkey between Europe and the Middle East, he will investigate the range of families, businesses, and other organisations that draw on this gold and why it is of value to them.
  • Rachel E. Smith will conduct research in Vanuatu on moral and ritual economies in contexts of social change, particularly in the context of the production of kava (a narcotic beverage) for the domestic and a burgeoning export market. She will focus on how ethical, ritual and spiritual practices and values mediate social and economic change.

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New action plan set to tackle air quality and pollution

Cambridge Council Feed - Mon, 03/12/2018 - 11:05

AMBITIOUS plans to improve air quality in Cambridge have been set out by Cambridge City Council in its proposed new Air Quality Action Plan.

The proposed plan, to be discussed at Environment Scrutiny Committee this week, sets out the council’s priorities in the next five years, for improving areas of poor air quality and maintaining areas of good air quality as Cambridge continues to grow.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

One in ten stroke survivors need more help with taking medication

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 03/12/2018 - 02:51

According to the Stroke Associations, as many as four in ten people who have had a stroke, go on to have another one within ten years. As a second stroke carries a greater risk of disability and death than first time strokes, it is important that survivors take medicine daily to lower their risk. There are around 1.2 million stroke survivors in the UK, and at least a third suffer from severe impairments, potentially making adherence to their medicine difficult.

Half of survivors of stroke are dependent on others for everyday activities, though the proportion dependent on others for medicine taking or needing more practical help with tablets is not known.

To examine the practical support stroke survivors living in the community need and receive with taking their medicines, researchers at the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London carried out a postal questionnaire study. The researchers developed the questionnaire together with stroke survivors and caregivers. The questionnaire was completed by 600 participants across 18 GP practices in the UK.

More than half (56%) of respondents needed help with taking medication. This included help with prescriptions and collection of medicines (50%), getting medicines out of the packaging (28%), being reminded to take medicines (36%), swallowing medicines (20%) and checking that medicines have been taken (34%). Being dependent on others was linked to experiencing more unmet needs with daily medicine taking.

Around one in ten (11%) of respondents answered yes to the question “Do you feel you need more help?” The most commonly reported areas where respondents said they needed more assistance were being reminded to take medicines, dealing with prescriptions and collection of medicines, and getting medicines out the packaging. As a result, around one in three (35%) of respondents said they had missed taking medicine in the previous 30 days.

Stroke survivors taking a higher number of daily medicines and experiencing a greater number unmet needs with practical aspects of medicine-taking were more likely to miss medications.

Interestingly, the researchers found that younger stroke survivors were more likely to miss their medicines, possibly because they are less likely to receive help from a caregiver.

“Because of the risk of a second stroke, it’s important that stroke survivors take their medication, but our study has shown that this can present challenges,” says Dr Anna De Simoni from the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London. “In the majority of cases, they receive the help they need, but there is still a sizeable minority who don’t receive all the assistance they need.”

James Jamison at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, who led the study as part of his PhD, adds: “Our study has shown us some of the barriers that people face to taking their medication regularly. We also learned that stroke survivors who are dependent on others are most likely to need more assistance than they currently receive.

“Our response rate was relatively low – just over one in three – so we need more research to find out if what we’ve heard from our respondents is widespread among stroke survivors. If so, this will have implications for the care provided.”

The team point to the need to develop new interventions focused on the practicalities of taking medicines and aimed at improving stroke survivors’ adherence to treatment. “Advances in technology have the potential to help improve adherence, such as electronic devices prompting medication taking times,” says Jamison. “Efforts to improve medication taking among survivors of stroke using technology are already underway and have shown promise.”

The research was supported by the Royal College of General Practitioners, National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the Stroke Association and the British Heart Foundation.

Jamison J, Ayerbe L, Di Tanna GL, Sutton S, Mant J, De Simoni A. Evaluating practical support stroke survivors get with medicines and unmet needs in primary care: A survey. 2018 BMJ Open. DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019874

Over a half of stroke patients require a degree of help with taking medicine and a sizeable minority say they do not receive as much assistance as they need, according a study published today in the journal BMJ Open.

Because of the risk of a second stroke, it’s important that stroke survivors take their medication, but our study has shown that this can present challengesAnna De Simonifrankieleonpop lifeResearcher profile: James Jamison

James’ research seeks to understand why people sometimes do not take the medications prescribed by their GP – and then to use this to inform interventions aimed at improving their medication taking practices.

His day-to-day activities are very varied, he says. “They can involve anything from the development of research proposals, liaising with GP practices and pharmacies in the East of England to set up research studies, training health care professionals in research procedures, conducting interviews with patients, collecting questionnaire data or writing up research for publications in health care journals.”

However, the most rewarding and interesting part is coming face-to-face with stroke survivors and their caregivers to talk about their condition and the daily challenges they face, he adds.

“Working at Cambridge provides the opportunity to be part of a leading department conducting research in primary care and offers the potential to work with esteemed colleagues in the field,” he says. “The opportunity to deliver high quality research outputs and undertake collaborations will hopefully help further my career as a successful health care researcher.”

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Study finds that genes play a role in empathy

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 03/12/2018 - 01:07

Empathy has two parts: the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings, and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else’s thoughts and feelings. The first part is called ‘cognitive empathy’ and the second part ‘affective empathy’.

Fifteen years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a brief self-report measure of empathy. The EQ measures both parts of empathy.

Previous research showed that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men. It also showed that, on average, autistic people score lower on the EQ, and that this was because they struggle with cognitive empathy, even though their affective empathy may be intact.

In a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the Cambridge team, working with the genetics company 23andMe and a team of international scientists, report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers. The customers all completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur, and David Hinds, Principal Scientist at 23andMe.

The new study has three important results. First, it found that how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. Indeed, a tenth of this variation is due to genetic factors. This confirms previous research examining empathy in identical versus non-identical twins.

Second, the new study confirmed that women are on average more empathetic than men. However, this difference is not due to our DNA as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women.

This implies that the sex difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialisation, both of which also differ between the sexes.

Finally, the new study found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism. 

Varun Warrier said: “This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy. But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%.”

Professor Thomas Bourgeron added: “This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved. Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings, and to pin-point the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy.”

Dr David Hinds said: “These are the latest findings from a series of studies that 23andMe have collaborated on with researchers at Cambridge. Together these are providing exciting new insights into the genetics influences underlying human behaviour.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen added: “Finding that even a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand people such as those with autism who struggle to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings. This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”

This study also benefitted from support from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Institut Pasteur, the CNRS, the University Paris Diderot, the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, and St John’s College, Cambridge.

Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa, by V Warrier, R Toro, B Chakrabarti, iPSYCH-Broad Autism Group, Grove J, Borglum AD, D Hinds, T Bourgeron, and S Baron-Cohen. Translational Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/s41398-017-0082-6

A new study published today suggests that how empathic we are is not just a result of our upbringing and experience but also partly a result of our genes.

This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathyVarun WarrierMatheus FerreroResearcher profile: Varun Warrier

Varun Warrier is a PhD student at the Autism Research Centre, where he studies the genetics of autism and related traits. He moved to Cambridge in 2013 from India because of the Centre’s world-leading reputation.

There are several key challenges in the field, he says. “First, we have identified only a fraction of the genes associated with autism. Second, no two autistic people are alike. Third, within the spectrum autistic people have different strengths and difficulties. Finally, those with a clinical diagnosis blend seamlessly into those in the population who don’t have a diagnosis but simply have a lot of autistic traits. We all have some autistic traits – this spectrum runs right through the population on a bell curve.”

Although much of his work is computational, developing statistical tools to interrogate complex datasets that will enable him to answer biological questions, he also gets to meet many people with autism. “When I meet autistic people, I truly understand what's often said – no two autistic people are alike.”

Warrier hopes his research will lead to a better understanding of the biology of autism, and that this will enable quicker and more accurate diagnosis. “But that's only one part of the challenge,” he says. “Understanding the biology has its limits, and I hope that, in parallel, there will be better social policies to support autistic people.” 

Cambridge is an exciting place to be a researcher, he says. “In Cambridge, there's always a local expert, so if you have a particular problem there usually is someone who can help you out. People here are not just thinking about what can be done to address the problems of today; they are anticipating problems that we will face in 20 years’ time, and are working to solve those.”

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Conservationists gather to mark International Women's Day

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 03/09/2018 - 16:08

The event, jointly organised by the Museum and the Cambridge Conservation Forum’s Women in Conservation Leadership Network, was held to mark International Women’s Day and included a keynote lecture by Professor Rebecca Kilner from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Kilner said; “Events like this are important for showing the next generation that anyone with a spark for science can work in science subjects. They are designed to excite and encourage young people to pursue their interests - and not to be held back by their gender, race or background.”

The Museum welcomed over 100 visitors to the event, which included ‘meet the scientist’ stalls, a poster exhibition, and a sneak-peek at the newly refurbished Whale Hall.

More than 30 women working in different scientific fields took part, from organisations including the United Nations’ Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the RSPB and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They were joined by staff and volunteers from the museum, and Cambridge postgraduate students.

Dr Rosalyn Wade, the Museum’s Interpretation and Learning Officer, helped to coordinate the event. She said; “A key role for the Museum is engaging with the public and raising awareness of work in biological and environmental sciences.

“It’s important to raise awareness of the different kinds of careers available in scientific fields. A number of our visitors were GCSE and A-Level students, and it was a great opportunity for them to see the range of roles that might be available to them in the future.

“We also had lots of new mums who are thinking about a career change and were interested to learn more about different areas. It was great to see such a diverse range of people.”

The Museum has undergone a massive redevelopment, and will officially re-open to the public on 23 June.

Scientists from around the world gathered at the Museum of Zoology yesterday to celebrate and promote the work of women in conservation.

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Sprinkler systems to be upgraded at mult-storey car parks

Cambridge Council Feed - Fri, 03/09/2018 - 13:39

WORK to upgrade sprinkler systems at two of Cambridge City Council’s multi-storey car parks has started.

The existing sprinkler and fire suppression systems on the below-ground levels of Grand Arcade car park are being fully upgraded, with work starting earlier this week.

The work at Grand Arcade car park will be carried out initially during less busy operating periods of the day and night, and then at night only from 1 April.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Report recommends Park Street site be redeveloped as hotel and underground car and cycle park

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 03/08/2018 - 17:22

A REPORT for Cambridge City Council is recommending that Park Street Car Park be redeveloped as a hotel – potentially an aparthotel – and a new underground car and cycle park below it.

Last November councillors approved a rolling programme of refurbishments for Park Street Car Park, to be carried out while further plans for the possible long term redevelopment of the site were investigated, resulting in this report.

Since then the Cambridge Investment Partnership (CIP) has been reviewing options for the site, including commercially viable options for the site.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

"We all need to press for progress, in science and beyond"

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 03/08/2018 - 14:16

Read more about the female scientists at Cambridge taking their fields by storm - and using International Women's Day to encourage others to do the same. 

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Cambridge University Press celebrate women in academia for International Women's Day

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 03/08/2018 - 11:56

The collection – spanning the subjects of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences - contains a wide range of online book chapters, articles, journals and blog posts.

The purpose of the campaign is to share, and make accessible, the excellent knowledge and research of our authors around this incredibly important topic.

As one of the world's leading and most respected university presses, Cambridge University Press has a significant part to play in helping women in academia have a voice and in championing their work.

Mandy Hill, Managing Director for Academic Publishing at the Press, said: “Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day with our collection of academic work by and about great women across the globe and across history.

“As a University Press and global publisher, we see it as intrinsic within our role to support, develop and publish the highest standards of education and research for everyone and by everyone, irrespective of gender, race, age, or sexuality. This year we have expanded our IWD2018 campaign to include work from all our academic subjects and have made content free to ensure accessibility.”

The free content will be accessible from, throughout March, and includes the full 2017 volume of leading agenda setting journal Politics & Gender, blog posts, a wide selection of articles and book chapters including:

The Wonders of Light
Marta Garcia-Matos 
Discover the spectacular power of light with this visually stunning celebration of the multitude of ways in which light-based technology has shaped our society.

Women in Twentieth-Century Africa
Iris Berger
Explores the paradoxical image of African women as exceptionally oppressed, but also as strong, resourceful and rebellious.

Property in the Body: Feminist Perspectives
Donna Dickenson
Commodification of the human body is gaining ground, strengthened by powerful interests. This book helps us understand and regulate it.

The Cambridge Introduction to Margaret Atwood
Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson
An engaging overview for students and readers of Atwood's life, works, contexts and reception.

Sex, Gender, and Episcopal Authority in an Age of Reform, 1000-1122
Megan McLaughlin
New perspective on western European ecclesiastical reform between 1000-1122 through an examination of images of the 'private' life of the Church.

Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture
Sarah N. Roth
This book argues that white women, as creators and consumers of popular culture media, played a pivotal role in the demasculinization of black men during the antebellum period.

The Logics of Gender Justice: State Action on Women’s Rights Around the World
Mala Htun
This book explains when and why governments around the world take action to advance - or undermine - women’s rights.

The Experiences of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law
Eva Brems
Studies the experiences of face veil wearers in Europe and examines the ramifications of the empirical findings for legislative agendas.

In celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), Cambridge University Press has made a collection of inspirational work written by, or about, leading academics and pioneers such as Marie Curie, Margaret Atwood and Angela Merkel, available to read for free online.

This year we have expanded our IWD2018 campaign to include work from all our academic subjects and have made content free to ensure accessibility.Mandy Hill

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

£200,000 refurbishment programme at Arbury Court set to begin

Cambridge Council Feed - Wed, 03/07/2018 - 14:15

A £200,000 IMPROVEMENT project for the public areas at Arbury Court local centre is due to begin later this month.

Funded under Cambridge City Council’s local centre improvement programme, the public space around the shops at Arbury Court will be refurbished, with work scheduled to start on 19 March and finish by the end of June.

The scheme draws on feedback from a public consultation undertaken last year, supported by 78% of respondents, and will provide the following public space improvements:

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

New car park charges to include a peak time congestion tariff

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 03/06/2018 - 10:56

NEW charges will come into effect at Cambridge City Council’s car parks from April, as part of the council’s plan to reduce congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions.

The new charges were confirmed as part of the council’s overall budget on 22 February, following consultation with city centre stakeholders in October of last year.

The changes include a charge to encourage drivers to switch to other modes of transport such as Cambridgeshire County Council’s Park and Ride to get to the city centre between 8am and 10am.

Parking initiatives include:

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

New service available at Newmarket Road Chapel

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 03/06/2018 - 09:18

A NEW SERVICE has been introduced by Cambridge City Council’s Bereavement Services team to give families and friends the option of holding a funeral service for their loved one at Newmarket Road Chapel, in the grounds of Cambridge City Cemetery.

Currently, families and friends need to travel to the Huntingdon Road Crematorium for a loved one’s service in one of its two chapels, with only burial services taking place at Newmarket Road.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Method to predict drug stability could lead to more effective medicines

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 03/05/2018 - 14:10

The researchers, from the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, have developed a new method to solve an old problem: how to predict when and how a solid will crystallise. Using optical and mechanical measuring techniques, they found that localised movement of molecules within a solid is ultimately responsible for crystallisation.

This solution to the problem was first proposed in 1969, but it has only now become possible to prove the hypothesis. The results are reported in two papers in Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics and The Journal of Physical Chemistry B.

Solids behave differently depending on whether their molecular structure is ordered (crystal) or disordered (glass). Chemically, the crystal and glass forms of a solid are exactly the same, but they have different properties.

One of the desirable properties of glasses is that they are more soluble in water, which is especially useful for medical applications. To be effective, medicines need to be water-soluble, so that they can be dissolved within the body and reach their target via the bloodstream.

“Most of the medicines in use today are in the crystal form, which means that they need extra energy to dissolve in the body before they enter the bloodstream,” said study co-author Professor Axel Zeitler from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology. “Molecules in the glass form are more readily absorbed by the body because they can dissolve more easily, and many glasses that can cure disease have been discovered in the past 20 years, but they’re not being made into medicines because they’re not stable enough.”

After a certain time, all glasses will undergo spontaneous crystallisation, at which point the molecules will not only lose their disordered structure, but they will also lose the properties that made them effective in the first place. A long-standing problem for scientists has been how to predict when crystallisation will occur, which, if solved, would enable the widespread practical application of glasses.

“This is a very old problem,” said Zeitler. “And for pharmaceutical companies, it’s often too big of a risk. If they develop a drug based on the glass form of a molecule and it crystallises, they will not only have lost a potentially effective medicine, but they would have to do a massive recall.”

In order to determine when and how solids will crystallise, most researchers had focused on the glass transition temperature, which is the temperature above which molecules can move in the solid more freely and can be measured easily. Using a technique called dynamic mechanical analysis as well as terahertz spectroscopy, Zeitler and his colleagues showed that instead of the glass transition temperature, the molecular motions occurring until a lower temperature threshold, are responsible for crystallisation.

These motions are constrained by localised forces in the molecular environment and, in contrast to the relatively large motions that happen above the glass transition temperature, the molecular motions above the lower temperature threshold are much subtler. While the localised movement is tricky to measure, it is a key part of the crystallisation process.

Given the advance in measurement techniques developed by the Cambridge and Copenhagen teams, drug molecules that were previously discarded at the pre-clinical stage can now be tested to determine whether they can be brought to the market in a stable glass form that overcomes the solubility limitations of the crystal form.

“If we use our technique to screen molecules that were previously discarded, and we find that the temperature associated with the onset of the localised motion is sufficiently high, we would have high confidence that the material will not crystallise following manufacture,” said Zeitler. “We could use the calibration curve that we describe in the second paper to predict the length of time it will take the material to crystallise.”

The research has been patented and is being commercialised by Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm. The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Michael T. Ruggiero et al. ‘The significance of the amorphous potential energy landscape for dictating glassy dynamics and driving solid-state crystallisation’ Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, 19, 30039-30047 (2017). DOI: 10.1039/c7cp06664c

Eric Ofosu Kissi et al. ‘The glass transition temperature of the β-relaxation as the single predictive parameter for recrystallization of neat amorphous drugs.’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry B (2018). DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.7b10105

Researchers from the UK and Denmark have developed a new method to predict the physical stability of drug candidates, which could help with the development of new and more effective medicines for patients. The technology has been licensed to Cambridge spin-out company TeraView, who are developing it for use in the pharmaceutical industry in order to make medicines that are more easily released in the body. 

This is a very old problem, and for pharmaceutical companies, it’s often too big of a risk.Axel ZeitlerGatis GribustsMedication

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Rare mineral discovered in plants for first time

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 03/05/2018 - 13:58

Scientists at Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University have found that the mineral vaterite, a form (polymorph) of calcium carbonate, is a dominant component of the protective silvery-white crust that forms on the leaves of a number of alpine plants, which are part of the Garden’s national collection of European Saxifraga species.

Naturally occurring vaterite is rarely found on Earth. Small amounts of vaterite crystals have been found in some sea and freshwater crustaceans, bird eggs, the inner ears of salmon, meteorites and rocks. This is the first time that the rare and unstable mineral has been found in such a large quantity and the first time it has been found to be associated with plants.

The discovery was made through a University of Cambridge collaboration between the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University microscopy facility and Cambridge University Botanic Garden, as part of an ongoing research project that is probing the inner workings of plants in the Garden using new microscopy technologies. The research findings have been published in the latest edition of Flora.

The laboratory’s Microscopy Core Facility Manager, Dr Raymond Wightman, said vaterite was of interest to the pharmaceutical industry: “Biochemists are working to synthetically manufacture vaterite as it has potential for use in drug delivery, but it is not easy to make. Vaterite has special properties that make it a potentially superior carrier for medications due to its high loading capacity, high uptake by cells and its solubility properties that enable it to deliver a sustained and targeted release of therapeutic medicines to patients. For instance, vaterite nanoparticles loaded with anti-cancer drugs appear to offload the drug slowly only at sites of cancers and therefore limit the negative side-effects of the drug.”

Other potential uses of vaterite include improving the cements used in orthopaedic surgery and as an industrial application improving the quality of papers for inkjet printing by reducing the lateral spread of ink.

Dr Wightman said vaterite was often associated with outer space and had been detected in planetary objects in the Solar System and meteorites: “Vaterite is not very stable in the Earth’s humid atmosphere as it often reverts to more common forms of calcium carbonate, such as calcite. This makes it even more remarkable that we have found vaterite in such large quantities on the surface of plant leaves.”

Botanic Garden Alpine and Woodland Supervisor, Paul Aston, and colleague Simon Wallis, are pioneering studies into the cellular-level structures of these alpine plants with Dr Wightman. Mr Wallis, who is also Chairman of the international Saxifrage Society, said: “We started by sampling as wide a range of saxifrage species as possible from our collection. The microscope analysis of the plant material came up with the exciting discovery that some plants were exuding vaterite from “chalk glands” (hydathodes) on the margins of their leaves.

"We then noticed a pattern emerging. The plants producing vaterite were from the section of Saxifraga called Porphyrion. Further to this, it appears that although many species in this section produced vaterite along with calcite, there was at least one species, Saxifraga sempervivum, that was producing pure vaterite.”

Dr Wightman said two new pieces of equipment at the microscopy facility were being used to reveal the inner workings of the plants and uncovering cellular structures never before described: “Our cryo-scanning electron microscope allows us to view, in great detail, cells and plant tissues in their “native” fully hydrated state by freezing samples quickly and maintaining cold under a vacuum for electron microscopy.

"We are also using a Raman microscope to identify and map molecules. In this case, the microscope not only identified signatures corresponding to calcium carbonate as forming the crust, but was also able to differentiate between the calcite and vaterite forms when it was present as a mixture while still attached to the leaf surface.”

So why do these species produce a calcium carbonate crystal crust and why are some crusts calcite and others vaterite?

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden team is hoping to answer this question through further analysis of the leaf anatomy of the Saxifraga group. They suspect that vaterite may be present on more plant species, but that the unstable mineral is being converted to calcite when exposed to wind and rain. This may also be the reason why some plants have both vaterite and calcite present at the same time.

The microscopy research has also turned up some novel cell structures. Mr Aston added: “As well as producing vaterite, Saxifraga scardica has a special tissue surrounding the leaf edge that appears to deflect light from the edge into the leaf. The cells appear to be producing novel cell wall structures to achieve this deflection. This may be to help the plant to collect more light, particularly if it is growing in partly shaded environments.”

The team believes the novel cell wall structures of Saxifrages could one day help inform the manufacture of new bio-inspired optical devices and photonic structures for industry such as communication cables and fibre optics.

Mr Aston said these initial discoveries were just the start: “We expect that there may be other plants that also produce vaterite and have special leaf anatomies that have evolved in harsh environments like alpine regions. The next species we will be looking to study is Saxifraga lolaensis, which has super tiny leaves with an organisation of cell types not seen in a leaf before, and which we think will reveal more fascinating secrets about the complexity of plants.”

There is a risk that some of these tiny but amazing alpine plants could potentially disappear due to climate change, damage from alpine recreation sports and over-collecting. There is still much to learn about these plants, but the collaborative work of the Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University Botanic Garden team is revealing fascinating insights into leaf anatomy and biochemistry as well as demonstrating the potential for Saxifrages to supply a new range of biomaterials.

Story by Kathy Grube, Communications Manager, Sainsbury Laboratory.

A rare mineral with potential industrial and medical applications has been discovered on alpine plants at Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Biochemists are working to synthetically manufacture vaterite as it has potential for use in drug delivery, but it is not easy to makeRaymond WightmanPaul Aston Saxifraga sempervivum, an alpine plant species discovered to produce "pure vaterite".

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

£2.5million gift to Cambridge Sport funds two new hockey pitches for use by the University and wider Cambridge community

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 03/05/2018 - 09:22

The ambitious plans recognise that the University forms part of a vibrant and growing city where sport is valued highly.

As a result of this gift, the existing Wilberforce Road Sports Ground will be transformed and provide opportunities for both Cambridge students and the wider community to play and enjoy hockey, via a partnership with City of Cambridge Hockey Club. Demand for hockey, especially at junior level, has grown in recent years and bringing the City Club activity together on one site means the club will generate a greater sense of unity. The gift will fund two new high quality floodlit artificial pitches to be built alongside the current pitch to form a ‘Hockey Hub’.

The gift, the largest to University sport from private philanthropy, comes from Chris and Sarah Field, who were inspired to make a lasting contribution to Cambridge sport by watching their sons play hockey as they grew up.

The new pitches represent part of a wider ambition to improve sports provision, including updating the facilities at Grange Road and the consideration of a swimming pool on the West Cambridge site. The mission for sports at the University is broad in its vision and scope, and supports the University’s intention to be inclusive and accessible to the wider Cambridge community through encouraging participation in sport.


More about the impact of philanthropic giving

Read other examples of the positive impact of philanthropy at Cambridge

The gift marks a defining moment in the mission of the University to improve sports facilities and recognise the many wide-ranging benefits sport gives to all who take part.

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Open day for the public at East Cambridge Lakes on 11 March

Cambridge Council Feed - Fri, 03/02/2018 - 15:47

CAMBRIDGE City Council is hosting a public open day on Sunday 11 March at East Cambridge Lakes, the flooded chalk pits at the end of Mill Road which it is hoped will be turned into a local country park.

Residents are being invited to visit this urban oasis, which is not normally accessible to the public, between 10am and 3pm.

The site is jointly owned by the council, Anderson Group and the University of Cambridge. It is proposed in the Local Plan for Cambridge that the lakes be developed into a new country park for residents and visitors.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire