Friday, 22 June 2018

Emotionless chatbots are taking over customer service – and it's bad news for consumers

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Daniel Polani, University of Hertfordshire
It’s so hard to speak to a real person on the phone these days. Almost any time you need to call your bank, doctor or any other service, you’ll probably be greeted by an automated service seemingly designed to prevent you from speaking to someone who actually works for the company. And that could soon get worse thanks to the rise of chatbots.

Chatbots are artificial intelligence programs, often deployed in apps or messaging services. They are designed to answer people’s questions in a conversational style rather than just pointing them towards information like a search engine. Companies such as Uber, Lufthansa and Pizza Express are already using them to field customer enquiries and take bookings, and many more are on the way.
They have the potential to improve some aspects of customer service, and are certainly easier to use than automated phone systems that struggle to understand even your basic personal details. But they’re also another hurdle separating customers from a human who can actually answer difficult questions and, crucially, show the compassion and good will that strong customer service is often based on. There’s a chance that chatbots could cause both consumers and companies to find this out the hard way.

Automating customer service, or at least part of it, is an inviting thought for many companies. Not only can it reduce the exposure of human employees to many of the unpleasantries of the job, it can also help screen out many common or trivial problems early on before the expensive attention of a human is needed. This could help companies reduce costs while calming customers who just need simple solutions to standard problems.

But replacing human employees with artificial ones isn’t that straightforward. To begin with, language, with all its variations and errors and despite really impressive progress in automatic recognition and translation, is still a tricky issue. Automated representatives are still significantly less competent and language-aware, and for some problems would be difficult or impossible to communicate with.

Good but not good enough

Talent is the ability to perform well. Mastery is the ability to fix an unusually difficult situation. There is an art to handling the exception, and good customer service is often about the unusual or unanticipated cases involving potentially angry customers. While chatbots can convincingly source answers to basic questions, AI isn’t yet smart enough to deal with the rare and exceptional examples.
Companies might not initially see this as a problem, as it introduces a way to separate customers whose service requires going the extra mile. Only those whose problems confuse the bot need to be passed on to a human employee. But going through this frustrating process of talking with a bewildered computer is likely to make the customer more angry with the service. In the long term, this could encourage them to take their business elsewhere, especially if it is difficult to get a human representative to come to the rescue when the bot fails to help.
‘It’s like this robot has no emotions.’ Shutterstock

I experienced a version of this issue myself when trying to book a cab following a train breakdown. When I called the one local company I had a number for, I was put through to an automated service that was completely unable to understand the pickup location, in all variations of naming and pronunciation that I could think of.

Through some serendipity, I was connected to a human representative, but before I had time to utter my predicament, he told me “I shall put you through to the booking system” – and the infernal loop resumed. The sad story ended with a very long walk, a lucky pickup by a human-driven black cab in an otherwise utterly deserted area, and a vow to henceforth shun the first company whenever possible.

Automated systems might be able to handle regular cases. But they can’t yet adapt themselves to exceptional circumstances or even recognise that the flexibility of human intervention is needed. And the problem, from the consumer’s point of view, goes further than that. Some situations require not just human understanding and problem-solving, but a level of compassion and empathy.
A chatbot can be programmed to adopt a certain style of interaction, but that will still sound oddly out-of-place in unexpected or difficult contexts. There is currently no practical road map in AI research for how to implement something that convincingly resembles human compassion.

Sometimes angry customers need kind words and the chance to express themselves to someone willing to listen, as well as or even sometimes instead of actually having their problem resolved. And often good customer service relies on gestures of good will made at the discretion of individual employees following their own feelings of empathy rather than a set of fixed rules.
This would be very hard for AI to replicate because it depends so heavily on the context of the situation. In my opinion, context understanding is still one of the major elusive and unsolved problems of AI, and is likely to remain so for quite a few years to come.

Despite this, the cost-saving promise and other benefits of automation appear so appealing that chatbots and other AI customer services are still set to drastically expand over coming years. The likely outcome, at least in the mid-term, seems to be an even more technocratic treatment of complaints with less flexibility. Or worse, once the algorithms become increasingly refined, an opaque decision-making process with very little room for the mellowing intervention of a human supervisor.

The ConversationIf we want to avoid this, we need to realise that the way to help is not paved with good intentions, but found in appreciating how limited AI currently is at understanding contexts, exceptions and the human condition.

Daniel Polani, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

What to expect on your graduation day

Image: University of Hertfordshire, taken by Pete Stevens. 

Hi, I’m Aroona, a University of Hertfordshire Humanities graduate who is currently on a short work placement in the University’s Marketing and Communications department. Today, I wanted to talk to you about my graduation day! 

I spent most of the summer excitingly dreading my graduation day. The stress-heightening period of dissertations, assignment and exams were finally over but the date: 7 September 2017, was a deadline that invited a new climax of relief and anxiety. The most alarming of all was how quickly three years had gone. The thought of graduating in my mind still seemed so distant.  

However, it all went by in a flash. One minute I was asking my sister to help me take my measurements when booking my robes. The next minute the ticket were printed. I even had a list minute dash to buy a dress.

Once the day arrived I had a very welcome bring-it-on kind of attitude to the day. The wait was finally over. My main concern, unsurprisingly for England, was the weather as we all hoped to have pictures taken outside and dreary and wet just wouldn’t cut the family photo album.

Thankfully the weather held up and as we also managed to reach The Alban Arena in time to see that graduates in robes, family and friends were already huddled around the various tents set up for the student-turn-graduate tour, so we could get ready for the afternoon ceremony. The real buzz was putting my robes on and the delight of it not being as heavy to wear as anticipated. The hat on the hand other took a bit of twiddling. Having photos taken professionally with my family was also quite a surreal experience – though unfortunately my makeup decide to run at that moment! The irony. We must have taken a hundred photos that day.

The most remarkable moment for me was seeing the familiar faces of the people I shared seminars with dressed in their robes and realising how much of a journey we had come on to arrive at this moment. Even strangers approached me to offer their congratulations as I walked to St Alban’s cathedral. Sitting amongst all the other graduates was a truly humbling and inspirational experience and as I was designated to sit at the front of the cathedral my eyes were fixed to the stage. When my name was read out, signalling it was my time to walk to the stage, I remember praying not to slip in my heels, as I shook hands with the Deputy Vice Chancellor. It was such a pivotal moment, but it happened so fleetingly.

The highlight of the day was throwing my graduate hat into the air with my friends, cheering and whooping, as they camenot so elegantly down on us. It was quite fun seeing how bad we were at catching our hats, but it made hilarious entertainment for our families standing by with their phones filming us. Afterwards we gathered at the arena again for refreshments, and a champagne glass of orange juice!

Finally returning the robes was a wind down moment after such an eventful, long and reflective day. Going to graduation is an exciting and memorable occasion and made more worthwhile when you have people to celebrate it with. I’ll be glad to relax as one of the guest audience, however, when it comes to my other siblings’ graduations. 


Britain must commit to upholding civil liberties if the EU is to agree on security co-operation after Brexit

Ermioni Xanthopoulou, University of Hertfordshire
The British government has made it clear it wants a new kind of security deal with the European Union after Brexit. In a speech in London on June 6, David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU, set out five aims for a new security partnership. He highlighted the need for a “lasting, positive” agreement, “a stable relationship, built on trust” – a relationship that “doesn’t need to be revisited or renegotiated”.

Davis promised that the UK would make appropriate contributions to the costs of programmes that underpin continued cooperation. And he added that the UK “would respect the remit of the European Court of Justice” when participating in EU agencies, without explaining exactly how.

But Davis’s comments came a week after a senior EU official suggested that the UK would not be able to make use of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) after Brexit – which allows for the speedy extradition of suspects and convicted persons across EU countries. The official said Britain’s continued involvement could jeopardise “the lives and liberty of citizens”.

Part of the reason for this reluctance to allow Britain access to the EAW after Brexit is a question of trust – one of the key requirements for ongoing security cooperation.

European security

The EU framework on security is associated with protecting citizens against terrorism and serious forms of cross-border crime, such as drug trafficking and exploitation of irregular immigration. The narrative of the “War on Terror” after 9/11 radically influenced the concept of European security and was the catalyst for the adoption of counter-terrorism measures – which the UK was very active in helping to formulate.

The goals of European security are achieved by police and judicial corporation, including measures on extradition, intelligence databases, sharing information, and the quick recognition of orders and decisions.

One key example of this cooperation is the European Arrest Warrant, implemented by the UK in the Extradition Act 2003. The procedure is automatic and quick – judicial authorities complete a form and operate within a limited time frame and strict deadlines. A report published in 2013 by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the UK’s decision to join the EAW, said extradition under the process now takes on “average three months”, compared to around 10 months for a non-EU extradition.
As a member state of the EU, the UK has been able to opt in or out of EU-wide measures on criminal justice policy that it liked, which has been called cherry-picking.

But after Brexit, the UK won’t have automatic access to the security corporation framework. As a result, it will default to the inefficient, costly and politicised extradition treaties under international law, that the EAW replaced, unless a security partnership is concluded that will allow the UK access to the EAW scheme.
Police check vehicles on the French/German border in 2015. Hadrian/

Mutual trust remains elusive

The law surrounding police cooperation is based on the so-called model of mutual recognition. In contrast to other areas of EU law which require harmonisation, in this area security measures are recognised across member states – even if they are different. May has also used the term “mutual recognition” as a model of the kind of cooperation she wants with the EU post-Brexit.

But, crucially, the key precondition for this mutual recognition is mutual trust – which is what is currently missing in negotiations towards a new security partnership. This is why Davis keeps referring to the “decades of trust … that have existed” and wishes for “a stable relationship built on trust that doesn’t need to be revisited” – as if trust can be a static element. Yet trust requires some common ground to be generated. It requires certainty and consistency of patterns in that the other side will respect the freedom you risk for them.

The uncertainty of the UK’s position in Brexit negotiations does nothing but hurt trust and make security cooperation unlikely. This is because this area of security cooperation is so sensitive to civil liberties and the future protection of such liberties seems quite precarious. An example of this is the refusal, in February, of Irish judges to extradite several people requested by the UK under the EAW due to the uncertainty in relation to the law and their rights in the future UK.

It is not yet certain whether the UK government wishes to retain measures which are protective of rights. They include the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU victims’ protection framework, and the extensive EU procedural safeguards which act as common minimum standards for defence rights across the EU.

A chance to show willing

On the contrary, the government has repeatedly expressed its wish to retain many of the security measures that the EU offers which limit people’s freedoms, such as the European arrest warrant, Europol, European Criminal Records Information System. It is safe to say that the government is more interested in security than freedom.

The UK should now be doing its best to recover the trust of its EU partners by showing a strong and consistent position that human rights will be protected. To do this, the UK government should demonstrate an eagerness to retain all the EU measures which are protective of civil liberties.
On June 12 and 13, MPs are expected to vote on the 15 Brexit amendments from the Lords, one of which would put the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights directly into UK law. The government argues this is unnecessary, arguing that human rights are already protected in UK by other sources of law. But May is infamous for her hostility towards human rights law – and not retaining the EU Charter would fuel the sense of uncertainty around civil liberties after Brexit.

The ConversationInstead of trying to overturn the amendment, the government should eagerly incorporate it into the bill, alongside a commitment to keeping the rest of the protective measures to which it is currently signed up. This the only way that security cooperation should be maintained – and is the only way to prove the trustworthiness that Davis suggests EU partners should be taking for granted.
Ermioni Xanthopoulou, Lecturer in Law, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why Love Island is the best kept guilty secret on British television

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Lyndsay Duthie, University of Hertfordshire
As is so often the case these days, we didn’t have to wait for series four of Love Island to actually go to air for Fleet Street to start salivating about the prospects of spending the summer with 11 “unfathomably ripped young men and scantily clad young women” – as The Guardian rather coyly put it – tasked with doing little else other than to select their daily swimsuit and, over the course of eight weeks, choose their ideal life partner.
With a little help from a bit of audience participation. And here’s the thing: 2017’s Love Island became the UK’s breakout televisual hit, giving ITV2 record viewing figures of 2.5m people. It was the most talked-about show of the summer, prompting 5 billion Twitter impressions and merchandise shipped by the truckload (Primark says it sold 197,000 Love Island slogan t-shirts during the series’ seven-week run). Some 25% of 16 to 25-year-olds were watching the show via tablet or smartphone and after season three ended, ITV Hub claimed it had regularly reached 56% of 16 to 34-year-olds – the show’s core demographic.
This is often a demographic that terrestrial TV finds it hard to engage with given the always available lure of Netflix and YouTube.
“This is a real case study for all of those nay sayers who say that 16 to 34s don’t watch telly,” Angela Jain, the boss of ITV Studios Entertainment told a conference hosted by the Royal Television Society in May, adding: “That’s bollocks isn’t it, because they’re watching this.”
But why is it such a hit? Yes the blue skies and holiday vibe helps, but at its heart it is still based on the idea of a love story – some have even heralded it as a modern-day Jane Austen. The story of fall in love is a narrative that has obsessed us since time immemorial. It’s why we’re still riveted by the work of Austen or Shakespeare: because we are all searching for someone who helps us make sense of ourselves.

There is also a sense of joining an exclusive club – you just need to get your head around Love Island slang (The Sun helpfully provided a lexicon) – not knowing what being “muggy” or “melty” is (disrespectful and soppy respectively) or that when someone is “grafting” (putting in some hard work on a member of the opposite sex) is tantamount to social suicide. Love Island gives the insiders’ guide to dating 21st-century style (with reports of parents watching with their teens to find out about millenial attitudes to dating, love and sex).
Feminist commentator and journalist Caitlin Moran penned a column for The Times in which she claimed that watching shows like Love Island is “good for you”, particularly if you’re a parent:
These may be ‘scripted reality shows’, but they are, essentially, amateur documentary recreations of what happens to you, over and over, in your teens and twenties. That’s why they’re so popular. That’s why you need to watch them with your children.

Rules of attraction

While it’s tempting to dismiss Love Island as just another reality show, it is surprisingly a critical – as well as a ratings – success, even from quarters which would normally be scornful of something like this. In a piece headlined: “Sun, Sex and Mugging Off: is it wrong to be watching Love Island, The Guardian revealed a host of high-profile viewers for whom Love Island 2017 was their "guilty secret”.
The shamelessly low-rent show has been attracting broadsheet think pieces by columnists, who wouldn’t normally watch reality TV because they’re far too busy listening to Radio 4 or reading worthy doorstop novels, all hand-wringing about whether it’s “wrong” to be watching it.
When the show was nominated for two BAFTAs, the twittersphere erupted in delight and outrage in equal measures. Moran was left stunned, tweeting happily:

Start of something wonderful

Ratings, rather than critical success, is probably the reason so many young people were thronging to ITV to be selected for the new show – 80,000 people applied within a week of applications opening.
So what will this series have in store? Show producers have promised a longer run, but more of the same with some tricks up their sleeve, yet to be revealed.
With islanders ready to declare their undying love and find “their type on paper”, will relationships last or become a summer fling with a chance to make millions as the newest reality stars. Money and fame aside, the chances of forming a lasting relationship on Love Island appear to be pretty slim – 2017’s loved-up winners Kem and Amber did not even make it to the end of the year.
The ConversationInstead, the ultimate winners are ITV who have reportedly sold the format for megabucks (reportedly set to recoup £1 billion from overseas versions). They say money can’t bring you love, but as the creators of this show would happily attest, the opposite certainly appears to be true.
Lyndsay Duthie, Head of Film and Television Programme, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Your personal space is no longer physical – it's a global network of data

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Silvio Carta, Author provided
Silvio Carta, University of Hertfordshire
In the digital world, any action we do generates data – whether browsing the internet, answering emails or messaging our friends. Translated into radio waves, this information can travel almost effortlessly through space in a split second. Data are all around us, invisibly occupying the space between ourselves and other objects in the built environment. My colleagues and I conducted a study to understand how the presence of all this data alters our understanding of personal and public spaces.
As a case study, we set up an open Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) in Plaza de Los Palos Grandes in Caracas, for people to connect free of charge for a limited period of time. A total of 123 people connected to our WLAN with their devices, sending and receiving packets of information to and from servers across the world.

Our participants sent and received information right across the world. Silvio Carta, Author provided

From the packets, we extracted the location of the servers to which each user connected. In the image below, we generated one line for each connection established between the person and the servers. It demonstrates how the data generated by an email to a close friend, composed in the intimate space between you and your device, has the potential to reach across the world.
Here’s how it works: the smart phone converts your email into radio waves and sends the information to a WiFi router. It’s then passed to your email provider’s servers, then – through the internet’s Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which controls the movement of data across the web – to the other provider’s servers and to your friend’s inbox.

Changing space

People tend to think that personal communication originates within the intimate dimension of our personal space. We consider the space immediately around us to be ours and personal – it’s where we think, formulate ideas and speak with others. This study gave us the opportunity to consider how the shape of our personal space is changing as we live our digital lives in public spaces.

The complexity of the data traffic emitted by each of us in the public space. Silvio Carta, Author provided

The term “personal space” has meant different things since architects, urbanists, sociologist and geographers started studying it. In the 1960s, personal space was thought of as the distances we maintain from others, to control our interactions with them. The size of this invisible aura could vary, depending on cultural values, the density of people around you and other circumstances.
Scholars have tried to argue that in the digital era, our “personal bubble” is not just physical – it’s also virtual. They claim that your personal bubble is a membrane which filters the data you that send out and the information you receive back. It’s the sum of all the settings and agreements across different digital platforms – including apps, social media and email – as well as the phone itself, which help you to manage your personal, group and public data and communications.

The personal space as global net originating from each of us. Silvio Carta, Author provided

But our results show that in the digital realm, personal space isn’t like a bubble which surrounds each person, helping to define the nature of their encounters, relationships, intimacies or invasions. In fact, it’s more like a global network of connections, reaching everywhere, coming from each person whenever they send or receive a packet of data.

Our images show how personal space disperses through the atmosphere and materialises in someone else’s device in a matter of seconds, leaving traces in a dispersed constellation of servers. Because of this, personal space has become dynamic – it changes in real time with our digital interactions.
Given how sensitive we are to invasions of our physical personal space, it’s remarkable that many of us don’t even realise the extent of our digital personal space, which is scattered around servers and other devices around the world. By visualising the massive size and dispersed form of our digital personal space, people will become more protective of their data, taking a greater interest in the level of encryption, privacy and permissions granted to each app they use.

The ConversationPersonal space is no longer the immediate space that surrounds us and that moves with us. It is rather something more abstract – globally distributed and possibly everywhere at any time. The next time we look at our phone to send a text message, we should envision the real extent of our space, that goes to the other side of the globe in seconds to pin back to us. Our personal space is not a bubble anymore – it is a global network.

Silvio Carta, Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Design Research Group, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Food safety warnings are making eating more dangerous

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Martin Cohen, University of Hertfordshire
California judges recently ruled that coffee must henceforth come with health warnings. This is definitely a landmark – but not quite in the way its proponents imagine. Rather, it underlines how food safety issues are at heart political.
Yes, coffee contains a chemical – acrylamide – which has been associated with cancer in rats. But you have to look pretty hard to find a food which doesn’t have some associated risk. Meanwhile, the EU database of “dangerous” chemicals looks more like an A-Z of everything food-wise rather than a few bad guys you might conceivably start to avoid.
Take bromate, which many baked goods contain. It is a notorious carcinogen that comes in several flavours, as it were, such as calcium, potassium, and sodium. Speaking of sodium, everyone knows that too much salt causes heart disease - but did you know that too little also increases the risk of death from heart attacks and strokes?
But let’s start with “A” and acrylamide, which can be found not merely in coffee but in fried potatoes and baked goods like crackers, bread and cookies, breakfast cereal, canned black olives and prune juice. The last of these I’d be prepared to give a miss, but otherwise for me, acrylamide is where the precautionary principle (that says chemicals are “guilty” until proved safe) becomes untenable. This is because the risks are tiny and the costs seem too high.
Nonetheless, in 2008, Heinz, Frito-Lay and others all settled lawsuits over the chemical with the California attorney general, promising to reduce the levels of acrylamide in their products. For the last decade, fast food restaurants in California have been obliged to post acrylamide warnings and pay penalties for not having done so.

Food hazards. Martin Cohen, Author provided

The streetlight effect

For me, this story illustrates a wider problem about not only food science but the scientific method in general. This is that “facts” are not quite as objective as we dearly love to believe and science is not quite so, well, scientific. This issue boils down to issues with experimental method and the purchasing by governments, lobbyists or corporations of the research results they desire.

Take that first aspect: experimental method. Most toxicity studies rely on the results obtained by giving vastly higher doses of a chemical to mice. With acrylamide, the studies showing potential cancer links in rats and mice used doses “1,000 to 100,000 times higher than the usual amounts, on a weight basis, that humans are exposed to,” one research review noted. Even water is toxic in great excess. What is dangerous at vastly higher doses may not be harmful in moderation.

Then there’s also the fact that the response of mice offers no definite information about the response of human beings. Indeed, even the response of a study group of humans will not reveal definitively how all humans may react (I can eat peanuts all day). Yet it’s difficult to test chemicals on people, so mice are made to serve instead. This is what social scientists call the “streetlight effect” – the coin was dropped in another street but it’s dark there so we’re looking for it in this lit one instead.

And there’s another reason why some questions get asked and some get quietly shelved: corporate lobbying. Take the currently hot issue of biphnol A (BPA), which most of us unwittingly get regular doses of via tinned foods. It’s been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and is considered an endocrine and hormone disruptor.

Should we be steering clear of tinned foods? HeinzTeh /

BPA has been the subject of much debate. For example, when the European Food Safety Authority concluded in 2015 that it was far less risky than some advocacy groups had suggested, they were accused of being in the pockets of the lobbyists. Maybe they listened because, not long after declaring it safe, they proposed classifying it as a reprotoxin; a substance presumed to have adverse effects on sexual function and fertility in men and women, as well as problems in children. This finding could pave the way for the chemical to be phased out in consumer products. This might sound like a good thing, but the alternatives aren’t necessarily safer.
On the contrary, the case illustrates a risk averse culture that leads to mismatches between “real hazards” and sensible policy.

Paying the piper

In this way, foods with trivial health risks (like unpasteurised dairy products) are hounded out of the market while others like red meat or high fructose corn syrup, which are far more dangerous, with risks of cancer or heart disease, remain immune. And there is little effort or interest to address foods like soya and rapeseed which are intimately part of the current system of billion dollar industrialised food production. Instead, the staples of small and medium scale producers, fish, olive oil, cereals, and anything unpasterurised, has been the subject of research that insists they must be avoided.

There is little method in this food safety madness, unless it’s that of the increasingly important role of lobbyists. These are smart people. They know that science must be obeyed. But on which point, when and for how long? The food industry has learned to co-opt scientific pronouncements for its own purposes, to power a Galbraithian manipulation of the mass market. We perceive the safety agencies as a brake on the food industry, but in reality they have become one of their tools – as the “revolving door” of senior appointments maybe indicates.

The ConversationNew discoveries about food risks are seamlessly incorporated into marketing strategies – “high in trans fats”, “low in salt”, “gluten free”. It really doesn’t matter what the exact finding is any more, as long as the end result is increased profits. Even at the cost of declining public health.
Martin Cohen, Visiting Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

When did the lights first come on in the universe? A galaxy close to the dawn of time gives a clue

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Galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. The inset image is the very distant galaxy MACS1149-JD1. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, W. Zheng (JHU), M. Postman (STScI), the CLASH Team, Hashimoto et al., CC BY-SA
James Geach, University of Hertfordshire
It is springtime in the Northern hemisphere. Countless buds that have been waiting patiently on the stems and branches of trees and shrubs are now blossoming into life. The cosmic equivalent of this season is the time between a few hundred million and a billion years after the Big Bang. This is when the first stars and galaxies ignited, spewing light into the dark universe.

It is a time in the history of the universe that we are desperate to chart, because it represents part of the cosmological story that we have yet to understand. Now astronomers have detected oxygen in a galaxy further away than ever before – and it existed just 500m years after the Big Bang. The results, published in Nature, are hugely important as they provide new insights into when the first stars formed.

The period of this “cosmic dawn” is important not only because this is when the first galaxies were born, but a crucial cosmic transition also took place. In this process, atoms in the electrically neutral intergalactic medium – a wide sea of hydrogen gas surrounding galaxies – were bombarded with ultraviolet radiation escaping from the first galaxies. This stripped away electrons from atoms and made the gas charged, or “ionised”.

The event, called the Epoch of Reionisation, is still mysterious. We’d like to know – or better yet, see – when this process started. Part of that quest involves finding the most distant galaxies.

Artist’s impression of the Epoch of Reionisation. ESA C. Carreau

When we look out into the universe we detect light that has taken some appreciable time to traverse the gulf that separates us from other stars and galaxies. The light from the screen you are reading this on has taken about a third of a nanosecond to reach your eyes. Light from the nearest star beyond our sun takes four years to reach us. Amazingly, light from the galaxy at the centre of the new study, called MACS1149-JD1, has taken 13 billion years to be detected here on Earth. That means we see MACS1149-JD1 as it was 13 billion years in the past, around 500m years after the Big Bang.

Powerful gaze

Using a telescope called the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA), the scientists detected a strong signal (an emission line) within the distant galaxy. Just as a prism disperses the light of the sun into a rainbow spectrum, we can disperse the light of distant galaxies, too. This is called spectroscopy. Emission lines are bright spikes in the spectra of galaxies that originate from different elements that can each release light of a very specific energy.
This particular emission line came from ionised oxygen gas. Its presence tells us that the galaxy was forming stars at the time, because the energy required to ionise it must have come from massive, hot, young stars.

The ALMA Observatory. Carlos Padilla – AUI/NRAO

If we measured the same type of gas here on Earth, we would detect it at a wavelength of 0.088 millimetres. But other galaxies are receding away from us due to cosmic expansion, and this causes the light they emit to increase in wavelength during the time it takes for the photons to reach us. The more distant a galaxy is, the larger the increase in wavelength.

This is called redshift, and it ultimately tells us the ratio between the size of the universe when the light was first emitted and the size of the universe today. The oxygen emission line observed in MACS1149-JD1 is actually detected at 0.88 millimetres – its wavelength has been stretched by a factor of 10. This means that at the time the light was emitted, the universe was a factor of 10 times smaller than it is today, and just four per cent of its present age.

In this way, the ability to detect emission lines in distant galaxies allows us to pinpoint at what stage in cosmic history we are seeing them. But of course, the most distant galaxies are also the faintest – you need ever more powerful telescopes if you want to peer back further.

ALMA (consisting of 66 individual telescopes working together) is an incredibly powerful telescope – it is revolutionising our view of the early universe. Not only is it providing exquisite sensitivity, but operates in part of the electromagnetic spectrum that gives access to a wide range of emission lines.

Gravitational lensing. NASA, ESA & L. Calcada

To help matters, the team also exploited a natural telescope: a massive cluster of galaxies. Light from MACS1149-JD1 has had to pass through this intervening cluster on its journey to ALMA. This is so massive that it significantly warps spacetime, meaning that the light is “bent” in a process called gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing amplifies the brightness of MACS1149-JD1, making it a little easier to see.

Indirect glimpse of first stars

MACS1149-JD1 is not the most distant galaxy on record, but what this new study adds to our understanding is an insight into the history of the formation of the galaxy. This happened hundreds of millions of years before the current observation, and much further back than even the most distant galaxy known.

In fact, the presence of oxygen in the galaxy tells us that star formation must have been going on for some time in MACS1149-JD1. That’s because oxygen can only be formed within stars in a process called stellar nucleosynthesis. But what we don’t know is when those stars first ignited.

By combining data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, the authors made a model of the “stellar population” within MACS1149-JD1. This allowed them to estimate the mixture of stars that give rise to the emission from the galaxy observed in certain bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The model involves estimating the “star formation history” of the galaxy, describing the rate of production of stars in the past. The modelling suggests that, in order to produce the observed emission, stars must have started forming just 250m years after the Big Bang, when the universe was just two per cent of its present age. In other words, MACS1149-JD1 was already a fairly well established galaxy, even at this early time.

This is a huge scientific accomplishment as it is currently impossible to observe galaxies that existed 250m years after the Big Bang. However, the new James Webb Space Telescope, which is due for launch in 2020, may be able to do so.

The ConversationBut until then, thanks to the new study, we now have a way of indirectly studying when stars first formed in ancient galaxies like MACS1149-JD1. In effect, by observing the blossom, astronomers have estimated when the bud first opened.

James Geach, Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 11 May 2018

The impact of music on your learning

Hi, I’m Aroona, a University of Hertfordshire Humanities graduate who is currently on a short work placement in the University’s Marketing and Communications department. Music can either be a aid or a distraction when studying so today I wanted to explore the research behind why that is the case. 

For students it is often the case that listening to our favourite songs whilst buckling down to do some work is a relationship that works together rather than in opposition. If you head to the LRC, there are plenty of students with headphones plugged in to their ears focusing on the screen in front of them as to simulate a solitary study zone that is loud as it is quiet. Music is a powerful influencer and it means that when trying to write an assignment or cram in some revision, our minds tend to wander elsewhere. Music works to occupy and fulfil our craving senses, so our minds can concentrate on our studying. It seems like the ideal partnership but is often debated how effective it is when it comes to learning as truly what are you more focused on: Encyclopedia or Eminem?

Music is of daily importance in most peoples’ lives and the impact it has on us when we study is often taken for granted or not explored enough. Music is depicted as a reflection of our personality but the same can be said of our approach to learning.  The idea that listening to classical music, known as the ‘Mozart effect’, makes us smarter has endured for quite some time but how much difference would be listening to this genre make to our exam results over listening to rock or rap music instead? 

The reality is more complex and personal. Research has shown that the number of brain areas activated when listening to music depends on the individual’s personal experience with music and the situation they are in.

Classical music is shown to improve a person’s visual perception, as vision is our most domineering sense, it means that our brain can process a lot more information seeing a picture than just hearing it being described.

For tasks that require you to exercise concentration and memory, research suggests listening to music without lyrics is far less distracting than listen to music with lyrics. However, for increasingly mundane and repetitive tasks, music with lyrics are seen to be effective in providing relief as music increases levels of dopamine in the brain, a chemical that enforces feelings of relaxation and pleasure.

Studies suggest that listening to ambient or natural music can help boost creativity. The calming, moderate sounds of listening to a river flowing are shown to improve a person’s mood and increase productivity as we come up with more creative approaches when applying our minds to new or difficult information.

Finding out the right type of music to suit you when studying can be difficult especially when trying to flick through your playlist and complete you essay late in to the night. However, picking tunes to help increase your levels of concentration are also shown to reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue.

If you’re looking for a playlist to ease you in to your study routine: why not listen to these recommendations

The University also regularly hosts events featuring live music - perfect for relaxing after lectures or even as a study break! 


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

How to maintain and increase curiosity during your studies

Hi, I’m Aroona, a University of Hertfordshire Humanities graduate who is currently on a short work placement in the University’s Marketing and Communications department. Keeping your curiosity alive is such a valuable skill for students so I wanted to share my tips today on how to keep your curiosity alive. 

For most of us, curiosity comes and goes in waves. The definition of curiosity is epitomised by another word: learning. To be curious is to want to learn and know something.

The operative word in this statement is ‘want’. This is the all-important determining factor in specifying the difference between learning your degree and studying it. It really comes down to how curious you are.

It’s often taken for granted that curiosity is as much as an invaluable skill to practise as it is to be punctual or organised. It’s easy to assume once you’ve got to university it will happen naturally. 

Truthfully, the marathon has barely started. The real struggle is maintaining and increasing your curiosity throughout your degree right to the finish line.

Being curious throughout your time at university will help develop your passion and determination whilst studying which in turn will mean you will work harder and get better results. Research shows that people who are curious about their topic, remembered what they had learnt for longer periods of time.

Here’s a few tips on how to stay positive and keep your curiosity flourishing:

Have you ever wondered why after watching an episode of a crime thriller, your mind is still whizzing about who the potential assailant is? This of course is the power behind curiosity which keeps you hooked on the edge of your seat. This same principle applies when writing an assignment: if you treat an assignment question or an exam as a mystery that needs solving then you are more encouraged to find the answer. This will help your ideas to evolve and potentially come up with surprising results when writing your assignment. 

The ‘right’ question

Asking questions is a must if you want to steer the curiosity wheel in the right direction. You don't need to ask a question for the sake of it but asking ones that really matter to you. The most effective questions begin with ‘why’, ‘what if’, and ‘how’. 

Learn from others

Curiosity is contagious. Spread your curiosity widely (not thinly) with others, especially when working on group projects. This means showing a genuine interest in the knowledge and skills of others and showcasing some of your own. This will fill any gaps in your own knowledge and further increase engagement and collaborative involvement with your teammates.

Be Informed 

Be fearless with how far you aim. Reading news reports probes you to ask questions about the causes and impacts of societal problems and conflicts around the world. Take an interest in other cultures and societies. How do your values and beliefs relate and differ to others? To what extent are these influenced by religion, emotion or tradition?


Practising how to retrieve information is an effective way of increasing curiosity. Take a thrill in the potential that you might discover something new. Browse the bookshelves in the library, search the aisles in the supermarket, or simply find an alternative route to your destination. Google can wait for an emergency.

Your degree after all is an adventure. The best suggestion in keeping your curiosity alive is to treat it like it one! A good way to keep your curiosity alive during your degree is to engage in extracurricular activities outside your degree (like volunteering, or joining a society). The University's Go Herts Award also recognises all these activities ensuring that your CV will stand out even more by the time you finish your degree! 


Monday, 7 May 2018

The journey of student commuter

Hi, I’m Aroona, a University of Hertfordshire Humanities graduate who is currently on a short work placement in the University’s Marketing and Communications department. Throughout my time at the University of Hertfordshire I've always commuted so I wanted to share some tips that will help your experience as a commuting student. 

Before I embarked on my university course in 2014 I had never been for familiar with the term ‘commuter’ nor what it meant or entailed. The idea of applying for student accommodation was appealing – I had always studied locally beforehand but for me it did not make sense financially. 

The choice of staying at home whilst studying at university is becoming more of a feasible choice for students - with more than 50% of all UK undergraduates being commuters.

I was told by mutual friends of mine about the bus service Uno that went directly to university from my home which for students only cost five-pounds for a day ticket. It was a done deal - I would commute for the next three years. 

It can be harder for commuting students to feel integrated with their peers when it comes to experiencing the full thrall of living on campus. It can seem like students who live on campus have more opportunities to rub shoulders and make friends and share experiences outside seminars and lectures.

However, there are many options available to commuting students at the University of Hertfordshire to get more social and practically involved in different aspects of university life and all that it has to offer.

Here’s a guide to making the best use of the facilities at university:

Short stay

It’s easy to feel like you’re missing out on the buzz and thrill of student night life if you’re a commuting student. It shouldn’t have to be a compromise between staying out late with your friends at a student union event and missing the last bus home. 

To help fix this dilemma the University does offer students temporary accommodation upon request. To check prices and availability contact accommodation by email:

Car hire 

Car sharing is great idea to make journeys to and from university that more fun with your friends…but what if you don’t have a car? At University you can hire a car as and when you need it. The E-Car Club based around the University of Hertfordshire have a fleet of electric cars which you can borrow for any length of time (minimum for 1 hour) for 5.50 per hour or 24.00 per 24 hours including insurance cover. You can sign up here: E-Car Website.

Active students

Active students is a fantastic way to meet new people, take a break from studying and get fitter- and all for free! The Active Students programme offer up to 75 hours of activities across both de Havilland and College Lane campuses so there is plenty to choose from. All you need to bring is your Student I.D.


There is ample opportunity to take part in volunteering projects at the University and the local community. Volunteering is the ideal way of giving back to the community, meeting new people and boosting your confidence as well as developing skills to show off and add to your CV. The Student Union allows you to register as a volunteer and log in your hours to create a solid volunteering profile and get certificates. You can also log your volunteering as part of the University's Go Herts award.

Image: Students volunteering their time at the University's community garden. This image is a still from the short film ‘Gardening for your mental health’ produced by Groundwork East.


The University’s events’ calendar is packed the whole year round and features a range of events from lectures, conferences, performing arts, movie nights to

Whether it is an event to support your studies or just for fun and laughs, the options are endless. Check out the University events' programme hereUH Arts also hold a variety of events including theatre, dance, and creative workshops and short courses.