Category Archives: Science

The Science of Star Wars – The Light Side

Lancashire Science Festival 2015. Ian Turner’s The Science of Star Wars – The Light Side. Introduction. The University of Central Lancashire @docwiththesocs @CarriganGlen #LSF2015



Moral, religious, psychopathic, or just human?

Glen Carrigan looks at the science of morality

Original article at British Humanist Association 07.07.2014

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Why doesn’t Microsoft Word recognise the word ‘Neuropsychology?’ Maybe because it’s a rather new field, although people have been musing on the workings of the physical brain for a very long time indeed – don’t worry though, we’re not trepanning people anymore!

My interest is the moral brain, how humans – and other animals to some degree – draw the distinction between right and wrong to organise society. Some argue that moral standards are axiomatic and that moral compasses come from god. There actually seems to be some truth to this, in that some absolutist standards like Thou Shalt Not Kill or the Golden Rule seem to be very intuitive – as is the notion that you’re somehow a social pariah if you play World of Warcraft. A paper by Baumard and Boyer called “Explaining Moral Religions” shows just how universal this is.

Is the Golden Rule any good though? Maybe, but you’re making your own narrow individual experience the basis for how you treat others. Wouldn’t it be better to ask them how they’d like to be treated? This should indeed be the case for issues such as assisted dying, where holding to Thou Shalt Not Kill diminishes the dignity and autonomy of a feeling, reflecting being. To hold dogmatic moral views also only works if you believe in god and that at least in some religions, you’re good to escape punishment in the hereafter, rather than for the sake of the here and now.

Far from being divine in origin, there seems to be a wealth of evidence showing us that being an individual yet social animal, with a big (relative to body size) and healthy brain, necessitates certain behaviours for us to flourish in a group. This then, gives rise to our need to discuss and reflect upon what it means to be a moral agent. You can see similar intuitive behavioural patterns to our own in other animals that operate in social groups. A wonderful example is the reciprocal behaviour of vampire bats, who seem to understand that a good deed (donating a regurgitated blood meal – stomach churning I know) deserves repayment. There is much converging evidence in evolutionary psychology that points to animals being the origin of their own ‘moral’ codes. But there are driving forces behind being a good egg other than reciprocity.

Throughout history philosophers have struggled with what constitutes the virtuous act. We notice that certain behaviours are predictable and wrong such as rape and rightly condemn people for it. We also need to accept that we make choices – if we have free will – and should be responsible for them. The fact that certain prohibitions are intuitive might suggest an in-built moral acquisition and refinement device (MARD) which is nurtured by social experience, emotion and reflection, rather than an omnipotent law giver. Perhaps we are actually responsible for the holy books that seek to have us tow the moral line – although we were managing to beforehand – in any event we seem to be the only species we know of that spends a great deal of time writing books telling ourselves to be good, that we’re special, and that we should be humble about it!

Neuropsychology can perhaps tell us a bit about this MARD and how we think, rather than what we should think here: We establish the social norms after all and what acts constitute deviance. The archetypal Psychopath seems to be deviant to many of us and this is why I study them. The fact is that we all have psychopathic traits along a spectrum; it’s just that some people have more pronounced, what the majority consider to be, morally deviant tendencies. Neuropsychology shows us that Psychopaths seem to have diminished empathic concern, as well as, fail to notice the importance of intention in a harmful act. Since it’s us that establish that intention to cause harm is worse than an accident (the difference between murder and manslaughter) we view psychopaths as morally deviant in society – perhaps their MARD is broken?

People often panic here and think that if we can predict someone will think and perhaps behave murderously then the notion of choice in society falls apart. It might, if you want Neuroscience to strip us of our humanity. In my view, although we could see why such people might be like this, that doesn’t mean they walk away scot free. What matters is that we discuss our options reflectively and organise society around us as moral beings that makes choices, with a sense of responsibility, and who can be punished for transgressions, rather than allowing my brain made me do it as an alibi in all cases where mental instability is an issue. It’s also worth pointing out that most psychopaths actually don’t run around murdering people like Heath Ledger in Batman!

Adults Only! Festival of the Spoken Nerd, and Surgical Spirit: The Science of Cocktails


The University of Central Lancashire is hosting Lancashire Science Festival again this year! After our huge success last year with Titan the robot and Matt Dickinson’s Science of Star Wars amongst a whole host of other fantastic events, the public are gearing up to experience all things science yet again.

This year we have some special late night, adults only events, because adults love science too! Festival of the Spoken Nerd features Helen Arney, a geeky songstress, Matt Parker a stand-up mathematician (maths can be funny?), and the BBC’s Steve Mould. This will be an excellent show, having met Helen Arney before, I was blown away with her perfect blend of music, wit, science and satire… and the glasses too – an act you just can’t miss!

Our second adults only event is Surgical Spirit: The Science of Cocktails. Have you ever wondered about the physiology of booze? Well, why don’t you join science-mixologist Noel Jackson to find out what exactly goes on in your favourite drink – we all know what happens after you’ve drank it…. never again! Ticket price includes 5 cocktails, of which you’ll get an amazing hangover-free cocktail!

Festival of the Spoken Nerd
Thursday 26 June 2014, 1930, 53Degrees, UCLan
Quote ‘FOTSN’ for discounted tickets at £11.00 + booking fee (down from £15.00)

Surgical Spirit: The Science of Cocktails
Friday 27 June 2014, 1930, Foster Building, UCLan
Quote ‘Surgical Spirit Discount’ for Tickets at £15.00 + booking fee, includes 5 cocktails (down from £20)

Campus Map

UClan Map

Top TV Scientist Draws a Crowd at UCLan

George McGavin

Glen Carrigan, Masters by research student UCLan School of Psychology, palaeontologist Dr Robert Asher, associate lecturer in computer aided engineering at UCLan Matt Dickinson and Television presenter Dr George McGavin.

Written by: Rachel Atkinson, 09 June 2014, original article.

The BBC’s Dr George McGavin was the headline speaker at a science event.

One of the country’s top entomologists drew a crowd at a public lecture at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Television presenter Dr George McGavin, who is a regular contributor to the BBC’s One Show, was the headline speaker at the Evening of Science and Reason.

He was joined at the free student led event by Dr Robert Asher and UCLan’s Matt Dickinson. All three talks were designed to highlight scientific discovery and ethical living in a modern world.

Dr McGavin, who has recently presented Monkey Planet for BBC1, gave a talk entitled Insects: Sex, violence and a cast of billions. Dr Asher, a palaeontologist specialising in mammals, presented Evolution, Reason, and Religion and Matt Dickinson talked about The Science of Superheroes.

Organiser Glen Carrigan, who is a Masters by Research Student in UCLan’s School of Psychology, said: “An Evening of Science and Reason was a huge success. With Matt Dickinson showing us how his fully functional iron man helmet worked, Dr Robert Asher weighing up his religious belief whilst being a palaeontologist and Dr George McGavin telling us how much sex insects have whilst he threw melons around the room, there truly was something for everyone.”

“I set up this project in order to stimulate scientific and ethical debate, and feel that this aim was definitely achieved. We hope to hold more events like this in the future and wish to thank all of our guests and fantastic volunteers for coming along.”

An Evening of Science and Reason

Poster 06.06.14 event George, Robert and Matt

Come along to An Evening of Science and Reason on the 6th of June with Doctor George McGavin, Dr Robert Asher and Matt Dickinson at the University of Central Lancashire’s 3d Lecture Theatre in Darwin Building (DBLT). The Theatre has featured various well known scientists in the past such as Professor Richard Dawkins and many others including most recent, Professor Robin Dunbar. So come along and be part of what promises to be and interesting and entertaining event.

An Evening of Science and Reason

The University of Central Lancashire

Friday, 6th June, (Darwin Building Lecture Theatre), 1700 – 2100

Organised by Glen Carrigan, University of Central Lancashire


  • 1700        Doors open, meet and greet by Science and Reason staff and exhibitions
  • 1800        Dr George McGavin “Insects: Sex, violence and a cast of billions”
  • 1900        Dr Robert Asher “Evolution, Reason, and Religion”
  • 2000       Matt Dickinson “The Science of Superheroes”
  • 2100        Glen Carrigan “Thanks and closing remarks”

CLICK HERE to book a ticket!

UCLan Psychology; Genetics and Neuropsychology

After a successful debut at The Big Bang in Liverpool’s World Museum last year, I’m honoured to be asked to present my workshop at UCLan covering genetics and neuropsychology on Sunday the 23rd of March; so what’s it all about?

What is Neuropsychology?

DNA extraction

Neuropsychology is the study of how we think, and also how the physical brain helps us to interact with the world. Neuropsychologists seek to find how behaviour can highlight problems in the brain, and also help to indicate if there is a biological or psychological basis to many conditions. As you can probably guess, neuropsychology is a cross between neurology and psychology. Neuropsychologists can work as part of a team involving amongst others: neuroscientists, biologists, neurologists, psychologists and many other “ists”. Many practitioners are invested in applying the science directly to help clinical patients, others help by developing new techniques to achieve this, and other neuropsychologists conduct research into many related areas. Neuropsychologists use many different tools from behavioural questionnaires to sophisticated scanning techniques at the cutting edge of technology. One such recent development in technology has been dubbed “clarity” and is truly mind blowing, having been covered in a very accessible video by the guardian.

Read the rest of this entry

Engaging the Public in Research at UCLan

UCLan astrophysics research

UCLan astrophysics research

Would you be interested in taking part in real world academic research at The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)? My name is Glen Carrigan, a Neuropsychology research assistant at UCLan and I am currently interested in seeing how many people would be interested in taking part in research as members of the public. We will be giving presentations around the UK in February and March with regards to how the public can become engaged in research and would love to speak to as many people as possible.

Briefly, we’re trying to set-up a serious, community participation centre for the public to take part in research at our institute in many different disciplines. There is a vision for an online portal for people to join so they can easily keep up to date with current research and take part by booking themselves into a study via a simple to use interface. There will be many laboratory based studies using our neuroimaging, audio perception and memory labs to name but a few! On top of this there will be many online studies to choose from and also the facility to visit participants at their convenience for particular research, so the opportunity is very much open to all interested parties, whatever their interests, location (you could even be in another country for the online studies!) or time commitments.

Neuroimaging Research. Image by Karl Hopkinson: http://www.photoPychopathology/

Neuroimaging Research. Image by Karl Hopkinson: http://www.photoPychopathology/

I would very much like to hear if you are interested in this opportunity and how many people you know who might potentially enjoy taking part in research too: individuals, schools, academic groups, community centres and so on. Our research areas are as diverse as they are interesting so there will be something for everyone. Your contributions to research really will make an impact in those areas that studies address and we really do value your time and commitment in helping us achieve new standards of research in collaboration with the wider public and indeed, for the benefit of us all. Please feel free to contact me with any questions by email and I will be more than happy to address them. Alternatively leave a comment in the comments section.

Glen Andrew Carrigan

Research Assistant, founder: JSOC 会長, Project Science & Reason
The University of Central Lancashire
Email:, Linkedin, @CarriganGlen

Comet ISON

ISON by Damian Peach

Credit: Damien Peach. ISON and its tail

As a Science communicator and one of many insignificant humans – especially in the face of such an ancient object – I find myself extremely excited by the prospect of seeing comet ISON on the Eastern Horizon on the 3rd of December. The last time I was this excited by something in Science it was one our our own acheivements of putting Curiosity on Mars (which I got up very early to watch). This is wonder and grandeur of a more primal nature, free of human interaction, something truly transcendent. It may be something many of us will never see the like of again and so to miss out this time would be a terrible shame. So what is so special about this particular lump hurtling through space?

Comet ISON has come from the Oort cloud which is a large region filled with such relics at the very edge of this solar system. It is believed to have remained in the Oort cloud until it was ejected by the gravity of a neighbouring star. This has led to our star (the Sun) tugging on the comet and pulling it ever closer towards it.

The Sun's corona can only be seen when the Sun itself is obscured

The Sun’s corona can only be seen when the Sun itself is obscured

What is so special about this comet is that due to its current trajectory it will pass very close to our Sun indeed. This has earned it the name “sungrazer” as it will pass through the Sun’s corona; the extended outer atmosphere of the Sun. This is a perilous journey for this mass of what is believed to be mostly rock, gas and ice, as the Sun’s rays may obliterate it entirely. This, however, is what will give us our best view of it. As the comet comes into contact with ever increasing ultra violet radiation we can be promised a spectacular view of its tail on its approach. There exist three possible outcomes for ISON at this point as outlined by Dr Matthew Knight from Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

One of the other key features of this event is what we may in fact learn from our encounter with this object. One of the theories that abound as to how water ended up on Earth, and therefore made it agreeable for the development of life, was that comets delivered it here in the form of water ice. There is an abundance of ice throughout the solar system, water ice caps even exist on Mars and the moon Titan contains solid methane which might also be called ice. On our planet though, it is water of a particular type (low deuterium concentration) that is conducive to the development of life; water giving us the medium within which chemicals can mix to become simple amino acids. This event incidently reminds me of a lecture I attended by Lee Cronin about how we make inorganic chemical compounds do more. For an interesting insight into this take a look at the work at Cronin Labs. When the comet passes by scientists hope to analyse the make-up of ISON’s tail to see if there is water vapour there that might indicate the presence of water similar to that on earth. The implications for this would be that if water exists on bodies like ISON that they may indeed have delivered water to us and moreover make the notion that water based life exists elsewhere alot more plausible. Whatever we observe, Comet ISON will surely provide some wonderful insights into the history of our particular planetary neck of the woods.


Comet of the Century: A Horizon Special

Cronin Labs

Dr Knights compilation of interesting ISON related academic papers

NASA’s Comet ISON observation project

You can at UClan; well actually you can’t without exceptional staff.

uclan jpegThis week, many students discovered the impending academic staff losses that are on the horizon at The University of Central Lancashire. They are not pleased. Many of them are proud to be students at UCLan and some of that pride comes from the mentoring and encouragement that they’ve been afforded by inspirational personal tutors, module leaders and lecturers. Sure they have a job description and a certain amount of contact time is mandated, but in the Psychology department at least, there are many students that see them go above and beyond their mandate to enhance the student experience. I love UCLan as a brand and as an institute for education, having worked and studied here for nearly four years it pains me to see the current situation because it’s obvious that here, it’s the students that really matter to the academics which is something management need to take into account.  Read the rest of this entry

Serial killer elephants; psychology and the animal

An elephant I photographed in Kenya 2008

An elephant I photographed in Kenya 2008

A documentary on channel 5 highlights problems including abnormal behavioural psychology in male Bull elephants in India. The elephant, normally docile and grand appearing to slowly lumber around impressive in it’s sheer presence, I remember seeing them when I worked in Kenya. Elephants can apparently become less of a grand, gentle herbivore of the plains and more of a serial killer at the mercy of their own psychology. Researchers in an Indian reserve came across multiple corpses of male and female elephants and after finding that there was no disease present, no poaching or any other cause of death concluded that other Bull elephants had murdered them.

The behaviour of these elephants seems to have been due to a number of factors. Initially it was assumed that sexual frustration (one was observed masturbating) was driving the elephants to kill their prospective partners until a male was found dead. They continued to suspect this, however,  knowing that males can and do kill each other (although rarely) due to testosterone levels that can be up to 60 times greater in an elephant in musk (mating season). They also reviewed evidence from a historical case where elephants in musk killed their females and also attempted to rape Rhinos before killing them. Read the rest of this entry

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