Ghost stories, twinkling stars and Christmas trees – Trinity’s festive research

Posted on: 19 December 2018

The enduring appeal of the Christmas ghost story, twinkling stars and exoplanets and how climate change will affect Christmas trees were among fascinating topics explored at a festive research showcase in Trinity College Dublin recently.

Organised by the Dean of Research, Professor Linda Doyle, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Darryl Jones, the event featured researchers from across Trinity’s three faculties who shared their work with particular focus on topics associated with the festive season.

In her presentation entitled Twinkle, twinkle, little star: stellar dimming due to exoplanets, Astrophysicist Aline Vidotto, spoke about her studies on the interaction of exoplanets with their host star’s wind, and how this interaction can affect planetary habitability. At the event she explained that when an exoplanet transits a star, it causes an eclipse, with the star’s light being dimmed by about 1-2%.

Dr Vidotto, who is an Assistant Professor at the School of Physics, and was recently awarded a prestigious ERC Consolidator Grant, spoke among other things, about her participation in the NASA-funded CUTE project which will develop a small satellite, set to launch in 2020, which will gather information on the composition of exoplanets’ atmospheres.

David Shepherd, Assistant Professor, School of Religion, gave a presentation entitled When Alice shot Jesus: the nativity of French cinema pioneer Alice Guy. He spoke about his research on the work of noted French filmmaker Alice Guy and her portrayal of the nativity in her 1906 film Life and Passion of the Christ.

Dr Shepherd, who is Director of the Trinity Centre for Biblical Studies, focused on Guy’s particular interest in female characters and concerns in this milestone of early cinema. Dr Shepherd noted that Guy opened her film with Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem, a scene that had never before been committed to film, rather than the traditional annunciation scene. In her film Guy chose to prioritise female concerns by opting to begin the film with the traumatic reality of Mary on the verge of giving birth and unable to find a place to do so, he explained.

Dr Charilaos Yiotis, School of Natural Sciences, in his presentation Will Climate Change affect our perception of Christmas trees? discussed his research on the effects of carbon dioxide levels on two large groups of plants, the conifers, which include Christmas trees, and the angiosperms, including flowering plants such as holly and ivy.

A plant physiologist with research interests in eco-physiology, climate change biology and Crop Physiology, Dr Yiotis is an iCRAG (SFI) Postdoctoral research fellow at Trinity. In his presentation, he described how in the Mesozoic Era, around 250-66 million years ago, conifers were the dominant plants and covered both warm and cold environments. As carbon dioxide levels began to decline towards the end of the Mesozoic Era, flowering plants thrived as they were better suited and adapted for carbon dioxide diffusion at lower levels. In his research, Dr Yiotis has shown that conifers get more overall benefits relative to the angiosperms as carbon dioxide levels increase. If current consumption levels continue and temperatures continue to rise, the composition of plant communities will likely change in favour of Christmas trees, Dr Yiotis concluded.

In her presentation entitled, From Bethlehem to Ireland: Problems women have after birth, Deirdre Daly, Assistant Professor in Midwifery, spoke of her work on the Maternal Health and Maternal Morbidity in Ireland (MAMMI) study, which seeks to improve our medical understanding of the health problems faced by women before and after giving birth to their first child.

Posing the question ‘what happened to Mary after she gave birth?’, Dr Daly explained that in Ireland, while we have absolutely fantastic data about women’s health during pregnancy and birth, as soon as the baby is born and the woman leaves hospital we stop collecting data on her health. As was the case for Mary, when a woman leaves hospital in Ireland the focus moves solely onto the baby. Setting out to counter this, since 2001, the MAMMI study has collected data from over 3,000 first time mothers to find out what health problems women experienced up to 12 months after birth, what help if any they got and what can be done to help reduce these problems.

The final presentation of the evening was from Professor Darryl Jones, School of English and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. In a wide-ranging presentation entitled The Christmas Ghost Story, Professor Jones gave a brief history of the representation of ghosts in literature drawing on examples including the epic of Gilgamesh, the Old Testament and films Blair Witch and Ring as well as works by Homer, Aeschylus, MR James, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens – the author of A Christmas Carol, which is simultaneously the most celebrated ghost story and the most celebrated Christmas story.

Although the representation of ghosts may change over the centuries, our belief and interest in ghost remains undimmed according to Professor Jones, whose major research interest is popular literature particularly horror fiction and film. There is no established body of religion, mythology or folklore that does not allow for the existence of ghosts, he explained. Ghost stories like horror, are intrinsic to civilisation, he said. Told on the longest nights when the forces of darkness are at their most powerful, there is a strong association between Christmas and ghost stories, according to Professor Jones. In particular, telling ghost stories provides comfort with their very generic status giving them an air of participatory ritual, he added.

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