Southampton Discoveries and Inventions to Impress Your Friends


Coming to university is a very exciting time and, once you come home from your night-time escapades and sleepy 9ams in the next holiday, (or when you next need your washing done), you’ll need some fast facts to impress your friends and family. Southampton has been a hub for innovation and invention for many years, excelling in all areas of science and technology and, as you embark on your own journeys of academia and discovery, let me walk you through a few that have come before you.


You may or may not know that the Spitfire, arguably the most iconic World War Two aircraft, was designed in Southampton by R. J. Mitchell. Its maiden flight was from what is now Southampton Airport on the 5th of March 1936, where there is now a life-size sculpture, and it was introduced to the Royal Air Force in 1938. Unfortunately, Mitchell died in 1937 in a prominent student area, Portswood, and was never able to see his design in use. He was unusual for an engineer as he trained to become a pilot, gaining his license in 1934, and apparently disliked the name ‘Spitfire’ that was chosen for his invention. If you’d like to know more about Southampton’s military history, visit the Solent Sky Museum in Ocean Village. There’s also a blue plaque on the house where he used to live in Portswood, that’ll make a nice walk, won’t it?


This April, a student published a paper in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, after having discovered the earliest known description of a condition known as Exploding Head Syndrome in René Descartes, (no, your head doesn’t actually explode), instead it is characterised by a bright flash and loud bang which disturbs your sleep. Although EHS did not enter medical classification until 2005, the student noted that Descartes’ influential night of dreams on the 10th November 1619 were similar to how the condition presents and therefore diagnosed the first recorded case of it in the father of modern philosophy.

We are pioneers in the fight against cancer. Earlier this year, Southampton opened the world’s first dedicated Centre for Cancer Immunotherapy, where researchers study using the body’s existing immune system to target and fight from inside. Cancer Immunotherapy was voted the number one scientific breakthrough in January 2014 by Science, and we are leaders in the field. Some of our biggest projects include DNA cancer vaccines, which are thought to be made available in the next 15 years, a treatment for asbestos-induced mesothelioma, and antibody treatments to fight child and adult leukaemia.


The Archaeology department recently discovered the oldest known cave paintings in three caves in Spain created 64,000 years ago, 20,000 years prior to modern humans’ arrival in Europe, by Homo neanderthalensis, a ‘sister’ species to Homo sapiens. This adds evidence to our understanding of Neanderthals as a sophisticated species, as, thus far, they have created the oldest cave art in the world!

Disclaimer: I am slightly biased because I’m a masters student that studies (and loves) Neanderthals.

Physics and Climate Science

As an evolutionary biologist, physics is something that excites and scares me, and I’m used to working with distant time – up to the origin of single-celled life, approximately 3.8 billion years ago. However, this next fact is slightly out of my date range. A team of international researchers headed by Dr Mat Smith in Physics recently detected the most distant supernova ever studied, DES16C2nm, which rolls right off the tongue. The universe is thought to have been in existence for 13.8 billion years, and this star explosion was dated to have occurred 10.5 billion years ago! And I thought I was old.

Much closer to our time-frame, in May this year, research by Professors Tim Leighton, Paul White and Meric Srokosz, and PhD student David Coles demonstrated that bubbles produced by storms and in choppy seas can capture and add to the dissolution of atmospheric CO2 into the oceans. This suggests that there is a larger imbalance of influx and efflux than previously suggested and what we currently know, which has implications for our understanding of CO2 levels in the ocean, hinting towards higher rates of ocean acidification. Plus the name ‘bubble-induced asymmetry’ to describe this effect sounds pretty cool if you ask me.

So there you have it, some great facts to treat your family to at the dinner table when Aunt Sue is round, or your friends at the local Wetherspoons.


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