Friday, April 1, 2022

The secret signs that betray your true class:

Pin-sharp book by DETLEV PILTZ, who fell in love with England while staying with Theresa May's family, explains what the sound of your doorbell, the colour of your car and how you eat peas reveals about you

My first visit to England, in the summer of 1961, was as a 16-year-old German schoolboy taken in as a paying guest by a vicar and his wife.

Their daughter, then a little girl of about five, was called Theresa and later became Prime Minister.

Her father, the Reverend Hubert Brasier, was the rector in an idyllic Cotswolds village and the four weeks I spent with them enriched my life.

Not only did I improve my English but the family also took me with them on shopping trips in their plush Morris Minor, for picnics in the country, to the motor racing at Silverstone and to Oxford University where the vicar explained about its colleges.

On my last Sunday with the Brasiers, my host parents gave me some lessons in good manners before the bishop came for tea.

One was the two-cup rule of tea-drinking: a single cup was deemed impolite as not enough; three cups were considered too many.

When the tea came, I found it very weak. I did not enjoy it at all and once their guest had left I asked about its strange taste.  'It was China tea,' Mrs Brasier explained, and we were drinking it 'because of the bishop'.

Clearly it was thought the Indian tea they normally drank was wrong for someone of the bishop's social standing and so I gained my first insight into that most prominent feature of Englishness — the class system.

Those summer holidays were the beginning of a life-long fascination and affection for England that has led to many visits and finally to owning my own place not far from the spot where my English 'career' began.

Whenever I am here, I am vividly reminded that the class system still exists, as demonstrated by the public reaction to the BBC's Great British Class Survey in 2013.

If it was already remarkable that more than 161,000 people took the trouble to spend 20 minutes of their time answering questions about their economic situation, cultural tastes and leisure interests, the biggest surprise was yet to follow.

Within a week of the results being published, seven million people — roughly one in five of the British adult population — clicked on the Class Calculator to find out where they stood socially.

What's more, sales of theatre tickets in London that week doubled, the reason apparently being that the Class Calculator had identified theatre-going as an indicator of belonging to a higher class.

As this suggests, there's far more to class than such 'hard' markers as occupation and money.

However impoverished, the child of an earl with all the class markers of their elevated station is upper class and not working class.

And the National Lottery winner who buys himself a country house in Buckinghamshire, a flat in London's Eaton Square and a Rolls-Royce in no way qualifies as upper class.

What matters just as much are the 'soft' markers.

Having hair does not reveal which class you belong to, but how you wear it most definitely does.

Being a dog-owner does not indicate your class, but the breed you choose speaks volumes.

Owning a car is not a class statement, but how often you wash it is.

Going on holiday has nothing to do with class, but what you do when you get there certainly does.

Naturally, no Englishman would admit to this kind of snobbery and there is an unspoken ban on all overt differentiation on class grounds.

The infamous remark about Michael Heseltine attributed to Alan Clark in the House of Commons as the kind of person who 'had to buy his own furniture' would today be regarded as old-fashioned and morally repugnant.

In interviews conducted for the Great British Class Survey, people tended to preface their remarks with disclaimers such as, 'I don't mean this in a snobby way, but...' or, 'I know this might sound snobby, but...'

Such statements, however, are usually followed by exactly the kind of snobbery that the speaker claims to eschew, such as: 'Given her background, it's hard for her to really get pleasure from opera.'

Usefully, in much the same way as modern cars have a Global Positioning System that tells them their location on the Earth at any time, the English have a Class Positioning System that helps them identify their place.

Research suggests that around 70 per cent count themselves as middle-class and around 30 per cent as working-class, while next to no one identifies as the upper-class 'U' described by Nancy Mitford in her classic book Noblesse Oblige, first published in 1956.

Yet the English still fully relate to the dichotomy between 'upper' and 'lower'.

Crucially, what really matters is usually left unsaid. It comes across in small signs, a gesture, tiny give-aways, the odd phrase.

When you join a group of people or you meet an individual, you recognise the markers at once: the clothes, the style, the voice, the mannerisms.

Nobody who knows the code believes otherwise. Class rules, although hazy, most definitely exist.

Everyone is measured by them and either passes or fails. Except that they will never be told.


Some soft class markers have survived for decades.

Much of the behaviour, language and pronunciation Nancy Mitford categorised as 'U' and 'non-U' ('U' being upper class) back in 1956 had the same connotations when anthropologist Kate Fox published her book Watching The English in 2014.

Language markers considered lower class include 'Pardon?' (instead of 'What?' or 'Sorry?'), 'toilet' ('loo' or 'lavatory'), 'serviette' ('napkin') and 'lounge' ('sitting room' or 'drawing room'): terms whose utterance Fox describes as 'deadly sins' if you want to pass for upper class.

As for pronunciation, the upper classes typically pronounce unstressed vowels even less clearly than is otherwise the norm, and sometimes omit them entirely.

During a course in Oxford it took me several repetitions to realise phlosphy meant philosophy.


Your address is a hard class marker par excellence and certain counties are classier than others, in particular Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Norfolk, Berkshire, Dorset, Herefordshire, East Sussex and Northumberland.

The most exclusive addresses in England are the shortest: no need for house number, street name, town or county.

The house name is sufficient, Buckingham Palace being a prime example.

In rural England, the country house holds sway. While 1,100 such dwellings disappeared between 1875 and 1975, having been demolished, fallen into ruin or burnt down, these monuments to a bygone era still abound.

Being the owner of a country house remains an unambiguous sign of being upper class — buying a stately pile is a priority for those aspiring to join the smart set.

The loss of such a house, for whatever reason, deals the owners a heavy blow, as described by one now impoverished former resident of a stately pile: 'The decline of our family began the first time we moved into a house with a number.'


One delight of the English class system is the fascination with the colour of men's shoes.

A 2016 study by the Social Mobility Commission found 'some investment bank managers still judge candidates on whether they wear brown shoes with a suit rather than on their skills and potential'.

Brown shoes are acceptable only in the country, best kept for tramping the hills and fields or for gardening, fishing and shooting.


Across all classes, calling someone by their first name is more frequent than it used to be.

This is not to everyone's liking. When Princess Anne addressed the former Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife as Mrs Blair, the response was, 'Oh, please call me Cherie.'

The princess replied: 'I'd rather not. It's not the way I've been brought up.'

The first names of the lower classes tend to follow fashion much more than those favoured by the upper.

In the same way the rings on a tree indicate when it was planted, some names can reveal the exact year in which someone was born.

A stand-out example is Kayleigh and its many iterations that emerged in the years from 2010 onwards, including Demi-Leigh, Chelsea-Leigh, Tia-Leigh, Honey-Leigh, Kaydie-Leigh, Everleigh and Lilleigh: there are no fewer than 128 in total.

The philosophy of names is not just imagined.

In 2005 it was reported children with middle-class names were eight times more likely to pass their GCSEs than those with names like Wayne and Dwayne.

According to Acorn, the data company that segments the UK population into 62 different types of consumer, being named Crispian, Greville, Lysbeth or Penelope means you are about 200 times more likely to be in the 'wealthy executive' top class than in the 'inner-city adversity' bottom one.

Seaneen, Terriann, Sammy-Jo, Jamielee, Kayleigh and Codie are the six names most disproportionately skewed towards the 'struggling families' category.

When it comes to nicknames, just about anything goes, including among the highest social orders. For example, the Duke of Edinburgh's pet name for the Queen was said to be 'Cabbage'.


If you want to know an Englishwoman's class, don't enquire about her background, income or education; instead, ask her what she buys at M&S.

Kate Fox, anthropologist and author of the book Watching The English, calls it the 'M&S test'.

The upper-middles purchase things that are not instantly identifiable as from M&S: underwear, towels, bed linen and food.

They do not buy sofas, curtains or cushions, party dresses or shoes or anything bearing a trademark M&S pattern.

The middle-middles buy M&S food (but get their cornflakes and loo paper at Sainsbury's or Tesco), as well as sofas, cushions and certain 'unseen' garments.

Lower-middle and upper-working-class customers like M&S clothes, feeling they represent value for money, but not food, cushions, duvets and towels, because of the price.

Friday, March 25, 2022

'Informational simplicity' may explain why nature favors symmetry

Life favors simple structures over complex ones.

In biology, symmetry is typically the rule rather than the exception. Our bodies have left and right halves, starfish radiate from a central point and even trees, though not largely symmetrical, still produce symmetrical flowers. In fact, asymmetry in biology seems quite rare by comparison.

Does this mean that evolution has a preference for symmetry? In a new study, an international group of researchers, led by Iain Johnston, a professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Bergen in Norway, says it does.

Although symmetrical structures represent only a small fraction of possible forms — in geometry, at least — symmetry pops up everywhere in living organisms. It's not just a body-plan phenomenon, either. Proteins, the molecular machinery within a body, are largely symmetrical as well, often being composed of a series of repeating, modular parts. Repeating structures are often seen in animals, too; think of centipedes, with their repeating body segments. The reason for this apparent "preference" is not driven by aesthetics. Instead, according to the researchers, it comes down to simplicity.

"It can be tempting to assume that symmetry and modularity arise from natural selection," Johnston and his co-authors wrote in the new study. Natural selection can cause beneficial traits to become more common because those traits help survival. However, natural selection can only make a beneficial trait more common or do away with a harmful one; it can't force brand-new ones to appear.

Instead, it can only reinforce the effects of mutations that occur randomly. For example, moths with dark-colored wings might be harder for birds to see than moths with light-colored wings. Predators might therefore be more likely to overlook dark-winged moths, enabling more of those insects to survive, reproduce, and pass that trait along to their offspring. But this doesn’t force black wings into existence; a gene has to mutate in order for that to happen. And if a mutation provides an advantage, it’s more likely to be perpetuated among a population for generations, until it becomes a common trait for the species.

In the same way, natural selection might only seem to favor symmetry because it is mostly given symmetrical forms to work with. The most likely explanation for why proteins and bodies are symmetrical is not because symmetry gives a survival advantage, but because more symmetrical, repeating forms appear in the first place.

So what makes that happen? Symmetrical forms have likely evolved more frequently and then persisted over evolutionary time because they often require less information to produce than asymmetrical forms do.

"Imagine having to tell a friend how to tile a floor using as few words as possible," Johnston said in a statement. "You wouldn't say, 'Put diamonds here, long rectangles here, wide rectangles here.' You'd say something like, 'Put square tiles everywhere.' And that simple, easy recipe gives a highly symmetric outcome."

Johnston and his colleagues tested this simplicity hypothesis by using computational modeling. By running a simulation of protein evolution, the researchers found that random mutations are much more likely to produce simple genetic sequences than complex ones. If those simple structures are good enough to do their jobs, natural selection can then take over and make use of those structures. In the researchers' simulations, as well as in life, high-symmetry structures with low complexity far outnumbered complex structures with low symmetry.

The study puts a new spin on the so-called infinite monkey theorem, an old thought experiment in the field of evolutionary biology. If, as the theorem predicts, a monkey types randomly for an infinite amount of time, it will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare (or perhaps the script for "Die Hard"). Essentially, random mutations in DNA are like typing monkeys. Given enough time (and enough monkeys), it is a certainty that some pretty ingenious mutations will appear.

But by the time a hypothetical monkey produces Shakespeare’s entire catalog of work, the industrious creature will have likely already typed a large number of short poems. Similarly, if biology is entirely reliant on genetic instructions generated at random (much like the work of a randomly typing monkey), it is going to generate a very large number of simple instructions, because those will appear much more frequently than complex directions do. As far as natural selection is concerned, complexity is unnecessary when a simple solution is available, study authors concluded.

So, the next time you stop to admire a flower’s radial symmetry, you can also admire the efficiency of the shorter, simpler gene sequences that encoded for that trait.

This study was published March 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

A toast to Victorian Britain

Bruce Anderson

The other evening, stimulated by a few decent bottles, someone raised a hoary question. If we could have been born in an earlier century — pre-20th — which would we have chosen? What epoch was worthy to compare with the Antonines and those Good Emperors, as praised by Gibbon?

The consensus was that, assuming a strong constitution and plenty of money, the long 19th century in Britain, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to 1914, would have been as good as any. Of course, we must restrain the roseate glow of retrospect. History is written backwards but lived forwards. At various stages, there were outbreaks of disorder which we tend to dismiss because we know that they never came to much, but which did alarm contemporaries who lacked foreknowledge. Even so, to steal Jack Plumb’s title for his book on 1675-1725, from 1815 onwards there was a growth of political stability in Britain. Disraeli may have sneered at Tory men and Whig measures, but in practice, that was not a bad form of government. Nor was it one which Dizzy himself significantly disrupted when he came to power.

All in all, we can surely agree that for a healthy member of the upperish classes, Victorian Britain was a pleasant place to live. It may have lacked the full douceur de vivre which pre-revolutionary French aristocrats enjoyed, but look how that ended.

So: it would not have been a bad fate to be born around 1815, and participate in the intellectual and cultural excitements of the age as well as in the successes of public life, including the growth of Empire: ‘wider still and wider’. Kipling, albeit the laureate of Empire, might have anticipated Britain’s decline, fearing the day when the fleets would have melted away while ‘All the pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre’. To the chap we are describing, the Royal Navy would have been an eternal verity; Nineveh and Tyre, less a warning of future decline, more a theme for an excursion to the British Museum.

The paradox of Kipling: a man who seemed effortlessly able to reach his fellow countrymen’s hearts and yet was wholly free from that stolid complacency, made possible by the Channel, which is so often an English characteristic. As Oliver Edwards, a college contemporary, told Dr Johnson: ‘I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.’

He also spoke for many of his countrymen, including the fellow from the 1815 vintage, who would have remained cheerful until his decline in 1914. By midsummer, no longer taking an interest in the press, he would have been unaware that in Sarajevo, a man called Princip had murdered an Austrian prince and set in motion events which would threaten a new Dark Age. In consequence, within a few months some of the great-grandsons who carried his coffin to the graveside would have found their own graves, in Flanders. But Victorian England was good while it lasted.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Study: Red and processed meats don't raise risk for death, recurrence in colon cancer

People who have been diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer are not at increased risk for disease recurrence or death if they eat red or processed meat, a study published Tuesday by JAMA Network Open found.

Among more than 1,000 stage 3 colon cancer patients followed for up to eight years, 305 cases were reported in which the disease returned and resulted in death, the data showed.

In addition, 81 patients saw their cancer return, but did not die as a result, the researchers said.

However, patients' risk for disease recurrence or death from colon cancer was not affected by their eating red or processed meats, according to the researchers.

Those who consumed up to 15 servings per week of red meat and up to 30 of processed meats had essentially the same risk for colon cancer recurrence or death, the data showed.

"Colorectal cancer patients and survivors should focus on eating a low glycemic diet rich in whole grains and vegetables," study co-author Erin L. Van Blarigan told UPI in an email.

"This diet may or may not include meat, depending on patient preference," said Van Blarigan, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco.

High consumption of red meat, as well as other foods and alcohol, had been linked with an increased risk for colon cancer in earlier studies.

Scientists believe these foods adversely affect the health of the gut microbiome, the bacteria in the digestive tract that assist metabolism, compromising the ability to prevent tumor growth, research suggests.

Based on these findings, the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors limit their intake of red meat, or beef, and processed meats, even though evidence linking consumption of these foods with a return of the disease is limited.

Processed meats include those that have been modified through salting, curing, fermenting or other methods to either improve taste or extend shelf life, according to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.

For this study, the researchers followed 1,011 patients diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer between 1999 and 2001 for a period of up to eight years.

Those who reported consuming, on average, seven servings of red meat per week had a 16% lower risk for cancer recurrence or death than patients who consumed an average of less than two servings per week, the data showed.

Colon cancer patients who said they consumed, on average, five servings of processed meats per week had a 5% higher risk for disease recurrence or death, compared with those who took in an average of less than one serving per week, the researchers said.

"​Our data suggest that red and processed meat do not affect risk of colorectal cancer recurrence," Van Blarigan said.

"Previous studies have consistently observed associations between these foods and an increased risk of being diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer but growing data, including our study, suggest that intake after diagnosis does not change the patient's prognosis," she said.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Brains do not slow down until after age of 60, study finds

It is widely accepted as one of life’s bleak but unavoidable facts: as we get older, our brains get slower. But now a study, based on data from more than 1 million people, suggests that mental processing speed remains almost constant until the age of 60.

The analysis puts perceived reductions in speed down to people becoming more cautious as they get older. This could account for the large body of research that has concluded that mental processing speed peaks at about the age of 20 and undergoes a steady decline from that point onwards.

“Our finding is encouraging, as our results show that average levels in mental speed in contexts demanding fast and forced decisions do not decline until relatively late in the lifespan,” said Dr Mischa von Krause, of Heidelberg University and first author of the work.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, used data from 1,185,882 participants, aged 10 to 80 years, in Harvard’s Project Implicit, an online tool that has been used to collect data and educate people about biases they hold on gender, race and other characteristics.

Participants are required to sort words into positive and negative categories, while also assigning image to racial categories. The test is primarily designed to measure the strength of a person’s associations between race (in this case black or white people) and evaluations (represented by positive or negative words), but the latest analysis simply used the age of the participants, their response times and accuracy.

The data showed, as previous studies have done, that average time to give a correct response peaked at about 20 years. However, the researchers argue that this metric also captures how cautious a person is in delivering their answer and also their basic motor reaction speeds.

By using machine learning, the researchers aimed to extract more information about these two hidden factors from patterns in the data. For instance, if someone consistently responded more slowly, regardless of the difficulty of a given question, the model might be more likely to attribute this to slow motor responses.

The analysis suggested that 20-year-olds were quickest because they were the most willing to trade accuracy for speed. The researchers concluded that the purely mechanical part of the response (how fast a person sees the question and taps the keyboard) was quickest in those aged 14-16. Mental processing speed appeared to peak about age 30, and declined only very slightly between 30 and 60. Participants also made fewer mistakes as they became older, at least until the age of about 60.

Dr Joshua Hartshorne, a psychologist at Boston College who was not involved in the latest work, said the machine learning method used was impressive and would prompt psychologists to reconsider some earlier findings based simply on response times. “This joins a body of work suggesting that the way mental abilities change throughout life is complicated and we don’t really know what’s going on,” he said. “But whatever’s going on, it’s definitely not that we peak at 20 and go downhill from there.”

Von Krause said the work raised the suggestion that people may excel at different tasks depending on their age. “Obviously, there are real-life tasks where it is crucial to avoid mistakes, such as in a medical diagnosis, while in other tasks, such as avoiding an obstacle on the road, speed is more important,” he said. However, he added that, within certain limits, people were likely to be able to adapt their decision-making style to suit the demands of a situation.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

UK: Turning over a new leaf: the humble hedge stages a remarkable comeback

The emerald-green five-year-old hawthorn hedge glistens in autumnal sunshine. In the cider apple orchard and grass pastures below, younger hedges shoot off towards a fast-flowing trout stream.

History has come full circle in Blackmore Farm, which nestles in the foothills of the Quantocks in Somerset. The owner, Ian Dyer, remembers helping his father, who arrived as a tenant farmer in the 1950s, grub out old hedges in the 1960s and 1970s. But – like increasing numbers of landowners – he has hired a hedgelayer to bring back his hedges to provide habitats for wildlife, capture carbon and slow water pouring off fields into rivers.

“In my life, I’ve probably taken out three miles of hedge. It was seen as progress at the time. The government was pushing for more and more production,” he says, standing in the long grass on his 750-acre arable and beef farm. “But we are putting back all the ancient hedgerows. History is cyclical – it all goes around.”

Dyer, 62, has planted 1km of new hedges in the last five years and has noticed more insects, nesting birds and small mammals, including water voles, since the work started.

One study found that hedgerows provide 21 ecosystem services – more than any other habitat.“My views have changed in the last 10 years. I want to live in a green and pleasant land – not in a [ecological] desert,” he remarks. “It’s starting to look like I remember it as a five-year-old boy.”

The National Hedgelaying Society, which held its national championship event this weekend, says its members have been inundated with requests to lay hedges this season, which runs from September to April. “There is more work than anyone could ever do for the rest of their lives,” says Claire Maymon, one of the charity’s trustees. “Our founders in the 1970s were worried the craft would be lost for ever, but now we are worried that we don’t have enough young hedgelayers coming through to meet demand.”

The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that over 25,000 workers will be needed to deliver on the Committee on Climate Change’s call to plant 200,000km of new hedges in the UK. The committee has calculated that the nation’s hedgerows will have to be expanded by 40% in order to reach net-zero by 2050.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, has called hedges important ecological building blocks that provide shelter, nesting habitat, flowers and berries for a wide range of wildlife. The government wants the post-Brexit agricultural subsidy system to encourage farmers to better maintain hedges. A pilot scheme, offering farmers up to £24 per 100 metres of hedgerows, starts next month.

Hedges need to be carefully managed throughout their lives, otherwise they thin and eventually gaps appear. Paul Lamb, the hedgelayer helping to transform Dyer’s farm, “pleaches” – or splits – hawthorn, blackthorn and spindle stems so that they grow back dense and thick next spring. “Every hedgelayer has their own style,” he says, pushing back a prickly curtain of foliage to reveal a complex, woody interior. “For me, it’s so satisfying to plant and lay a hedge and then see it full of birds, insects and wildlife.”

Business is booming for Lamb, who lives in a converted horsebox on a nearby farm. He has never been busier, with commercial farmers making up a growing proportion of his work. Lamb’s two biggest jobs this season are on farms, with 850 metres of replanting on one farm and six weeks work laying more than 500 metres of hedgerow on another.

“When I started hedging, it was a way of earning a bit of beer money on a Saturday. I would never have expected to be booked up for a whole season. But here I am, booked up for this season and half of the next – and still people are phoning me with jobs. There is a renewed interest in conservation and craft – and a feeling that we need to live in a more sustainable way.”

Britain lost half its hedgerows in the decades after the second world war as farmers were encouraged to create large arable fields to increase production. Since then, legal protections have been introduced and hedges are no longer being ripped out – but the decline has continued due to poor management, including some landowners over-trimming hedges mechanically, without simulating new growth below. But the growing demand for traditional hedgelaying leaves many in the craft feeling optimistic.

Nigel Adams sits on the HedgeLink steering group, which advises Defra. He says there has has been a sea-change in attitudes, with everyone from the National Farming Union to Natural England calling for more hedges. “Hedgerows have gone unnoticed for years but suddenly everybody is realising they are the veins of our countryside,” he says.

Adams, who lays hedges throughout the country, including on Prince Charles’s estates, believes the role of hedges should not be underestimated. “Insects follow hedges and bats hunt along hedges,” he says. “If we didn’t have hedgerows, then we would be living in a barren wasteland.”

Monday, October 18, 2021

Who was the first person on record to write about the British Isles?

The British Isles, tucked away in the northwest of Europe, has been inhabited by humans since Paleolithic times, but the people who lived there didn't develop a writing system until much later, and the first local account of the isles did not appear until Anglo-Saxon times, around the seventh century A.D.

So who was the first person to write about the British Isles and describe its inhabitants? To find out, we need to look to the south — to the Mediterranean world of the ancient Greeks.

A Greek mariner named Pytheas made the first recorded voyage to the British Isles in the fourth century B.C. He circumnavigated the island of Britain, explored the northern lands of Europe and was the first to describe the Celtic tribes of Britain, the midnight sun, dramatic tidal shifts and polar ice. When he returned home, he wrote an account called "On the Ocean" ("Peri tou Okeanou" in Greek) that circulated widely throughout the ancient world and was read, discussed and debated by scholars for centuries.

Little is known about Pytheas. He was a citizen of Massalia, a Greek colony in what is now Marseilles in southern France, and it is uncertain whether he was a merchant or simply a gentleman scientist. The Greco-Roman historian Polybius referred to him as a "private citizen" and a "poor man." But, whatever his economic or social status, Pytheas was a skilled navigator and keen observer.

"We can judge from his writings that Pytheas had a scientific education," Barry Cunliffe told Live Science. Cunliffe is an emeritus professor of European archaeology at the University of Oxford and author of "The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek" (Walker & Company, 2002).

Pytheas made a series of astronomical calculations of latitude during this journey with a device called a gnomon, which was an instrument similar to a modern-day sundial. He accurately estimated the circumference of the British Isles — that is, the distance around the islands of what is now Great Britain and Ireland — placing it at approximately 4,000 miles (6,400 km), according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is not known whether he produced a map from his endeavors, though the first century A.D. Greek geographer Ptolemy, who later made a map of the British Isles, may have used Pytheas' measurements and descriptions.  

An illustration depicting Pytheas, a Greek explorer who is the first known person to write about the British Isles.

Most historians believe that Pytheas sailed from Massalia through the Straits of Gibraltar (then known as the Pillars of Hercules) aboard a trading ship and cruised north along the western coasts of what is now Portugal, Spain and France, according to Cunliffe. (Cunliffe, however, believes Pytheas went overland across France and used local Celtic boats for all water crossings.) Next, Pytheas crossed the English Channel and made landfall in what is modern-day Cornwall, where he described the flourishing trade of tin, an important commodity that was alloyed with copper to make bronze.

Pytheas continued north along the west coasts of what are now England, Wales and Scotland, where he described the area's inhabitants, a Celtic-speaking people he called the "Pretanni," or the "painted ones" in the ancient Celtic language, from which the word Britain is derived, according to Cunliffe.

From Scotland, some scholars have argued that Pytheas left Britain and ventured into the North Sea, eventually encountering a landmass he called Thule, which some have identified as Iceland, though others believe it refers to Norway.

"There is no hard archaeological evidence that Pytheas reached Iceland," Cunliffe said, "but it's not impossible."

Pytheas wrote "On the Ocean" once he returned to Massalia. Until the writings of Tacitus and Julius Caesar some 300 years later, "On the Ocean" was likely the only source of information about Britain and the northern latitudes for most of the world, Cunliffe told Live Science. There were likely copies of Pytheas's work in the great libraries of Pergamum in what is now Turkey; Rhodes, Greece; and Alexandria, Egypt.

Unfortunately, "On the Ocean" has not survived. Only fragments of it remain, paraphrased or excerpted in the writings of other classical writers such as Strabo, Polybius, Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Diodorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder. But the fragments we have are significant, Cunliffe said, as they contain a multitude of astronomical, geographic, biological, oceanographic and ethnological observations that have considerable scientific and anthropological significance.

"If we're right about the kind of person Pytheas was — with his razor-sharp, inquiring mind — he would want to communicate all this new knowledge," Cunliffe said. "He opened up people's minds to the size of the world."