Back to nature – sextants and stars

January 12, 2014
Using a sextant to navigate

Using a sextant to navigate

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted, but in my defence it’s been a busy 6 months. I’ve got married and changed jobs, but I am missing my writing… so here I am!

So far in 2014 I’ve been feeling depressed about not getting outside – January is a rather dank and grey time of year in the UK! A couple of things have cheered me up – one was hearing the ever-charming survival expert (or ‘woodsman’) Ray Mears on Desert Island Discs (I know, I’m getting old), talking about his love of the outdoors, and the other is my dad’s new blog about his upcoming book Sextant.

Both sing the praises of not letting too much get in the way of the natural world. Ray and my dad agree that while technology like GPS can be incredibly useful, it can also blunt our experience of the world around us. My dad’s book is a love letter to the sextant, a tool used by sailors for centuries to navigate across the sea by the stars – something I’m sure Ray would approve of!

Even though I was listening to Ray’s thoughts on my digital radio, sealed in a train carriage shuttling through the middle of London on a grey January morning, I could hear in his voice the feeling of being out in a forest, and his love of getting away from civilisation without all the equipment that the modern world has given us. When you get the chance to be outside you don’t want to be seeing nature always through the filter of a camera lens or a GPS screen. Read the rest of this entry »

‘90% of all data was created in the last 2 years’ – WTF??

July 9, 2013
Big data

Oooh big data!!

It’s been a while since I last posted (I have a good excuse, I was organising my wedding and then off on honeymoon!). But something’s been bugging me – a strange claim I’ve seen in a few places. Legend has it that 90% of all data was created in the last two years (ta @james_randerson for the link).

I find it difficult to get my head round this. I think the statement is supposed to convey the humungous amount of new data that is being created every day – from genetic sequencing to personal data recorded by smart phones. But it seems to be one of those statements where the story has been simplified so much as to be almost completely meaningless – what kind of ‘data’ are we even talking about? Read the rest of this entry »

Science and culture – a symbiotic organism

April 21, 2013
Martian canals

Canals on Mars?

My job is all about ‘selling’ science – making it sound exciting, interesting and inspiring. Often this isn’t hard, because a lot of science is (I think) self-evidently amazing. The raw material doesn’t usually need a lot of polishing.

But writing about the process of science is harder. It involves a lot words like ‘trying’, ‘hoping’, ‘investigating’, ‘if’ and ‘but’. It sounds alarmingly human and error-prone, not at all like the shining quest for truth that science is ‘meant’ to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Processed food – an illusion of choice?

February 24, 2013
Snickers bar

Mmmm… Snickers

Mmmm… Snickers. It’s one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasures – a perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat, chewy and crunchy and DELICIOUS. So when, briefly, there were plans to reformulate Snickers so they would no longer be vegetarian, I was incensed.

How dare they deny me the choice to eat my Snickers? Ok, so it’s not the healthiest snack, but dammit I can make my own decisions. Luckily, the worst did not come to pass and I am still free to eat my favourite chocolate bar when the mood takes me. Or am I… ?

I’ve been reading a lot about ‘unhealthy’ foods recently. There’s a growing wave of opinion that processed foods need to be regulated, because they make unhealthy lifestyles that little bit too easy and appealing, landing health services with huge problems like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

But so far no one has hit on the best way to do this – and part of the reason why is because of the ingenious re-framing of the question by the huge companies that stand to lose the most. You might be outraged at the thought of extra tax on unhealthy foods – why should you pay for other people’s obesity problems? But, without sounding too much like a crazy conspiracy theorist… that’s exactly what they want you to think. Read the rest of this entry »

The risk of accuracy

February 6, 2013
Percentage symbol

Watch those percentages… (image by NavBack)

I love reading about risk. As someone who finds maths a bit of a challenge, it always becomes more real to me when the numbers relate to the real world. Using numbers to explain the risk of something happening seems like an excellent way to harness the power of maths – numbers are objective, concrete, and not vague.

But as always in the messy real world, it’s not quite that simple. That’s why I was really inspired by this blog post from the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, explaining how extra levels of ‘accuracy’ – more numbers – can actually make risks harder to understand. Read the rest of this entry »

From the dungheap to the stars

January 25, 2013
Dung beetle

A scarab beetle – photo by Udo Schmidt

What a great way to end the week – with the discovery that scarabs (dung beetles) navigate by the stars to make sure their precious spheres of poo don’t get stolen. Finding this paper (by Marie Dacke of the University of Lund and her colleagues) on Twitter today made me unreasonably happy – because it perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about science.

Who couldn’t be impressed by the contrast between a beetle rolling a ball of dung, guided by the enormous arm of a spiral galaxy? It’s lovely that these two vastly different things are connected – a link revealed by a brilliant experiment that involved beetles wearing hats and wandering around in a planetarium. Read the rest of this entry »

Do fish and crustaceans feel pain?

January 17, 2013

Don’t eat me! (photo by Rafael Ortega Diaz)

It would be amazing if we could put ourselves inside the minds of other animals – do they think, feel and reason like we do? Or are they little more than glorified robots? Or something in between? At the moment, we don’t know much. It’s impossible to experience the consciousness of another human, let along another species – and extremely hard to figure out what other species ‘feel’.

This problem was not conveyed very well by last week’s ‘news’ that ‘fish don’t feel pain’. This was actually based on a review article – not on new evidence – which only concluded that ‘fishes are unlikely to feel pain’. Not quite the same as saying they definitively don’t (something that would be impossible to prove, anyway). There’s an interesting analysis of the review on the Practical Fishkeeping website that disputes the review’s conclusion, with help from an expert in the field.

What really didn’t come across from the media coverage is how difficult it is to draw any conclusions at all about what fish actually feel. The arguments can go either way – if fish recoil from painful stimuli, does this mean they consciously feel pain, or that they are unconsciously and ‘instinctively’ removing themselves from danger?

Luckily, another news story this week – about pain in crustaceans – shows how a cleverly designed experiment can shed a bit more light on a tricky subject like this. The study showed that crabs can learn to avoid electric shocks, going to the extreme of leaving shelter and venturing out into the open – something they’re not normally keen to do. Read the rest of this entry »

Real sea monsters

January 9, 2013

Reconstruction of the jaws of giant fossil shark Megalodon

Mermaids, kraken, sea serpents… they’re the kind of animals you WISH existed. That’s why I was so excited this week to read about new film footage of the ‘real kraken’ – the giant squid. It’s hardly ever seen alive because it lives at such great depths, and animals found near the surface are usually dead or dying. So we don’t know much about how they live. But now we know they really do look frighteningly like a kraken on film!

Japanese scientists filmed the squid deep in the Pacific, around 1000km south of Tokyo. As well as the video footage, there are also some amazing stills – it appears to have a silvery sheen, and was charmingly described by scientists Tsunemi Kubodera (clearly a squid super-fan) as ‘shining and so beautiful’ – aww!

Giant squid are the real deal – you can’t get much closer to a true sea ‘monster’ than an enormous, mysterious giant squid that has hardly ever been seen alive. But there are others that aren’t so well-known – including some that are hilariously unlike their mythical counterparts. Read the rest of this entry »

Animal research on BBC Radio 5 Live

December 4, 2012
Mice at a research facility

Mice at a research facility (credit: UAR)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I found out BBC Radio 5 Live were doing a 2-hour programme from an animal research facility in Oxford – they love a bit of controversy. I certainly didn’t think they’d feature a mouse being humanely killed live on air. Presenter Victoria Derbyshire got some great interviews with researchers and lab technicians, but some tired old cliches lived on, courtesy of Animal Aid. Read the rest of this entry »

Dave the Worm – getting creative with basic research

November 22, 2012

C. elegans – a worm like Dave

Have you met Dave the Worm? He’s the star of Parkinson’s UK‘s latest fundraising campaign, and I LOVE him. He’s cute and funny, but he also comes with a serious message about so-called ‘basic’ medical research and why it’s so important.

It’s quite hard to make basic research sound sexy, and even harder to be open and honest about animal research – but little Dave manages to do both. He’s a nematode worm – C. elegans to be precise – and researchers are using worms like him to understand more about Parkinson’s disease. Read the rest of this entry »