Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

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. (more…)


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. (more…)

What’s in a name?

September 8, 2012
Pale tussock moth caterpillar

Hello there!

I met a new friend in the park today. He’s a fellow vegetarian, even shorter than me, with spiky hair and stumpy legs. Unfortunately I think I scared him – he took one look at me and froze. I had to leave him under the tree where I found him.

As you might have guessed from the picture, my small hairy friend is a caterpillar. I was delighted to see him (not only because I was looking for something to distract me from some work I was meant to be doing). I LOVE caterpillars – they’re small, colourful, comical and really cute. But after a squeal of ‘awww!’ my second response was, ‘what’s your name?’ (more…)

Science pilgrimages

May 6, 2012
Toco toucan

Toco toucan – one of the animals I want to see one day in the wild (photo by Christ Parfitt)

Anyone who pretends that science is all about rationality really isn’t a very scientific observer. It’s easy to see that nerds are captivated by the standout stories from the history of science – I hope we’ve all felt that sense of overwhelming wonder as we imagine being the first man on the moon, or standing side by side with Darwin as he got his first glimpse of the animals on the Galapagos Islands. And our trips to historic scientific sites do seem a bit like pilgrimages to the scientific holy land.

I remember as a small nerd visiting the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, where I hopped from side to side of the Greenwich Meridian. I knew that it was only an imaginary line, but I got a real kick out of seeing it – even at the time I realised this was pretty irrational. (more…)

Tiny chameleons are big news

February 15, 2012
Brookesia chameleon

A slightly larger relative of the new species (picture by Frank Wouters)

It’s no secret that I adore chameleons. They look like toys designed to appeal to children who love animals – colourful, cute, with crazy eyes and super-powered tongues. And they change colour! What more could you want?

Well, how about a miniature chameleon so small it can sit on the head of a match? Thanks to the amazing island of Madagascar and a new paper by a group of German scientists, we now know there is such a creature. Although I’m amazed they ever discovered such a tiny, well-camouflaged little chap. And because science is the gift that keeps on giving, not only are these chameleons very cute, but they can also tell us some interesting stuff about tiny animals and how they evolve.

Face it: wasps are intelligent too

February 3, 2012
Polistes fuscatus - paper wasp

Nice antennae.

We humans like to congratulate ourselves on the many ways in which we’re ‘superior’ to other animals, but it seems like every week a new piece of research chips away at this idea. The most recent example that caught my eye was a paper in the journal Science showing that a species of wasp can recognise the faces of its fellow insects.

As some commenting scientists pointed out in last week’s Nature magazine, ‘the finding that a small-brained insect shares the ability to recognise faces with humans and other primates may come as a surprise’, especially if you think that this sort of intelligence requires a large brain. But should we really be shocked by this? (more…)

The strange and beautiful science of decay on BBC4

December 14, 2011
Slime mould

Slime mould - just one of the many stars of 'After Life' on BBC4

A few weeks ago I had a moan about how the BBC’s flagship nature series Frozen Planet struck me as being a bit content-light. But I’m happy to say I’ve had my confidence restored – thanks to an amazing documentary on BBC4 called After Life: The Strange Science of Decay.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single programme that packed in so much fascinating science. Centred around a ‘model home’ filled with food that gradually decayed over 8 weeks, the show touched on insects, bacteria, fungi, slime moulds, military sandwiches, forensic science, and the evolution of life on Earth. And it was all held together by Dr George McGavin, a really charming and down-to-earth presenter who expertly conveyed how exciting and important decay actually is. (more…)

Mammoth excitement

December 10, 2011

A slightly inaccurate but cute mammoth

The film Jurassic Park came out in 1993 when I was ten. It’s one of the few films I vividly remember seeing in the cinema – I was totally riveted. I even shed a few tears when Dr Grant and Dr Sattler finally see their first ‘real’ dinosaurs (what’s worse is that I still cry when I watch that scene).

Back then I was convinced that within my lifetime there would be cloned dinosaurs walking the Earth. I remember being impatient for this to happen, but realising that we probably weren’t quite there yet.

So I was unreasonably excited to read the news this week that scientists from Russia and Japan are planning to clone a woolly mammoth. Seriously. A mammoth. I’m sure it’s still a long way off, but THIS IS WHY SCIENCE IS COOL. (more…)

BBC’s Frozen Planet – big budget YouTube?

November 3, 2011
Adelie penguin

"I preferred 'Life on Earth' actually..."

Anyone who enjoys wildlife documentaries has to clear a space in their diary for a new BBC series – especially if it features the patron saint of the natural world, David Attenborough. And Frozen Planet is one big budget, time-lapse-photography-and-sweeping-helicopter-shot-filled extravaganza.

I’ve been oohing and aahing my way through the first two episodes, but watching last night’s made me realise that sometimes wildlife documentaries are really just high-concept versions of those ‘cute animals doing stupid things’ videos you get on YouTube. Now in my opinion that is no bad thing – I can watch baby penguins falling off things for hours – but I have to admit it made me miss the glory days of Life on Earth, one of the best TV series I have ever seen.  (more…)

Ada Lovelace Day – hooray for women in science

October 7, 2011
Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace: not just a pretty face

Last week I happened to pass a room in the building where I work, in which a meeting of world-class scientists was taking place. A quick glance through the glass wall revealed a disturbing gender imbalance – there were no women in the room at all.

I often read about how there aren’t enough women in science, and part of this is a generational thing. Most of the men in that room were in their 50s, and 35 years ago when they were choosing their careers it wasn’t very common for women to go into science. But nowadays we hope for better – young women should feel just as able to become scientists as their male fellow students.

So it’s great that Ada Lovelace Day is encouraging women in science to take a moment to think about the ladies who inspire them (Ada not only had a brilliant name, she was also a trailblazing 19th century female computer programmer). They say everyone remembers a good teacher, and two of the women who taught me science at school have really stuck in my mind.