Archive for the ‘Evolution’ 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…)


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…)

Downloading your brain is nothing new

July 17, 2011
Brain image

Not much space in here!

Yet another reason why Google is a bit sinister – this week it’s being blamed for modern man’s rubbish memory. According to research in the journal Science, we’re relying on computers to be a permanent extension of our brains – Google remembers so we don’t have to.

But is this really a portentous development warning us of the perils of technology? Surely anyone who’s ever used a textbook is doing exactly the same thing. And books certainly didn’t herald the decline of the human race.  (more…)

What is consciousness?

June 14, 2011
Neuron by MethoxyRoxy

From neurons to consciousness - it's a giant leap (image by MethoxyRoxy)

Consciousness could probably be described as one of the most interesting problems in science – how do we explain that ‘feeling of feeling something’? What is consciousness for? Do other animals have it? Will we ever know the answers to these questions?

As usual it’s a good idea to break the task down into more manageable chunks, and you can split the conundrum of consciousness into two unequally sized bits: the easy problem and the hard problem.

The easy problem is finding out how brain activity matches up with conscious experiences – perception of movement or pain for example. But the hard problem really is a tricky one – how do all these molecules shuttling around the cells in your brain coalesce into the ‘you’ that exists at any one moment in time?

Research out this week illustrates the hard and easy problems nicely. Scientists have monitored the activity of the brain as it slips into unconsciousness – you can watch the video (it’s really interesting), but you can be damn sure it won’t explain the feeling of becoming unconscious.


Making good decisions

February 22, 2010
lab mouse

More intelligent than you?

It’s often been argued that humans are separated from other animals by their ability to use reason. But a brilliant event at London Zoo earlier this month showed that in fact we might be on the wrong side of this divide (at least some of the time).

The event, organised by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), was about ‘Making good decisions: how humans and other animals deal with an uncertain world’. The experts’ conclusions gave some unexpected insights into human and animal intelligence – they’re not as different as many would like to believe… (more…)

Cute science

February 7, 2010

Cute or what?

‘Cute’ is a concept that’s hard to explain but very easy to understand. Just look at that kitten, or watch this video of a slow loris holding a cocktail umbrella – you don’t need to be a professor to work out that they’re pretty cute. But what is it about a small furry animal (or a small baby) that makes us go ‘awwwwwww’? As with so many other problems in life, science is here to help us find the answer…


Dinosaurs – now available in colour

January 30, 2010
Dinosaur toys - photo by greeblie on Flickr

Ok, not these exact colours...

Reconstructing the past is a difficult job, whether you’re trying to understand a civilisation that’s long gone, or an ecosystem that vanished before humans ever existed. It’s easy to imagine how things might have looked, but much harder to prove it. Luckily, the journal Nature has brought us some good news on this front. A group of palaeontologists have managed to bring a piece of the past to life, using fossils to reconstruct the colouring of a little dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx.