Thursday, 29 April 2010

Emperor Tamarins, Chimpanzee Grief and Pollen Grains

Hi. Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful. Image of the day is this bizarre, moustachioed creature- the Emperor Tamarin, Saguinus imperator.

Emperor Tamarin, Saguinus imperator. Image (c) Victoria Neblik, 2010, all rights reserved.

The emperor Tamarin is a South American species, found- specifically, in the rainforest in parts of Eastern Peru, Northern Bolivia and Western Brazil, where it lives in groups of around two to eight animals. Both males and females have “moustaches”. This particular individual is part of London Zoo’s, impressive new display-“Rainforest life”. The zoo is calling this new exhibit/enclosure, which also contains golden headed lion tamarins, sloths and cardinal pope birds, their “flagship” display for 2010.

It has been a really busy couple of weeks for me- I am still treading the path/tightrope between art and science, fitting interviews in around finishing several books simultaneously (never a good idea), but, as you can see, I did manage to schedule a visit to London Zoo. I also visited London Aquarium, which launched a new exhibit- “Rainforests of the World”- fairly recently. The aquarium's exhibition is nicely presented, but not as big as I was expecting. Perhaps I have just been to too many aquaria and am getting confused, but I can't help thinking that London Aquarium in general used to have more in it.

I have 2 “links of the week” this week; the first is this popular science article by Henry Fountain in the New York Times-
Like Origami, Pollen Grains Fold Just So”-
which talks about recent research describing the way the surfaces of pollen grains fold as they dry –the article comes complete with embedded video.
The second link-of the week is this article (with two videos) about Grief in Chimpanzees-
In the case of the latter article, I claim pride-by-association as it talks about some of the great research done in Guinea by my good friend and former office-mate, Dr. Dora Biro. Dora is one of those scientists who works incredibly hard (in her case pursuing research in 2 fields simultaneously) and gets great results, but remains modest with it. You can find out more about her work here- and here -

Friday, 23 April 2010

Image of the day- Hedgehog by Rebecca English

Good Morning! Welcome to Weirdbeuatiful.
This lovely image is by a school-friend of mine: Rebecca English. (c) R. English, 2010. All rights reserved.
It seems very appropriate to Spring for some reason.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Link of the day- Jane Goodall

Good Morning, Welcome to Weirdbeautiful.

Quote of the day (sticking with the Spring theme) is from Doug Larson, the British middle-distance runner-

"Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush." -Doug Larson (1902-1981)

Link of the day is this interview with Jane Goodall; the interviewer is Emma Wells and it was published a week or two ago in "The Times" (of London)-

Friday, 16 April 2010

Quote of the day- Hal Borland- Spring.

"No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn". -Hal Borland,
(American Author, 14/5/1900-22/2/1978)

Image: Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, Sylvilagus floridanus -public domain image by William R James*- for deatils see- file source-

Quote with thanks to
* Image source= The National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service- for original file, click [here]

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Link of the day- Truffle Sex

There seems to have been a bit of a dearth of good or interesting scientific news stories over the past couple of weeks (apart from the Mephedrone story- see below), even in The New York Times, which seems to run a lot of good science stories. However, I did find this little gem by Nicolas Wade- "Unearthing the Sex Secrets of the Perigord Black Truffle"-

It has all you could ever want to know about truffles and their biology but if that doesn't sound very entertaining, let me whet your appetite with this choice quote from the article- [WARNING- This may put you off truffles for life...]

"Don’t the fly’s eggs and larvae degrade the edibility of the truffle? It seems the opposite is the case. “If collected at late maturation stages, the truffles will likely carry eggs and larvae — adding proteins and aroma to the truffle,”"...

- not beautiful, but certainly Weird.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Science update- Mephedrone, Plant food, Poison and the difference between them

In “science update”, I usually post links to the latest scientific discoveries to have hit the headlines or to have caught my attention.

In the past few weeks, the main science stories to break have been various tales of improbable creatures (all discovered, coincidentally, on April Fool’s day) and –in the UK, at least, ongoing coverage of the drug mephedrone and the large number of deaths attributable to it.

In many ways, the main mephedrone story is not so much about the science of this poorly-characterised designer drug (officially known as 4-methylmethcathinone) but the politics around it. However, when I read that mephedrone (or “miaow miaow” , as the tabloids are calling it) was a plant food, I got quite excited about the whole subject and the prospect of weaving it into a story about how potent plant-products are and how products that are used for plants can have potent effects on us, too.

The pharmacology of plants and their poisons (also known as ethnobotany) is one of my favourite subjects. I can bore for hours on the topic and, my internet search history and amazon purchases on the subject could probably put me on several government watch-lists. I think almost everyone goes through a phase of being fascinated with drugs- usually in their teenage years, admittedly, but there is something so universal and powerful about a tiny tablet being able to kill or cure a comparatively huge human (or make them see fairies or talk to trees in the case of the really interesting drugs). It would take a very un-curious person not to be amazed and to wonder at the mechanisms behind them- especially the reality-distorting drugs. At this point, a writer like Oliver Sachs would probably extrapolate to a deeper theory of mind or a philosophy of consciousness or understanding.

(Absinthe glass and spoon-Image by Eric Litton- reproduced under creative commons 2.5 licence- for image source and licence details, see-

For my part, I’d like to talk about a book on toxicology that I was researching around this time last year. It was a difficult project- technically and in terms of keeping an even tone: how do you discuss the use of cyanide in the holocaust or Sarin on the Tokyo Underground in the same style as you relate Van Gough’s exploits with absinthe? In the end, I was very unhappy with the publishing contract I was offered and a number of other things and the book was shelved. None-the-less, I learnt quite a bit in the process. Some of those things were intricate mechanisms and metabolic pathways, but there were a lot of little pieces of trivia, too. For example, I discovered that, at the moment, over 100 plant-derived chemicals are used as drugs; these include all sorts of compounds from opiates like morphine and codeine (“opium” is actually a mixture of these two compounds) to substances like aspirin (originally derived from willow bark), digitalis (a heart drug that comes from foxglove plants) and curare (a natural muscle-relaxing compound used in poison darts that has been modified for use in the operating theatre).

It is not at all surprising, then, that compounds from plants can have powerful effects on people. It is a slight leap from this to realising that chemicals that mankind has synthesised for use on plants can have potent consequences for humans who eat them.

Had mephedrone actually been a plant food, I would then have talked about other plant foods and about herbicides. Paraquat- the herbicide would get special mention – I would have written about how toxic and- frankly- “evil” it is to anyone unfortunate enough to drink it. My soon-to-be sister-in-law once told me how she (an accident and emergency nurse) would love to show people contemplating a paracetamol (=acetaminorphen) overdose just how vile, protracted and distressing their demise would be, before they condemned themselves to such an end. Paraquat is worse.

Taxus baccata , European Yew. Image source: Creative commons licence 3.0. Photographer name not supplied. For more details, see

Again, if mephedrone had actually been a plant food, I would then have segued into a discussion of some plant poisons- belladonna perhaps, wormwood or yew, all of which have the kind of colourful folkloric associations that make them easy to write about. In the event, however, the idea that mephedrone is plant food is completely false: it seems that it is simply labelled as such, to safeguard its dealers from legal problems and restrictions associated with supplying substances for consumption.

Catha edulis ("khat"/ "qat")Image source: wikipedia "Khat" entry. public domain image.

No doubt, in time, various interesting aspects of mephedrone’s pharmacology will be revealed, the weird quirks of its chemistry that make it simultaneously dangerous and fascinating. For the moment, we know that it behaves partly like amphetamines and partly like khat (also known as Qat) – a drug found in Catha edulis – an East-African and Arabian plant. Beyond this, for now, the mephedrone story in the media is about drug culture, needless deaths and politics and a very long way from science.

- Article (c) V Neblik. All rights reserved. Written 3/4/10. Nothing in this article should be construed as encouraging the use of drugs.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Image of the day- Dormouse by Arno Laurent

Garden Dormouse, Eliomys quercinus. Image by Arno Laurent. Reproduced in accordance with the image's Creative Commons 3.0 licence. Image source: - see this website for more licence details.

My own recent news is that my latest interview- a piece with Darren Mann (the Assistant Curator of the entomology department of Oxford University's Museum of Natural History)has been published- in Practical Reptile Keeping magazine, as usual and should be on the shelves in newsagents in the UK any day now. Darren is a world expert on cockroaches and dung beetles, so his interview is predictably entertaining. You can find details of local stockists of the magazine (within the UK) and of international subscriptions [here]

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Art is Art and Science is Science and never the twain shalll meet?

In 1959 Baron Charles Percy Snow wrote of the “Two cultures” of intellectuals- artists and scientists. This is one of the better sections-

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.

As an idea, “the two cultures” has both outgrown and outlived its inventor ( is an idea “invented? discovered?) and it gets revisited regularly- for example last year in “Seed” magazine-

It is an idea I think about a lot, particularly now, that I divide my time between arts and sciences: writing- mostly about science- but about other topics, too, such as Bushido, rock music and Zen Buddhism (not at the same time...) under different aliases. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been- variously- reading scientific papers about dung beetles and turtles, working on a popular science book and completing my latest collection of limited-edition art-prints: a series of botanical images called “Spring Florals”. It is an odd schedule and, frankly, fairly punishing at the moment, for all it is good fun. Far weirder, however, is the reaction of other people to this mixed-bag of projects.

On the one hand, interdisciplinary projects are very fashionable in science-grant-awarding circles, and, likewise, being a “polymath” (for want of a better word) is de rigueur in internet-land: how else can one explain the model Katie Price (Jordan) being listed by Wikipedia as an “actress, author, business woman, media personality, philanthropist, glamour model, producer, singer, song-writer and television personality”?

John Brockman wrote nearly twenty years ago about the “third culture” (an idea first mooted by CP Snow) of people intermediate between arts and sciences forming a sort of “ideas/ideology bridge” (my words, not his) between the two camps.
It is certainly easy to think of people in public life who would fit in this category. Prof. Steve Jones, Prof. Richard Dawkins, Prof. Brian Cox...

On the other, hand, this attitude filters very poorly into real life. For example, I have an “arty” friend who has enormous trouble taking my photography seriously on the grounds that I trained as a scientist and therefore, have nothing to bring to the world of art. Equally, I have a science-trained friend, who considers my arty pursuits to be not worthy of my time: beneath a scientist almost. Equally, numerous universities (at this point, I will refrain from naming and shaming) pay lip service to the importance of science communication and this “third culture” but stubbornly refuse to pay for it or even to consider what it might involve, beyond employing a few PR staff and doing press releases.

In the fifty years since Baron Snow’s speech, we have put man on the moon, cloned sheep , discovered quarks and pulsars but we are still having trouble with the concept of a “third culture”.

- (c) V Neblik, 2010. All rights reserved.