Saturday, 30 October 2010

Bookshelf Number 2- other people's bookshelves...

"Bookshelf" is going to be an occasional feature on this blog, posted at irregular intervals. The standard "bookshelf" format will be like that for "Bookshelf Number 1".
This week, however, I want to just post a link to the 15th July (2010) edition of The Guardian newspaper's "Science Book Club" by Tim Radford, which talks about E. O. Wilson and his book "Naturalist". The link is -

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Link of the week- Drugs company ethics

Welcome to Weirdbeautiful.

Today's link is to an opinion piece on the ethics of drugs companies-specifically with regard to promoting pharmacological treatments for female sexual dysfunction (which generally responds very poorly to drug treatment)-

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Quote of the week- Nathaniel Hawthorne- Happiness is a butterfly

"Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly may alight upon you"
- Nathaniel Hawthorne (American Writer, 1804-1864)

The picture above is from my new video "The Flowers at Our Feet", which you can see on youtube [HERE]. I believe that the butterfly is a pink cattle heart- Parides iphidamus, which is a Central American species. Image (c) Victoria Neblik, 2010 | All rights reserved.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Bookshelf- Number 1- "Plant Hunters" by Carolyn Fry"

(Above "The Plant Hunters"- book (bottom) and protective book-sleeve (top))

When I was a child, I used to read a (now defunct) history magazine called "Discovery"; each edition covered a different historical period- the Ancient Egyptians, Heian-Period Japan, Elizabethan England, and so on...

One of the best things about the magazine was that, as well as being well written (something I appreciate a lot more these days), it contained facsimiles of a couple of historical documents in each edition. Things like the confession of Guy Faulkes and various international treaties or declarations of war. At the time (late 80s-1990) this was really very innovative and impressive.

Last month, I was given a copy of "The Plant Hunters" (subtitled "The adventures of the world's greatest botanical explorers") by Carolyn Fry, which I am periodically dipping into. It is a really wonderful book and completely stuffed with "more than 100 images from the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens" at Kew (the book was produced to tie-in withthe 250th Anniversary of Kew gardens in 2009). In other words, interleaved in the book are numerous envelopes containing high quality reproductions of historic botanical documents- notes by Carl von Linne and Joseph Hooker, Chinese paintings showing preparation of tea from Camellia sinensis leaves, letters relating to the early trade in natural rubber/latex and much else besides.

(Facsimiles of Notes by Carl Linneaus in "The Plant Hunters")

The author- Carolyn Fry- was also responsible for "The World of Kew" (the book produced to accompany the T.V. series "A Year at Kew", so it not at all surprising that "The Plant Hunters" is similarly well written and readable. Tackled in order and in sequence, the pages chart the history of botany and the discovery and exploitation of plants useful to mankind, but the book also works well as a coffee table-book or for casual browsing. In any case, I heartily recommend it.

Selection of historical documents supplied with "The Plant Hunters"- those pictured include documents relating to the rubber trade, a letter about exporting rubber plants to start plantations and botanical notes on orchids, all shown on the pages of the book relating to the tea trade/ tea growth.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Quote of the week- Max Planck on scientific truth

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up familiar with it"
- Max Planck, German Physicist, (1858-1947)

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Link of the Day- death of Benoit Mandelbrot

Prof. Benoit Mandelbrot in 2007- image by Rama. For image license details, click [here]

Good Morning.
Welcome to Weirdbeautiful

Today I just have this link for you reporting the death on Thursday of the Mathematician and "Father of Fractals", Benoit Mandelbrot-
He was 85.

Maths is a very strange subject in so many ways and fractals/fractal geomtery is one of its weirder and more beautiful expressions. There is more information on Prof. Mandelbrot's work- including the famous Mandelbrot Set(s) here-

and here-

The image above is a picture from a Mandelbrot Set by Wolfgang Beyer taken from wikipedia [HERE]- details of the image license are [here]. The image below (also by Wolfgang Beyer) is another from the same set, this time, the 11th picture in the sequence. Licence details are [here]

Thanks to Komal for the New York Times link.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Link of the week- "make a supersonic man out of you"

One of the more interesting (and less depressing) stories to appear in the papers in recent weeks has been that of the ongoing battle between Felix Baumgartner and Michel Fournier to be the first supersonic man. More accurately, the two men are both attempting to break the sound barrier by riding to the upper stratosphere by helium balloon and jumping out. The full story can be found online on the website of The Guardian newspaper here-

- a shorter version of the same tale appeared in the news synopsis magazine "The Week" (11th September edition). This week's issue of the same magazine (The Week)relates the discovery of the fossilised remains of a giant "Water King" penguin on the Southern Coast of Peru-
"Inkayacu paracasensis, which lived some 36 million years ago- stood around 5 feet tall and had striking red and brown plumage" The Week reports that the scientific team that made the discovery was led by Jakob Vinther of Yale University. The colour of the penguin's feathers was deduced from the size and shape of fossilized pigment-producing cells (melasomes), which were found to be similar to those producing redish brown or grey colouration in other (living) species of birds and unlike melasomes found in living penguin species.

The full reference for the scientific paper is-
J. A. Clarke, D. T. Ksepka, R. Salas-Gismondi, A. J. Altamirano, M. D. Shawkey, L. D’Alba, J. Vinther, T. J. DeVries, and P. Baby. 2010. Fossil evidence for evolution of the shape and color of penguin feathers. Science 330
and there is an abstract online [HERE]

This is not the first time the colour of a long extinct animal species has been deduced from a fossil. In fact, some years ago, my former PhD supervisor, Prof. Andrew Parker (now of the Natural History Museum in London)discovered evidence of colouration in three long-extinct species of fossilized seed shrimp. In that case, the colouration was caused not by a pigment, but by a light-reflecting structure on the animals' antennae. The tiny structure diffracted light -splitting any light falling on it into its constituent wavelengths (colours)and "scattering" the different coloured light in different dirrections. The result was that the antennae would have had bright, multi-coloured appearance - more details of that are online [HERE].

Today's final link is to this article on a career in making the transition from research science to science writing by Rosalind Pidcook-

this is a subject somewhat dear to my own heart (see "A week in the Life of a Wildlife writer"), since I have made the a similar career transition myself; my route was different from Rosalind Pidcook's, proving (if proof were needed) that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat....

Monday, 11 October 2010

Creature Feature- The Weird Beauty of the Thorny Devil

Good Morning! Welcome to Weirdbeautiful and Happy Monday to you.
Today's Creature-feature is a Thorny Devil; an Australian lizard with the unfair latin name Moloch horridus. Thorny devils live in arid scrubland and desert in central Australia and can be reared in captivity and- as this photograph by KeresH shows- handled by man without ill-effect. The picture has a GNU Free documentation license- you can find details of that [here]. There is more information on the thorny devil [here].

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Science News- update- "Red Sludge" in the Danube

Good morning,
Welcome (back) to Weirdbeautiful.

The Big science news of the week continues to be the accidental release of "Red Sludge" ( a by-product of Aluminium extraction from Bauxite) in Devecser, western Hungary. The sludge :a strongly alkaline mixture containing high levels of Arsenic and Mercury has wreaked havoc, killing seven people so far and injuring hundreds more, after it escaped from a crumbling storage-reservoir. In the short term, part of the problem is that the mixture is so alkaline : in fact, the leak caused parts of the Danube river to turn alkaline, with a pH of around 9.
You can read more about this story just about anywhere, but some of the best coverage is in the IHT -

In a follow-up to the original story, the IHT also reports that there are now fears that the reservoir may burst again, releasing yet more toxic sludge:

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Opinion piece- Prof. Brian Cox is wrong, science is hard and this is a good thing

It is very easy to criticise other people and it can be very hard to create something yourself. For this reason, I have thus far only ever posted positive commentary- linked to sites that I have enjoyed or that I think have either scientific worth or aesthetic/entertainment value. However, today I am going to make an exception....

I want to talk about "The Sun" newspaper but, more specifically this quote, attributed to Prof Brian Cox, who is “The Sun[‘s] Professor”

What do science, technology, engineering and maths mean to you? They are known in schools as STEM subjects and for many people they sound like hard work - things only clever people with frizzy white hair and lab coats do. I never felt that way. .... If you are reading this at school, then you can choose to be a scientist, mathematician or engineer as I did. These are careers for everyone, not just a brainy few”

As I see it, there are two problems with this statement. Firstly, it seems to me that this “Science isn’t all geeks, it’s actually cool and fun” message is getting a little tired. It has been expressed, rephrased and re-expressed over and over again in popular science. I am not convinced that anyone really sees science in terms of those “clever people with frizzy white hair and lab coats” stereotypes anymore; quite aside from the fact that the average person sees their local pharmacist or beautician in a lab coat far more often than they will ever see a scientist in one. In fact, the main people who hold and perpetuate those stereotypes are the media themselves, including those parts of the media who are constantly rehashing them, in order to surprise us with the twist that “science is actually interesting”.

The second problem is that the last comment “These are careers for everyone, not just a brainy few” is just plain wrong. This is not a value-judgement, but a simple statement of fact. Can you imagine the sporting equivalent?- “Professional Football is a career for everyone, not just a sporty few” or the musical version? - “A career as a concert pianist is a one open to everyone, not just those with musical aptitude”. ... absurd, aren’t they?

I think this is very telling. There is no shame in not being a professional athlete or musician- in society’s eyes (the child picked last for the team every single games lesson will have a different view of this) but science communicators do think there is shame in not being “brainy” and, like the self-aware racist who never says anything offensive, but sees the whole world through a lens of race, some science popularisers seem to fall over backwards to pretend that science is not difficult and that it is a career open to everyone.

Clearly this isn’t the case. If you are “unintelligent”, you will never be a successful scientist- why pretend otherwise? This does not make an “unintelligent” person (whatever that means and however “intelligence” is assessed) a less worthwhile human being or a less valuable member of society. I would also like to point out, having been a research scientist at Oxford University, myself, that I have met just as many supremely intelligent people outside academia as inside it and some of them had never even finished primary school.

A.A. Milne famously wrote that -
“A third rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority, a second rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with a minority and a first rate mind is only happy when it is thinking”.

For these “first rate minds” – i.e. those that we should be attracting into science and those that will stand the best chance of succeeding in it, the fact that it is “hard” (for which read “stimulating”) is not a bad thing, but a selling point. Lisa Simpson may be a fictitious character, but young (wo)men in her mould are more common than the media realises. A better message is that science is hard- choose a career in science and you will have to work very hard for many years, however, it will be very interesting and this does not mean that you should not pursue it. .

The final point I would like to make is that science is not unique in being difficult, nor is it uniquely difficult. There was talk some years ago of replacing trial-by-jury in certain fraud cases on the grounds that the general public (jurors) simply had not understood the financial intricacies of several high profile cases and that this had had a critical bearing on the outcome of the trial. Despite this, I have never once heard accountants, economists or even lawyers described as “brainy” or “geeks”.

At a complexity theory conference a few years ago, I met a linguistics professor who told me that all his life he had wanted to study “the hardest and most complex subject” he could find and, to that end, he had left a successful career as a nuclear physicist to study linguistics... “Hard” and “brainy” are, at least partly, in the eye of the beholder.

I do feel, in writing this, that I am pointing out the blindingly obvious, but if an influential person, like Prof. Cox is quoted saying such things in a newspaper read by over 7.5 million people every day, this needs to be challenged.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Cheering-up toadstool...

Good Morning! Welcome to Weirdbeautiful. In honour of Autumn in place of a Cheering-up-bird today, we have a cheering-up toadstool. This is a Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. The picture is by Tony Willis, who also took one of last week's pictures- the image of a Pied/ New Zealand fantail posted [HERE]. Today's image has a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license- you can find details of that [HERE].