Saturday, September 21, 2019

caterpillar book out now

I haven't seen a physical copy yet, but apparently my latest book in German is out today (at least that's what amazon thinks). Ask at your bookshop or get it from amazon if you must. It is the second collection of the sketches I write for the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, the magazine of the German Chemical Society, covering roughly the last decade. The first collection was the nine million bicycles book published in Feb 2011.




The caterpillar in question is the tobacco hornworm / tobacco hawk moth (Manduca sexta), which has a remarkable resistance to nicotine as well as some other chemical tricks up its sleeve which I discussed in one of the sketches included here. I have a strong suspicion that Lewis Carroll had this species in mind when he invented the hookah-smoking caterpillar that confuses Alice with unhelpful answers in Alice's adventures in Wonderland, so I suggested to use an Alice illustration for the cover and got away with it. While it may be a little bit naughty to use another author's popularity this way, I feel that after 26 years at Oxford I can claim Lewis Carroll as my cultural background.

Friday, September 20, 2019

stupid useless vain

as today's global wave of climate demos were held, I happened to be in Düsseldorf. Starting point for the local demo was Corneliusplatz, and I didn't know the way there all that well, so I was really glad that this cyclist overtook me as I was cycling into town:




and I only had to follow her. The demo here was huge - this is what I saw on arrival at Corneliusplatz, clearly more than 10k people:





I've posted these and a few other quick picks from today on flickr, more to follow at a later date.

Monday, September 16, 2019

the trouble with tourists

Open Archive Day


travel is fun when you're a small number of travelers and you get to blend in with the locals in some faraway scenery. When the travelers outnumber the locals, we tend to call them tourists, and their idea of fun can become a problem for the resident population and for the environment. Blame it on capitalism commercialising and over-selling everything.

A year ago, prompted by a special issue on migration, I wrote a feature on the environmental impact of tourism, which is now in the open archives:


Global tourism's growing footprint




This August, Der Spiegel featured the madness of cruise operations on its cover - probably the most dramatic example of tourism going off the rails.

Oh, stop press, I just discovered that the Guardian has published a photo essay about this issue today:

A rising tide: ‘overtourism’ and the curse of the cruise ships

Thursday, September 12, 2019

science news 12.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

First water detected on potentially 'habitable' planet
This should be in today's issue of the Guardian as it appeared on their website yesterday afternoon.



evolution

Scientists identify rare evolutionary intermediates to understand the origin of eukaryotes
Took me a while to work out what this is really about, but it appears to be about ribosomal proteins in archaea.

Half-a-billion-year-old tiny predator unveils the rise of scorpions and spiders
Two palaeontologists working on the world-renowned Burgess Shale have revealed a new species, called Mollisonia plenovenatrix, which is presented as the oldest chelicerate. This discovery places the origin of this vast group of animals--of over 115,000 species, including horseshoe crabs, scorpions and spiders--to a time more than 500 million years ago.



Reconstruction of Mollisonia plenovenatrix, by Joanna Liang. Mollisonia was only about 2.5 cm long.
Credit: Illustration by Joanna Liang © Royal Ontario Museum


Ground-breaking method to reconstruct the evolution of all species
Researchers identified an almost complete set of proteins, a proteome, in the dental enamel of the now-extinct rhino and the resulting genetic information is one million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a 700,000-year-old horse.

Long before other fish, ancient sharks found an alternative way to feed


ecology

Aphid-stressed pines show different secondary organic aerosol formation

A precise chemical fingerprint of the Amazon
This novel drone-based chemical monitoring system tracks the health of the Amazon in the face of global climate change and human-caused deforestation and burning.

It's all a blur.....why stripes hide moving prey

Insects as food and feed: research and innovation drive growing field


humans

Discovering biological mechanisms enabling pianists to achieve skillful fingering


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

science news 11.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

Nitrogen explosions created craters on Saturn moon Titan



plant science


Raising a glass to grapes' surprising genetic diversity
genome sequence of Chardonnay grape


behaviour

Sex for cooperation
Using behavioral and hormonal data from a habituated bonobo community at the long-term LuiKotale field site in the Democratic Republic of Congo researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Harvard University and the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology have now shown that same-sex sexual behavior in female bonobos increases friendly social interactions, including cooperation.


nanoworld

Optical vacuum cleaner can manipulate nanoparticles


humans

Researchers find earliest evidence of milk consumption
A research team, led by archaeologists at the University of York, have identified a milk protein called beta lactoglobulin (BLG) entombed in the mineralised dental plaque of seven individuals who lived in the Neolithic period around 6,000 years-ago.



A jaw bone used in the study -- from the collections of the Dorset County Museum.
Credit: Dr Sophy Charlton, University of York


Bones of Roman Britons provide new clues to dietary deprivation
Researchers at the University of Bradford have shown a link between the diet of Roman Britons and their mortality rates for the first time, overturning a previously-held belief about the quality of the Roman diet.

The vagina monocultures
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have taken the first step towards trials of vaginal microbiota transplantation (VMT). Inspired by the success of fecal transplantation, it is hoped that transplants of vaginal fluids from healthy donors will provide the first restorative, curative treatment for bacterial vaginosis. Published in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, the team's donor screening concept aims to ensure that only beneficial microbes are transferred by VMT - and not potential pathogens.
The award for today's best headline goes to ...


--------------

In the news:

The science says that badger culls don't work against bovine TB, because badgers are social animals and if you disrupt their community structures, they'll move and spread any TB they carry even more. Regardless, UK governments are keen to approve badger culls, just to show farmers that they are doing something for them - and never mind the science. The Guardian reports today that a badger cull of unprecedented scale has been approved for this autumn.




Tuesday, September 10, 2019

science news 10.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

And then there was light: Looking for the first stars in the universe


evolution

Identity crisis for fossil beetle helps rewrite beetle family tree
The beetle at the center of this mix-up, about the size of Franklin D. Roosevelt's nose on the U.S. dime, is Leehermania prorova.


zoology

'Building blocks' of bird calls resemble human languages


environment

Major environmental challenge as microplastics are harming our drinking water


humans


Watching music move through the brain
Scientists have observed how the human brain represents a familiar piece of music, according to research published in JNeurosci. Their results suggest that listening and remembering music involve different cognitive processes.

Monday, September 09, 2019

save the sharks

We're culturally conditioned to see sharks as a threat to humans, but the reality is exactly the other way round. Humans are an enormous threat to a whole range of species of cartilaginous fish including sharks, rays and chimaeras. I wrote a feature about shark conservation back in 2014, but the recent news that the UK is actually exporting shark fins troubled me so much I decided to revisit the field. As a result I discovered more disturbing news - many people may be eating sharks without even realising it.

My new shark feature is out now:

Stop the global slaughter of sharks


Current Biology Volume 29, issue 15, pages R715-R718, August 5, 2019

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)





The whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest fish on our planet, has remained mysterious in many ways. (Photo: EliasSch/Pixabay.)

Saturday, September 07, 2019

hilary's tune

If you remember the biopic "Hilary and Jackie" (about cellist Jacqueline du Pre and her flautist sister Hilary), there is a scene where Hilary plays a piece to impress her new flute teacher. The teacher, however, tells her to go back to basics and focus on one note - the B at the beginning of the piece.

She was playing the Badinerie from the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor by JS Bach, and in spite of the unhappy outcome of that performance in the movie, the piece has stayed with me and I am very pleased that I am now able to find my way through it. I think the trigger for actually learning it was stumbling upon this rendition from the young Spanish flautist, Andrea Rozas, on some sort of talent show.

Although it is written for flute and harpsichord, it works very nicely for solo flute. And I've managed to memorise it (it is a very short piece). I've also learned the previous movement of the suite, which is a minuet. Both are also very nice for the alto recorder. Check also this version of both movements on the pan pipes.


I used the sheet music from flutetunes.com, so I have no beautiful antiquarian edition to show, but here's a flute portrait I took last month at the Half Moon:



I love the fact that pubs have flute-sized mats to put your instrument down ...


After a year spent with JSB and CPE, I am now ready to play a composer whose last name is not Bach.

Friday, September 06, 2019

science news 6.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



ecology


New study tracks sulfur-based metabolism in the open ocean



Study reveals new patterns of key ocean nutrient
The important nutrient phosphate may be less abundant in the global ocean than previously thought, according to a new paper in Science Advances. The researchers compiled data collected using highly sensitive techniques that measure phosphate to create a more accurate dataset to power global ocean models.


Breakdown in coral spawning places species at risk of extinction
Synchronized coral spawning has become erratic, endangering the long-term survival of coral species,


humans

First ancient DNA from Indus Valley civilization links its people to modern South Asians


Hunter-gatherers agree on what is moral, but not who is moral

People can see beauty in complex mathematics, study shows



-----------------


in the news


phosphate fertilisers are still at risk of running out
, but then again, recycling the phosphorus is eminently feasible, so just a question of political will. See also my relevant feature from November 17




Thursday, September 05, 2019

science news 5.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.

(Later than usual today as yahoo mail was down today which is where I normally get the EurekAlert email.)


astrobiology

Planetary collisions can reduce the internal pressures in planets
(I dropped the word "drop" from the headline as I didn't approve of the way it was used.)


evolution

Death march of segmented animal unravels critical evolutionary puzzle
The death march of a segmented bilaterian animal unearthed from ~550-million-year-old rocks in China shows that the oldest mobile and segmented animals evolved by the Ediacaran Period (635-539 million years ago). The research was conducted by an international research team from China and the US.


Prehistoric AC

Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs on the planet, had an air conditioner in its head, suggest scientists from the University of Missouri, Ohio University and University of Florida, while challenging over a century of previous beliefs.



A graphic thermal image of a T. rex with its dorsotemporal fenestra glowing on the skull.
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Brian Engh.


ecology

Underwater soundscapes reveal differences in marine environments


genomes

Researchers move beyond sequencing and create a 3D genome





humans

Denisovan finger bone more closely resembles modern human digits than Neanderthals

Depression breakthrough
Major depressive disorder -- referred to colloquially as the 'black dog' -- has been identified as a genetic cause for 20 distinct diseases, providing vital information to help detect and manage high rates of physical illnesses in people diagnosed with depression.

How 'information gerrymandering' influences voters
Featured on the cover of today's issue of Nature.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

science news 4.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

Study reveals 'radical' wrinkle in forming complex carbon molecules in space


earth

Oldest lake in Europe reveals more than one million years of climate history
That's Lake Ohrid (North Macedonia / Albania), in case you wondered.


zoology

New whale species discovered along the coast of Hokkaido

Birds in serious decline at Lake Constance



Nowadays a rare visitor: barn swallows have decreased by 70 percent around Lake Constance. The animals suffer above all from the disappearance of smallholder farms and barns where they can build their homes as well as the decline in insects.
Credit: Stephan Trösch

Slowed metabolism helps geese fly high
New physiology study sheds light on how bar-headed geese migrate over the Himalayas


sustainable tech

Europe's future is renewable
Europe has enough solar and wind resources to meet its electricity demand entirely from renewable sources. A new study by researchers at the Institute for Transformative Sustainability Research (IASS) in Potsdam shows that many regions and municipalities could meet their electricity demand using electricity systems based exclusively on renewables. However, their development would exacerbate land use pressure around metropolitan areas and larger conurbations.


humans

Scotland's genetic landscape echoes Dark Age populations

Human perception of colors does not rely entirely on language, a case study


-----------

in the news:


squirrels listening to birds' chitchat





Tuesday, September 03, 2019

science news 3.9.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.




ecology

Toxic frogs with weak defenses persist in the gene pool alongside stronger competitors



climate change

Vintage film shows Thwaites Glacier ice shelf melting faster than previously observed



Not much happening today, apparently (apart from UK's political meltdown).

-----

In the news:

a rather scary reminder to eat your five portions of fruit and veg ...



Monday, September 02, 2019

frack off

Open Archive Day

I only covered fracking in my features only once, I think, as I find it amounts to insulting people's intelligence to explain why this is a stupid idea, and even more so on a small and crowded island like this one. There's no space to build a high speed railway or to put up some wind generators, but messy gas production that causes earthquakes, sure we got space for that ...

So, experimental fracking attempts are still happening around here, except when they have to be stopped because of another earthquake (as happened again last week), until people have forgotten about that, and then they are started again.

I have no ambition to write another feature about that, so the old one from October 2013 will have to make do as my statement on these things:

Dash for gas leaves Earth to fry



Exploratory fracking operations in the UK have found enthusiastic support from the government, but fierce opposition from environmentalists and local residents. (Photo: courtesy of Sophie Yeo, RTCC (http://www.rtcc.org).)

Friday, August 30, 2019

science news 30.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

Hints of a volcanically active exomoon
A rocky extrasolar moon (exomoon) with bubbling lava may orbit a planet 550 light-years away from us. This is suggested by an international team of researchers led by the University of Bern on the basis of theoretical predictions matching observations. The 'exo-Io' would appear to be an extreme version of Jupiter's moon Io.
Might just be bubbling imagination, but then again, it might be true.



Artist's composition of a volcanic exo-Io undergoing extreme mass loss. The hidden exomoon is enshrouded in an irradiated gas cloud shining in bright orange-yellow, as would be seen with a sodium filter. Patches of sodium clouds are seen to trail the lunar orbit, possibly driven by the gas giant's magnetosphere.
Credit: © University of Bern, Illustration: Thibaut Roger


earth

Deep-sea sediments reveal solar system chaos: An advance in dating geologic archives
In a study published in the journal Science, Richard Zeebe from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and Lucas Lourens from Utrecht University used geologic records from deep-sea drill cores to extend the astronomical time scale beyond 50 million years, by about 8 million years. Using their new chronology, they provide a new age for the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (56.01 Ma) with a small margin of error (0.1%).


evolution

Ancient teeth shed light on Miocene 'mouse' migration


environment

Burgundy wine grapes tell climate story, show warming accelerated in past 30 years


neuroscience

Blue Brain finds how neurons in the mouse neocortex form billions of synaptic connections


cultural heritage

Scientists explore aged paint in microscopic detail to inform preservation efforts


humans

First human ancestors breastfed for longer than contemporary relatives

Cooper's Ferry archaeological finds reveal humans arrived in Idaho more than 16,000 years ago


People transformed the world through land use by 3,000 years ago
I'd call that a conservative estimate ...


Thursday, August 29, 2019

science news 29.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

Newly discovered giant planet slingshots around its star

Canadian astronomers determine Earth's fingerprint
which could be used to identify a planet beyond our Solar System capable of supporting life.


evolution

Paleontologists discovered diversity of insect pollinators in 99-million-year old amber



Buratina truncata, the new long-proboscid species of Paradoxosisyrinae from Burmese amber.
Credit: Alexander Khramov


A 3.8-million-year-old fossil from Ethiopia reveals the face of Lucy's ancestor


zoology

New insights into genetic basis of bird migration
A gene newly associated with the migratory patterns of golden-winged and blue-winged warblers could lend insight into the longstanding question of how birds migrate across such long distances.


climate change

Climate change affects floods in Europe


humans

After 10-year search, scientists find second 'short sleep' gene
After a decade of searching, the UC San Francisco scientists who identified the only human gene known to promote 'natural short sleep' -- lifelong, nightly sleep that lasts just four to six hours yet leaves individuals feeling fully rested -- have discovered a second.



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

science news 28.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


astrobiology

The dark side of extrasolar planets share surprisingly similar temperatures


ecology

How bees live with bacteria

Native approaches to fire management


behaviour

Crows consciously control their calls



Carrion Crow vocalizing
Credit: Tobias Machts


climate change

Arctic permafrost melting will aggravate the greenhouse effect


sustainable tech

Water harvester makes it easy to quench your thirst in the desert


humans

Seeing it both ways: Visual perspective in memory

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

science news 27.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.



earth

Utah's red rock metronome
"At about the same rate that your heart beats, a Utah rock formation called Castleton Tower gently vibrates, keeping time and keeping watch over the sandstone desert. Swaying like a skyscraper, the red rock tower taps into the deep vibrations in the earth -- wind, waves and far-off earthquakes."
As a rhythmically challenged musician, I have a conflicted relationship with metronomes, but this one sounds fascinating ...


evolution

Filter-feeding pterosaurs were the flamingos of the Late Jurassic


light and life

The secret of fireworm is out: molecular basis of its light emission


ecology

Urban living leads to high cholesterol...in crows

Wild ground-nesting bees might be exposed to lethal levels of neonics in soil



A female squash bee (University of Guelph)
Credit: University of Guelph


environment

New threat from ocean acidification emerges in the Southern Ocean

"Scientists investigating the effect of ocean acidification on diatoms, a key group of microscopic marine organisms, phytoplankton, say they have identified a new threat from climate change -- ocean acidification is negatively impacting the extent to which diatoms in Southern Ocean waters incorporate silica into their cell walls. The findings are important in the context of global climate change because of the implications for global carbon and silicon cycles and ultimately ocean productivity."


conservation

Northern white rhino eggs successfully fertilized
"After successfully harvesting 10 eggs from the world's last two northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu, on August 22nd in Kenya, the international consortium of scientists and conservationists announces that 7 out of the 10 eggs (4 from Fatu and 3 from Najin) were successfully matured and artificially inseminated. This was achieved through ICSI (Intra Cytoplasm Sperm Injection) with frozen sperm from two different northern white rhino bulls, Suni and Saut, on Sunday, August 25th."

Beaver reintroduction key to solving freshwater biodiversity crisis


medical

Mosquito incognito: Could graphene-lined clothing help prevent mosquito bites?


humans

The beginnings of trade in northwestern Europe during the Bronze Age


--------------

From the news media

Near-total ban imposed on sending wild African elephants to zoos


Monday, August 26, 2019

soundscape ecology

Open Archive Day


Animals not only make various noises, many of them also rely on the soundscape of their environment for crucial information. It therefore makes a lot of sense to tune into the sounds of nature and use that to study the interactions between species, aka ecology.

My debut feature on soundscape ecology came out a year ago and is now in the open archives:


Listening to the sounds of the biosphere




The presence of species like song birds, crickets or frogs can be detected in ambient sound recordings with the help of artificial intelligence.



Friday, August 23, 2019

no pain all glory

Almodovar's Pain and glory (Dolor y gloria) is released in the UK today, and I went into the first showing in Oxford, at lunchtime today. (A grand total of 4 other people showed up too.) He's now the only Spanish director whose films reliably get released in UK cinemas (in contrast to these films that don't get shown here), so it's also a case of use it or lose it.

If I've got all my numbers crunched the right way, this is his 21st feature length film as a writer-director, and it's the 18th I've seen (I still need to catch up with some of the wilder ones from before 1988). So a few words are in order (also, this blog has an almodovar tag that needs feeding).

As the media (even in the UK) have widely reported, this one has Antonio Banderas playing a thinly disguised, ageing and ailing version of San Pedro himself, which is of course hilarious for those of us who still remember a barely adult Banderas in the very early Almodovar movies. We're anchored in a very up-to date present (watch out for graffiti representing the #metoo type slogan "hermana yo si te creo" which dates from 2018), looking back at the director's distant past, from his childhood to the early movies. Various clever tricks help to bring back the ghosts from the past, and it's all very warm-hearted, life-affirming and all that. As always, it doesn't harm to have Penelope Cruz on board, ironically playing San Pedro's mother.

All my favourite Almodovar films have female protagonists (Volver, La flor de mi secreto, Todo sobre mi madre, etc. ), but given that this one was about himself, he didn't really have that choice, and right now, just hours after seeing it for the first time, I think I like it almost as much as some of the great female-led ones. Having said that, I will go back and watch Volver for the 3rd time (at least - can't believe I've only seen it twice, must be a bug in the bookkeeping), and Julieta, also for the third time.

Anyhow. Enough of me rambling. Here's a proper review from Peter Bradshaw, who saw it at Cannes.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

science news 22.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


evolution

20-million-year-old skull suggests complex brain evolution in monkeys, apes


ecology

Environmental DNA proves the expansion of invasive crayfish habitats


light and life

Separate polarization and brightness channels give crabs the edge over predators



This is the fiddler crab Afruca tangeri.
Credit: Kate Feller, University of Minnesota


humans

Nordic Bronze Age attracted wide variety of migrants to Denmark

Earliest evidence of artificial cranial deformation in Croatia during 5th-6th century

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

science news 20.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


ecology

Researchers develop tools to help manage seagrass survival


climate change

New study offers roadmap for detecting changes in the ocean due to climate change


birds

These migratory birds will risk their lives for a good nap
more about the crazy ways birds sleep (including during flight) in my feature on the evolution of sleep which came out yesterday.



bio-inspired

New artificial compound eye could improve 3D object tracking



Researchers have created a bio-inspired compound eye that is helping scientists understand how insects sense an object and its trajectory with such speed. The compound eye could also be useful for 3D location systems for robots, self-driving cars and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Credit: Le Song, Tianjin University


sustainable tech

Bottles made of lignocellulose, perfumes of apples


humans

Variation in the shape of speech organs influences language evolution







Monday, August 19, 2019

the science of sleep

Why do we have to sleep? Well, ok, for humans it is easy to come up with a whole range of reasons why we need a certain budget of sleep - our lives are tiring, our complex brains need rebooting once a day, and sleep does all sorts of good things for us.

However, as research keeps discovering sleep behaviour in more and more primitive animals, including invertebrates that don't even have a brain, the phenomenon is getting harder to explain. If they want a bit of a rest at night, that could be easily regulated in a circadian cycle which most multicellular organisms have anyway. But why did our common animal ancestors, more than half a billion years ago, go to the trouble of evolving a budgeting mechanism of the kind that troubles us when we missed out on sleep and have to catch up?

The short answer is, we don't really know - but the quest to understand this does yield some very interesting insights into the hidden lives of all sorts of animals. My feature on this issue is out now:


The reasons of sleep

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 15, pages R775-R777, August 19, 2019


Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)


Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)


Oh, and if I got my maths right, this is the 200th feature in this series - since I took on the challenge to write a feature for every issue, back in February 2011. Since the first one, there have only been three or four issues without one, for one reason or another.



Most mammals are very much like humans in their sleep behaviour. Attempts to explain the evolution of sleep with the mental benefits it has for humans and other mammals are undermined, however, by the findings that some of its features are shared across the animal kingdom. (Photo: RoyBuri/Pixabay.)

Saturday, August 17, 2019

the lost world of tumblr

Eight months after the Great Tumblr Purge, the site appears to be going the way of MySpace now. Press reports of its sale to the owners of WordPress this week suggested the price tag was just $3 million, down by a factor of 300 on what Verizon paid for it just two years ago. Which reminds us, again, of MySpace in the doomed tenure of Murdoch's empire.

Here is a very detailed article in El Mundo which cites the $3 million price as a fact, while the Guardian calls it unconfirmed.

(UPDATE 21.8. I like this analysis asking: Could WordPress + Tumblr create an alternative to Facebook? which would be good but I'm not terribly optimistic.)

Since the purge, I have made it a habit to log into tumblr just once a week to inspect the damage. The situation is very much as it was in January - the art has gone, much of the porn is still there. Clearly censorship has done a brilliant job at blowing this up.



Screenshot of my tumblr archive when I still had one (mid Dec 2018). At that time, I shared a bit more NSFW content than usual in protest against the censorship, upon which I was sent to the naughty corner - no archive, no profile pic, posts can only be accessed by scrolling in a sidebar, so older posts are basically unretrievable (they don't show up in searches either).

One of the effects of the purge is that some NSFW artsy things that would have been all the rage on tumblr are now a bit harder to find. Following my December listing of free the nipple things, here are a few more things that should be on tumblr but don't have a home there any more.

La perla expuesta (a Spencer Tunick style art project connecting public spaces with human forms, which happened in Guadalajara, Mexico, last year apparently).

Performance Leonardo Otero (this is the title of the youtube video, don't know anything else about it, but it also seems to be set in Mexico).

Tove Lo live - a compilation of revealing moments ...

... and speaking of LGBTQ-related synth pop, here's t.A.T.u. in a Sept. 2013 reunion concert which I only just discovered. The notorious stage kisses have given way to hugs, and there are dancers with hilarious costumes and inflatable props, so what's not to like? This has given me some serious noughties nostalgia now. And made me realise that I need to work on reviving my Russian.

Reminiscing of the lost world of tumblr also reminded me of Clayton Cubitt's iconic series of videos Hysterical Literature, which has since then been transferred into many other languages including:
Spanish (?),
Catalan,
Portuguese,
Russian,
Chinese (?) ...
and here's author Candice Dawn using the format to promote her book Reclaiming Eros
and here is one of the original videos with the artist's explanations of his thinking.

PS sadly the alternative site 2mblr which I mentioned in previous posts never became fully functional - last time I checked it still worked as an uncensored archive but not as a live site where you can blog and reblog things. And the last time they copied content across from tumblr appears to have been in early May, so maybe they have given up entirely now?


Friday, August 16, 2019

science news 16.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


evolution

Early species developed much faster than previously thought, OHIO research shows
We're talking Ordovician biodiversity explosion here (not origin of life). Only 500 million years ago.

The composition of fossil insect eyes surprises researchers
"Eumelanin -- a natural pigment found for instance in human eyes - has, for the first time, been identified in the fossilized compound eyes of 54-million-year-old crane-flies. It was previously assumed that melanic screening pigments did not exist in arthropods."

Extinct Caribbean bird yields DNA after 2,500 years in watery grave


Dinosaur brains from baby to adult



Head posture if the lateral (horizontal) semi-circular canal is parallel to the ground, in hatching (A), juvenile (B) and adult (C) Psittacosaurus lutjiatunensis.
Credit: Images courtesy of Claire Bullar and IVPP. Images not to scale.


sustainable materials

Green chemists find a way to turn cashew nut shells into sunscreen


humans

Care less with helmet
"A bike helmet suggests safety -- even if the wearer is not sitting on a bike and the helmet cannot fulfil its function."


Thursday, August 15, 2019

science news 15.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

How many Earth-like planets are around sun-like stars?


evolution

What a group of bizarre-looking bats can tell us about the evolution of mammals


ecology

Hard-working termites crucial to forest, wetland ecosystems

Flashlight fish use bioluminescence to school at night




Flashlight fish (Anomalops katoptron)
Credit: D. Gruber (2019)


plants

Sticky proteins help plants know when -- and where -- to grow


environment

New study: Fracking prompts global spike in atmospheric methane


humans

Neanderthals commonly suffered from 'swimmer's ear'
"Abnormal bony growths in the ear canal were surprisingly common in Neanderthals"

A society's cultural practices shape the structure of its social networks

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

science news 14.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

James Webb Space Telescope could begin learning about TRAPPIST-1 atmospheres in a year
There's a conference on exoplanet climates happening here at Oxford right now, live-streamed here:
http://exoclimes2019.org/ As I'm old enough to remember the discovery of the first exoplanet, I was shocked to see there are so many people studying what was the stuff of imagination just a short while ago.


diatoms

Scientists discover key factors in how some algae harness solar energy


plants

How plants synthesize salicylic acid


zoology

Interbreeding turned grey squirrels black -- study


environment

Coca and conflict: the factors fuelling Colombian deforestation

Study examines how media around the world frame climate change news

Arctic could be iceless in September if temps increase 2 degrees


quantum information

Schrödinger's cat with 20 qubits



In quantum computing, a cat state - named after the famous analogy of Schrödinger's cat -- is a quantum state composed of two diametrically opposed conditions simultaneously. Together with experts from Forschungszentrum Jülich, an international team has now succeeded in placing 20 entangled quantum bits in such a state of superposition.
Credit: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Annette Stettien


humans

Study reveals the emotional journey of a digital detox while travelling

Apples, tea and moderation -- the 3 ingredients for a long life

---------------

from the news media

a human-sized penguin

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

science news 13.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

Methane not released by wind on Mars, experts find
"New study rules out wind erosion as the source of methane gas on Mars and moves a step closer to answering the question of whether life exists on other planets."


evolution

Ancient pigs endured a complete genomic turnover after they arrived in Europe
"New research led by Oxford University and Queen Mary University of London has resolved a pig paradox. Archaeological evidence has shown that pigs were domesticated in the Near East and as such, modern pigs should resemble Near Eastern wild boar. They do not. Instead, the genetic signatures of modern European domestic pigs resemble European wild boar."


birds

Scent brings all the songbirds to the yard
"Lehigh University scientists found that not only can chickadees smell, but the males and females prefer the smell of their own species over the smell of the opposite species. These preferences could be impacting hybridization. Their results have been published in an article entitled: 'Conspecific olfactory preferences and interspecific divergence in odor cues in a chickadee hybrid zone' in Ecology and Evolution."



"The sense of smell has been very understudied in birds, particularly songbirds, because they frequently have such impressive plumage and song variation," says Amber Rice, an evolutionary biologist at Lehigh University. "Some other recent work has documented that species of songbird can smell and prefer their species' odors, but this is the first example in currently hybridizing species that we know of."
Credit: Lehigh University


Scientists identify brain region that enables young songbirds to change their tune


environment

New study shows impact of largescale tree death on carbon storage

Wildlife trafficking and more hinder nations' sustainable development
"Transnational environmental crime, or TEC, has become the largest financial driver of social conflicts in the world,"

Diet change needed to save vast areas of tropics, study warns


---------------


From the news media:

I admired the conversion of industrial land around Kings Cross station to a very chic urban landscape last Tuesday (I came to visit Word on the Water - a bookshop in a narrowboat, and the rest came as bonus discoveries), but now the Guardian tells me I have been a guinea pig in surveillance using facial recognition. I did notice on the day that the site was surprisingly free of the grittier parts of London life, so maybe that could be related?

Monday, August 12, 2019

alaska without the sea ice

Open Archive Day

Sea ice in the Arctic continues to decline. Right now, the shores of Alaska are reported to be free of ice, with the nearest ice shelf 240 km away. Lots of people aren't hesitating to exploit these new economic opportunities with activities that inflict further damage on the environment.

It still drives me mad when I see ads for Arctic cruises (eg through the North West Passage, where the Franklin expedition perished in 1845-47), but a year ago I channelled that rage into a feature about the damage done by ships in places that should really be covered by ice.


My feature is now in the open archives:

Arctic shipping threatens wildlife






Marine mammals, including these beluga whales in the pack ice in West Greenland, are set to suffer from the growing number of ships using the Northwest Passage. (Photo: Kristin Laidre/University of Washington.)


PS Here's the Guardian on the damage caused by polar cruises (13.8.)

Friday, August 09, 2019

science news 9.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


evolution

Control theory: Mother nature is an engineer
"In the last 150 years, engineers have developed and mastered ways to stabilize dynamic systems, without lag or overshoot, using what's known as control theory. Now, a team of University of Arizona researchers has shown that cells and organisms evolved complex biochemical circuits that follow the principles of control theory, millions of years before the first engineer put pencil to paper."


ecology

These sharks use unique molecules to glow green
A slightly belated PR as the story was already in the Guardian yesterday.


climate change

Over a century of Arctic sea ice volume reconstructed with help from historic ships' logs



The US Revenue Cutter Thetis moored to sea ice near King Island, Alaska, in 1903.
Credit: Coast Guard Museum Northwest



Stony corals: Limits of adaption
"Corals have been dominant framework builders of reef structures for millions of years. Ocean acidification, which is intensifying as climate change progresses, is increasingly affecting coral growth. Scientists from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the University of California have now answered some questions regarding whether and how corals can adapt to these changes by having gained important insights into the regulatory processes of coral calcification."


sustainable tech

Installing solar panels on agricultural lands maximizes their efficiency, new study shows


humans

Ethiopian rock shelter earliest evidence of high-altitude prehistoric life

Decoding touch
"Study in mice reveals several distinct molecular mechanisms underlying abnormal touch sensitivity in autism spectrum disorders. Gene mutations in the peripheral nervous system lead to touch aversion and interfere with normal brain development in young mice, underscoring importance of early intervention. Treatment with an old experimental compound that selectively targets the peripheral nervous system without entering the brain reduces abnormal touch sensitivity, normalized certain social behaviors."

Great Scots! 'it's' a unique linguistic phenomenon
"A new study reveals that in a number of varieties of English spoken in Scotland, the rules of contraction (it's for it is) seem to differ unexpectedly, and asserts that such differences may shed new light on our understanding of language."

Positive effect of music and dance on dementia proven by New Zealand study

Thursday, August 08, 2019

science news 8.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

New insights into the origin of life
"... energetically feasible interactions between just two small molecules -- hydrogen cyanide and water -- could give rise to most of the important precursors of RNA and proteins."


ecology

Blue sharks use eddies for fast track to food



Blue sharks are considered a "near threatened" species due to heavy fishing pressure on populations across the globe.
Credit: Nuna Sá


health

Fast-food availability near commute route linked to BMI

33% of new childhood asthma cases in europe attributable to air pollution

Air pollution cuts are saving lives in New York state
"Lower air pollution levels saved an estimated 5,660 lives in New York State in 2012, compared to 2002 levels, according to a new study."

Marijuana legalization reduces opioid deaths



--------------

From the news media

Ooooooh, green-glowing sharks, lovely!




Wednesday, August 07, 2019

science news 7.8.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

Dead planets can 'broadcast' for up to a billion years
"Astronomers are planning to hunt for cores of exoplanets around white dwarf stars by 'tuning in' to the radio waves that they emit."


evolution

NZ big bird a whopping 'squawkzilla'
"Australasian palaeontologists have discovered the world's largest parrot, standing up to 1m tall with a massive beak able to crack most food sources. The new bird has been named Heracles inexpectatus to reflect its Herculean myth-like size and strength -- and the unexpected nature of the discovery."



Reconstruction of the giant parrot Heracles, dwarfing a bevy of 8cm high Kuiornis -- small New Zealand wrens scuttling about on the forest floor.
Credit: Dr Brian Choo, Flinders University


behaviour

Staring at seagulls could save your chips
Can't you just imagine the many hours of tireless fieldwork that were necessary to come to this result?


conservation

Industrial fishing behind plummeting shark numbers


food and drink

Guacamole lovers, rejoice! The avocado genome has been sequenced


quantum information processing

Striped glow sticks
"It may be possible to reach new levels of miniaturization, speed, and data processing with optical quantum computers, which use light to carry information. For this, we need materials that can absorb and transmit photons. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, Chinese scientists have introduced a new strategy for constructing photonic heterostructure crystals with tunable properties. Using a crystalline rod with stripes that fluoresce in different colors, they have developed a prototype of a logic gate."


------------


From the news media:


Tardigrades alive on the Moon?



Tuesday, August 06, 2019

science news 6.8.2019

I took a couple of weeks off from the arduous task of filter-feeding the daily science news. Did I miss anything important?
No? Good, back to business:

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary (using quotation marks) in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without quotation marks, if I have any.


astrobiology

A new lens for life-searching space telescopes


evolution

Intense look at La Brea Tar Pits explains why we have coyotes, not saber-toothed cats

It would take 50 million years to recover New Zealand's lost bird species
"Half of New Zealand's birds have gone extinct since humans arrived on the islands. Many more are threatened. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on August 5 estimate that it would take approximately 50 million years to recover the number of bird species lost since humans first colonized New Zealand."



This image shows a Kakapo bird.
Credit: Andrew Digby / Current Biology


ecology

Road verges provide refuge for pollinators
"... but they must be managed better, new research shows."

Seaweed sinks deep, taking carbon with it

Restoring forests means less fuel for wildfire and more storage for carbon
See also my feature on reforestation, out this week.


catalysis

Stanford scientists create artificial catalysts inspired by living enzymes


energy

Improving the magnetic bottle that controls fusion power on Earth
"The exhaustive detection method that discovered the error field in the initial run of the NSTX-U tokamak could serve as a model for error-field detection in future tokamaks."


humans

Recursive language and modern imagination were acquired simultaneously 70,000 years ago
"A genetic mutation that slowed down the development of the prefrontal cortex in two or more children may have triggered a cascade of events leading to acquisition of recursive language and modern imagination 70,000 years ago. This new Romulus and Remus hypothesis, coined by Dr. Vyshedskiy, a neuroscientist from Boston University, might be able to solve the long-standing mystery of language evolution."


-------------

in other news ...

It's Hiroshima day today.




Monday, August 05, 2019

plant a billion trees

As the world is slowly waking up to the fact that the climate crisis is real, a popular response is to plant some trees - after all they do CO2 removal for a living. Recent research has looked into the scale of reforestation physically possible and its impact on the climate. The good news is that it can have a significant effect - but not if people plant monocultures of unsuitable trees for commercial purposes.

My feature about the dos and donts of reforestation is out now:

How to bring back our planet’s forests

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 15, pages R715-R718, August 5, 2019

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)




Volunteer helpers of the organisation One Tree Planted at a forest restoration project in Guatemala. (Photo: One Tree Planted, onetreeplanted.org)

Sunday, August 04, 2019

just blow

All our instruments series, episode 16

Approaching the millennium, we're now firmly in the realm of instruments bought for the children with various flimsy excuses. This one was a present for the young flautist in the family, but never found much use. Trying to record a half-decent video with it, I realised why - it isn't all that easy to get a proper sound out of it. Even though I spend a fair amount of time each day producing sounds by blowing across a similar-sized hole on a flute, this set of panpipes seems to want a different kind of embouchure or angle or I don't know what. I'm only playing the bottom row anyway, as the access to the top row seems to be limited by my chin colliding with the pipes of the bottom row. So this instrument seems to be trouble all round, but it is very decorative dangling from the shelves.



(The background texture in this photo is another instrument to be discussed later in the series ... )

It doesn't have any marks re origin or maker, and I can't remember where I bought it. May have been from Tumi, who had a lovely Latin American / Fairtrade shop in Little Clarendon Street in the 90s. Nowadays I believe the company still exists but only trades online. Oooh, good guess, here are the pipes, still: Zampona 11/12, although sadly sold out at the moment.

So, anyhow, here's my rather embarrassing series of attempts to play some notes on it:



I do like the sound though, on the rare occasions when I manage to produce it.


Monday, July 29, 2019

rhino reproduction

Open Archive Day

One of the collateral benefits of playing wrong notes in public is that I get to meet lots of random people who do interesting things, and quite a few of them doing really exciting science. Recently, I came across someone starting a project on fertility treatments for rhinos, with a view to aid their conservation - I am sure this will make a great story one day. While we're waiting for the rhinos to get their reproduction sorted out, here is my feature on the current problems in rhino conservation, from the first issue of last year:

Last call to save the rhinos



The southern subspecies of the white rhino has been a conservation success story after narrowly escaping extinction at the end of the 19th century. (Photo: Cindy Harper.)




Saturday, July 27, 2019

father to son

Crikey, looking up my entry on JS Bach's partita I realise that I spent half a year trying to get my head round his son's response, CPE Bach's sonata for solo flute, also in A minor. Slightly less catchy than the father's opus, the son's work is weird in a whole new range of ways, sometimes so modern that the time gap could be 300 years rather than 30. I really like this recording by Georgia Browne, on a baroque flute.

Not sure if any musical psychoanalyst has worked out what this piece tells us about CPE's relationship to his dad, but it surely would be an interesting exercise in understanding humans through the music they produce.

In any case, I had great fun with the first two movements and maybe didn't appreciate the third quite as much, so now decided to move back to the father's work.

Here's my still life with an edition of solo pieces which contains both the CPE sonata and the partita as well as lots of other solo works useful for those who don't have a tame pianist at hand ...

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

first molecules - ever!

I might have naively assumed that the first molecules in the universe were hydrogen ones (H2) as H is the simplest atom, but I have now learned that this was not the case. In fact, helium hydride has a strong case for being the first altough the search for this molecule in the current universe has only discovered it recently. I've discussed all of this together with the science of another very early hydrogen compound, trihydrogen, in my latest feature about the chemistry that happened before the first stars were born (mindboggling thought):

Dawn of chemistry

Chemistry & Industry 83, No. 7, pp 30-33.

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (should turn up here soon)

Any access problems give me a shout and I can send a PDF.

Have a sneaky peek at the first page:

Monday, July 22, 2019

exploring odour space

Can't believe it's four years since my feature about how the human sense of smell is underappreciated in modern society, which was mainly based on Asifa Majid's work on hunter-gatherer groups in South Asia who are much better at defining smells in words than we are. So when a major paper came out doubling the number of assignments of olfactory receptors to specific odours, I was glad for the opportunity to revisit the human sense of smell and check up how Asifa's work is progressing.

The new "smelly" feature is out now:

Odour space - the final frontier

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 14, pages R663-R665, July 22, 2019

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)




The smell of lavender is recognised as pleasant and soothing. Perception of
the relevant compound linalool is variable between individuals, however. (Photo: © Tiomax80/
Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Sunday, July 21, 2019

22052 tweets

So as of today, 17:17h (BST, I assume) I have been on twitter for ten years exactly.

In those years I have posted 22052 tweets
accumulated 1275 followers
and followed 2090 other accounts.

I now realise that following that many was a mistake as it makes the timeline unmanageable and I don't want the algorithm to pick "top tweets" for me. But hey - just @ me if you think I should read a specific tweet of yours, because most of the rest will just float by.

Back in 2009, I signed up to twitter just a few weeks after coming back from a science communication conference where some of the other participants were already using it and talking about it all the time. The adoption was also accelerated by the fact that MySpace was beginning turn into a ghost town at around that time, and many of the contacts I had there migrated to twitter.

Since then, the tweets of a certain racist in high office have spoiled the experience a bit, I lost control of my timeline, and I also don't like the direction that twitter is changing (to become more like facebook, apparently). When the new version hit me earlier this week, I thought I would have to leave as I hated it so much, but then I discovered the North Star symbol in the top right corner above the timeline, where you can switch from algorithm-controlled nonsense (now including random people's likes - why?) to a simple format where all tweets are listed chronologically as they should be.

Anyhow, I guess I will stick around a bit longer, but don't expect me to see everything you tweet.




For reasons unknown, my twitter has reverted to the old style after a few days with the new one - so I'm immortalising its look here, in case they switch me again and I might never see the old twitter again.

Oh, and one of the things that I still love about twitter is that it is prepared to speak Galician to me. (Facebook should do, in theory, but often falls into English, and at one point sneakily tried to switch my language to English without asking my permission.)
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