Wednesday, November 30, 2011

inverted moons

Love the story about the inverted moons on christmas cards: Your moons are rubbish, astronomer tells Christmas card artists

I should just add that one doesn't need to know about waning moons and what time they rise - it is completely sufficient to know that both Sun and Moon move from left to right in the sky (seen from the Northern hemisphere outside the tropics) and that the bright side of the moon points towards where the Sun is. So in the wrong xmas card, the bright side points to the left, so the Sun is trailing the Moon and will rise in a couple of hours, so it must be early morning. For an evening scene, you want a Sun that has recently set, so bright side of the Moon must point to the right. Simples.

Are these artists the same people who insist on putting inverted helices on the covers of books and magazines, I wonder ...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

dancing about science

My feature article about science-inspired dance, and Aesop's fable -inspired science is out in today's issue of Current Biology:

Dances with magpies
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 22, R905-R907, 22 November 2011

Summary and free access to PDF file

A European magpie (source)

Rambert Dance Company

Thursday, November 10, 2011

water world

My review of

Sex, drugs and seaslime: the oceans’ oddest creatures and why they matter
by Ellen Prager
University of Chicago Press 2011

has appeared in Chemistry & Industry, issue 21, page 27 (restricted access)

Here's a snippet:

[...] as a taster of the overwhelming biological diversity that is out there in the oceans, the book is certainly a stimulating read. Given the amount of slimy, shapeshifting, limb-regenerating, and deadly poisonous weirdness found in its pages, it is intriguing to think about what we may still be missing in those 91 % of marine species that remain to be discovered.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Neanderthals old and new

Way back in the summer of 2003, Firstborn and I did some volunteer work helping to dig for Neanderthal remains in a cave in the Murcia district, Southern Spain. A single Neanderthal tooth that my daughter spotted was the most exciting thing that the hard work of 15 or so people produced during an entire week. There was also a femur head (the “ball” of the hip joint), but it was impossible to tell whether it was hominid or perhaps from a large mammal such as a deer. See my book The birds, the bees and the platypuses (pp77-80) for a more detailed account of our Neanderthal adventures.

I never went back to the cave and lost contact with the research team in the following years. Imagine my surprise then, as I researched an article on modern (genomic, imaging, etc.) methods of research into Neanderthals and found out that in the years 2005-2008, the very cutting where we had scraped around for a week had yielded skeletons with articulated parts of three Neanderthal individuals, found in an arrangement that suggests they may have been buried ritually (with their hands close to their heads, as has also been observed in other Neanderthal graves).

Given the slow progress of the excavation, which is carried out only during the summer months, we must have been less than a metre away from those skeletons. While there have been similar finds further north in Europe, this burial site is a first for the Mediterranean coast, and it may allow comparative studies re. how Neanderthals lived under different climate conditions. Sadly, however, attempts to retrieve DNA from the Spanish Neanderthals have remained fruitless. It appears that the genetic material doesn’t survive very well in the hot climate of southern Spain.

The discovery and excavation of the three skeletons is described in great detail in

M. J. Walker et al., Quaternary International 2011 (in press), doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.03.034

As the cleaning and detailed characterisation of each skeleton proceeds, individual studies will also become available. The first one appeared in September in PNAS:

M. J. Walker et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2011, 108, 10087

Oh, and my news feature on how genomics, imaging etc. is revolutionising palaeoanthropology is out in Current Biology today:

Virtual Neanderthals
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 21, R871-R873, 8 November 2011

Abstract and FREE access to PDF file

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Shakira live from Paris

As I've seen Shakira's Sale el Sol tour only twice, I can't wait to get the DVD, which is out on December 6th, as has just been officially announced. Full details are here. As the title suggests, the show was filmed at the Bercy, Paris, but not during the December 2010 gig that I saw. There were an additional two shows at the Bercy in the summer of 2011 which were used for the DVD.

As the UK distribution is hopeless again ( offers the DVD for an astronomical price of £ 26.75 and doesn't give a date when it might be available!), I've ordered my copy from

Oh, and there is a new live video out to promote the DVD, it's Antes de las seis from the Sale el Sol album. One of my favourite songs.