Monday, August 22, 2016

talking to animals

Inspired by the recent news of mutual communication between honeyguide birds and humans, I have had a look at our exchanges with other animals, including barking and meowing ones. The resulting feature is out now:

Talking with animals

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 16, pR739–R742, 22 August 2016

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

The Yao in northern Mozambique cooperate with honeyguide birds to raid bees’ nests, which the birds locate and the humans then break up to provide food for both. Humans and birds have specific calls for their joint honey-hunting expeditions, which have been established for several centuries at least. (Photo: Claire N. Spottiswoode.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

never too late

Never too late: My musical life story
by John Holt
Delacorte 1978; Da Capo 1991

After years of troubling the family class at the Oxford Music Festival in a duo with the young cellist, I also tried my luck as a solo flautist in the late beginners class this year. As I produced my first note on the flute at age 35, I considered myself qualified for this event. The adjudicator made lots of encouraging noises and recommended John Holt’s book to the class, consisting only of me and a pianist, mentioning that the author had taken up flute and cello at a similarly advanced age.

Closer inspection revealed that Holt had started the flute at 35 and the cello at 40, which quite closely matches the ages at which I got involved with the same instruments, so I just had to read the book to find out how he got to that point. (Part of my trajectory is outlined in this blog entry about our family cello.)

So I found out that the author had no exposure to music at home (must be bad when he writes down the five notes that his grandfather used to whistle as a musical influence!) and discovered singing when he joined the glee club late in high school. Having had no luck with music at college, he briefly sang in a barbershop quartet in his 20s, later taught himself three chords on the guitar, still blissfully unaware of what the #s and bs were for. Asked a musician what orchestral instrument to learn and was recommended the flute. Got on alright but dropped out when life got busy, then discovered the cello and threw himself into learning it. At the time of writing (in his early 50s) he was busy playing in three different amateur ensembles every week and practicing four hours a day.

In real life, Holt tried teaching, got disillusioned, and ended up writing books about education policy, home schooling and “un-schooling”, so he also has interesting observations on the process of learning in people of all ages. The important messages in this book are that 1) the widely held beliefs that many people are “tone-deaf” and that the ability to learn a musical instrument to amateur proficiency is rare are plain wrong, and 2) while an early start has its advantages, a late start also has some.

Like the adjudicator I would recommend the book to any grown-up toying with the idea or feeling the urge to learn an instrument. It’s the perfect protection against those who try to tell you you’re too old – as the head of a council music school told me at the ripe old age of 16. Holt’s story shows that it’s never too late.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

exoplanetary chemistry

In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry I have covered some recent developments in the discovery and chemical analysis of exoplanets, as well as the Breakthrough Listen programme, aiming to detect communications from their inhabitants.

Life among the stars

Chemistry & Industry vol 80, issue 7 (Aug. 2016), pp 18-21.

Free access to full text (HTML) via SCI.

Restricted access to full text and PDF download via Wiley Online Library.

In other astrobiology news, Germany now has a scientific society dedicated to this field, the Deutsche Astrobiologische Gesellschaft (DAbG). The founding meeting will be at the workshop "Astrobiology: Life in the context of cosmic evolution." at Berlin-Adlershof, Aug 31 to Sep 2. Programme.

Poster of the event.

Monday, August 08, 2016

progress ends here

As a non-British EU citizen living in the UK and likely to be affected by Brexit if and when it happens, I've had to spend a few weeks reading up on the referendum and all the other crazy things happening in the world right now, so I was glad to get the opportunity to write up what I think I understood in a feature for Current Biology. (Always handy when obsessive reading magically turns into valuable research.)

The theme that links Brexit to the rise of Trump, Le Pen, and other populist candidates appears to be that developments of the last three decades like scientific and social progress, European unification, globalisation, etc. have left far too many people behind, who now constitute the angry voters that are ready to elect populists offering reactionary recipes and simple lies in response to the complex questions of today's world.

For a somewhat more detailed analysis, read:

Angry voters may turn back the clock

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 15, pR689–R692, 8 August 2016

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Large pro-EU demonstrations, unheard of before the referendum, were held in London and other cities after the vote. The narrow margin of the result as well as the false promises that were withdrawn the day after the vote led to calls for a new referendum based on an actual plan of how an exit might work. (Photo: höRticuLtora/flickr.)