Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014: top ten Top Tens

Yes, it's true, it's kinda meta, it's really pointless, it's my top ten Top Tens of 2014!

1. Best Viral Internet Animal Moments (Daily News)

This is pot of gold for those who like the ridiculous and crazy stories of animal daring-do and dear-god-Fluffy! Don't! Doooon't! Personally my favourite headline of the lot: Oregon family dials 911 after being held hostage by 22-pound pet cat

The most amazing by far though, is the cat that ninja kicks a dog in the face to save a wee boy. "I think not, baby puppy".

2. Top 10 (x4) Worst Book Covers and Titles Ever (Bored Panda)

Okay, so this is a top 40 (I may be a scientist but I was never gifted at maths), I just couldn't resist it. It is also a great way to find items for your Amazon wish list.

3. Feuds (Time)

There's something comforting about knowing that no matter how much money you have, or how famous you are, you will be unable to overcome the basic human drive to squabble. Of most interest here are the White Hats vs Black Hats - the Jedi and the Sith of the internet (respectively) - and #Gamergate and misogynism in gaming culture. Check it out for more info.

Black Hats Vs White Hats - to hack or protect?
Getty Images

4. Top 10 Physics whatever *yawn* (Scientific American)

Speaking of feuds, I unwittingly stumbled into the one between the sciences, that is, between Physics and... well, everything else. Some comments on my facebook got me an earful from physicist friends (I made the mistake of saying something unfavourable about their God: Prof Cox). So, in an effort to smooth things over, here is a list of top stories about physics and space.
No 3. "gravitational waves from the big bang – or just some galactic dust" - gosh, that sounds exciting... (said no one, ever)

I love you really.

5. Top 10 Films Mentioned on Most Critic Top 10 Lists (Metacritic)

This is the inception of list picks, a meta metacritic list! Not only has it made my list of lists, but it is in fact a list of metdata on other lists made by online critics. I'll need a sit down after this one.

Metacritic has always interested me, as they are applying statistics and metdata to film. Their scores are based on the consensus of many critics, and are updated as more reviews are written and published. Does this mean they are more accurate? A statistician might say yes, but my Mum poses the philosophical riposte: "just because everyone else is jumping off a cliff..."
She's not mad keen on statistics.

From Metacritic, updated regularly as reviews are published and data added.


6. Top Memes and Viral Videos (BBC)

The BBC does some pretty decent social media coverage (@BBCtrending is a good follow) and this list goes to show how crazy people are out there on the ol' websicle. They've taken their pick for every month of the year, have a browse and relive those goat-filled moments of 2014.

"Goats got us very excited in February" Image BBC

7. Social Media Fails (Inc)

As a relative newbie to twitter, I sympathise with others who make mistakes with their hashtags. When you are tweeting on behalf of a large company however, you better make sure your social media skills are sharp and your support team is savvy. A momentary lapse of care and you may end up posting this to your customers... hashtag oops

8. Science Images (Science)

An image speaks a thousand words, never more true than in science. Meghna Sachdev's choice of images for Science in 2014 is beautiful, inspiring, and takes us to every corner of the house of Science. I sense a desktop background in your future.

Rosetta - Image: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

9. Biblical Archaeology Discoveries (Christianity Today)

You got to hand it to 'em, those Christians know how to dig themselves a hole: an archaeological one that is. From 8,000 year old olive oil ("4,000 years before the time of the biblical patriarchs"!) to tracking down a stone Jesus was really keen on in the Bible, I just can't believe the wondrous discoveries from the holy land.
I mean literally: I don't believe any of it.

No, follow the gourd!

10. The Most exciting and Frustrating Stories from the World of Dinosaurs (Brian Switek)

There are so many people doing dino lists, but Switek's is the only list you need to read. There are way more than 10 in this list, but it was a must in any list of lists. From the funny (dinos farting themselves into oblivon) to the fascinating, he picks out the best of the year for you, with links and explanations.
If you don't already follow this guy, I have no idea what is wrong with you.

@laelaps - instant follow!

Friday, 26 December 2014

My Top 10 Science picks of 2014

Some of my favourite moments in the realms of science this year, in no particular order.

1. Swimming with spinosaurs

In September, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues published their findings that Spinosaurus was semiaquatic.While palaeontologists had dabbled with the idea for a few years (and oxygen isotopes provided evidence of fish-eating), there wasn't enough fossil evidence to confirm the extent of its watery lifestyle.

Ibrahim discovered some hitherto overlooked bones from Egypt, discovered over 100 years previously and thought lost. Assembling the skeleton, he announced his discovery to public delight. There are still some critics urging caution: biomechanical analysis of the jaws of Spinosaurs have found there is more to the animals feeding style than just being a bipedal croc. Also, both terrestrial and airborne species have both been found among its last meals, so it must have spent time on land as well as water.

For many though, Spinosaurus is now firmly an aquatic beast.

A few of the adaptive morphologies identified by Ibrahim et al this year that lead them to believe Spinosaurs were aquatic.

2. Frozen Prehistoric Virus Invades!

A horror movie made real, French scientists announced that a virus had come back to life in March this year, after slumbering in the frozen tundra of Siberia for over 30,000 years.
The Blob (1958)
Just as we packed our bags and were about to flee for the hills and bunkers, they reassured us that all was safe - unless you are an amoeba of course. Pithovirus sibericum only attacks single-celled organisms, but won't infect humans or animals. Phew.
Pithovirus sibericum. Image: BBC
But wait... 

"researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in Siberia's permafrost" the BBC tell us. As climate change melts the permafrost, all sorts of nasties may come out to play. Apparently smallpox isn't out of the question.
Can such viruses really survive for thousands and even millions of years? "If they do survive this, then they need to find a host to infect and they need to find them pretty fast."

Holiday in Siberia anyone?

3. Rosetta Comet - when scientists lose their cool.

The secret is out, scientists are all nerds (yes, even Prof. wear-all-black Cox). At no other point this year was the cat more out of the bag than when Philae completed its 10-year, 6.4 billion km journey to park itself on a comet. (We actually landed something on a comet: we are living in a sci-fi novel now people!)

You can't leave this event off a top 10 list for the year, but what I enjoyed most about it was watching the eloquent, unflappable Professor Monica Grady - calm voice of science on so many BBC Radio 4 programmes - go totally bananas when the lander touched down. I guess every one of us has to have a screaming nerd-gasm at some point in our lives. You go Girl.

4. Much ado about genomes

Sequencing genomes is rather trendy now, and increasingly cheap and easy (comparatively of course; it'll be a while before you'll be getting a sequencer for xmas). As a result, scientists are working their way through the natural world, sequencing as they go. I'm not sure who choses their subjects, but whoever it is, they were hungry in 2014: first salmon (Salmo salar) and then coffee (Coffea canephora) got the genome treatment this year.

Atlantic salmon. Image: Hans-Petter Fjeld
Chocolate and coffee, our caffeinated
friends. Image:
Coming from the Scottish Highlands and studying environmental science, I can attest to the mad passion for salmon among those who like to eat and/or conserve it. This fishy genome should improve wild fish stock management and conservation, as well as aiding commercial needs such as breeding selection, food quality and traceability.

Coffee meanwhile, is my morning mistress. It turns out that it developed caffeine via a different path from chocolate, and the magical bean also contains 23 novel genes (each one more delicious than the last). This is an interesting example of covergent evolution in plants. Moral of the story? Drink mochas to cover both caffeine families.

Tangentially, mammoth genomes are also a hot topic in late 2014, as Channel 4's Mammoth Autopsy introduced the public to the possibility of filling the tundra with these hairy behemoths, thanks to some ethically questionable South Korean scientists who currently clone pets. Can we? Should we? Debates rage, but if a private group work out how to do it, could we stop them even if we wanted to?

5. Ebola.


We watched in shock as Ebola appeared in March 2014 and unfurled itself across Western Africa. Over 7,500 people have died so far, and we are approaching 20,000 infected. Spread through body fluids, the virus incubates for 2-21 days, making detection difficult.

Colourised TEM of the Ebola virus, also called Ebola
haemorrhagic fever. Image: CDC

Health workers are fighting the spread on the ground and
treating the infected. The virus is spread through direct and
indirect contact with bodily fluids. Image: CDC
Ebola is by no means the most deadly disease out there, leading analysts and scientists to ponder why the West has become so scared of this one in particular. The general consensus is that we are no longer used to dealing with untreatable diseases: we expect there to be a pill for everything (in the West there usually is, if you can afford it.)
Ebola means isolation from those you love, and in all likelihood a slow, lonely, painful death.

There has been a strong and fierce criticism that there was no real talk of a cure until "white people" got infected, prompting some controversial memes (search: ebola white people meme). When two Americans were infected, a serum was administered to them that cured them, leading to an outcry: why was this serum not being given out in Africa? Money, logistics, the usual excuses.

If 2014 is the year Ebola appeared, let's make 2015 the year we wiped it out.

6. Antarctica's secrets

Imagine an entire frozen continent was hidden from the world, so well hidden, that only in 2014 did we realise it had a gouge out of it bigger than the Grand Canyon.
Welcome to Antarctica.

Antarctica: smuggling a super-canyon while the forests and bones of ages past
are scraped from its surface.
The canyon under the ice. Image: Geological Society of America

This story is one of my picks because the Southern continent is a real land of mystery. Home to life for most of its geological history (probably including nocturnal dinosaurs) only relatively recently did it hide itself away under the ice. It's a recluse in the crustal family, frantically rubbing out the secrets written on the diary pages of its surface with thick erasers of glacier.

If the ice melts and humans are still around, can you imagine what we might find under there?

7. Politicians still can't IPCC sense

I do wonder just how bad things have to get before politicians will actually do something to mitigate climate change. Only time will tell, and the latest IPCC report, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, came out this year to remind us that we're royally screwed if we don't get our shit together. You can't help but feel let down by yet another anti-climactic (or climatic) UN talk: this one was in Lima. In the usual political non-speak, they reached a monumental agreement: they agreed to talk about it more next year.
Read the report here.
Meanwhile, 2014 has been the hottest year ever recorded, with record droughts, storms, flooding and other climate related events. All of this supports the assertion that weather is becoming more extreme as our climate alters.

This is the most important news story of the millennium, not just the year.

8. Changing wombs

A 36 year old woman, born without a uterus, gave birth to a baby this year.
In the world's weirdest case of re-gifting, the womb was donated by a 61 year old friend of the family who had been through menopause (the press's tactful way of saying she didn't need it any more).

Dr Mats Brannstrom from the University of Gothenburg led the procedure, and there are apparently two more women expecting soon. Simply amazing.

9. Mine is bigger than yours


Everyone likes an est.
Longest, strongest, fastest, fattest. This year there was a lot of noise about the biggest dinosaur ever found. Based on what they have so far at the dig in Argentina, this Cretaceaous sauropod would have been around 40m long and weighed almost 80 tonnes.

Of course the world of palaeontology was quick to start debating the methodology for estimating size, and arguing over who exactly who has the biggest one (dinosaur that is).
Whatever the outcome, it looks likely that this will be one of the largest living creatures ever to have walked the earth.

Obligatory palaeontologist-lying-beside-femur shot. Image: BBC

10. Science in the movies

Jurassic World, another sequel to the much-loved Jurassic Park, was announced and the trailer released. It was promptly torn to shreds by the fearsome claws of science, and the cry went out: why won't Hollywood portray science more accurately?

Diagnosed as a case of "Nerd-Rage", well known scientists, bloggers and writers were all talking about the appalling lack of progress in the 21 years since the first JP film. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for featherless dinosaurs. It might take an entomologist to wonder why there is a cranefly in amber instead of a mosquito, but it doesn't take a mathematician to realise a mososaur that big couldn't live in a pond that small. It isn't just the dinosaur films, every scientific discipline suffers in virtually every film it appears in. There are no explosions in space, or flickering flames. A 100% DNA match isn't possible for two different organisms (Prometheus), you can't drill to the centre of the earth (The Core), and those lab results will not be on your desk by the end of the hour (every crime series/film).

Studies have shown that bad science in movies actually impacts student understanding of the real processes at work in the world around them. It's time we stopped making excuses for poor science in movies.

As this top 10 shows, the realities are more exciting than any of the stuff those scriptwriters can make up.

Friday, 12 December 2014

My DNA Determines my Christmas Gifts

Clicking through layers of menus on the website of a Museum that shall remain nameless, I try to find gifts to add to my wish list (my family likes to make wish lists for one another - see previous blog about dino-gift-giving). I'm seeking items that involve animals, perhaps detailed pencil sketches and anatomical studies. Maybe something with bones in/on it, or ancient maps. A pinch of dinosaur, a smidgin of the Victorian collector, a generous undertone of science.
Where do I find these things? Gifts: for Him.

Everything I want is under this heading. Who decided these were manly things? Are you telling me there are no other ladies that want lithographs and fossils in their Christmas stockings?

What, I am frightened to ask, are gifts for Her? Butterflies, birds and flowers apparently. How delightfully dainty. While he gets ammonites, talons and skeletons, she desires fluttery and furry things, preferably in scarf-format (though a bag will also do).

On the other hand, apparently men are really into fish, so I guess you win some, you loose some.

The ideas for men are very gentleman-natural-historian, while for women it's kitchenalia, smelly things and accessories. Granted, the books have some cross over, but why are we still categorising our gift selections in this inane, outdated way? It happens every Mother's and Father's day, the stores tell us what we want: the adult continuation of childhood gendered gifts.

So, this crimbo, why not say "screw you genderworld!", and make it your personal challenge to buy your dad/brother/uncle something from the for Her section, and your mum/sister/auntie something from the for Him?

Or better still, hope for a time when gifts are no longer arranged chromosomally.

Monday, 1 December 2014

All I want for Christmas

Card by Martin Davey don't all rush
out and buy it at once...
Christmas is coming, the crown-group avian dinosaur is getting fat. Our thoughts turn to gifts: giving and receiving. I love trying to find items that make people happy. My family like to make wish lists to provide one another with ideas, but I can be pretty sure that, regardless of what is on my list, one idea will permeate and overwhelm the gifts I'm given: dinosaurs. I say this because palaeobiology means two things to the non-palaeos who know me...

Dr. Herridge bringing palaeobiology
to a wider audience @ToriHerridge
 Firstly, palaeobiologist is synonymous with palaeontologist, because no matter how I try to explain, the two are indistinguishable (also, there are palaeontologists in Hollywood movies, so people have heard of them. Hopefully the recent Mammoth Autopsy featuring NHM's Dr. Tori Herridge may start raising the profile of the under-appreciated palaeobiologists of the world).

Secondly, it means dinosaurs.

You don't only study dinosaurs?
Although I make a point to say "I study extinct life", when people ask me what I do, invariably I cave in and add "like dinosaurs" at the end, because I can't stand seeing those worried looks as people try to hide their uncertainty over what constitutes "extinct life". Tell them dinosaurs, and their eyes light up; how exciting! That must be amazing! "Yes it is", I say. But afterwards I kick myself for reinforcing the stereotype. There is so much more to palaeobiology than the dinosaurs - just a glance at a geological time scale puts their reign into the perspective of deep time. From squishy Ediacaran biotas to giant carboniferous insect-lords, fish, fish and more fish, to sabre-toothed Permian monsters. Giant marine reptiles, tiny aquatic stem-mammals, elegant membranous pterosaurs, proto-whales - and this is a only the fauna. What about the ecosystems, the climate, the extinctions and the infections... the breadth is breathtaking.

Don't get me wrong though, I still appreciate a dino-themed gift. I own a decent selection of life-like 'models' (that's take-me-seriously code for 'toys'). The problem is that there are so few good dino-themed gifts out there, especially if you are over eight-years old or have any appreciation of aesthetics. There are natural history themed gifts galore that are elegant, especially botanical ones or, weirdly, anything with British game animals on them (this seems to indicate refinement, which is somewhat oxymoronic). But as soon as the featured creature is extinct, manufacturers replace Victorian lithographs with infantile pictographs. The colours flick to the neon spectrum and themes plunge unfailingly down the sister paths of cutesy anthropomorphism, or cringing adolescent fang-mare.

They are either puking rainbows, or ripping the world to shreds with oversized claws. Some examples:

Google search: You want dinosaurs? You are clearly a child.
Google search: Oh, you want adult dinos? Then you are still a child.

Caudy and I both love crimbo.
I want a little refinement in my raptors, some tasteful Tricerotops, even an elegant Elasmosaurus. Please, manufacturers and artists, could you cater to people born before the turn of the millennium, who like things that are not made of primary coloured plastic? Also, enough T-shirts already (I'm from Scotland, there are only so many T-shirts I can realistically wear in a year).

I don't look any gift horse in the mouth though. Rant as I may, the truth is I'm still always delighted to see what the season brings, and even if it's cheesier than a pair of Emmenthal socks. I just appreciate that someone thought of me and remembered (more or less) what I like to do with my time.

What more can we ask?

Sunday, 2 November 2014

When two tribes go to war (with bones and melanosomes)

I just finished an assignment based on a recent paper about an explosion in stem-bird evolution. The main point of the paper was that the dinosaurs leading to birds showed unusually high diversity rates; that is, there were bazillions of different species (bazillions is the technical term) compared with other groups of dinosaurs over the same time period. Our assignment was to write a piece setting our chosen paper in context. When I started putting mine into context, it turned out there had been at least five papers on exactly the same subject, that all came out in the last 13 months. I have no idea what drove all these separate working groups and authors to go stem-bird crazy over such a specific topic this year, but the interesting question is: how did they react to one another's work?

Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope
(right), once colleagues, they became ferocious rival fossil
palaeontologists, attacking one another, stealing, bribing
and attempting to ruin one another between 1870s-1890s.
It isn't unusual for more than one person to be obsessing over the same area of research. There are often two or more groups 'competing' at any one time, and this can lead to infamous rivalries. From the earliest 'Bone Wars' of Cope and Marsh, to recent working groups on fossil feather colour, what I'm interested in is not so much that rivalries occur, but how people deal with them.

Books have been written about the lengths of nastiness O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope went to in the attempt to destroy one another's careers and discoveries. Their problems ultimately stemmed from their personalities: both were argumentative and paranoid, Marsh was a bit of an introvert, while Cope was more hot-tempered. As a result, instead of working together (imagine the results!) they fought and ridiculed one another.

For a full low down of this famous
dispute, I recommend Sterenly.
Another well-known feud, this time in evolutionary biology - is  between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. This one is more complex, but basically stems from different approaches to the drivers of evolution. Gould (along with N. Eldridge and on the back of work by G. G. Simpson) takes a more behaviourally driven view, and supports ideas such as punctuated equilibrium; where whole groups of animals change quite suddenly to form new families and orders. Dawkins on the other hand, focuses on genes as the drivers of evolutionary change. underlined by a categorically different approach to science and life itself ("oh, is that all...")

What I wondered as I discovered all of these stem-bird diversity papers, was whether the authors knew about one another's work and how they felt about it: was this a chain reaction of responses, set off by the earliest publication's conclusions? Sometimes you detect undercurrents of animosity in later papers as they pointedly dispute the findings that preceded them, but there were no obvious barbs in these ones.

When I began my course at Bristol, we were running through the latest discoveries on fossil feather colouration, one of the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group's leading areas of research. Our lecturer explained that just as the team he was leading at Bristol were about to publish their reconstruction of an avian bird's colours using melanosomes, so did a team in the U.S. Did he launch a campaign of destruction and try to rubbish the competing team's findings? Absolutely not: he contacted the lead author in the U.S., and offered him a job instead.

An Eocene feather from the Messel shale (a) and the preserved
feather structures and melanosomes visible (b-e). These are
being used to reconstruct colour in fossil birds and dinosaurs.
"Nooooooo!" (dramatic reconstruction
of palaeontologist upon discovery
of competing publications).

It would have made a far more interesting assignment for my course to explore the personal relationships and reactions of the palaeontologists and palaeobiologists who write 'competing' papers, but alas, I would be dancing into a veritable minefield. I'd like to keep these disputes and camaraderies in mind as I progress in my own career: as a warning and, in the latter case, an example of how to deal constructively with competition. Joining forces with other strong researchers must be the best way forward.

What if you just can't agree with the other person's ideas and it becomes a Dawkins/Gould clash of world-view? I think of another anecdote I heard about a head of our department. He found himself sharing prime time at a major conference with another leading palaeontologist with whom he simply couldn't reconcile his views on macroevolution. Knowing they couldn't reach a consensus, they mutually agreed not to mention the subject at all. So they spent the day drinking coffee and eating cake together, talking about everything else there was in the world and thoroughly enjoying one another's company.

How wonderfully civilised. I love it.

Back to the grindstone now, I have to write a little something in the Ediacaran, another topic studded with controversy - and controversial people!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Giant Science Postgrad Tribe

During my undergrad there were people on my course and in my uni who were there because of family/societal expectation. What do you do after school? Well if you can get a degree, you pick something, and just get it. People don't necessarily choose the right subject at this age, with a portion of students having selected their subject purely because they had to. It was perhaps the class they were best at in school. As a result, undergraduate classes often have several members who are not especially enthusiastic about being there, and education is more of a tick box exercise. These are
often the people who pay little attention to course material or deadlines, and don't understand why anyone would bother to ask copious questions that make getting through the lessons take longer, when they just want to get out and hit the pub.

This reticence has an unavoidable influence on class dynamics. While I have plenty of time for those who want to draw on the support of their peers, my patience doesn't last long for fellow students who aren't meeting the demands of their course through indifference or lack of effort.*

At postgraduate level on the other hand, most - if not all - students have quite specifically chosen and slogged to be on that course, and have an end goal in sight that directly relates to their postgraduate education. This means that for the first time I'm in a class of peers who all actually care about their subject. Both educationally and monetarily they can't afford to drift along (although I'm sure there will always be some who do). Having always been the knuckle-down student, I'm now just another hard-working excitable palaeo-person.

Do I feel a loss of identity? Maybe a little, but mostly it's just refreshing and exciting to feel surrounded by others who, despite coming from wildly differing backgrounds and approaches, all appreciate the same things and want to do more than just scrape by.

Humans are a tribal animal, I guess I've finally found mine.

*Wouldn't it be better if more students were encouraged to take a few years out and discover their underlying passions, rather than using up funding and time on a degree they may discover isn't really the right one for them further down the line? As a mature student, I see now what a huge mistake it would have been if I had accepted any of the degree programmes I was offered after school.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Godzilla: the Anorexic Apex Predator

(Warning - SPOILERS!)

While I don't suggest for a second that things as trivial as actual science play any part whatsoever in the conception and writing of films like Godzilla (2014), it behooves me to comment on this movie for its startling lack of even the tiniest nod to reality. The 1998 version was at least moderately credible for minutes at a time. This new incarnation isn't just harking back to the classic films made before modern scientific understanding, it's a wholesale trip beyond the realms of common - and biological - sense.

Supersize me.
Putting aside the biological considerations of Godzilla's gargantuan anatomy (an animal of this stature would be crushed, explode and melt in various measures by his own weight and size - see Tet Zoo's blog on this subject for more info) let's pretend something that hefty could actually exist and had evolved perhaps through an evolutionary arms race with Mothra/Muto (for which the same size allowance will be made). Let's look at the ecology of these mega-fauna.

Mothra 'feeds on' radioactivity. The explanation for this diet is given during a scene that truly puts the 'brief' in briefing: we are told this primeval flapper evolved long ago when the earth was more radioactive and so, naturally, it evolved to feed on the radioactivity. (At this point I turned to my partner and repeated the film dialogue in a tone of voice one can only describe as super-heated incredulity).

Ewwwww! Moths!
Of course there are many different types of radiation and we needn't go into too much detail on that here. What's interesting is that the statement is actually true to an extent: there were higher background levels of various types of radiation in the geological past. The repair mechanisms found in living cells today hint that we evolved from simple life that had to exist on a planet with 4 to 8 times more background radiation. This meant cells had to withstand higher mutation rates, so fast repair was necessary to avoid too much damage. Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, mutations are usually bad things.

How much radiation are we talking about here? Well the average background radiation we are currently exposed to is 2.4mSv/yr so, for arguments sake, if in the Hadean/Archaen it was eight times this, 19.2mSv/yr, our little microscopic ancestors were basically exposed to the maximum allowed dosage for a nuclear industry employee, (up to 20mSv/yr). In contrast, the maximum 'safe' short term dose allowed for emergency workers evacuating civilians from a nuclear disaster zone is 500mSv/yr. To my knowledge, neither emergency workers nor power plant workers show any signs of developing an ability to absorb any of this and use it to fuel metabolic processes or build body tissues. To my knowledge. Of course, they may just not have been at it long enough, I guess only time will tell. *
Insert Godzilla here.

The aforementioned high background radiation was present about 4 billion years ago and our planet has become steadily less radioactive ever since. When they discuss the 'ancient' Mothra and Godzilla in the film, we are shown a suitably out of date evolutionary tree of life diagram, helpfully zoomed in on the dinosaurs - just to clarify. So, Godzilla and Mothra evolved between 65-250 million years ago, during the mesozoic? Probably not a whole lot of radiation around back then, perhaps at most the same exposure as the incremental dose received by the average airline crew (5mSv/yr). Clearly there was neither the dose nor the time for this to even qualify as anything but a thin, bendy straw for desperate monster movie enthusiasts to clutch.

The next puzzle for me, was Mothra/Muto's ability to produce an EMP (electromagnetic pulse). Apparently the portrayal of EMPs in popular culture is usually wrong, but putting aside the accuracy of the effects for a moment, I find myself wondering why Mothra would have evolved this ability in the first place? Is it defensive? If so, it could only be against what I guess must be Godzilla's electrical breath? Incidentally, Godzilla seems to forget s/he possesses this talent until the last minute. Why not use it earlier and save him/herself an exhausting and almost terminal battle? I can only presume the biological cost-benefit must make it a last resort attack only.

Am I shooting lightning breath, or throwing up?
(Further Spoilers - you have been warned!)
Do the film makers know what vivisection means? The second Mothra-egg/chrysalis thingy (?) was apparently vivisected before being disposed of as nuclear waste. I'm pretty sure they said vivisected, although this term refers to operating on living creatures and they thought it was dead at the time. I assume they meant dissected? Either way, they cut it up and it turned out not to be dead. Next question: were there no monitoring devices in their Nevadan waste disposal mountain? Or any staff? And when, upon realising their mistake, the military ran to check the bunkers, did no one notice the huge Mothra shaped hole in the side of the mountain and the tell-tale GIANT MONSTER galumphing away across the desert?

The final nonsensical event is at the end, where Godzilla, a super-apex-predator who has evolved to eat radioactive-mothras (and 'restore balance' according to Ken Watanabe) kills his prey using the hitherto not utilised magical lysterine breath... only to drop Mothra's body into the sea and leave it there! This massively calorie intensive animal has not snacked since at least the 1950s, yet he goes to all the trouble of circling the earth, hunting down and killing Mr and Mrs Mothra, only to go off his dinner? Granted, my first-hand experience is mainly with mammals (cats, dogs, rats, hamsters, mice and cetaceans), but I reckon its safe to say most creatures are quite keen on eating. I'd go as far as to say they even do it regularly.

Clearly, there is much study ahead for ecologists in the field of electrical and radioactive-dino-monsters.


* Perhaps the offspring of emergency workers paired with nuclear industry employees over many generations would be naturally selected until they became huge gamma-guzzling Humothras? Maybe not...

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Is my degree sexist?

This is clearly not me. Did you know
women in mid air do well in exams.
I took my degree certificate to my parents house to show it off; after all, our parents are one of the few recrimination-free boast-audiences we have in life. "A Bachelors in Science with Distinction" my Dad read aloud, "but you're married!"

A typical Dad response. But his eye-rolling pun left me wondering: why bachelor? At the risk of sounding like a trigger-happy feminist shooting righteous indignation bullets in all directions, is this a term that a modern women like myself - forging a sexually equal life for herself in the 21st century - should be critical of?

Please don't laugh, it's a genuine question! I recently married, but refused to take the term Mrs. I also kept my surname. I don't see why I should change either if my hubby doesn't need to change his. But I'm also a reasonable person (no really), and I'm not purposely injecting controversy to be radical, simply to enquire.

If bachelor is a term for men, could we instead adopt a term for women, or a gender neutral term? Or does it not matter?

The history of language is quite clearly not my area of expertise (science is!), so as usual I turn to the mixed bag of insight and misinformation that is the internet.

Google patriarchal language, and you'll get over three and half million results. It's not a new topic, indeed some feminist thinkers lambast it as outdated. I would generally disagree. Dove did a great job of addressing some existing language and associated ideas that could do with a shake up, in their campaign #LikeAGirl . I remember in my strident youth reading a whole chapter on the inherent sexism of the term semester in regard to the educational system, with the suggestion to change it to ovester to create gender balance. The fact that semester comes from the Latin (via German) for six and month and not from the word for male reproductive fluid was lost on the author. (Maybe they could take comfort from the root of menster, which is the same as menses, or monthly. No wait, even that has men in it - will they ever stop oppressing us!*)

Scholars in manly medieval book huddle.
Joking aside, Bachelor apparently comes from medieval Latin, baccalarius or baccalaureatus. I say apparently because it's difficult to track down information online from websites you could consider authoritative or reliable, and my library is tragically short of entomological sources.  Most websites (including various reputable dictionaries) agree that bachelor comes from baccalaureatus, and that this referred to a young man training in a discipline, including early universities, on his way to becoming a master in his chosen field. As women didn't do such things (they were too busy having babies and being silly and dainty and so forth), it inherently came to refer to men. There are also references to the term being used to describe young knights and squires, also of the male persuasion.** Latterly, bachelor came to refer to an unmarried man, and hence to my question.
Medieval women, too
busy having babies.

Reflecting on all of this, it seems the term has been attached to men through the circumstance of the way society used to be organised, rather than a deliberate exclusion of women. It's just unfortunate that we missed out on the talent of 50% of humanity for so long. The composition of gender in education in the UK has completely changed since then. Recent statistics found more women gained university places than men and that they even outperformed men.

Despite this, there are still areas with far fewer women than men - and the reverse is also true. Science remains male-dominated (for now), and although women outnumber men at masters level, men outnumber women from PhD level upwards. Globally of course, trends are country dependant - take a look at this UNESCO slightly patronising animation on global education statistics for more info.

So, reclaim or reframe? I can see why a new term might be appealing, but I'm not sure it matters. I'm a terrible fence-sitter, so I'll leave it to more black and white thinkers to argue such issues. Next year I'll be a Master of Science instead, a word with enough gender neutral meanings to pacify the stubborn radical in me.

That's right, I memed.
I took the following from the equality and diversity guidelines for the British Sociological Association (2004). I know people who groan in anguish at this kind of thing, but connotations of everyday language is food for thought (a kind of healthy snack I'd say).



man in the street layman  
the rights of man

to a man
the working man
models of man   
one man show    
founding fathers 
old masters
master copy
Dear Sirs 
people in general, people      
lay person, non-expert
synthetic artificial manufactured peoples'/citizens' rights;         the rights of the individual
workforce staff, labour force, employees craftsperson/people
staffing, working, running
everyone, unanimously, without exception workhours
worker, working people
models of the person
one person show
police officer/ fire-fighter
classic art/artists
domineering; very skilful
top copy/original
Dear Sir/Madam
broadcast, inform, publicise
classical, formative

 *This is a joke.
**There are a couple of mentions of the adjectives baccalarius and baccalaria, which - a couple of unreliable sources claim - refer to male and female workers of the land, respectively. Whether this is true or has anything to do with Bachelors in our education system is unclear. It seems more like an internet rumourwish to me. Incidentally, Baccalaria natans is the previous name for what is now called Sargassum natans, a type of seaweed (below).
S. natans is on the right.
djectives, baccalarius and baccalaria
the adjectives, baccalarius and baccalaria, respectively describe male and female laborers who worked on the land - See more at:
the adjectives, baccalarius and baccalaria, respectively describe male and female laborers who worked on the land - See more at:

Monday, 30 June 2014

Giant Science Weddings

I'm not saying that every person who works in one of the many glorious fields of science wants to theme their wedding around extinct reptiles, periodic tables or Schroedinger's cat (I now pronounce you man and wife, and also not man and wife...), but I know I'm not alone in letting my career passions spill across my personal life like an upturned inkwell. If I've once again neglected to keep this blog updated regularly it is because, between finishing my degree, changing jobs and preparing to move to Bristol to start an MSc, I've also been planning a wedding.

A Giant Sciencey wedding.
Jessica and Mike have chemistry.
In researching how to carry out our wedding (sounds like I'm talking about an experiment here) I found that there are plenty of other couples deemed odd by the rest of society for wanting to include both of their great loves in their big day (that's science and their partner, just to clarify). Like the chemists who had their wedding at the Science Museum of Minnesota (left), the researchers who had amoeba thank you cards, or the guy who forged his wedding ring out a meteorite.

Waveform wedding rings
If you've misplaced your meteorite, you can always have the waveform of your voice saying the words "I do" cut into your wedding bands. I'm especially jealous of the LA Natural History Museum wedding (below), complete with diorama backdrops and paper masks; very Wicker Man. The Natural History Museum in London does hire out it's hall for weddings. It looks stupendous and I'd love to have Charlie D presiding over my reception, but the £19,000 price tag is approximately 9.5 times over my budget.
It's time to keep your appointment with the LA natural History Museum...

It would appear that dinosaur lovers are a breed apart when it comes to this kind of thing. I'd say we are the geeks of the science world (and I mean this as a massive compliment) and like film, comic and gamer geeks, we just can't let something like a wedding go by without stamping our fanaticism all over it.

No one wants to be seated at the
Pantydraco table...
Whether it is naming your tables after dinosaurs (left), sending out sauropod-stationary, or creating an especially garish dino-cake - complete with dinosaur bride and groom cake toppers - there appears to be no stone left unturned (little geo-joke there) for those with a taste for the Tyrannosaur.

Of course I'm not going to pretend it is all tasteful, but by gum it's a talking point.
Pretty awesome, but...

The one that hit the headlines recently was the couple who had their wedding photo taken with a furious T-rex chasing down the wedding party. As is so often the case with the news, it had been done previously. They weren't the first ones to think of it, and they won't be the last, but I for one would love a shot like this for my special day. (If that's too scary for you, try this instead).

...these guys did it better.
Thankfully my partner is also on the geek-spectrum, and this appears to be the key: all of the weddings I've mentioned needed mutual geekdom in order to come to fruition. It's hard to convince your spouse to put two theropod skeletons holding a love-heart on your wedding invites if they don't share your interests.
All I can say is this bodes well for us as a couple. I don't want to give too much away in case some of my family read this, but I can confirm that extinct animals will be attending our big day, and our guests might run across the front lawn towards the camera flailing their arms and screaming..