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?