This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

To Whom It May Concern

To Whom it may Concern

Many of us, though not all in this year of 1988, recognise the following things:

1. All political and religious differences that at present slow down, entangle and strangle progress in the world will have to be solved in a civilised manner.

2. All other life forms have as much right to exist as we have and that indeed without the bulk of them we would perish.

3. Overpopulation is a menace that must be addressed by all countries; if allowed to continue it is a Gadarene syndrome which will cause nothing but our doom.

4. Ecosystems are intricate and vulnerable; once misused, disfigured or greedily exploited they vanish to our detriment. Used wisely they provide boundless treasure. Used unwisely they create misery, starvation and death to the human race and to a myriad other lifeforms.

5. It is stupid to destroy things such as rainforests before we know how they function and what is in them, especially because in these great webs of life may be embedded secrets of incalculable value to the human race.

6. The world is to us what the Garden of Eden was supposed to be to Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were banished, but we are banishing ourselves from our Eden. The difference is that Adam and Eve had somewhere else to go. We have nowhere else to go.

We hope that by the time you read this you will have at least partially curtailed our reckless greed and stupidity. If we have not, at least some of us have tried...

All we can say is learn from what we have achieved, but above all learn from our mistakes, do not go on endlessly like a squirrel in a wheel committing the same errors hour by hour day by day year after year century after century as we have done up to now.

We hope that there will be fireflies and glow-worms at night to guide you and butterflies in hedges and forests to greet you.

We hope that your dawns will have an orchestra of bird song and that the sound of their wings and the opalescence of their colouring will dazzle you.

We hope that there will still be the extraordinary varieties of creatures sharing the land of the planet with you to enchant you and enrich your lives as they have done for us.

We hope that you will be grateful for having been born into such a magical world.

Written and buried in a time capsule in 1988 by Gerald Durrell

Thursday, 20 October 2011

When it comes to recognition of scientific achievement...

...AUSTRALIA has the right idea.

Last week Prime Minister Julia Gillard awarded the annual Prime Minister's Prizes for Science: recognition, at the highest level of government, not only of the achievements of Australian scientists but of the importance of the subject itself. As Gillard said in her ceremony speech:
This year the urgency of embarking on our clean energy future has brought science to the centre of our national debate, it's very centre, and that's as it should be.

The 2011 winners of the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science
Professors Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon took the top prize for devising techniques for the generation of polymers that we now take for granted, but which were discovered when it was thought chemistry had taught us all it ever could. The Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, a prize devoted to young career scientists whose achievements advance, or have the potential to advance, human welfare or benefit society, went to Associate Professor Min Chen. Chen discovered a new form of chlorophyll in the stromatolites of Shark Bay, Western Australia, which has the potential to boost research into improving the efficiency of energy collection in solar cells and crop production. The Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year went to Professor Stuart Wyithe, recognized for his work on the physics of the formation of the universe. Brooke Topelberg and Dr Jane Wright were also recognized for their outstanding efforts to teach primary and secondary school children.

Here in the UK there are many and varied prizes for science, but nothing quite like this. As the home of many of the finest scientific establishments, societies and institutions in the world, we regularly recognize scientific endeavour, achievement and communication. But given the importance of science in our lives, in policy and business, it wouldn't go amiss for our own government to exhibit some faith in the scientific community and present some form of formal recognition for those who conduct research here. This, particularly, in a time when government cuts are hitting the scientific community hard. I call for a UK Prime Minister's Prize for Science.

But I wonder - who do you think should win?

Julia Gillard's speech can be read in full here.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Male, female, other, other, other, other, other

THERE are many things in life that are difficult to get your head around. I imagine many, like myself, struggle to understand much of theoretical physics, with up to 11 dimensions required to explain its more complex models. Three dimensions are easy, for they are what we see all around us, and with the help of analogies a fourth dimension is not too much harder. But beyond that things get tricky.

Here’s another concept that is difficult to get your head around: the single-celled organism Tetrahymena thermophila has not two distinct genders — our male and female — but SEVEN.

Tetrahymena thermophila

So let's talk about sex.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

9/11: Love your neighbour as yourself

SUNDAY is the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. I'm certain that you will have caught at least one mention of this anniversary from the news, TV, radio or online. For many this will be an occasion of great sadness, and to them I offer my condolences. I was too young to really appreciate what happened that day, and certainly too young to understand how the world changed, and how it reacted, as a result. The images were shown so much that, in addition to my lack of understanding of the situation, they almost became normal. But they truly are horrific - in searching for a suitable image for this post I found a photo set I really rather wish I hadn't. The images weren't graphic or gratuitous, just frank and disturbing in their honest representation of events unfolding.

Understandably the anniversary has prompted a mix of responses, from honour and praise to the emergency services and survivors to anger at the perpetrators from some, anger at the US government from others; references to the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad taking sides one way or another as to whether it was right; conspiracy theories; and, crucially, important and difficult questions about justice, humanity and prejudice. To this final debate I offer the stories of two people. I simply feel that the challenges these two stories present ought to be shared.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Twenty years ago


"Your commanders have ordered you to storm the White House and to arrest me. But I as the elected President of Russia give you the order to turn your tanks and not to fight against your own people."

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Of least concern, yet not

NOW then, let’s get back into this science writing lark with a topic familiar to this blog.

To recap, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a species in serious trouble. In a phenomenon almost unique to science, the already small population is suffering from a transmissible form of cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), with over 70% of the population infected. It is almost completely lethal, causing swelling in the mouth and face, leading to suffocation and starvation. 80% of the population has been wiped out since its discovery in 1996, and it is predicted that the species could be extinct within 25-35 years.

I care deeply about this for a number of reasons. First, I think that they are beautiful animals. Biologically they are important, propping up a fragile ecosystem in the self-contained, isolated biome that is the island of Tasmania, which I desperately wish to revisit. Scientifically, too, they are fascinating, being the largest remaining carnivorous marsupial on Earth. For this reason, they are also of great significance for conservation. Finally, they are important for historic reasons. In living memory, Tasmania was once home to a larger carnivorous marsupial, the thylacine, which was hunted to the brink of extinction. The last of its kind died of neglect in Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, in 1936. Tasmania does not need the legacy of allowing another of its unique creatures to die out at our hands.

The plight of the Tasmanian devil is so unique and critical that the slightest development in the search to unravel the cause and cure of the cancer automatically generates headlines. A recent paper by Miller et al. led to a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles, and a well put editorial from New Scientist, and I’d like to comment, briefly, on the paper and its implications.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch and Samwise Gamgee

I was going to write about the week's news, on the closure of the News of the World, corruption claims, bribery claims, issues of social justice revolving around the media, phone hacking, privacy and the very forces tasked with protecting us. This is enormous news, and I'm very glad that we still have press outlets that can expose circumstances such as this. But I can't summarise my thoughts better than those already doing so, in the news, on the radio, in parliament and online, so instead, here's a quote from The Lord of the Rings:
`How long do you think I shall have here?' said Frodo to Bilbo, when Gandalf had gone.

`Oh, I don't know. I can't count days in Rivendell,' said Bilbo. 'But quite long, I should think. We can have many a good talk. What about helping me with my book, and making a start on the next? Have you thought of an ending?'

'Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant,' said Frodo.

'Oh, that won't do!' said Bilbo. `Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?'

`It will do well, if it ever comes to that,' said Frodo.

'Ah!' said Sam. 'And where will they live? That's what I often wonder.'

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Should we build an online Journal Club?

FOR a few weeks I've been toying with the idea of an online Journal Club. As a PhD student I am encouraged to take part in organised journal clubs, where current papers are discussed, scrutinized and learnt from. I am lucky in that my research group run their own journal club, but I am all too aware that many do not have such an opportunity. Furthermore, as part of a course I have been attending lately I was asked to critique a microbiology paper - this being unrelated to my own field of research - and I learnt a lot from the experience, approaching a paper as a rank outsider, picking up on what is clear and what is not considering my background knowledge of the topic was next to nil.

So I thought about setting up an online journal club, a place to discuss papers of fields all across science, because we can all learn a great deal in doing so. Plus, those that do not attend journal clubs themselves could use the site to boost their analytical, discussion and presentational skills. It became more of an idea, however, as I started to think about how it might work and what rules and controls would be needed.

I kept the idea reasonably quiet, lest anybody beat me to it.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Yes, we have no bananas

"If you could see exactly what I could see, it would be a great mystery"
- Joaquin Rudd in Koonyum Sun by Xavier Rudd

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Australian musician Xavier Rudd perform, with his fusion of world music, blues, reggae and rock in the varying forms of one-man-band, front man and master of three instruments at once, including the didgeridoo, on two occasions since first being introduced to him in a random field in Far North Queensland in 2007. The lady responsible for playing his music to us, as we sprayed weed killer around valuable tree saplings in the regenerating forests, had a tendency to shriek and twitch in a way that was slightly uncomfortable to watch. Like robots we trudged the fields, large tanks on our backs, spraying poison at opportunistic weeds from pipes and nozzles extending from our bulky apparatus. The relaxing tones of Mr Rudd (Xavier, not Kevin) kept my spirits high for the day. Weeks later I would awake to the same music on a sailing boat in the middle of the Whitsunday islands, content with the world and hooked on this music.

At both of these shows the audience felt the need to talk extensively over Xavier’s performance, and this troubles me. Certainly, songs about our connection with the earth and Aboriginal Dreaming are alien to an audience in Birmingham, but I think that if you pay to see an artist, you should respect their performance and pay attention to it, not wrestle your way to the bar and treat the show as background music. Positivity and respect, I believe, should be paid at all times, not just to established performers but to all who clearly put effort and care into what they do. Here’s why.