Thursday, 1 December 2011

Questioning habits: monastic science in the medieval period

It’s not usual for a single book to inspire me to write a post, but on seeing a double page spread in Australian science writer Surendra Verna's The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories and Things I knew I had to investigate further. Published in 2006, this small book does just what it says in the title, being a concise chronological history of science from Ancient Greece to the present. So far, so good, except that after a fair few BC and early first millennium AD entries, I found that the article for AD150 was followed by one dated AD1202! Having double-checked there weren't any pages missing, I realised that the author had followed the all-too-common principle of 'here's the Dark Ages: nothing to see here; better move along quickly'. Therefore I thought it might be time to look into what exactly what, if anything, was happening science-wise during this thousand year gap, and why there appeared to be a sudden growth in scientific thought at the start of the thirteenth century.

Although much is known of the contemporary Muslim practitioners of natural philosophy such as Alhazen and Avicenna, I want to concentrate on Europe, as the era seems to contrast so profoundly with the later periods of scientific growth in the West known as the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Although historians have recently reappraised the Dark Ages, rebranding it 'early medieval', it's fairly obvious that post-Roman Britain and mainland Europe rapidly fell behind the scientific and technological advances of Middle- and Far-Eastern cultures. An obvious example can be shown by the Crab supernova of AD1054, which despite being recorded in non-Western literature (hardly surprising, since for some weeks it was four times the brightness of Venus) it has not been positively identified in any contemporary European chronicles. Is it feasible that no-one was observing the night sky over Europe, or was the 'guest star' simply too frightening to fit into their world picture?

The Catholic Church is considered the usual suspect for the lack of interest in scientific thought, but if anything the problem seems to have been on the horizon several centuries earlier. Although there were Ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Empedocles whom we might consider experimenters, early Christianity adopted much of the mysticism and philosophy of thinkers such as Pythagoras and Plato. Therefore the culture of the early medieval period was ingrained with notions of archetypes and ideals: with a pre-arranged place for everything within a stultifying hierarchy, there was no need to seek deeper understanding of the physical world. What little astronomical observation there was had predominantly timekeeping and calendric purposes, such as for finding the date of Easter, whilst being at the same time completely intertwined with astrology. Therefore any attempt to understand developments in natural philosophy of the period must take into account various facets of human thought that are today considered completely separate from the scientific method.

However, this isn't to say that the era was completely devoid of intellectual curiosity. The eighth century English mathematician (and a deacon with decidely monastic habits) Alcuin of York could be said to have discussed ideas in the proto-scientific mould, who in addition developed a teaching system intended to propagate rational thought. What led to the pan-European interest in the methodologies we would recognise as key to science, such as detailed observation and careful experimentation, is usually traced to the translation of long-forgotten Ancient Greek texts from Arabic to Latin by such figures as the twelfth century Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona. Although Gerard wrote mathematical treatises and edited astronomical tables (no doubt at least in part for astrological use), the rapid dissemination of Ptolemy and other classical giants led to a chain reaction that should not be underestimated.

An early pioneer of the empirical process was Gerard's English near-contemporary and Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste, whilst the thirteenth century produced such luminaries as Dominican friar Albertus Magnus in Germany and the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, followed in the fourteenth century by fellow Franciscan William of Ockham, and so on. The fact that the translations of ancient texts made a rapid journey around Europe shows that Rome was not opposed to new ideas, although the arrest of Bacon in later life, possibly for writing unauthorised material, suggests that thought censorship was still very much the order of the day.

As can be noted, most of these men were either monks or senior clergy. The obvious point here is that nearly all of secular society was illiterate, which combined with the cost of books in the age before printing meant that only those within the Church had access to a wider world. I assume that this is an irony not lost on those who consider Western religion as antithetical to intellectual novelty (eat your heart out, Richard Dawkins!) Counter to this stereotype, there does seem to have been a form of academic competition between monastic orders, in addition to which chemical and biological experimentation was conducted in fields ranging from the production of manuscript pigments to herbal medicine.

Binham Priory, Norfolk, England
The eleventh century equivalent of a scientific laboratory: the remains of Binham Priory in Norfolk, UK

Of course by the eleventh and twelfth centuries the notion of formally inculcating knowledge, including elements of natural philosophy, was dramatically enhanced via the first universities. Starting in Italy, the new foundations removed the monopoly of the monastic and cathedral schools, thus setting into motion, if somewhat hesitantly, the eventual separation of scientific learning from a religious environment (and of course, Church decree).

So how much could it be argued that from a scientific viewpoint the European Dark Ages weren’t really that dark after all? Compared to the glories of what was to follow, and to a lesser extent the tantalising fragments we know about Ancient Greek thought, the period was certainly a bit grey. But there were definitely a few candles scattered around Europe, whilst such hoary old clichés as everyone believing the Earth to be flat should long since have been consigned to the dustbin of history, Monty Python notwithstanding. So if you are planning to write a history of science, why not undertake a bit of original research and find out what was happening during that much-maligned millennium? The truth, as always, is much more interesting than fiction.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Full steam ahead: is there a future in revisiting obsolete science and technology?

Several weeks ago I was looking towards Greenwich in south-east London when I spotted an airship. A small one to be sure, but nevertheless a reminder of the time when Britain not only had a large manufacturing industry but in some sectors was even in the vanguard of technological development. The blimp in question was probably the 39 metre-long Goodyear Spirit of Safety II, which although nominally an American craft was assembled at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire. I visited this site about 20 years ago and managed to go inside one of its' two enormous air sheds, once home to such giants of the skies as the 237 metre-long R101. Sadly, these days the hangers are mostly used for filming and rock band rehearsals, and recently a housing estate was built inside the base perimeter. However, it's not all a case of rust and nostalgia, as Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd are making use of Cardington in a joint project with the aeronautical heavyweight Northrop Grumman to build three unmanned hybrid airships. The 76 metre-long Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle or LEMV - a classic boffin-flavoured acronym, hurrah - is being developed for a US military surveillance role. The company's future plans include eco-tourist airships, so are we seeing the glimmer of an airship renaissance?

On the whole this seems rather unlikely. In the 1980s Cardington was home to Hybrid Air Vehicles' predecessor Airship Industries, one of who's Skyship 500s appeared in the James Bond film A View to a Kill (the same design as seen in my circa 1984 photograph below). Unfortunately the innovations in materials and engines weren't enough to save the company from liquidation.

An air display at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire - late 1970s
Although Hybrid Air Vehicles has grandiose plans for vehicles up to twice the LEMV's length, it's doubtful there will be a near-future resurgence in long-haul civilian airships. After all, even during their interwar heyday a transatlantic ticket on the likes of the Hindenburg cost more than double that of an ocean liner. Therefore, military usage and cargo delivery to aircraft-unfriendly terrain are a far safer bet from an economic viewpoint, despite the obvious advantages of aerial craft less reliant on fossil fuels. Indeed, there are even schemes afoot in several countries to develop solar-powered cargo airships.

Another UK-based proposal that seeks to put new life into old technology sadly appears to have rather less chance of success. The Class 5AT (Advanced Technology) Steam Locomotive Project plans to develop a steam engine capable of matching current main line high-speed stock. After ten years' effort, the team have put together a very detailed study for a 180 km/h locomotive, but as you might expect there hasn't exactly been a rush of investors. The typical short-term mentality of contemporary politicians and shareholder-responsive industry means few appear willing to support the initial start up costs, especially when Britain's current rail network operates so wonderfully (hint: that's called irony). If you think any of this sounds familiar, check out the post on boffins and their pipe dreams, where the science and technology were frequently superlative and the economics frankly embarrassing.

Then again, a resurgence in motive steam might appear to have little relevance outside of alternative history novels, but a point to remember is that it was only when James Watt started to repair a working model of Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric pumping engine in 1763 - a design by then half a century old - that the development of true steam engines began.

The steam car has even less chance of a reawakening, although there appear to be good engineering reasons behind this, namely difficulty coping with the constantly-changing speeds required in urban driving. As it is, steam on the road seems to have mostly novelty value these days. A good example is the British Steam Car, winner in 2009 of the Guinness World Land Speed Record for a steam powered car. It may have a dull name, but with a Batmobile aesthetic and top speed of 225km/h, the world's fastest kettle has certainly proved a point that steam needn't be associated with slow.

Somewhat less romantic and rather more pragmatic, NASA has returned to tried and tested capsule technology for their space shuttle replacement, Orion. The "Apollo on steroids" design is now accompanied by the Space Launch System or SLS (another uninspired moniker), which refers to a rocket slightly taller than the Saturn V that will have second stage engines developed from those used on this famous forebear - which incidentally last flew in 1973.

But reappraising old science isn't restricted to high technology, as can be seen by the resurgence of biotherapeutic methods in the past few decades. Most people have heard of the fish pedicure fad but the rather more important use of disinfected maggots to clean flesh wounds has received NHS support following some years of trials in the USA. A 2007 preliminary assessment even showed success using maggot therapy to treat wounds infected with the 'superbug' MRSA. Yet the technique is known from Renaissance Europe, Mesoamerican and Australian Aboriginal cultures: sometimes low-tech really could be the way forward.

Possibly that's the key as to whether these revitalisations are likely to succeed; if the start-up costs are relatively cheap then there's a good chance of adoption. Otherwise, the Western obsession with the now makes it all too easy to dismiss these projects as idealistic dreams by out-of-touch eccentrics. Not that new technologies have always followed the rational approach when initially developed anyway, since historical backstories have probably been as much a driving force as objective analysis. I guess we're back again to disproving that old Victorian notion of continuous upward progression, but then as the philosophically-minded would say, we do live in postmodern times.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Something sinister: the left handedness of creation

I'm embarrassed to admit it but the first home-grown science experiment I remember undertaking was to explore the validity of astrology. Inspired by the Carl Sagan book and television Cosmos I decided to see for myself if, after centuries of practice by millions of adherents, the whole thing really was a load of bunk. So for three months I checked the predictions for my star sign every week day and was amazed at the result: I found them so vague and generalised that I could easily find something in my life each day to fit the prediction. A sort of positive result that negates the hypothesis, as it were. As a young adult I encountered people with a rather less sceptical frame of mind, and if anything their astrological information only reinforced my earlier results. As my birthday is on the 'cusp' between two star signs, I found that about half the astrologically-inclined viewed me as a typical sign A whilst the other half dubbed me a typical sign B. At this point, I think I can rest my case...

Of course, astrology is a very old discipline so it's no wonder it's pretty easy to see the cracks. Over the past forty or so years there have been several generations of authors with a slightly more sophisticated approach, paying superficial lip service to the scientific method. Although their methodology fails due to the discarding or shoehorning of data, this hasn’t stopped the likes of L. Ron Hubbard from making mints. To this end, I decided to generate a hypothesis of my own and test it to a similar level of scrutiny as their material. Thus may I present my own idea for consideration: evidence suggests that our universe was created by an entity with a penchant for a particular direction, namely left-handed / anti-clockwise. Here are three selected cases to support the hypothesis, although I cannot claim them to have been chosen at random, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

The first argument: in the 1950s and 60s physicists found that the weak nuclear force or interaction, responsible for radioactivity, does not function symmetrically. Parity violation, to be technical about it, means that for example massless particles called neutrinos spin in a counter clockwise direction if they are created by beta decay. Like many other fundamental parameters to our universe, no-one has an explanation of why this is so: it just is.

The second argument: amino acids are usually described as the building blocks of proteins, but in addition to those used to make life on Earth, additional types are found in meteorites. It has been theorised that life was made possible by meteorites and comets delivering these chemicals to the primordial Earth, but radiation encountered on their journey may have affected them. Whereas amino acids synthesised in laboratories contain approximately equal amounts of mirror image (i.e. left- and right-handed) forms, nearly all life is constructed from the left-handed, or L-amino acids.

The third argument: a new catalogue of observations using the latest generation of telescopes indicate that from our viewpoint most galaxies rotate counter clockwise about their cores. Of course it's been a long time since humans believed the Earth to be the centre of the Universe, but even so, this is a disturbing observation. We now consider our planet just an insignificant component of the second-largest galaxy within a small group at one end of a super cluster. In which case, why is galactic rotation so far removed from random?

So how do these arguments stand up to scrutiny, both by themselves and collectively? Not very well, I'm afraid. Working backwards, the third argument shows the dangers of false pattern recognition: our innate ability to find patterns where none exist or to distort variations into a more aesthetic whole. In this particular case, it appears that the enthusiasts who classified the galaxies' direction of rotation were mistaken. Put it down to another instance of the less than perfect powers of perception we humans are stuck with (thanks, natural selection!)

The second argument initially bears up somewhat better, except that I deliberately ignored all of the biological elements against the argument. The best known of these is probably DNA itself, which is primarily helical in a clockwise direction. This seems to be a fairly common problem in the history of science, with well-known cases involving famous scientists such as Alfred Wegener, whose continental drift hypothesis was a precursor of plate tectonics but who deliberately ignored unsupportive data.

The first argument stands by itself and as such cannot constitute a pattern (obviously). Therefore it is essentially worthless: you might as well support the left-handed notion by stating that the planets in our solar system orbit the sun in a counter clockwise direction - which they do, unless you happen to live in the Southern Hemisphere!

Full moon viewed via a Skywatcher 130PM telescope
Once again, our ability to find patterns where none exist, or as with the rotation of galaxies, to misconstrue data, leaves little doubt that our brains are naturally geared more towards the likes of astrology than astronomy. Pareidolia, the phenomenon of perceiving a pattern in a random context, is familiar to many via the man in the moon. However, there are varying degrees to this sort of perception; I confess I find it hard to see the figure myself (try it with the image above, incidentally taken through my 130mm reflector telescope earlier this year – see Cosmic Fugues for further information on genuine space-orientated pattern-making).

Of course, these skills have at times combined with innate aesthetics to aid the scientific enterprise, from the recognition and assembly of Hominin fossil fragments from the Great Rift Valley to Mendeleev's element swapping within the periodic table. However, most of the time we need to be extremely wary if a pattern seems to appear just a little bit too easily. Having said that, there still seem to be plenty of authors who cobble together a modicum of research, combine it with a catchy hook and wangle some extremely lucrative book and television documentary deals. Now, where’s a gullible publisher when you need one?

Monday, 1 August 2011

Weather with you: thundersnow, hosepipe bans and climate punditry

I must confess to have not watched any of the current BBC series The Great British Weather, since (a) it looks rubbish; and (b) I spend enough time comparing the short-range forecast with the view outside my window as it is, in order to judge whether it will be a suitable night for astronomy. Since buying a telescope at the start of the year (see an earlier astronomy-related post for more details) I've become just a little bit obsessed, but then as an Englishman it's my inalienable right to fixate on the ever-changeable meteorology of these isles. If I think that there is a chance of it being a cloud-free night I tend to check the forecast every few hours, which for the past two months or so has proved to be almost uniformly disappointing; as a matter of fact, the telescope has remained boxed up since early May.

There appears to be a grim pleasure for UK-based weather watchers that when a meteorology source states that it is currently sunny and dry in your location it may in fact be raining torrentially. We all realise forecasting relies on some understanding of a complex series of variables, but if they can't even get the 'nowcast' correct what chance do the rest of us have?

So just how has the UK's mercurial weather patterns affected the science of meteorology and our attitude towards weather and climate? As far back as 1553 the English mathematician and inventor Leonard Digges included weather lore and descriptions of phenomena in his A General Prognostication. Since then, British scientists have been in the vanguard of meteorology. Isaac Newton's contemporary and rival Robert Hooke may have been the earliest scientist to keep meteorological records, as well as inventing several associated instruments. Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, formerly captain of HMS Beagle (i.e. Darwin's ship) was appointed as the first Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade in 1854, which in today’s terms would make him the head of the Met Office; he is even reputed to be the inventor of the term 'forecast'.

Modern science aside, as children we pick up a few snippets of the ancient folk learning once used to inculcate elementary weather knowledge. We all know a variation of "Red sky at night, shepherd's delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning", the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to pre-scientific observation and forecasting. But to me it looks if all of us in ever-changeable Britain have enough vested interest in the weather (once it was for crop-growing, now just for whether it is a sunglasses or umbrella day – or both) to maintain our own, personal weather database in our heads. Yet aren't our memories and lifespan in general just too short to allow us a genuine understanding of meteorological patterns?

One trend that I consider accurate is that those 'little April showers' I recall from childhood (if you remember the song from 'Bambi') are now a thing of the past, with April receiving less rainfall than June. This is an innate feeling: I have not researched it enough to find out if there has been a genuine change over the past three decades. Unfortunately, a combination of poor memory and spurious pattern recognition means we tend to over-emphasise 'freak' events - from thundersnow to the day it poured down at so-and-so's June wedding - at the expense of genuine trends.

For example, my rose-tinted childhood memories of six largely rain-free weeks each summer school break centre around the 1976 drought, when my brother had to be rescued from the evil-smelling mud of a much-reduced reservoir and lost his shoes in the process. I also recall the August 1990 heat wave as I was at the time living less than 20 km from Nailstone in Leicestershire, home of the then record UK temperature of 37.1°C. In contrast, I slept through the Great Storm of 1987 with its 200+km/h winds and don’t recall the event at all! As for 2011, if I kept a diary it would probably go down as the 'Year I Didn't Stop Sneezing'. City pollution and strong continental winds have combined to fill the London air with pollen since late March, no doubt much to the delight of antihistamine manufacturers.

An Norfolk beach in a 21st century summer
An East Anglian beach, August 2008

Our popular media frequently run stories about the latest report on climate change, either supporting or opposing certain hypotheses, but rarely compare it to earlier reports or long-term records. Yet even a modicum of research shows that in the Nineteenth Century Britain experienced a large variation in weather patterns. For example, the painter J.M.W. Turner's glorious palette was not all artistic licence, but almost certainly influenced by the volcanic dust-augmented sunsets following the 1815 Tambora eruption. It wasn't just painting that was affected either, as the UK suffered poor harvests the following year whilst in the eastern United States 1816 was known as 'Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death'.

The influence of the subjective on the objective doesn't sound any different from most other human endeavours, except that weather professionals too - meteorologists, climatologists, and the like - also rely on biases in their work. Ensemble forecasting, which uses slightly different initial conditions to create data reports which are then combined to provide an average outcome, has been shown to be a more accurate method of prediction. In other words, this sounds like a form of scientific bet hedging!

Recent reports have shown that once-promising hypotheses involving singular factors such as sunspot cycles can in no way account for most primary causes of climate change, either now or in earlier epochs. It seems the simple answers we yearn for are the prerogative of Hollywood narrative, not geophysical reality. One bias that can seriously skew data is the period being used in a report. It sounds elementary, but we are rarely informed that even the difference of a single year in the start date can significantly affect the outcome as to whether, for example, temperature is increasing over time. Of course, scientists may deliberately only publish results for periods that support their hypotheses (hardly a unique trait, if you read Ben Goldacre). When this is combined with sometimes counter-intuitive predictions – such as that a gradual increase in global mean temperature could lead to cooler European winters – is it little wonder we non-professionals are left to build our level of belief in climate change via a muddle of personal experience, confusion and folk tales? The use of glib phrases such as 'we're due another glaciation right about now' doesn't really help either. I'm deeply interested in the subject of climate change and I think there is serious cause for concern, but the data is open to numerous interpretations.

So what are we left with? (Help: I think I'm turning into Jerry Springer!) For one thing, the term 'since records began' can be about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Each year we get more data (obviously) and so each year the baseline changes. Meteorology and climatology are innately complex anyway, but so far both scientists and our media have comprehensively failed to explain to the public just how little is known and how even very short-term trends are open to abrupt change (as with the notorious 'don't worry' forecast the night of the 1987 Great Storm). But then you have only to look out of the window and compare it to the Met Office website to see we have a very long way to go indeed…

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Amazed rats and super squirrels: urban animal adaptations

If I was the gambling sort I might be tempted to bet that the most of the large fauna in my neighbourhood was, like much of London, restricted to very few species: namely feral pigeons, rats, mice and foxes. The most interesting visitor to my garden is, judging by the size, a female common toad - the wondrously named Bufo bufo - which makes an appearance every couple of years to feast on snails and leave a shell midden behind.

After spotting a small flock of Indian-ringnecked Parakeets in our local park, I decided to look at the adaptations wildlife has undergone whilst living in an urban environment. After intermittently researching this topic over a month or so, I was surprised to find the BBC Science News website posting an article along similar lines. Synchronicity? I decided to plough ahead, since the subject is too interesting to abandon and I've got my very own experimental data as well, although it's hardly 'laboratory conditions' material.

Your friendly neighbourhood Bufo bufo
It's easy to see why animals are attracted to cities: the ever-present food scraps; the warmer microclimate; and of course plenty of places to use for shelter (my nickname for railway embankments is 'rodent condominiums'). Even the mortar in walls seems to offer smaller birds a mineral supplement (calcium carbonate) and/or mini-gastroliths (A.K.A. stomach grit) judging by the way they peck at them. Then there's also the plentiful sources of fresh water, which in my neighbourhood goes from birdbaths and guttering to streams and reservoirs. Who can blame animals for coming in from the cold? In the case of the London fox they have been arriving since the 1930s, whilst rodents were probably rubbing their paws together in glee as the first cities were being built many millennia ago in the Fertile Crescent.

There seem to be several, obvious behavioural changes that result from urban adaption, particularly when it comes to judging humans. I have found an astonishing lack of wariness in mice, squirrels and foxes, even in daylight, although rats are usually more circumspect. There are an increasing number of stories concerning foxes biting sleeping humans, including adults, even during the day. I was informed by a Clapham resident of how, having chased a noisy fox down the street at night, it then followed him back to his house, only stopping at the garden gate. Clearly there is some understanding of territorial boundaries here, too. This is supported by the behaviour of foxes in my area, which will happily chase cats in the local allotments even during the day, but once the cat emerges onto the street, the fox doesn't follow. Perhaps they have some understanding of connection between cats and humans?

City fauna has become more opportunist, prepared to scavenge meals from the enormous range of foodstuffs available in an urban environment, which around my area seems mostly to consist of fried chicken carcasses, usually still in the box. Even birds of prey such as the Red Kite (no small fry, with up to a one and three-quarter metre wing span) have recently been seen taking food off unwary children. This follows a period of finding food deliberately left out for them, so an association forms between people and food. This then is a two-way connection, with humans helping to generate changes in urban fauna by their own actions. Less time spent foraging means urban animals expend less physical energy, so there may a feedback loop at work here; if surplus energy can aid higher cognition, discrimination of humans and the urban environment increases, and thus even less time is required to source food. A facile conclusion perhaps, but read on for a possible real-life example.

My own experiments on grey squirrels took place about ten years ago, probably at least partially inspired by a television lager advertisement. It started when I found that my bird feeder was being misappropriated by a couple of squirrels. My first idea was to add radial spikes around the bird feeder using garden canes, but the squirrels were more nimble than I had thought, so after adding more and more spikes to create an object reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, I had to change tack. I next suspended the bird feeder on the end of a long rod that was too thin for the squirrels to climb on, but they managed to dislodge it at the wall end, causing it to drop to the ground for easy consumption. Rounds one and two to the pesky Sciurus carolinensis. My final design was a combination of spikes on the approach to the rod, the rod itself, then the feeder suspended from a long wire at the end of rod. I went off to work with an air of smug satisfaction that no mere rodent was going to get the better of me, only to find on my return that somehow the squirrels had leapt onto the rod and eaten through the wire!

One point to consider is that the bird food itself was in a transparent perspex tube, which is totally unlike any natural material. So when it comes down to it, are some animals, at least mammals and birds, over-endowed with grey matter when it comes to their usual environment, only utilising more of their potential when faced with artificial materials? Or do the challenges and rewards of being an urban sophisticate cause an increase in neurological activity or actual physiology? The latter gets my vote, if only for the evidence that supports this in human development. After all, the archaeological record suggests that modern humans and our ancestral/cousin species experienced an incredibly slow rate of technological development, with rapid increases only coming after disastrous setbacks such as the population bottleneck around 70,000 years ago, probably following a decade-long volcanic winter.

Experiments using rats in mazes over the past eighty years seem to agree with this thesis. However, there are clearly limits to animals' ability to learn new cognitive skills if they don't have time for repeated interactions, which may explain why most young foxes' first encounter with vehicular traffic is also their last. As for the BBC Science News report I mentioned earlier, research shows that birds with comparatively larger brain to body size ratios are those found to thrive in an urban environment. So it isn't all nature red in tooth and claw after all, but at least on occasion a case of brain over brawn for the city slickers.

Finally, I ought to mention a series of scare stories over the past year about another urban coloniser that seems to be returning after half a century's absence, namely the Cimicidae family of bloodsucking insects. With many of us using weaker laundry detergents at lower water temperatures, some researchers are predicting an imminent global pandemic of these unpleasant critters. So please be careful at night, and don't let the bed bugs bite!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Amazing animalcules: or how to create a jungle in a coffee jar

With frequently cloudy night skies preventing astrophotography of Saturn (even a few clouds are enough to ruin seeing, since they reflect the light pollution over London) I decided to head in the other direction, so to speak, and investigate the world of the very small. Last year my daughters and I had mixed success raising a batch of tadpole shrimp, a.k.a. Triops longicaudatus. Having seen the creatures lay their eggs in the adult tank, I kept some of the substrate in case we wanted to try round two this year. Therefore having had some warmer weather recently, I thought last week would be a good time for Triops Trek: the Next Generation.

Some enthusiasts - I can't really call them owners/keepers for such short-lived 'pets' - sift the half-millimetre diameter triops eggs from their tank substrate as if gold panning, but with the coral sand I used that frankly looked far too much like hard work. Therefore I just added about a 5mm deep layer of last year's substrate into a hatching tank of deionised water and hoped for the best. And...

...Success! Out of the thirty-five or so that hatched about half are still alive a week later, which surprised the hell out of me. The only problem being that the main tank is really only big enough for five or six adults. That is if they survive the transition and don't fall prey to problems with osmotic pressure, Ph balance, the nitrification cycle, etc, ad nauseum.

Meanwhile, a bit of research later, I discovered that each adult female (and most are) T. longicaudatus lays between 60 to 200 eggs per clutch. With up to one clutch a day, that's potentially an enormous number of eggs in my substrate. Looking at the nursery tank today I could see about sixty unhatched eggs stuck to the sides just above the water line, the latter having dropped slightly due to evaporation. All I have to do now is find a way of scraping them out...
Triops longicaudatus A.K.A. tadpole shrimps
Back to the current batch. The first problem was what to feed the nauplii (hatchlings for the uninitiated), as for the first few days they are too small to manage the shrimp food left over from last year's kit and I certainly wasn't going to bother buying anything. Luckily, last year I had found grow-your-own-infusoria instructions so had collected dried leaves from the local park during winter. So here's my recipe for happy hatchlings: collect some dead leaves, the more spore-covered the better; tear them into small pieces; soak them in rain or mineral water for three or four hours in a clean jar (e.g. coffee jar); tip out the water and dry the leaves; add them back to jar with fresh rain or mineral water and leave for three to four days. Voila - infusoria in abundance!

For those like me not in possession of a microscope, the best way to observe your new ecosystem (a slight Dr Frankensteinian moment) is at night. Place the jar against a dark background, turn off all the lights and view them via a torch and a magnifying glass with at least 3 times magnification. You'll be amazed at all the activity, especially the spiralling dance of the bdelloid rotifer. These half-millimetre creatures are extremely common but at this size it's perhaps not surprising that I've never noticed them before. There are hundreds of species, all of which seem to be asexual (or entirely female, depending on your viewpoint). But even these are just the tip of the diversity iceberg that is the world of the neo-microscopic. NASA has been experimenting on other similar-sized denizens, tardigrades, which can survive exposure to the vacuum, extreme temperatures and radiation of space. Otherwise known as water bears (despite their eight legs) tardigrades look more like a something off The Muppet Show than Doctor Who, but research has shown they can survive hundreds of times the lethal X-ray dose for humans, so perhaps long-duration spaceflights in the future will in some way benefit from the current endurance-testing of these remarkable little animals.

Back to the home-grown micro-jungle. Having reared a jarful of infusoria, I happily injected a few siphons' worth into the triops hatching tank. And then I felt a bit uneasy. I had heard that some fresh water aquarium owners breed triops just as food for their fish - perish the thought. And yet here I was, happily throwing the seals into the shark tank, as it were. Last year I had allowed a fairy shrimp and clam shrimp to go to their doom, along with countless daphnia (water fleas). So why was I worried now? Is there a threshold above which I consider a species should not become food (triops, obviously), whilst those below it can be eaten without qualms (clearly daphnia) and presumably bdelloid rotifers?

As a Westerner, I haven't grown up with Buddhist or other Eastern notions concerning animal welfare, ranging from veganism to reincarnation (although the latter clearly has self-interest at its core). Morals and empathy have a place in science too, and I consider pharmaceutical experimentation on animals as a necessary evil not to be thought about too often, but with the home-grown infusoria was it a case of size-based vulnerability or just cuteness that worried me how easily I had bred one animal as lunch for another? I suppose it's easy to argue that daphnia have the stigma of the name 'flea' with all its connotations, but the triops kit literature has an interestingly dismissive approach about associated fauna: it states that they won't live long (compared to triops, that is), but fails to mention that a primary reason for this is that the triops will hoover up the smaller species in next to no time.

Perhaps it was nothing more than the graceful, balletic movements of the rotifers that gave me pangs of guilt about serving them at the Café de Triops, but next time you pass a small puddle of dirty rainwater why not spare a moment's thought for the astonishing animalcules that live, largely unobserved, all around us? It really is a jungle out there!

Friday, 1 April 2011

Moonage daydreams: lunacy, conspiracy and the Apollo moon landings

It's astonishing to think that in less than two weeks' time it will be half a century since Yuri Gargarin slipped the surly bonds of Earth in Vostock 1. Although a generation has grown up since the end of the Cold War, any study of early astronautics cannot exclude a major dollop of politics. This is particularly true of the Apollo moon landing programme and President Kennedy's commitment to achieve this goal by 1970. Now as much a part of history as a fading memory, a small but significant number of theorists doubt the veracity of the missions. But are they just the same crackpots/misguided types (delete as required) who claim to have been abducted by aliens, or is there anything more concrete to go on?

A wide range of conspiracy stories has been circulating since rocket engine company employee the (now late) Bill Kaysing self-published his 1974 opus We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. Of course conspiracy was very much in the American psyche during that period: the Watergate affair had occurred 6 months prior to the final moon landing mission in December 1972 whilst President Nixon's resignation followed the release of the crucial audio tape evidence in August 1974. In a sense, the world was ready for Kaysing's theories, but can an impartial assessment show how accurate they are? Much of his thesis can be dismissed with a little application of the scientific method: the alleged problems on photographs and movie footage such as disappearing cross-hairs or incorrect shadows and lighting are easy to resolve. In another vein, the waving of the US flag on the lunar surface, attributed to wind in an Earth-based moon simulator, is just foolish. Why would such amateur mistakes occur if an elaborate cover-up were true?

However, new evidence recently made public from former Soviet archives hints that the conspiracy theorists may be on to something after all. Telemetry tapes from the USSR's land- and ship-based deep space network suggest that there was an additional signal hidden, via frequency division multiplexing, underneath transmissions to the Apollo craft. This implies that what actually went to the moon were pairs of empty spacecraft: a robot version of the lander (or LM); and a command module (CSM) with an automated radio system. This latter set-up would isolate the hidden transmissions received from Earthbound astronauts and beam them back to fool the world into thinking the spacecraft was manned. The crew themselves would divide their time between Apollo mock-ups built inside a weightless training aircraft or 'vomit comet' (ironically also the technique used in the 1995 film Apollo 13) and a recreation of the lunar surface in the infamous Area 51 complex in Nevada. Of course the associated activities of sending robot sample-return missions to bring back massive quantities of moon rock (the same method used by the Soviet Luna missions from 1970 onwards) would presumably have eaten so deeply into NASA's budget as to be responsible for the cancellation of the last three moon-landing missions (or fake missions, as perhaps we should refer to them).

The obvious question is why go to all this length when the programme's fantastic achievements – the rockets, spacecraft, and their entire cutting-edge infrastructure - had already been built? Again, the USSR can add something to the picture. Fully six months before the Apollo 11 flight, the Soviet Union officially announced it was pulling out of the moon race and would not even attempt a manned flight to the moon. Then the month after Apollo 11's splashdown, the Soviets launched Zond 7, an unmanned variant of their Soyuz craft (a design still in use today to ferry crew to the International Space Station), on a circumlunar trajectory. What is interesting is that the craft carried 'special radiation protection'. Had they found a fundamental obstruction to a manned lunar landing mission? Less than one month prior to Apollo 11, when you would have thought NASA would have been completely focussed on that mission (and bearing in mind the massive amount of unpaid overtime required to maintain schedules), the US launched a pigtail monkey called Bonny into orbit aboard Biosat 3. This almost unknown mission was terminated more than twenty days early, with Bonny dying 8 hours after landing. What was so urgent it needed testing at this crucial time? In a word: radiation.

The Van Allen Belt consists of two tori (basically, doughnuts) of high-energy charged particles trapped by the Earth's magnetic field. After its existence was confirmed by the USA's first satellite, Explorer 1, continuous observation proved that the radiation intensity varies over time as well as space. Unfortunately, 1969-1970 was a peak period in the cycle, in addition to which it was accidentally augmented by artificially-induced radiation. In 1962 the USA detonated a 1.4 megaton atomic weapon at an altitude of 400 kilometres. Although by no means the largest bomb used during four years of high-altitude testing, Operation Starfish Prime generated far more radiation than any similar US or USSR experiment, quickly crippling a number of satellites, including some belonging to the Soviets.

The theory holds that this additional radiation belt would have had a profound effect on manned spacecraft travelling beyond low Earth orbit. An additional whammy would be the danger of deep-space radiation once away from the protection of the geomagnetic field. The BBC's 2004 docudrama series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets showed this quite nicely when the interplanetary Pegasus mission lost its doctor to cosmic radiation. There is also speculation that the impact of cosmic rays on the lunar surface generates a spray of secondary particles that would prove hazardous to astronauts. Although it's not clear if the Russians were sending animals into space during the late 1960s as per the Biosat series, Bill Kaysing claimed he had been given access to a Soviet study that recommended blanketing lunar surface astronauts in over a metre of lead!

The Apollo missions of course utilised what was then cutting edge technology, but even so the payload capacity of the Saturn V rocket did not allow for spacecraft with anything but the lightest of construction techniques. Indeed, the Apollo lunar module had outer coverings of Mylar-aluminium alloy – a substance that appears to be a high-tech version of baking foil. In this instance it seems rather apt, in the sense that it may well have lead to self-basting astronauts, had they actually been on board. In all seriousness, the heaviest of the fuelled-up CSM-LM configurations was around 40 tonnes (for Apollo 17), only five tonnes short of the maximum lunar transfer trajectory capacity. Since it took an 111-metre tall Saturn V to launch these craft, it is clear that lead shielding wasn't really an option.

Some conspiracy theorists have argued that Stanley Kubrick, coming directly from four years of making 2001: A Space Odyssey, was involved in the hoax filming, but this seems rather ridiculous (although another irony is that 2010: Odyssey Two director Peter Hyams had earlier made the Mars mission conspiracy film Capricorn One, the film's hardware consisting of Apollo craft...) A far more plausible candidate to my mind is Gene Roddenberry, the originator of Star Trek. The Apollo 8 circumlunar flight over Christmas 1968 (including a reading from Genesis, no less), the 'happy' (from a ratings point of view) accident of Apollo 13, even the use of America's first rocket-launched astronaut Alan Shepard as commander of Apollo 14, hint back to the homely yet patriotic heroics of Kirk and co. As for the photographic effects crew, my money would be on one 2001's effects supervisors, namely the engineering genius Douglas Trumbull. Today even amateurs like myself can attempt to replicate their brilliant work: here's my take of Armstrong and Aldrin, done many moons ago, courtesy of Messer Airfix and Photoshop (shame you can't see the cross-hairs at this size):

Apollo lunar lander
As for how all those involved have managed to maintain silence over the decades, Neil Armstrong's publicity shyness is about the only example I can think of that bolsters the argument. Except there is also the curious case of Britain's own "pretty far out" David Bowie, who somehow seems to have been in the know. It sounds bizarre, but if you examine his oeuvre from Space Oddity onwards ("your circuits dead, there's something wrong") to the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (complete with a cameo from Apollo 13 commander James Lovell as himself) you begin to find a subliminal thematic thread. For me, these culminate in the 1971 song Moonage Daydream, with the deeply conspiratorial lyrics "Keep your mouth shut, you're squawking like a pink monkey bird...Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me..."

Couldn't have put it any better myself!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Animal farm: agricultural revolutions happening in your own garden

Various forms of symbiosis - the mutual interactions between species - have long been recognised, not least the hundreds of microorganisms that co-exist within and upon us Homo sapiens. But going beyond mere symbiosis, there appear to be examples of interactions between species that are nothing less than astonishing. Following a recent spate of television documentaries on the Neolithic period, the time when humans started to farm first animals and then crops, it seemed a good excuse to look at examples of other animals that also farm. Although mostly restricted to arable farmers (technically speaking, fungi culturists) there is also one fascinating case of pastoralism.

The best-known examples are probably insects, with many species of leaf-cutter ant and termites known to farm strains of fungi as a food source. It has been assumed (although I’m not sure on what basis, since farming activity would presumably be invisible to the fossil record) that these insects developed their sophisticated social structures, including caste systems, prior to the adoption of farming. This is the direct reverse of the earliest human farmers, wherein the earliest cities of the Near East, for example, arose after livestock domestication. It’s difficult to see how insects started the process and raises the interesting question of whether it offers the farming species any superiority over non-farmers of similar genera. After all, in human cultures it appears that early farmers had to work far harder for their daily bread than the gatherer-hunters who preceded them, the latter being a way of life that continues in isolated pockets even to this day. So it may not be an improvement on non-farming lifestyles - just different. Another nail in the coffin for any followers of the Victorian notion of progress…

Staying with insects, a diverse group of over three thousand beetles cultivate the ambrosia fungus for food, in a relationship thought to stretch back tens of millions of years. Unlike ants and termites, these beetle species do not all live in large, strictly-organised colonies. Heading for wetter environments, marsh snails have also been found to cultivate fungus that is ‘sown’ from spores embedded in their own excrement! Then in the water itself, some species of damselfish farm algae on the remnants of coral they have themselves killed, a process that bares a striking resemblance to Amazonian deforestation for cattle ranching. Unfortunately, the fishing by humans of damselfish predators has had the effect of aiding the population of fishy farmers and thus only increased the rate of coral loss.

Finally, the pastoralist in the pack, our everyday common or garden ant. In a bizarre simulcrum of dairy farming, some ant species control, supervise and ‘milk’ aphids. Had the species involved been more cuddly (i.e. one of us mammals) then it might have seemed all the more astonishing – a real-life antidote to Beatrix Potter-esque anthropomorphism. As it is these genuine animal farmers, with individual brains weighing a few thousandths of a gram, will drug aphids, protect them from predators and bad weather, and even use biochemicals to affect their growth patterns. And all in return for the honeydew they extract from the aphids.

You may have noticed the use of very human activities in these descriptions: domestication; caste systems; protection, etc. We are only just beginning to understand the behavioural diversity to found amongst other species, only to find we are continuously removing yet more barriers that differentiate ourselves from the rest of the biosphere. It is tempting to suggest this last example of animal farmers includes a form of slavery, with drug-controlled drones and just a whif of Brave New World. If these examples of non-human farmers were found on another planet, would we possibly consider it to be a sign, incredibly alien to be sure, of intelligence? Clearly, the brain size of the individuals involved doesn’t count for much, but a colony of 40,000 ants has the collective number of brain cells of one human. If the ants were able to store information in chemical signatures, something akin to a library, then wouldn’t this be a form of hive mind? Speculative nonsense of course, but does anyone remember the 1970’s film Phase IV?

It’s difficult to be anything other than dumbfounded as we learn more about animal behaviour, especially at what seems to be a programmed/non-conscious level. If the permutations are like this on Earth, the possibilities on other worlds are seemingly limitless. Again, this questions whether we could even recognise whether another species is intelligent or not. Perhaps Douglas Adams put it best: "Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason."

Enough said!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Let us think for you; or how I learnt to stop worrying and just believe the hype

I was recently watching my cousin's sister-in-law (please keep up) on a BBC TV documentary, in which various Victorian super-cures were shown to be little more than purgatives thanks to ingredients such as rhubarb, liquorice, soap and syrup. Whilst we frequently scorn such olden days quackery, the popularity of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science and (Patrick) HolfordWatch show that times haven't really changed all that much. Bombarded as we are from the egg with immense amounts of consumerist 'information', it is maddening if unsurprising that we buy the dream with critical faculties switched firmly off.

As Goldacre points out, George Orwell noted that the true genius in advertising is to sell you both the solution and the problem. Since the above sites both detail some of the rather more bizarre pharmaceuticals on the market, I'll recommend you visit them for further information. The material dealing with a council allowing a trial of fish oil pills to boost school exam results is priceless.

Yet this area is just one of several related to the solution/problem model, namely that there is consumer product for every issue: "Want a smart child? Just buy a Mozart CD!" The Mozart Effect may finally be heading for the debunked heap, but it's small fry compared to the notion that pill-popping is often the most effective yet rapid remedy. The amount of health supplements now available (carefully niche-marketed, of course) is astonishing, as is the appeal for us to treat ourselves like professional athletes, thanks to the increasing obsession with hydration and hypertonic drinks and 'wellness' in general.

The past two decades have seen a sad litany of scandals involving food and pharmacology, from the salmonella in eggs to the MMR vaccine and autism. With the UK press only to willing to whip up a scandal without prior thorough investigation of the evidence (for the most part, presumably for the sake of sales rather than any anti-scientific leanings per se), the public has been cried wolf to so many times it's enough to make you turn your back on anything that looks vaguely scientific. I don't know enough about the avian flu and swine flu hyperbole to comment in detail, but there too the media reporting of Government planning has implied elements verging on the farcical.

So what have we learnt so far? Firstly, it's far easier to push a one-size-fits-all cure than to individually assess people's physical and mental health problems as if they were, well, individuals. Most of us rely on the media for our explanations of health and food science issues, and these reports tend to appeal to the emotions and intuition rather more than we might find in the primary reports, AKA the 'sterilised pages of scientific literature', as palaeontologist Richard Fortey refers to it.

Not that most of us would have the time to plough through and decode the latter anyway, which brings me to a second issue: there is now so much freedom of choice, and an emphasis on rapid pacing to match our speed of communications that 'noise' (not just aural) is increasingly blocking critical thinking. Twenty years ago, people could define their day as having a work part and a leisure part, but now the two are blurred if not superseded thanks to a wide variety of recent technological innovations. Obviously we can work longer hours (i.e. from home or in transit) via mobile computing and Wi-Fi, but there’s also online networking, blogging, email and webcam, online shopping, even printing our own photos and ploughing through endless television channels 'live' or on-demand. It's a nice thought that when electronic personal assistants can be tailored to our personality profiles (like an uber-Amazon personalised homepage), then we will no longer be slaves to the labour-saving devices we clutter our lives with. But even then, will consumerist culture trivia remain a primary component of our lives?

If all this sounds a bit Luddite, or just plain anti-Capitalist, then why not ask yourself do you feel technically savvy and cool, thanks to owning a range of up-to-the-minute high-tech consumer items? Do you even have a nutritionist or a lifestyle coach? Consider is it possible that you could be losing common sense, handing over large chunks of analytical thought to others so as to gain a little bit of quality time in a hectic world? It’s up to us to reclaim our critical thought processes before we evolve into H.G. Well's passive, leisure-obsessed Eloi. Otherwise the future's bright, the future's hyper-realistic 3D with added gubbins! Now where's my isotonic rehydration fluid?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Cosmic fugues: the myriad connections between music and astronomy

Although there has been a surfeit of the damp dishrag that typifies British weather hanging over our night time skies recently, there have also been a few clear, crisp evenings allowing some fine views of Jupiter, even from my light-polluted suburban London garden. Having recently upgraded my stargazing equipment from a pair of ancient yet serviceable binoculars to a modest reflecting telescope (courtesy of an unexpected tax rebate), I thought this might be a good opportunity to sketch a few observations (pun intended) regarding the connections between astronomy and music. I was partly inspired by the BBC's Stargazing Live programmes earlier this month, whose co-host was the increasingly ubiquitous physicist and ex-keyboard player Brian Cox. Admittedly, Professor Cox is more space-orientated in his broadcasting than his professional work, but it does seem to be the case that astronomers have provided plenty of musically-attuned scientists, with the opposite direction also supplying musicians with astronomical interests.

Much has been written about the semi-mystical search to understand cosmic harmonies that motivated the research of both Kepler and Newton, so the phenomenon, if I can call it that, is hardly new. It has been a while since connections were formally recognised between music and mathematics, from harmonic progression to the idea that both subjects rely on similar cognitive processes. And of course, many aspects of astronomy rely to a large extent on mathematical underpinnings.

The correlation is not a recent one: in the Eighteenth Century composer William Herschel was inspired to switch to a career in astronomy after developing an interest in the mathematic aspects of musical composition. Today his symphonies are largely forgotten in favour of his key role in astronomy, including his discovery, with his sister Caroline, of the planet Uranus. There is at least anecdotal evidence, such as that provided by the musical Bachs and mathematical Bernoullis, for some degree of direct genetic inheritability in both disciplines. So perhaps utilisation of the same area of the brain may play a key role in the association between the two seemingly disparate fields. I feel much more research could be undertaken in this area.

Although increasing urbanisation (and therefore light pollution) may lead most people to consider stargazing as about as dynamic and interesting as fly fishing, the wonder of the night sky can offer a poetic experience free to all. This suggests an obvious aesthetic motivation or sensibility that links the discipline directly to music. But if this seems pretty facile, at a slighter more involved level I would like to consider the geometry, timing and mathematical relationships that are found in astronomy and which have their own aesthetic charm. There are projects currently in progress that cover many aspects of this, working from both sides. On the music-led approach, music professors at Yale, Princeton and Florida State University are attempting to reduce musical structure to geometries that seemingly echo the Pythagorean tradition. From the astronomy angle, Stargazing Live featured a scientist converting astrophysical phenomena into audible signals, even though the results couldn’t be classed as music in any traditional aesthetic sense.

It has to be said that there are little in the way of prominent musical works that utilise astronomical methodology or facts in the way that Diane Ackerman's wonderful volume of poetry The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral succeeds. Contemporary astronomy-inclined musicians including Queen guitarist Brian May, who admittedly originally trained as an astronomer and finally completed his PhD on the Zodiacal Light in 2008, and sometime Blur bassist Alex James, he of Beagle 2 call sign fame. Yet neither has produced an astronomical-based piece that can complete with that most obvious example of space-related music, Holst's The Planets, which was inspired by purely astrological rather than astronomical themes. My own favourite of the genre is Vangelis' 1976 album Albedo 0.39, which culminates in the title track detailing a geophysical description of Earth. Whether the Open University astronomy degree taken by Myleene Klass will inspire her to an astronomy-orientated meisterwork is...err...possibly somewhat doubtful...