Saturday, 26 December 2015

Beetlemania: can eating insects help save the environment?

Christmas - along with Thanksgiving for Americans - has probably got to be the most obvious time of the year when Westerners over-indulge in animal protein. However, this meatfest comes at a severe cost to the planet, as anyone who is environmentally aware is likely to know. Although many people have started making changes to mitigate climate change and pollution, compared to say recycling and reducing your carbon footprint, cutting down on meat seems to be far more challenging.

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested Americans should have one or two meat-free days each week, but that's easier said than done in a continent raised on heaped platefuls of red meat. It isn't as if switching from cattle, sheep and goat to more unusual species would help either, as recent research confirms the likes of kangaroo and reindeer as sources of high methane emissions too. As a side note, it isn't just meat consumption that needs to be reduced; there's also dairy farming to consider. Does anyone really like soya milk? Mind you, I haven't tried almond milk yet...

United Nations reports suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from farming, primarily due to livestock and artificial fertilisers, have almost doubled in the past half century. As you might expect,these are likely to continue increasing at a similar rate over the next fifty years. In addition, vast tracts of Amazonian rainforest - amongst other unspoilt natural habitats - are being destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. At around three million acres lost each year, there's obviously not much in the way of sustainability about this particular development!

So is there any good news in all this culinary doom and gloom? Both Europe and especially North America have recently seen a profusion of companies marketing manufactured foods intended as meat replacements that are derived from of all things…insects. These products range from burgers to crackers and usually offer little appearance or taste to indicate their source material. Is it possible that the future for developed nations could include the delights of grasshopper goulash and wormicelli pasta?

It isn't as strange as it sounds. Over a quarter of mankind routinely eats insects from several thousand species as part of their traditional diet, usually with the source animal obvious in the presentation. This makes sense for developing nations, since wild insects can be caught en masse, farmed bugs fed on cheap waste material that can't be converted into conventional animal feed - and of course they require comparatively little water. Although the material isn't being converted to highly processed foodstuffs, Thailand - with over 20,000 insect farms - is an example of a nation currently increasing its insect consumption.

The species used in the new ‘hidden' insect foods varies widely, with crickets prominent on the menu. It isn't as straightforward as just killing the wee beasties and grinding them into powder, but many of the new American and European companies are conducting extensive research, developing mechanised processes that bode well for industrial-scale production.

The nutritional analysis shows promise to say the least, with some Hymenoptera species containing up to three times the protein yield of domestic cattle. The vitamin and mineral statistics are pretty good too, sometimes exceeding both farmed mammals and birds as well as plant staples such as soya beans. Not bad, considering that bug farming should prove to be at least four times as efficient as cattle husbandry.

Whether a trendy novelty can become mainstream remains to be seen, since the fledgling industry faces more than just the ‘yuck' factor. As with much cutting-edge technology, legislation has yet to catch up: there could be issues around safety concerns, with short shelf life, uncaught impurities or pollutants and allergic reactions all potential factors that could inhibit widescale production.

Bug protein isn't the only dish on the table (see what I did there?) as there are even more sophisticated approaches to reducing the environmental degradation caused by meat production. One well-publicised technique has been the cultivation of animal flesh in-vitro. However, it's only been a couple of years since the (nurturing? propagation?) of the first petri dish burger and so the process is still prohibitively expensive. By comparison, insects (bees and butterflies excepted) are not currently in short supply.

As a someone who hasn't eaten any land-based flesh for over a quarter of a century - and yes, I try to be careful with which aquatic species I consume - I suppose I have a fairly objective opinion about this matter. It does seem to make environmental sense to pursue processed insect protein as a replacement for domesticated mammal and bird species, but how often has logic taken a backseat to prejudice and the irrational? I look forward to near future developments, not least the massive brand campaigns that will no doubt be required to convert the Western public to the likes of Cricket crackers and Wormer schnitzel. Look out turkeys, your Christmases could be numbered...

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Local heroes: helping the ecosystem – with or without leaving your backyard

Thomas Henry Huxley, A.K.A. Darwin's Bulldog and the man who coined the word 'agnostic' (and less-than-incidentally, my hero) once remarked that "We live in a world which is full of misery and ignorance, and the plain duty of each and all of us is to try to make the little corner he can influence somewhat less miserable and somewhat less ignorant than it was before he entered it." With this years' UN Climate Change Conference about to start in Paris, there have been around 2000 marches around the world as current generations advise their governments that cleaning up our planet cannot be postponed any longer.

Meanwhile, like something out of a typical piece of Hollywood schmaltz, New Zealand law student Sarah Thomson is taking her country's government to court over lack of progress on climate change. Unfortunately as this is the real world - and since the UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets aren't legally binding at nation-state level - the outcome is unlikely to provoke a Spielberg-style public cheer when the case is decided.

From a New Zealand-centric view, we may seem removed from the overcrowded, polluted hell-holes scattered around the world, but there are plenty of problems in store for this little corner of paradise, and not just from climate change. New Zealanders have only recent begun to understand that far from the '100% Pure' tourist brand, there has been a long-term degradation to their ecology, primarily from invasive species and an unsustainable level of development.

But although we may seem powerless in a wider context, individuals in any nation can still make a difference to help maintain or even restore their local environment without a great effort and at minimal cost. You might think: why bother? One household can't help an entire planet! But then, if everyone dropped one piece of litter every day we would rapidly become swamped with rubbish, so the antithesis holds true. Whilst the following are tailored towards New Zealand, the majority of actions can be undertaken anywhere. So enough proselytising: on with the show!

1) Reducing your carbon footprint. This week the New Zealand Herald website launched a climate action tool to show where households could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. I'm never fond of quoting statistics, but if the country's emissions really have increased by the quoted 21% since 1990, then clearly something is going very wrong. Among the most basic methods - that at the same time can reduce household spending - are reusing bags when grocery shopping; and cutting down on food waste (which in New Zealand equates to half of household rubbish) by buying less and then having to bin out-of-date food. It's not rocket science!

2) Careful consumerism. Stop being a slave to fashion and don't just upgrade to a new smartphone when the old one still works perfectly well. It may be difficult to cut down on methane-hefty dairy products, but it's easy to avoid items that contain environmentally unfriendly materials, such as nanosilver or palm oil that comes from unsustainable sources. After all, two American girl guides spend five years on a successful mission for clear food labelling and the introduction of palm oil from deforestation-free sources. If they can do it, why can't we all?

3) Reduce, reuse and recycle. I discussed this back in 2010 and think that all the points are still relevant. Again, this can actually save money. If you have a garden, then a tiger worm farm is a pretty good way to get free fertiliser and soil conditioner from the likes of vegetable peelings, egg shells, tea bags and even discarded hair.

4) Encouraging wildlife. Talking of gardens, you can easily help the local fauna with the right type of vegetation and feeders. Of course, it's not all plain sailing: although I feed native silvereye birds during the winter with fruit, my seed feeders are most likely to be utilised by non-native species imported to New Zealand from the UK in the late Nineteenth Century. You win some, you lose some.

5) Discouraging invasive species. From marine fan worms on the underside of ships' hulls to pet cats, New Zealand's native species have long faced the onslaught of aggressive outsiders. Current biosecurity regulations are very important, but in NZ sometimes have the ring of the stable door about them, in this case with the (foreign) horses having bolted into the stable - and promptly munched their way through much of the local biota. One simple thing I have done is to discourage South African praying mantises by methods such as changing garden planting and moving hatchlings to more conspicuous places in the garden where birds might find them. In this way numbers have reduced from hundreds of individuals three years' ago to seeing just one hatchling this year - and no adults - despite carefully examination of the garden. As for cats, don't get me started! NZ has over 1.4 million of them, and whoever can prevent them catching native birds and lizards would probably deserve a Nobel prize.

6) Eco-activities. Talking of trees, various local groups are more than happy to accept volunteers for tree-planting, pest trapping and litter removal schemes. In New Zealand, Tiritiri Matangi has gone from being a denuded patch of scrub to an island sanctuary for endangered bird species in just three decades, largely thanks to volunteers planting over 280,000 trees. As for litter, volunteer beach patrols are unfortunately a necessity, as an example from 2011 shows: 130,000 pieces of rubbish were collected from the uninhabited island of Rangitoto in just one day.

7) Joining organisations. There are plenty of societies ready, willing and able to use membership funds for ecological activities, from global giants such as the World Wide Fund for Nature to local groups such as New Zealand's Forest and Bird. As a member of latter I've been pleased to study their new 25-year strategic plan, aimed on raising important environmental issues and presenting detailed information to the NZ Government in support of campaigns. The good thing is your subscription money is being used positively regardless of how much or how little active time you yourself can dedicate.

8) Armchair petitioning. Even for people unable to get out and about you can also petition your local politicians and other relevant figures without leaving home. A good example in recent years has been British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's fish discards campaign, which gained massive public support and succeeded in less than three years in not only gaining an update to European Union by-catch legislation, but had positive knock-on effects in other aspects of commercial fishing within the EU. Nice one, Hugh!

9) Citizen science. A fairly recent definition, this encapsulates an enormous range of passive and active methods. The former includes crunching science project data whilst your home computer is idling, whilst a painless example of the latter would be participating in wildlife surveys; recent New Zealand examples include one-off garden bird and butterfly counts, through to monthly assessments of a single square metre of rocky beach. There are numerous projects that are suitable for children to participate in, so a side-effect is to encourage children to accept science as an integral component of their lives, not just something to do at school.

10) Education. Talking of school...saving the most difficult to last. I was recently accosted on the street by an admittedly junior employee of a petroleum giant whose argument - if I can dignify it as such - was that snowfall in New Zealand in October was clear proof global warming isn't occurring. Clearly, there is a severe lack of public understanding of basic science, this particular case relating to the fact that climate change can include local cooling at the same time as warming on a global scale. Thanks to the ubiquity of information channels from climate change-denier News Corp (now the proud owner of National Geographic, for crying out loud), it seems certain that grass-roots environmental education needs to be the way forward, considering how much misinformation and nonsense is being spread by global news networks. So don't be afraid to talk - spread the word!

I'd like to end on two quotes: the first is by American cartoonist and author James Thurber, who said: "Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness." The second comes from a decorative plate that hangs on my wall: "Other planets cannot be as beautiful as this one." Let us hope we can leave a legacy such that our descendants continue to think so.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Cutting edge: can New Zealand hold its own as an innovation nation?

On a recent trip to MOTAT (for those not in the know, Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology) I was looking around a restored Edwardian period school room when I came across a list of classroom rules. One in particular stood out: 'Do not ask questions'. How times have changed! As the late New Zealand physicist Sir Paul Callaghan once said: "You don't need to teach a child curiosity. Curiosity is innate. You just have to be careful not to quash it. This is the challenge for the teacher - to foster and guide that curiosity." But are there enough resources in New Zealand today to support that curiosity, not just in children but for science and technology professionals too?

In the shadow of the seemingly endless Rugby World Cup coverage, the New Zealand Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce has launched the National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI). Although investment in the science and technology sector has increased within the past decade, I've come across various kiwi scientists with prominent social media profiles who constantly vent their frustration at the amount of timing spent bidding for funds - only for the majority of those bids to fail.

New Zealand is somewhat towards the lower end of the scale in government investment in research and development, but the nation appears even more hampered by apathy from the private sector. A key aim of the NSSI is to attract more private funding towards science, technology and engineering but with a very small internal market and many of the larger corporations controlled from overseas, the record to date hasn't been particularly good. Comparisons to other small developed nations bear this out. For example, the Republic of Ireland has only a slightly larger population than New Zealand but double the industrial research and development spend as a percentage of GDP. Other European countries fare even better, with Finland spending correspondingly more than quadruple New Zealand's figure!

Perhaps it is not surprising then to hear that after a comparatively high quality education, many New Zealand post-graduates and science professionals seek opportunities abroad. Not that this is a recent phenomenon; all three New Zealand-born science Nobel laureates spent their professional lives working in the UK, USA or Canada. For a nation that produces a relatively large output of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) articles, the impression is that kiwi ingenuity can only make limited resources go so far. As long as industry fails to support more than a paltry amount of research, there just won't be enough funding to support native talent.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. In addition to projects aimed at short-term improvements in native sectors such as the dairy industry, New Zealand is one of ten nations involved in the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. However, investment for this long-term project - one apparently lacking immediate practical benefits too - appears to be primarily via public rather than private finance.

You have only to consider New Zealand retail prices compared to other developed nations to understand that a combination of a remote geographic location and low population size and density are prime economic movers. This doesn't prevent canny kiwis from attempting STEM innovations, although it frequently ends with large-scale development implemented in larger, wealthier nations.

Two recent examples show these issues in vivid detail. Award-winning high school student Ayla Hutchinson invented the Kindling Cracker, a much safer way to split wood kindling than the traditional axe-on-a-stump method. However, when her Auckland-based manufacturers were unable to produce the device without a large cost increase, the young inventor was forced to seek an overseas company to produce it.

Another success story of Kiwi ingenuity is the field-leading wireless power technology firm PowerbyProxi, which in the past few years has formed a business relationship with international giants such as Samsung and Texas Instruments. One key issue they have faced in their home nation has been a shortage of skilled staff, further evidence that a brain drain on a small population can lead to the ultimate irony of having to recruit specialists from abroad. The NSSI and last year's strategic plan A Nation of Curious Minds - He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara are aiming to address this via changes within state education and citizen science. But will the private sector follow suit and step up to the mark in order to give the next generation of New Zealand scientists a 'fair go'?

New Zealand has long been acclaimed as punching above its weight in many arenas, not just rugby, but its future in STEM fields seems uncertain. I wonder if the canny kiwi/pioneer attitude (think: number eight fencing wire solutions) that has been so successful in the past is still suitable at a time when even if not requiring LHC mega-budgets, much science and technology innovation requires stable funding sources? The Government clearly have the country's long-term prospects in mind with the new strategies, but without adequate private sector finance the next generation of STEM graduates might well consider pursuing their careers abroad. Considering the nation-specific developments in science and technology that the future clearly requires, this would not be a good thing!

Monday, 28 September 2015

Resurrecting megafauna: the various problems of de-extinction

The record-breaking success of Jurassic World proves that if there's anything a lot of people want to see in the animal kingdom it is species that are both large and fierce. Unfortunately, in these post-glacial times that type of fauna has been much reduced and will no doubt wane even further - not that I particularly wish to encounter an apex predator at close quarters, you understand.

Hollywood, of course, has much to answer for. There was plenty of poor science in the original Jurassic Park movie - the use of gap-filling frog DNA being a far worse crime in my book than the over-sized velociraptors (think Achillobator and similar species) but the most recent film in the franchise has pointedly ignored the advances in dinosaur knowledge made in the intervening period. Perhaps a CGI test of a feathered T-Rex looked just to comical?

In contrast, the amount of publically-available material discussing de-extinction has increased exponentially in the two decades since Jurassic Park was released, with the line between fact and fiction well and truly blurred. That's not to say that an enormous amount hasn't been learned about the DNA of extinct species during this period. I recently watched a rather good documentary on the National Geographic channel (yes, it does occasionally happen) about the one-month old baby mammoth Lyuba, recovered in Siberia almost forty-two thousand years after she died. The amount of genetic information that has been recovered from mammoths is now extremely comprehensive, but then they were alive until almost yesterday at geological timescales. Needless to say the further back in time a creature existed, the more problematic it is to retrieve any genetic material.

A lot has been written about the methods that have been, or could in the near future, be used to resurrect ancient animals. Some procedures involve the use of contemporary species as surrogate parents, such as elephants standing in for mother mammoths. But it seems fair to say that all such projects are finding difficulties rather greater than originally planned. One common misconception is that any resurrected animal would be a pure example of its kind. Even the numerous frozen mammoth carcasses have failed to supply anywhere near a complete genome and of course it isn't just a case of filling in gaps as per a jigsaw puzzle: one primary issue is how to know where each fragment fits into the whole. Our knowledge of genetics may have advanced enormously since Watson and Crick's landmark 1953 paper, but genetic engineering is still incredibly difficult even with species that are alive today. After all, Dolly the sheep wasn't a pure clone, but had nuclear DNA from one donor and mitochondrial DNA from another.

Therefore instead of resurrecting extinct species we would be engineering hybrid genomes. Jurassic World took this process to the extreme with Indominus rex, a giant hybrid of many species including cuttlefish! Some research suggests that the most of the original genes of any species over a million years old – and therefore including all dinosaurs – might never be recovered. Something  terrible lizard-ish may be built one day, but it would be closer to say, a chicken, with added teeth, a long bony tail and a serious attitude problem. In fact, George Lucas has been a key funder of the chickenosaurus project with aims along these lines. Let's hope he doesn't start building an army of them, totally obedient clones, ready for world domination…oh no, that was fiction, wasn't it?

But if – or more likely, when – creating variants of extinct species becomes possible, should we even attempt it? Apart from the formidable technical challenges, a lot of the drive behind it seems to be for populating glorified wildlife parks, or even worse, game reserves. The mock TV documentary series Prehistoric Park for example only contained large animals from various periods, frequently fierce carnivores, with no attention given to less conspicuous creatures or indeed flora. This gee-whiz mentality seems to follow a lot of the material written about de-extinction, masking some very serious long-term issues in favour of something akin to old-style menageries. Jurassic Park, in fact.

A big question that would be near impossible to answer in advance is whether such a species would be able to thrive or even survive in a climate far removed from the original, unless there was major genetic engineering just for such adaptive purposes. Again, the further back the animal lived, the less likely it is that there is a contemporary habitat close to the original. It may be possible to recreate glacial steppes suitable for some mammoth species, but what about the Earth of ten million or one hundred million years ago? Prehistoric Park got around the issue for its Carboniferous megafauna by housing them in a high oxygen enclosure, which is certainly a solution, if something of a fire hazard!

Any newly-created animal will lack the symbiotic microbial fauna and flora of the original era, but I've not seen much that tackles this issue. I suppose there could be a multi-stage process, starting with deliberate injections of material in vitro (or via the host /mother). But once the animal is born it will have to exist with whatever the local environment/habitat has to offer. The chimerical nature of the organism may help provide a solution, but again this takes the creature even further from the original.

Then there is the rather important issue of food. To his credit, Michael Crichton suggested in Jurassic Park that herbivorous dinosaurs swallowing gizzard stones might accidentally eat berries that their metabolism couldn't handle. It would be extremely expensive to maintain compounds large enough for megafauna that are constantly kept free of wind-blown, bird-dropped and otherwise invasive material dangerous to the animals.

If the hybrids were allowed free reign, what if they escaped or were able to breed naturally? Given a breeding population (as opposed to say, sterilised clones) evolution via natural selection may lead them in a new direction. It would be wise to consider them as an integral part of the ecosystem into which they are placed, remembering Darwin's metaphor of ten thousand sharp wedges. Is there a possibility that they could out-compete modern species or in some other way exacerbate the contemporary high rate of extinction?

I've previously discussed the dangers of deliberate introduction of foreign species for biological control purposes: surely introducing engineered hybrids of extinct species is the ultimate example of this process? Or would there be a complete ban on natural reproduction for resurrected species, with each generation hand-reared from a bank of genetic material? At this point it should be clear that it isn't just the nomenclature that is confusing.

Some research has been undertaken to investigate the de-extinction of species whose demise during the past few centuries can clearly be blamed on humans, obvious examples being the Tasmanian tiger and the nine species of New Zealand moa. It could be claimed that this has more to do with alleviating guilt than serving a useful purpose (assuaging crimes against the ecosystem, as it were) but even in these cases the funds might be better turned towards more pressing issues. After all, two-thirds of amphibian species are currently endangered, largely due to direct human action. That's not to say that such money would then be available, since for example, a wealthy business tycoon who wants to sponsor mammoth resurrection - and they do exist - wouldn't necessarily transfer their funding to engineering hardier crops or revitalising declining pollinating insect species such as bees.

As it happens, even species that existed until a few hundred years ago have left little useable fragments of DNA, the dodo being a prime example. That's not to say that it won't one day be retrievable, as shown by the quagga, which was the first extinct species to have its DNA recovered, via a Nineteenth Century pelt.

As Jeff Goldman's chaos mathematician says in Jurassic Park, "scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should". Isn't that a useful consideration for any endeavour into the unknown? If there's one thing that biological control has shown, it is to expect the unexpected. The Romans may have enjoyed animal circuses, but we need to think carefully before we create a high-tech living spectacle without rather more consideration to the wider picture than appears to currently be the case.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Stars in the city: an introduction to urban astrophotography

As a twelve year old astronomy nut, I was lucky enough to receive a small refracting telescope. Almost immediately, I utilised scrap timber to build an observatory in my back garden, just about large enough for two children (plus star charts, a moon map and at least as important in my opinion, a flask of hot chocolate). I recall it even had a sliding roof, thanks to a pair of dismantled wardrobe doors.

Although the imaging wasn't too bad - I lived in a small town, so light pollution was relatively low - I soon discovered that good optics are only part of the story: without a proper mount, a telescope can be next to useless. In this particular case, I obviously hadn't read the brief introduction to mounts in my trusty The Observer's Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore. At any rate, I clearly didn't understand the difference between proper equatorial or alt-azimuth mounts and the piece of junk that allowed my refractor to sit on a table top. Therefore, except for getting to know the lunar landscape, I saw little that I couldn't more easily view with my 20x50 binoculars.

Jump forward thirty or so years and courtesy of a large tax refund I found myself in possession of a small reflector, complete with equatorial mount and right ascension motor. After some months getting to know it I started buying accessories, aiming to learn the ins and outs of astrophotography. Thanks to numerous websites I picked up some useful techniques and excellent free software - and as importantly, how to use the assemblage - and now feel it's about time I offered a one-stop-shop guide to getting the best images on a low budget in your own backyard. Of course there are plenty of books available, but most are at least one to two hundred pages long and often specify expensive kit, so this post is an attempt to cover the gap for those wanting an astrophotography 101 with the absolute minimum of basic equipment. Of course, it's entirely my approach, so there are no doubt plenty of other tutorials out there. But at least mine's short!

1. Equipment

I have to admit that I order all my kit from overseas, since New Zealand has few astronomy retailers and those there are appear to have a fairly limited range, often at uncompetitive prices. However, it is possible to accumulate a decent beginner's assortment for around a NZ$1000 / £500. I would always recommend a reflector as a first telescope, being far cheaper than a refractor with similar capability. The Newtonian is the most common, least expensive and easiest to maintain type of reflector, mine being a Sky-Watcher 130. As per the name, the primary mirror is 130mm (about five and a half inches in old money), which is really the minimum useful size for a reflector.

The telescope came with a red dot finder scope, several okay-ish eyepieces, a right ascension motor drive, a poor 2x Barlows and a reasonably stable equatorial mount. Since then I've bought a planetary camera, a good quality 2.5x Barlows, a compact camera adaptor, an adjustable polarising filter and a collimating eyepiece*. I've also made my own Bahtinov mask, courtesy of a website that supplies patterns for various diameter/focal length combinations. Although 'go-to' mounts are available, I agree with the general consensus that the best way to learn the night sky is by manually pointing the telescope, not just programming a target and letting the telescope slew into position for you.

*For complete newbies, a Barlows is a cheap method for increasing magnification with only a limited number of eyepieces, fitting into the eyepiece holder below the eyepiece. A collimator is used to check and correct misalignment between the primary and secondary mirrors, whilst a Bahtinov mask is a simple focussing aid.

I'm lucky to live in the 'winterless north' of New Zealand, but for those in colder climates it's probably wise to make or purchase a dew cap, or rather one for the main tube and another for the finder scope. A rubber eyecup for the eyepiece might also be a good idea; there's not much point in trying to observe anything if water is condensing on the mirrors or lenses.

I would recommend a CCD or CMOS telescope camera or modified webcam, since they are a lot cheaper than a digital SLR and far lighter. The EQ2 mount supplied with the Sky-Watcher needs adjusting on both axis depending on the combination of items in the eyepiece holder, otherwise at high angles it has a tendency to droop. The EQ2 counterweight can just about handle the long tube: experiments with a compact digital camera in a purpose-built mount have confirmed that additional off-centre mass requires regular fine-tuning to retain balance. Incidentally, I use a colour planetary camera since I tend to have short sessions - around two hours - and so only want to film each pass once rather than repeating in triplicate for colour filters, even if mono cameras achieve better resolution.

2. Where to observe?

Of course this is the least flexible part of astrophotography, since you are restricted by the buildings and trees in your garden - or any other convenient location. Not only is your view of the night sky limited by physical obstructions but pollution can severely impact viewing. As I have discussed previously, light pollution is the most obvious form, with street lighting often worse than that of buildings. I've found that even as low as ten percent cloud cover can degrade astrophotography, due to the artificial light reflecting off the clouds.

Heat pollution may be less obvious but can also severely reduce image quality. Therefore, try to avoid pointing the telescope directly above nearby rooftops or you will be looking through a rising column of hot air, either the radiating heat from earlier that day or leaking from poorly-insulated buildings that are heated at night. Also, never set the telescope up indoors and point it through an open window: the thermal variations will generate shimmering galore. Wind above the lightest of breezes cannot be recommended either, not just for 'scope instability but also because dust and particulates can deteriorate the viewing. High water vapour content is bad for the same reason; here in humid Auckland I'm frustrated by the hours before and after rain, meaning the best seeing I've ever had has been in high summer after a rain-free week.

Before using a reflecting telescope, it needs to be set up outdoors well in advance of the viewing session in order to allow the mirror to cool down to the ambient temperature. The cooling time is directly proportional to the primary mirror diameter, which for my 130mm is usually about one hour.

3. What to photograph?

For urban astrophotography I've found the moon and planets to be by far the best targets. By planets I mean just Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Venus may be both large and bright but due to its cloud cover will never present anything other than a featureless crescent or globe.

The moon is endlessly fascinating, best observed between new moon and first or last quarter (i.e. half full). During these periods, the low-angle sunlight generates shadows that model the features without being overly bright. When observing closer to full moon I always use a polarising filter to reduce the incredibly intense light, but since sunlight is then perpendicular there is little modelling to give relief to the geology.

Jupiter is by far the best planetary target for small telescopes; in addition to the cloud patterns you can see some or all of its four largest moons (Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io), their number and position changing on a nightly basis. Saturn is an excellent target too, the angle of the rings varying widely. I've also found Mars to be surprisingly worthwhile even when not at its closest to Earth, with the major features clearly visible in reasonable seeing conditions.

The problem with deep sky objects in urban astronomy is that they are both difficult to locate and their light is easily degraded by light pollution and particulates. I've attempted to get images of more familiar DSOs such as the Orion Nebula with several cameras, but the results are hopeless.

Once you have some experience under your belt, you may want to attempt photographing the International Space Station. Various websites list details for near-future visible passes over any location, when it is easy to spot due to being obviously brighter than any other man-made orbiting object. However, since the ISS will only be visible for around four minutes each pass you have to quickly manoeuver the telescope whilst keeping it in an area that is only about thirty arc seconds in diameter. If I manage to get any image at all, it is usually a few dozen frames resembling an out of focus capital 'H', so it's definitely a target for those with a lot of patience - and good hand-eye co-ordination.

4. Locating targets

Although I'm against beginners using go-to mounts, there are various planetarium programs and mobile apps that are extremely convenient for locating target objects. I use Stellarium, excellent freeware that can be set to any location on Earth and has a night time (i.e. red on black) mode to help keep your eyes sensitive to the dark.

Northern Hemisphere observers are at an advantage compared to their counterparts south of the equator due to the ease with which the North Celestial Pole can be found. Not only is Sigma Octantis slightly further from the SCP than Polaris is from the NCP, it is considerably dimmer. Therefore I've always had great difficulty in lining up the telescope to the South Celestial Pole for setting circles with the polar axis motor drive. There are telescope-camera combinations that allow use of auto guiding software but I prefer the manual approach to finding your way around the night sky. Besides which, spotting the closer planets is pretty easy, the most common potential mix-up being Mars with the red star Antares (whose name after all means 'equal to Mars')! All in all, manually slewing the telescope using a printed or online star chart as a guide is the best way to learn.

5. Harvesting ancient light

I tend to take 20-60 seconds of video or still sequences when imaging the moon and planets, depending on various factors such as target brightness and seeing conditions. Planetary cameras allow some manual adjustments such as exposure length and gain, with shorter exposure lengths usually better so as to minimise degradation within a single image. When the seeing is reasonable I stack the planetary camera on top of the 2.5x Barlows, which gives a decent angular size for the planets. I've also used a compact CCD camera with an eyepiece and Barlows combination, but the camera adaptor is fiddly to align on three axis with the eyepiece and the extra weight can mean regular adjustments to the mount, depending on telescope angle.

6. Image processing

Once you have the raw video or sequence of stills there is a lot that can be done to improve the image quality, initially by aligning and stacking the best individual frames and discarding the rest. Again, there is a lot of freeware available to help with this. I use RegiStax, often creating 3 or 4 permutations from each sequence and then loading the best one in Photoshop for final tweaks. (If you cannot afford the latter, then GIMP - GNU Image Manipulation Program - is a great freeware alternative.) It can take a while to understand how to use the likes of RegiStax, but there are YouTube tutorials covering various processes and I always consider a trial and error approach to be a good way to learn!

So what sort of results can you expect from all this effort? The biggest factor in quality is undoubtedly the seeing conditions, which are outside of your control. However, just occasionally you get a perfect night. I find that it can take a few sessions to generate a half-decent image, so it definitely takes perseverance.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words, you can judge the results for yourself here.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Dung roaming: a controversial approach to cleaning up New Zealand's cattle waste

Although I've already discussed the dangers of using biological control in various countries, a couple of recent events suggested I should write an update that concentrates on one particular example in New Zealand. I've mentioned elsewhere that my local reserve in Auckland is home to a large number of non-native species, from Australian eucalyptus trees and the associated (but accidentally imported) Emperor Gum moth, to California quail and Mexican gambusia fish. But having seen rainbow skink in my local environs, including a neighbour's garden, I was surprised to learn last week they are not native but yet another unplanned Australian import. Sure enough, the 1947 classic Powell's Native Animals of New Zealand makes no mention of the species in the page on the indigenous common skink and copper skink.

Earlier this year I read Quinn Berentson's superb Moa: the life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird, which lists fifty-eight avian species as having become extinct since humans first arrived in the country less than a thousand years ago. And of course this decimation of native fauna and flora may not yet have ended, with NIWA for example fighting a rear guard action against unwanted marine incomers such as polychaete worms arriving on ship's hulls and in discharged ballast water. Various sources suggest that well over one hundred introduced species of land animals, birds and fish are now widespread in New Zealand: what chance does the native ecosystem stand against this onslaught?

To add insult to injury, I recently read an OECD chart delineating business spend on research and development as a percentage of GDP, and was shocked to find that New Zealand was fourth from bottom of twenty-six nations, coming below western Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and the USA. Are our captains of industry really so short-sighted? As a country that depends extremely heavily on its dairy industry - an industry that is currently in dire straits - it seems sensible to invest a large amount of R&D in this sector. But alongside the eco-friendly solutions such as minimising methane emissions, there has been a new programme of biological control aimed at one particular side effect of dairy farming, namely the enormous amounts of cattle dung produced.

Across the Tasman, Australia has already been working on a similar scheme for the past half century, deliberately introducing numerous species of non-native dung beetles. New Zealand, home to over ten million cattle in a 3:2 dairy-to-meat ratio, obviously has issues with bovine manure management. Due to the lack of native ruminants the country's fifteen indigenous dung beetle species have evolved to mostly inhabit forests rather than grazing land.

There are various reasons why speeding up the rate of dung decomposition would improve farm land and the landscape in general, from preventing mineral imbalance in the soil and contamination of waterways to reduction in animal-infesting parasites such as nematode worms. But is it worth the risk to the greater environment, considering the dismal track record of biological control schemes around the world?

The new project is not the first time such insects have arrived in the country: in addition to three species accidentally imported from Australia and South Africa from the late Nineteenth Century onwards, the Mexican dung beetle (Copris incertus) was deliberately introduced into three areas in the 1950s but only thrived in the warm Northland climate. It is the scale of the new research that has set it apart: following caged field trials, the past two years has seen the widespread introduction of eleven non-native species across seven regions on both North and South Islands.

Bodies such as the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) have investigated the potential dangers to human health and the local ecology, even testing if possums, carriers of bovine tuberculosis, might see the exotic insects as a new food source. Even so, some professional scientists have deemed it a biosecurity disaster and one can see their point: using data from other countries' programmes is hardly a fool-proof comparison, considering the profoundly different indigenous ecosystems of Australia and New Zealand.

As a child I heard about the food chain or pyramid, but this is something of a misnomer. Just as natural selection works with bushes rather than linear progression, so there are food webs consisting of a complex series of trophic interactions. Although exotic dung beetles are unlikely to displace their native counterparts due to lack of shared environments, it is possible that other native species of grassland-living insects could suffer, such as humble earthworms. The problem is that without testing in various regions over long periods of time, it isn't viable to rule out such side consequences. Yet it isn't possible to undertake such tests without release into the wild: do we have something of a catch-22?

Having said that, there are no obvious signs that Australia's long-established dung beetle programme has had anything like the deleterious effects of its other biological control schemes, such as the cane toad fiasco. But then fifty years is a very short time in ecological timeframes and what to the casual glance of a farmer appears to be equilibrium could be apocalyptic at dung beetle scale. I wish the project good luck, but cannot help feeling that having received far more than its fair share of obnoxious aliens, New Zealand is the last place that needs yet more exotic species introduced onto its green and pleasant land.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Sea monkeys: easy care pets or cheap lab animals?

As a former keeper of shield or tadpole shrimp (species Triops longicaudatus) in the UK, I miss the little blighters here in New Zealand, where they are banned as a biohazard. Although there is a rare native species, Lepidurus apus is apparently not suitable for keeping in household tanks; has anyone ever tried, I'd like to know?

Anyway, about four years ago I was looking for an alternative critter when I remembered someone at a party once mentioning sea monkeys, a hybrid species of brine shrimp suitable for keeping at home. Artemia nyos are very cheap to purchase and look after, with little in the way of paraphernalia required to keep them alive. (Incidentally, in addition to not being monkeys - obviously - they also don't live in the sea; the parent species are native to saline lakes.)

The most noticeable difference for me after Triops is that they don't require the frequent water changes that tadpole shrimp do. What's more they live somewhat longer: I've managed lifespans over six months, compared to just half that for Triops. In addition, sea monkeys can live in tiny tanks and so are the ultimate in pint-sized pets - or to be more accurate, three-quarters of a pint-sized pets.

Being only half the size of Triops, they require close-up observation; even with a themed tank, you are unlikely to get anything like a tropical aquarium experience. What's more, they refrain from digging motions and the other more interesting traits found in tadpole shrimp, mostly swimming on their backs, mating, or fanning through particles at the bottom of the tank for food. In fact, apart from some aquabatics, sea monkeys don't appear to have an awful lot to offer. For example, they don't have the range of behaviour that I've observed in individual tadpole shrimp, such as exuberant laps or hiding behind objects in the tank. Once you've observed them for a few months, the novelty begins to wear off, especially when they start dying in droves.

Therefore I thought that they might offer some interesting opportunities for scientific research with the minimum of apparatus. I initially tried a few changes - such as keeping a spotlight on at night during the first week of a new tank, partially for the warmth - but this was too informal to count as good research. I then started keeping a diary of the tanks, leading to a series of experiments aimed at finding the optimal conditions for maximising both number of individuals and longevity. I can't say that after three years' of research I have exactly found the brine shrimp equivalent of the elixir of youth but I've certainly enjoyed playing biologist, even if my methodology and laboratory conditions aren't quite up to professional standard (insert smiley here if you like).

Towards the end of the research period I explored some websites where other owners/breeders/keepers (delete as appropriate) had also experimented on the animals and their eggs. These raised some interesting questions, including concerns over the amoral nature of some practical science. Even so, it all gave me a good opportunity for to write this post!

For those without sea monkey experience, here's a brief summary of what is involved in their upkeep:
  • A commercial water conditioner is added to a 12 ounce/350ml tank containing non-chlorinated (in my case, bottled) water, although the conditioner sachet often appears to include some eggs.
  • A separate sachet of eggs is added a day or so later. The eggs usually hatch between two and five days after this, the water temperature directly correlating to the speed of hatching.
  • Some days after hatching, the shrimp begin to be fed miniscule amounts of powdered algae, the frequency depending on the number of adults.
  • The water level is topped up once every month or so with bottled water.
  • Ideally, the tank is aerated every one or two days, in my case using an 'aqua leash' included with one of the tank kits.
Sea monkey with eggs

So a fairly simple care regimen, then. None of my tanks have ever had more than seven adults at a time, which contrasts markedly with the congested tanks I've seen in internet videos. Whether it is the absence of light at night or cooler temperatures in general compared to other owners I'm not sure, but the lack of numbers was certainly not through a shortage of aeration or appropriate amounts of food, except during several months' of experiments as described in this summary of my research:

Q1: Could I raise sea monkeys using a ratio of water conditioner to water 30% lower than recommended?
A1: Negative. No eggs hatched. (See, I'm trying to use the correct scientific tone...)

Q2: Could I raise them using a tank substrate?
A2: Not wanting to waste eggs and conditioner I only performed this once, using finely crushed sea shells thoroughly rinsed in bottled water. No eggs hatched.

Q3: Did the brand of bottled water (with differing amounts of dissolved solids) make any difference to hatching numbers or longevity?
A3: Not noticeably.

Q4: Did a mature, mixed female-male population produce more hatchlings than a female-only population?
A4: Marginally, although after the initial hatching once a tank was set up, very few later nauplii survived more than a month.

Q5: Were, as I had read, the shrimp more photo-reactive when the tank was crossed by narrow beams of light in an otherwise dark environment?
A5: I saw very little evidence for this.

Q6: Did the distance from a window and direction/angle of daylight affect numbers?
A6: This was tricky, since around ninety minutes on a sunny window sill was all I allowed in order to prevent a tank transforming into a serving of Bisque du mer singe. But there was little evidence to suggest the amount of light altered the number or longevity of the population.

Q7: Did the tank temperature affect hatching numbers?
A7: I didn't want to use a normal tank thermometer, the tanks being so small, so I only had the fairly inaccurate sort that stick on the outside of aquaria. The only correlation I saw was that on colder nights it was better to keep tanks away from the window sill where it was obviously chillier than elsewhere in the room.

Q8: Did the frequency of aeration affect the population?
A8: I tried various permutations, from twice daily, to three times per week, to just once a week or even less, but this appeared to make little difference. Then again, I wasn't successful in raising more than five nauplii in any one 'mature' tank at a time, and so perhaps the population was too low to require greater oxygenation.

Q9: Did the feeding frequency affect the population?
A9: Again, I tried a range of schedules over several years, from once every five days to once per month. However, the low adult populations meant there was never any danger of starvation: their digestive tracts always looked full and at various times, individuals were accompanied by long strings of excrement. Hmm, nice!

Q10: Could I raise sea monkeys using a homemade water conditioner?
A10: This was the last experiment I undertook. I scoured the internet for the correct quantities of ingredients before trying several sea salt and baking soda ratios, but no eggs hatched after a month.

Head of a sea monkey

After I had completed these experiments, I searched the internet and found that my methods were rather tame compared to some of the research conducted on sea monkeys, and indeed brine shrimp species in general. Therefore here are some other potential experiments for those with the inclination:
  1. Try other foods, such as baker's yeast
  2. Try rain water or using self-created distilled water
  3. Conduct water quality tests (aquarium kits such as for the ammonia/nitrate/nitrite cycle)
  4. Egg hardiness, such as freezing and microwaving before attempting to hatch them*
  5. Different oxygenation techniques, such as blowing (not exhaling) a fresh intake of air through a straw.
*I'm too squeamish for this sort of thing. Does it make me a poor amateur biologist? After all, it's not as if I'm looking to cure diseases or any other really useful addition to humanity's knowledge; it's just some interesting minutiae on small invertebrates. Not worth putting them through it, really!

Although they are claimed to be easy to raise - indeed, other species are used for toxicity testing and their eggs subjected to cosmic ray experiments - I don't seem to have had much luck with breeding large populations (or in a rather more scientific tone, the condition of my tanks has proved to be sub-optimal). When one adult died, most of the other adults usually followed within a week. Despite frequent matings, lasting hours or even days and repeated several times per week, I've never seen more than five nauplii hatch in the same week in a mature tank. In addition, most seem to die after the first few instars, with very few reaching maturity. On the other hand, I once saw a tank with fully-grown shrimp belonging to a child who had added food daily but never aerated. Despite the water being obscured by thick algal growths, a few individuals managed to hang on in a presumably very oxygen-poor environment. Yet my zealous attention has seemingly had little impact!

So whilst they don't live up to the cuddliness of say guinea pigs, they are extremely useful as err...experimental guinea pigs, as it were, for the amateur biologist. And yes, watching the aquabatics can be fun, too!

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Presenting the universe: 3 landmark science documentary series

They say you carry tastes from your formative years with you for the rest of your life, so perhaps this explains why there are three science documentary television series that still have the power to enchant some decades after first viewing. Whilst there has been no shortage of good television science programming since - Planet Earth and the Walking with... series amongst them - there are three that remain the standard by which I judge all others:
  1. The Ascent of Man (1972) - an account of how humanity has evolved culturally and technology via biological and man-made tools. Presented by mathematician and renaissance man Jacob Bronowski.
  2. Cosmos (1980) - the history of astronomy and planetary exploration, interwoven with the origins of life. Presented by Carl Sagan (as if you didn't know).
  3. The Day the Universe Changed (1985) - a study of how scientific and technological breakthroughs in Western society generate paradigm shifts. Presented by the historian of science James Burke.

All three series have been proclaimed 'landmark' shows so it is interesting to compare their themes, viewpoints and production techniques, discovering just how similar they are in many ways. For a start, their excellent production values allowed for a wide range of international locations and historical recreations. They each have a charismatic presenter who admits to espousing a personal viewpoint, although it's quite easy to note that they get progressively more casual: if Jacob Bronowski has the appearance of a warm elder statesman then Carl Sagan is the father figure for a subsequent generation of scientists; James Burke's on-screen persona is more akin to the cheeky uncle, with a regular supply of puns, some good, some less so.

To some extent it is easy to see that the earliest series begat the second that in turn influenced the third. In fact, there is a direct link in that Carl Sagan hired several of the producers from The Ascent of Man for his own series, clearly seeing the earlier show as a template for Cosmos. What all three have is something extremely rare in other science documentaries: a passion for the arts that promotes a holistic interpretation of humanity's development; science does not exist in isolation. As such, the programmes are supported by superbly-illustrated tie-in books that extend the broadcast material from the latter two series whilst Bronowski's book is primarily a transcript of his semi-improvised monologue.

In addition to considering some of the standard examples of key developments in Western civilisation such as Ancient Greece and Galileo, the series include the occasional examination of Eastern cultures. The programmes also contain discussions of religions, both West and East. In fact, between them the series cover a vast amount of what has made the world the way it is. So not small potatoes, then!

The series themselves:

The Ascent of Man

To some extent, Jacob Bronowski was inspired by the earlier series Civilisation, which examined the history of Western arts. Both series were commissioned by David Attenborough, himself a natural sciences graduate who went on to present ground-breaking series in his own discipline as well as commissioning these landmark programmes. (As an aside, if there are any presenters around today who appears to embody the antithesis of C.P. Snow's 'the two cultures' then Sir David is surely in the top ten).

Bronowski's presentation is an astonishingly erudite (for all its improvisation) analysis of the development of our species and its technological society. Although primarily focused on the West, there is some consideration of other regions, from the advanced steel-making technology of medieval Japan to Meso-American astronomy or the relatively static culture of Easter Island. Time and again, the narrative predates the encumbrance of political correctness: that it was the West that almost solely generated our modern technological society - the 'rage for knowledge' for once outshining dogma and inertia.

Of course, it would be interesting to see how Bronowski might have written it today, in light of Jared Diamond's ground-breaking (in my humble opinion) Guns, Germs and Steel. Although he works hard to present science, the plastic arts, literature and myth as emerging from the same basic elements of our nature, it is clear that Bronowski considers the former to be much rarer - and therefore the more precious - discipline. Having said that, Bronowski makes a large number of Biblical references, primarily from the Old Testament. In light of the current issues with fundamentalism in the USA and elsewhere, it is doubtful that any science documentary today would so easily incorporate the breadth of religious allusions.

If there is a thesis underlying the series it is that considering how natural selection has provided humanity with a unique combination of mental gifts, we should use them to exploit the opportunities thus presented. By having foresight and imagination, our species is the only one capable of great heights - and, as he makes no pretence of - terrible depths. As he considers the latter, Bronowski admits that we should remain humble as to the state of contemporary knowledge and technology, which five hundred years hence will no doubt appear childlike. In addition, he states that belief in absolute knowledge can lead to arrogance; if we aspire to be gods, it can only end in the likes of Auschwitz. But his final speeches contain the wonderful notion that the path to annihilation can be avoided if science is communicated to all of society with the same vigour and zest as given to the humanities.


I was already an astronomy and astronautics fan when I saw this series. Its first UK broadcast slot was somewhat later than my usual bedtime, so it seemed a treat to be allowed to stay up after the rest of the family had gone to bed. Like Star Wars a few years before, it appeared to me to be an audio-visual tour-de-force; not surprisingly, both the tie-in hardback and soundtrack album arrived on my birthday that year.

Nostalgia aside, another key reason for the series' success was the charisma of the presenter himself. Much has been written of Sagan's abilities as a self-publicist, and the programmes do suffer from rather too many staring-beatifically-into-the-distance shots (as to some extent replicated more recently by Brian Cox in his various Wonders Of... series). Of course, it must have taken considerable effort to get the series made in the first place, especially in gaining a budget of over $6 million. After all, another great science populariser, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, never managed to gain anything beyond the occasional one-off documentary.

What is most apparent is Sagan's deep commitment to presenting science to the widest possible audience without distorting the material through over-simplification. However, in retrospect it is also obvious that he was using ideas from several scientific disciplines, such as the Miller-Urey experiment, to bolster his opinions on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life. To some extent his co-writers reined him in, the final episode given over not to SETI but to plea for environmental stewardship.

Whilst the series is primarily concerned with a global history of astronomy and astrophysics, supplemented with first-hand accounts of planetary exploration, Sagan like Bronowski is equally at home with other scientific disciplines. He discusses the evolution of intelligence and incorporates elements of the humanities with equal aplomb. Another key element is the discussion of the role superstition and dead ends have played in the hindrance or even advancement of scientific progress, from Pythagorean mysticism, via Kepler's conflation of planetary orbits with the five Platonic solids, to Percival Lowell's imaginary Martian canals. Although Sagan repeats his earlier debunking of astrology, UFO sightings and the like, he doesn't rule out the role of emotions in the advancement of science and technology, citing for example the rocket pioneer Robert Goddard's Mars-centred epiphany.

Perhaps the primary reason that the series - despite the obvious dating of some of the knowledge - is still so engaging and why Sagan's narration is so widely quoted, is that he was a prose poet par excellence. Even when discussing purely scientific issues, his tone was such that the information could be effortlessly absorbed whilst allowing the viewer to retain a sense of wonder. Of course, Sagan had ample assistance from his two co-writers Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, as clearly proven by their scripts for the Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted remake Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of another presenter who could have made the original series the success it was on so many levels.

The Day the Universe Changed

Although James Burke had already made a large-scale history of science and technology series called Connections in 1978, it contained a rather different take on some of the same material. By focussing on interactive webs, the earlier series was somewhat glib, in that some of the connections could probably be replaced by equally valid alternatives.

In contrast, The Day the Universe Changed uses a more conventional approach that clearly shares some of the same perspectives as the earlier programmes. Like The Ascent of Man and the Cosmos remake, mediaeval Islamic science is praised for its inquisitiveness as well as the preservation of Classical knowledge. Burke was clearly influenced by his predecessors, even subtitling the series 'A Personal View by James Burke'. Perhaps inevitably he covers some of the same material too, although it would be difficult to create a brief history without reference to Newton or Ancient Greece.

As with Bronowski, Burke integrates scientific advances within wider society, a notable example being the rediscovery of perspective and its profound effect on contemporary art. He also supports the notion that rather than a gradual series of changes, paradigm shifts are fundamental to major scientific breakthroughs. In effect, he claims that new versions of the truth - as understood by a scientific consensus - may rely on abandonment of previous theories due to their irreconcilable differences. Having recently read Rachel Carson's 1950 The Sea Around Us I can offer some agreement: although Carson's geophysical analysis quietly screams in favour of plate tectonics, the contemporary lack of evidence lead her to state the no doubt establishment mantra of the period concerning static land masses.

What Burke constantly emphasises even more than his predecessors is that time and place has a fundamental influence on the scientific enquiry of each period. Being immersed in the preconceived notions of their culture, scientists can find it as difficult as anyone else to gain an objective attitude. In actuality, it is all but impossible, leading to such farcical dead-ends as Piltdown Man, a hoax that lasted for decades because it fulfilled the jingoistic expectations of British scientists. Burke's definition of genius is someone who can escape the givens of their background and thus achieve mental insights that no amount of methodical plodding can equal. Well, perhaps, on occasion.

The series also goes further than its predecessors in defining religion as anti-scientific on two grounds: its demand for absolute obedience in the face of logic and evidence, with reference to Galileo; or the lack of interest in progress, as with the cyclical yet static Buddhist view, content for the universe to endlessly repeat itself. Burke also shows how scientific ideas can be perverted for political ends, as with social Darwinism. But then he goes on to note that as the world gets ever more complex, and changes at an ever faster rate, non-specialists are unable to test new theories in any degree and so are having to rely on authority just as much as before the Enlightenment. How ironic!

All in all, these common threads are to my mind among the most important elements of the three series:
  1. Science and the humanities rely on the same basic processes of the human brain and so are not all that different;
  2. Scientific thinking can be as creative an endeavour as the arts;
  3. Scientists don't live in a cultural vacuum but are part and parcel of their world and time;
  4. Religion is the most change-resistant of human activities and therefore rarely appears sympathetic to science's aims and goals.

As Carl Sagan put it, "we make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers." For me, these three series are significant for their appraisal of some of those courageous explorers who have given us the knowledge and tools we call science.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A very Kiwi conspiracy: in search of New Zealand's giant sea serpent

As a young child I probably overdid it on books in the boy's own fantastic facts genre, reading with breathless wonder about giant - and collectively extinct - megafauna such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Therefore it's probably not surprising that a few years' later I was captivated by Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 novel The Deep Range, featuring as it does a giant squid and a sea serpent, both very much alive. How seriously Clarke took such cryptozoology is unknown, although he clearly stated he considered it likely that the ocean depths harboured specimens up to twice the size of those known to science.

Of course it's easy to scoff at such notions, bombarded as we are with endless drivel about megalodon and mermaids, both from a myriad of websites and even worse, the docufiction masquerading as fact on allegedly science-themed television channels (I'm talking about you, Discovery!) As Carl Sagan was known to say, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Incidentally, if anyone has seen the clearly Photoshopped image of World War Two U-boats in front of the dorsal and tail fins of a megalodon, the total length of such an animal would be well over thirty metres. Most experts place the maximum length of this long-extinct species under twenty metres, so why do so many fakes over-egg the monster pudding?

I digress. One obvious difference between today and the pre-industrial past is that there used to be myriads of sightings regarding sea monsters of all shapes and sizes, but nowadays there are comparatively few, especially considering the number of vessels at sea today. Whilst there is a vast collection of fakery on the World Wide Web, much of this material appears to have been inspired by the BBC 2003 series Sea Monsters (and the various imitations that have since been broadcast) and the ease with which images can now be realistically manipulated.

As for scientifically-verifiable material of unknown marine giants, there is almost none - colossal squid aside. As Steven Spielberg summed up a quarter century after his canonical UFO movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with all the smartphone cameras about there should be documentary evidence galore. Likewise, enormous marine beasties should now be recorded on an ever-more frequent basis. After all, it's hardly as if giant sea serpents are being fished into extinction! Yet the lack of evidence implies that once again, the human penchant for perceiving patterns where none exist has caused the creation of myths, not the observation of genuine marine megafauna.

At least that's what I thought, until a couple of serendipitous events occurred. Early last year I noticed the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's second-largest vessel MV Kaharoa docked in Viaduct Harbour in Auckland. It had just returned from a month's research expedition to the Kermadec Islands, about 900 kilometres north-east of New Zealand. What was interesting was that I later found out the Kaharoa had been on an identical trip the previous year, ostensibly to record the condition of the snapper stocks. Yet NIWA usually organises these missions every second year rather than annually. So why was the vessel returning to the Kermadecs a year early? Although a joint venture between France, Scotland and New Zealand, the funding has to originate either with public money or corporate grants. Therefore it's unlikely the decision for a 2014 mission was undertaken lightly.

MV Kaharoa

I'd forgotten this mildly diverting conundrum when many months later I was browsing the NIWA website and came across their Critter of the Week blog. It was fairly late at night and I'll confess to having imbibed several bottles of beer, but I was pretty astounded to see a fairly murky and obviously deep water image containing what appeared to be nothing less than a hairy-maned sea serpent, with a note stating it was estimated to be around  twenty metres in length. I quickly loaded some news channels, including the New Zealand Herald and the BBC's Science and Environment news home page, but without finding any references to such a beast. I then flicked to the main NIWA website, but again didn't come across anything related to the creature. I returned to the Critter of the Week blog, only to find the page was no longer there. How X-Files is that?

Of course I'd forgotten to screenshot the page or download the image, so there was no proof that I hadn't been hallucinating. Did I imagine it or just misinterpret a perfectly normal specimen? Or was the blog temporarily hacked by a nutter or conspiracy theorist, who added a spoof article? As I went through the options and discarded them, it gradually dawned on me that perhaps the Kaharoa's unexpected summer expedition had been organised with one particular purpose in mind: the search for an elusive giant spotted the previous year.

I usually consider myself to be fairly sane, so let's consider the facts in lieu of hard evidence:
  1. NIWA excel at finding new creatures: they have reported 141 species unknown to science within the past three years;
  2. The Kermadecs are home to some very large animals for their type, including oversize oysters, the giant limpet Patella kermadecensis and the amphipod Alicella gigantea, which is ten times the size of most species in the same taxonomic order;
  3. NIWA scientists have been known to comment with surprise on how many deep water species have recently been discovered - even if a specimen hasn't actually been captured - for regions that they have repeatedly studied over some years;
  4. Expeditions are only just starting to explore the region between the depths of 2000 and 8000 metres;
  5. Although the Kermadecs are on the edge of a marine desert, a combination of hot water and minerals upwelling from hydrothermal vents and the seabird guano that provides nutrition for the near-surface phytoplankton, help to kick-start diverse food webs;
  6. There is an increasing quantity of meltwater from the Antarctic ice shelf, which being less dense than seawater may affect the depth of the thermocline, a region of highly variable temperature, which in turn could be altering the ecology of the region;
  7. MV Kaharoa was carrying baited Hadal-landers, ideal for recording deep sea fauna, whereas snapper usually live in the top two hundred metres.

Apart from my own close encounter of the fishy kind, has there been any other recent evidence of what could be termed a giant sea serpent in New Zealand waters? Just possibly. A Google Earth image of Oke Bay in the Bay of Islands shows the wake of something that has been estimated to be around twelve metres long. The wake doesn't fit the diagnostic appearance for great whales or of a boat engine. Therefore could this be proof of sea serpents in the area? I have to say it looks more like an image rendering glitch to me, but then I'm no expert. On the plus side, the most likely candidate for such a creature is the giant oarfish Regalecus glesne, which I discussed in a post five years ago and which authoritative sources suggest can attain a maximum length of eleven metres. So clearly, the Oke Bay image is within the realm of possibility. As for the lack of documentary evidence compared to earlier centuries, could it be that the vast amounts of noise pollution from ship's engines may keep the creatures far from standard shipping lanes?

Where does this leave the Critter of the Week content that so briefly slipped - presumably accidentally - onto the live site? One possible clue that led marine biologists back to the Kermadecs could be the 2012 Te Papa Tongarewa Museum report on a colossal squid dissection, which states that chunks of herring-type flesh were found in its stomach and caecum. The oarfish belongs to the herring family and so it is just possible that titanic struggles between squid and oarfish are occurring in the ocean deep even now. And where better for an expedition to search for an elusive monster without fear of interruption than these relatively remote islands?

Unfortunately this is all surmise, as NIWA have refused to respond to my queries. It may be a long shot, but if anyone has noticed Te Papa taking delivery of a lengthy, narrow cross-section tank, or very large vats of formalin, why not let me know? The truth is out there, somewhere...probably...

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A roaring success? The Walking with Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular

Surely these days everyone loves dinosaurs? After all, the original Jurassic Park movie made over a billion US dollars worldwide, enough to generate a plethora of merchandise and three sequels. In a less fictional vein, the BBC's television series' Walking with Dinosaurs broke viewing records - perhaps just as well, considering its equally record-breaking budget - and led to several TV spin-offs, including a 3D feature film aimed at very young children.

But it's rare for a television documentary (or should that be docudrama?) series to spawn a live show, which is exactly what happened in 2007. Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular has to date has been seen by a worldwide audience of over eight million. Again, this probably all to the good, considering the enormous expense involved in the production. So having seen the television series on DVD, my daughters were desperate to go to the live show here in Auckland. Due to the expense of the tickets I hummed and hawed but eventually bowed under pressure. This was nothing to do with my own interest in seeing the event, of course!

So was it worth it? The ninety minute show followed the chronological order of the series, from late Triassic to the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. My first impression wasn't particularly good, as the narrator Huxley (incidentally I'm not sure what Thomas Henry Huxley would make of the enterprise, considering he was even against opening the Natural History Museum to the general public) explained about dinosaur footprints whilst lights projected some very oversized examples of the same. I assume the scale was to allow visibility from the furthest rows, but even so it seemed a bit clumsy. In my book, there's a fine line between artistic licence and poor science communication.

However, things improved with the arrival of the first beasts. Although it looked as if it was immediately heading in a Disneyesque direction when several cute herbivorous Plateosaurus hatched from a nest of eggs, this was quickly quelled when one hatchling was gobbled up by a Liliensternus. It was excellent to see Nature in warts and all mode - or should that be a literal 'red in tooth and claw' - considering that the audience largely consisted of pre-teen children and their parents? Talking of which, in some cases the roaring monsters and dramatic lighting proved too much, with a girl sitting near me spending more time cradled under her father's armpit rather than looking at the show. I was in general surprised by the lack of anthropomorphising elements that the 3D movie was criticised for, a brave move considering the target audience. Perhaps the major concession to the junior spectators was the young T. rex, whose weak attempts at imitating its far more powerful parent induced laughter from the audience.

In addition to describing the behaviour of the dinosaurs – and one pterosaur (a decent-enough marionette hung in front of poorly projected background footage, although my younger daughter initially thought it was a giant bat) Huxley also covered plate tectonics and the development of vegetation. At one point he even stuck his hand into a steaming pile of fresh herbivore poop to retrieve a dung beetle, leading to an explanation of food chains past and present. Both the inflatable growing ferns and a forest fire were particularly well done, as well as some simple yet charming butterflies made of what looked like coloured paper blown around by hidden fans. My children agreed that the only thing they didn't like were the skate platforms required to move the larger dinosaurs, although I found these less distracting than the marginally camouflaged operator legs in the smaller species. Interestingly, neither of my daughters asked how the larger species were controlled. I guess they've grown up in an age of electronic wonders and this was seen to be just another example of impressive technology.

Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular

So what about the educational element of the show? Edutainment can be a difficult balance as well as an appalling word. In addition to the lavish praise that it deserved, the original television series was criticised for presenting speculation as fact. In particular, the large size of some of the species has been questioned. However, the arena event did acknowledge some of the developments since the series was first broadcast fifteen years ago, such as by adding feathers (or proto-feathers) to the mother Tyrannosaurus and even more so to her juvenile.

Judging by the appreciative audience, many of the younger crowd members were already familiar with a wide range of dinolore. For example, as each animal starting entering the arena I could hear children as young as four or five shouting some of the names - and correctly. This created a pleasing contrast to many of the adult visitors to London's Natural History Museum, whom I recall not only failed to differentiate a sauropod from a T. rex but assumed that every large skeleton they saw must be a dinosaur (for example, the giant sloth Megatherium in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery).

But just how much of an interest in the giant beasts of the Mesozoic is likely to lead to a more detailed understanding of the wider world of palaeontology as the audience members grow older? Unfortunately, at times it was difficult to hear the narrator's details due to a combination of the sound effects and intense music, which whilst emotive and dramatic, had a tendency to drown out Huxley's description of the antediluvian scenes. Combined with the palpable excitement that most of the younger audience members were clearly experiencing, it's dubious just how much anyone learned during the show. The associated website does contain some educational material, although it makes such basic mistakes as listing the pterosaur Ornithocheirus in the list of dinosaurs.

You could suggest that dinosaurs have become just another part of the great consumerist machine, with any associated science a lucky by-product of flogging stuff. After all, dinosaur-related merchandise features highly in the range at many museum gift shops, even those with a marginal connection to the fauna, as discussed unfavourably several decades ago by evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It could be argued that any attempt to introduce science-based knowledge to the general public is a good idea, but with the quality of special effects in this live-action show as well as in film and television it may be difficult for children brought up on this material to separate fact from fiction. It is undoubtedly an exciting time for dinosaur discoveries, but science is more than just a series of facts: without the rigour and understanding, the material is subject to the same whims of fashion as the rest of popular culture. If science is to be promoted as the most objective methodology our species has for understanding such fascinating subjects as ancient mega fauna, we need to ensure that audiences are given enough of the reasoning besides all the roaring.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Have spacecraft, will travel: planning the first manned Mars mission

As a space travel enthusiast since I was knee-high to a grasshopper it took me many years to appreciate robot probe missions with anything like the zeal engendered by manned spaceflight. As a schoolboy I watched the first space shuttle mission launch in 1981; no doubt like a multitude of others I initially considered this the start of the ‘casual' rather than pioneering phase of astronautics. Therefore it wasn't long before I asked myself the obvious question: when will there be a crewed mission to Mars?

Mars seems extremely familiar, no doubt due to the myriad of science fiction novels and films concerning the Red Planet. The last decade has seen a proliferation of news stories as various orbiters and rovers gather enormous amounts of - at times puzzling - data. However, none of the numerous projects of all scales that have investigated a manned mission have ever lifted off the launch pad. So here's a brief look at the state of play, not to say of course that this might not look woefully dated within the next few years.

1) Who will go to Mars?

Obviously the USA will supply the most funding so they will run the show. Or will they? The NASA budget available for planetary science is less than half that for International Space Station (ISS) operations, although of course the former are all unmanned missions. In fact, the Planetary Society has claimed that NASA spends less each year on interplanetary probes than the USA does on dog toys! A manned mission would have to negate this trend, as realistic estimates could be around US$500 billion for a single mission.

President Obama's announced half-billion dollar increase to the NASA budget is unlikely to be replicated by any Tea Party candidate who might (God forbid) achieve power. Unless that is we see a return to Cold War rivalries, with China offering a two-horse race to Mars. That might sound unlikely, but in 2006 the Chinese Government announced a long-term goal to land a crew there between 2040 and 2060. Since the US refused to allow them ISS involvement due to not wanting its technology to become available to Beijing, it is doubtful the Whitehouse would be any happier to cooperate in a Mars mission.

Either way, it's probable that some of the ISS partners would collaborate. However unrealistic it now appears in light of the financial crisis, back in 2001 the European Space Agency (ESA) announced its own plan for a crewed Mars landing in the 2030s. There was even a suggestion to include Russia as a minority partner, but the political situation there may prove prohibitive.

It doesn't just have to be other Western nations who participate in a NASA-led project, as numerous private companies are now involved in the commercial space programme. No doubt collaboration between some of the long-established aerospace giants and recent start-ups such as Space-X - whose long-term goal is to establish a Martian colony - with various Western governments would be more palatable to finance ministers. But it's still early days for the private sector: smaller infrastructure may shorten timescales compared to monolithic state enterprise, but as the Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo crash shows, developing even sub-orbital craft at this level still carries enormous risk.

So all in all, it could be the US and ESA, with or without substantial private investment, or China in a race with a Western bloc or (as an extreme longshot) Dutch engineer and entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, whose Mars One mission plans to regularly send crews of four non-professional astronauts on a one-way trip to the Red Planet from 2025. So far he has raised about 1/8000th of the project's already shoestring budget, but that hasn't stopped thousands of would-be colonists from applying. In addition to the necessary privations, these volunteers would also be the subjects of a fund-raising reality television show. If doesn't sound even vaguely like the product of an insane society then I don't know what is. Perhaps we should just turn our backs on the rest of the universe and just spend our lives uploading selfies to social media sites?

2) What will happen?

In theory it sounds simple: a small group of professional astronauts with various scientific backgrounds will spend up to two years on a high-risk mission, exploring the Martian surface for perhaps a month or so, then bring back copious samples of rock, soil, atmosphere and ice for more detailed examination on Earth.

The BBC ‘s 2004 mockumentary Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets showed the deadly effects that ionizing radiation can have on interplanetary travellers. The Mars Science Laboratory, carrier of the Curiosity rover, spent the Earth to Mars transit recording the radiation levels. It confirmed that they were high enough to risk crew members contracting various serious conditions such as cataracts and cancer. Incidentally, female astronauts would apparently be more prone to radiation-induced cancers than male colleagues. A 2012 mission plan considered developing an electromagnetic anti-radiation shield, but most designs are looking to use traditional aluminium construction, perhaps with polyethylene shielding around the pressurised cabins. This definitely appears to be a case of fingers crossed as much as relying on advanced materials science.

The long duration spent in shipboard micro-gravity will also cause physical problems such as bone and muscle deterioration. The astronauts/cosmonauts/taikonauts (delete as preferred) will then have to adjust on Mars arrival to the one-third Earth gravity. As well as avoiding radiation on the Martian surface they will have to minimise contamination from the fine dust: minute particles suspended in the atmosphere could cause lung and thyroid problems if allowed into the lander cabin.

Besides the physical problems, the pioneering crew will also have to contend with the psychological effects of having travelled further from the Earth than any other humans - by an enormous margin. It's one thing to undertake a mission on the ISS - with a regular exchange of crew and a close-up view of the Earth via the cupola - but quite another to spend several years away from fresh air, blue skies, and all the other fantastic things we take for granted. The interplanetary distances would of course be exacerbated by the lack of real-time conversation: the one-way journey time for radio signals from the Martian surface is between four and twelve minutes.

There has been much research into astronaut's disturbed sleep patterns, which can obviously have deleterious effects on their work as well as their mental health. The claustrophobic conditions may contribute too: negative emotions blighted the small group of inhabitants of the Arizona-based Biosphere 2 sealed ecosystem in the 1990s. In addition, this experiment had distinct problems maintaining the environment, with a primary issue being the fluctuating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. All in all, there are likely to be problems even the best planned mission won't have predicted.

3) When will it take place?

By comparison to low Earth orbit missions, a trip to Mars would be several magnitudes greater. If you want a pioneering aviation analogy I've just figured out that ratio of the Earth-Moon distance compared to the mean Earth-Mars distance is akin to the Wright Brothers' first flight of 36.5 metres being followed up by another spanning over 5 kilometres!

I can foresee two main issues to consider when planning mission timelines, which should ideally coincide to suggest an ideal launch window. The first is the relative orbital mechanics of the two bodies, which can be exploited so as to utilise a minimum fuel trajectory. The second relies on the eleven-year solar cycle: maximal solar activity helps to block interstellar cosmic rays and so reduce the risk of radiation poisoning. Although the sun's output would be at its peak, the astronauts would be safe from solar flares and coronal mass ejections providing they didn't need to undertake any spacewalks or surface EVAs for their duration.

There are several research projects that if one were to prove successful, could reduce by several decades the time before humanity is ready for its first manned Mars flight. The University of Washington and Lockheed Martin are both working on nuclear fusion technology suitable for such a mission. By reducing the journey time from between six and eight months to just three months there would be far less health risk to the crew, as well as presumably considerable weight savings on air and consumables.

Therefore it may become feasible as early as the 2040s but I doubt any earlier, regardless of how much advance is made in fusion technology. On top of all the usual political and socio-economic fluctuations there are just too many important longer-term issues that need resolution here first.

4) Where will it take place?

Mars, of course! The planet has a wide variety of locales (hint of travel brochure there), some rather more interesting than others. If the public get to vote on sites for exploration - bearing in mind that taxpayers will no doubt be funding the majority of the mission - conspiracy theorists and assorted nutbars might promote the curious tetrahedrons (note, not pyramids) of Elysium. Presumably they're enormous ventifacts, but they still appear to be very interesting geological features.

Then there's the great canyon system of Valles Marineris, over 4000 kilometres long and up to 7 kilometres deep. Or how about the 25 kilometre high Olympus Mons and its surrounding escarpment? In Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan suggested that it might be fruitful to explore the slopes of the Martian volcanoes in case they are scattered with diamonds ejected from the carbon-rich mantle!

Other locations that are just begging for detailed exploration are the polar caps, now thought to be mostly composed of water ice rather than frozen carbon dioxide, and caves or caverns, which would not only be a good place to search for native microbes but also to hide from radiation or dust storms.

5) Why will it happen?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. Carl Sagan argued that the mission would fulfil the deep-seated need for exploration that our species - only recently converted from a nomadic existence - still feels. There is something to be said of this provision of a surrogate for human wanderlust, as identified in Bertrand Russell's 1959 quote: "a world without war need not be a world without adventurous and hazardous glory." This form of argument seems fairly mainstream in astronautic circles: even NASA's budget estimate for 2016 includes the phrases ‘reveal the unknown' (very likely) and ‘benefit all humankind' (which seems rather less obvious, except for Earth resources and weather satellites).

Against this notion are rather more pragmatic motives such as a combination of accelerated technological development and national prestige. But if nuclear fusion power is acquired in time for the first mission it's difficult to see what else will be gained from spending say half a trillion US dollars on a single crewed flight: wouldn't it be wiser to spend such vast sums on environmental stabilisation or medical research here on Earth? I've already commented on the potential white elephant of the ISS and there are no doubt many who don't consider any manned space exploration a suitable use of such enormous resources.

It's obvious that there are distinctive practical advantages to having humans on the spot rather than relying on robots. One issue that a single manned mission might be able to resolve that countless probes wouldn't is the question of life on Mars. The haze and plume seen in 2012 and the seasonal methane suggest some very interesting meteorological phenomenon if there isn't a biological explanation, but if there is any Martian bacteria then surely the mission could be deemed worthy of its immense budget? Somehow, I have my doubts…

One day in the next few centuries there could well be - unfortunately - branches of Starbucks and McDonalds on Mars and the Red Planet will be an alien frontier no more. But until then, any humans who undertake such an incredible journey will be pioneers in the Yuri Gagarin/Roald Amundsen/Edmund Hillary mould. However, I doubt the first human to step onto the Martian surface will use the latter's keen Kiwi phraseology: "we knocked the b***d off!"