24 December 2007

Happy Christmas to all from the Beagle Project

A new addition: Santa Darwin. Regular readers will remember that bioblogger MissPrism made and auctioned a puppet Darwin for Beagle Broject funds. The most generous bid came in from Humblewoodcutter, an evolved homeschooler from Canada and Canuck Darwin now graces their art table, except when it snows. So from us all at the Beagle Project, we wish you a happy Christmas and an energetic 2008 revving up for Darwin's bicentenary and the Year of Science in 2009.

23 December 2007

Hi, this is nunatak. Sorry I can't come to the blog right now...

Please leave your name and number after the beep and I'll get back to you as soon as I'm done judging the 468 posts nominated for Open Laboratory 2007, the 2nd anthology of the best writing on science blogs.

Open Laboratory 2006 can be purchased here.

Coturnix and friends have opened themselves up a big ol' can of worms by promising to have the 2007 anthology published in time for the 2nd Science Blogging Conference in January.

Yours truly will be attending, though whether in person or via live web-cast has yet to be determined.

20 December 2007

What can £3.5 million buy? Hmm, well, let's see...

The Sunday Observer tells us that a British business trust is planning a creationist theme park in Lancashire:
The latest salvo in creationism's increasingly ferocious battle with evolution is about to be fired in Lancashire. Not in a fiery sermon preached from the pulpit, but in the form of a giant Christian theme park that will champion the book of Genesis and make a multi-media case that God created the world in seven days.

The AH Trust, a charity set up last year by a group of businessmen alarmed by the direction in which they see society heading, has identified a number of potential sites in the north west of England to build the £3.5m Christian theme park.

£3.5 million, did you say? Funny, because that is exactly what it will cost to build the new Beagle.

So which is it to be, o wealthy British investor-types? Roller coasters of young-earth mumbo jumbo, or a charismatic sailing replica of the ship that carried Darwin around the world and inspired his theory of natural selection, a ship that will bring students and scientists alike on a new voyage of discovery?

As if this news wasn't worrying enough in itself, it looks like the 'AH Trust' has taken a page from the Discovery Institute's 'Wedge Strategy':
By producing its own films, the trust believes it will be able to provide an antidote to modern culture. It says on its website: 'On television today there is so much sex and violence, it is no wonder our youth are binge drinking ... This is a revolutionary scheme requiring innovative people with the vision to bring about change and a new direction.'
It declined to say who the backers were, but admitted it is talking to a number of businessmen who have invested in city academies, leading to speculation that it may have approached Sir Peter Vardy, who has given millions of pounds to advance the claims of creationism - the belief that God created the world and that Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong.
Surely if one British businessman is willing to fork over £3.5 million for a creationist theme park, hundreds of British businessmen should be willing to do the same for the new Beagle. We're working on it, believe me, but it will help to get the word out about this 'competing interest' just to show how dire the situation is getting here in the UK, and how much we really do need the Beagle.

18 December 2007

Three wise men

In a quintessentially British display of royal pomp, Steve Jones, David Attenborough and E.O. Wilson were decorated last Thursday with three specially commissioned silver Linnean Society Tercentenary Medals for 'having made outstanding contributions to the world’s understanding of natural history and the environment'.

From left to right: Professor Steve Jones, Linn Soc president Professor
David Cutler, Sir David Attenborough and Professor Edward O. Wilson

David Attenborough was singled out as 'one of the world’s outstanding communicators of natural history'. In his acceptance speech, he said with characteristic modesty that he 'regarded himself as an amateur rather than a scientist and regretted his lack of involvement in natural history at that level'. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks he has done plenty to earn the moniker of 'scientist' (as have many 'amateurs' ....Charles Darwin for one).

Steve Jones was honoured for his 'achievements in making evolutionary biology accessible to a wide audience'. If you're new to Jones' writing, I recommend Almost Like a Whale, a re-write of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in modern language with modern examples mixed in to further support the original body of work (no Amazon link - support your local bookseller).

Edward O. Wilson was awarded 'for his outstanding achievement in widening our awareness of the complexity of biodiversity'. This one is especially well-deserved. E. O. Wilson could have chosen to settle comfortably into a quiet life of mermecological bliss but instead (or should I say in addition) he has tirelessly waged an eloquent, far-reaching campaign to promote stewardship of Earth's biodiversity.

So, I hope you'll all join me in raising a toast this holiday season to three really wise men.

15 December 2007

Me, Linnaeus and a big ol' tusker

Thanks to Agnes Balla, Beagle enthusiast and Project Specialist for the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), who snapped this picture at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in November:

Nunatak FLS, and Carl Linnaeus* at the Smithsonian.

Notice how my meeting with Linnaeus is marked by the presence of a very large African bull elephant raising his trunk in approval (uhh, I sure hope no experts in elephant behaviour are reading this). And oh what a perfect post this would have been if Linnaeus had in fact named that species of elephant. Linnaeus did name an elephant in 1758, but it was the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The African elephant, Loxodonta africana, was named by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1797.

Lest you think this post has no place on the Beagle Project Blog, I will remind you that the famous Darwin-Wallace joint paper on natural selection was read at the Linnean Society of London on 1 July, 1858 (complete text available here). Not only that, but Darwin was himself a Fellow of the Linnean Society.

*Hans Odöö, professional Linnaeus impersonator

13 December 2007

Congrats, Bulldog

Michael Barton who writes the excellent Dispersal of Darwin has just graduated with a bachelors is histroy, specializing in science, environment, technology and society. Michael's a great supporter of the Beagle Project (so many thanks and congrats from us) and does triffic work rounding up history of science facts related to Darwin and evolution, the kind of thing we'd all like to do but haven't got time. So click over and give him some congrats yourselves.

11 December 2007

Pics in space (update)

I posted Pics in space on Saturday, but at the time I didn't know that Nature was going to launch this excellent special collection on Earth Observation. It's worth a visit not least for Full Color Vision, a slideshow of different ways of photographing Earth from space (beyond the visible). For example, here's an infrared photo of a fire in Montana:

Also, a special thanks to Richard Carter FCD for appreciating my title. I'm very--no, extremely--proud. This photo is for you, Richard:

Pigs ... in ... Space! (announced with reverb)

8 December 2007

Pics in space

One of the most exciting science projects we plan to do aboard the new Beagle is to correlate ocean surface biological surveys with images of our position taken at the same time by our astronaut friends aboard the International Space Station.

The premise of such a study got a big boost this week when Nature published special News Features and Commentaries on earth monitoring.

The issue includes an essay by Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation. Way back in 1966 Brand promoted 'the idea of photographing the "whole Earth" from space, hoping that it would stimulate humanity's interest in its mega-habitat.'

And oh, how it did. Two years later, in December 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to leave Earth orbit and travel far enough away to see and photograph our fragile planet in the round.

On Christmas Eve, they transmitted the first images of the whole Earth that anyone had ever seen. One of their photos, called 'Earthrise', right, was beautifully described by Wolf Schäfer as 'the sublime Copernican spectacle of the earth rising above the rim of the moon'. The image galvanised the environmental movement.

Stewart Brand was right in 1966, so let's listen carefully to him now. This week, Brand wants something more specific than pictures the whole Earth from space. He wants to link images of Earth, taken from the sweet spot between Earth and Sun called 'Lagrange-1', with biotic surveys on Earth including those enabled by metagenomics. This will help us to understand, among other things, how Earth's energy dynamics are modified by life.

The International Space Station is nowhere near 'Legrange-1', but it is manned and can therefore capture not only detailed but also responsive pictures of Earth to relate to data on living communities (both macroscopic and microscopic/metagenomic) collected by none other than the new Beagle.

So, Brand argues, metagenomic data + information-rich pictures of Earth from space = 'a unifying body of data, ideas, models and images of the whole-Earth system' that 'could inspire the public and may shift scientific thinking.'

Throw in a charismatic tall ship with a scientific legacy like the Beagle's and we might find ourselves even closer to achieving Brand's vision.

6 December 2007

Original Darwin documents lost in fire

Darwin fans, brace yourselves.

The Santiago Times reported yesterday:
Valdivia’s Universidad Austral, one of Chile’s oldest higher education institutions, revealed that Monday’s fire (ST, Dec. 4) destroyed research materials, infrastructure and equipment worth 4.2 billion pesos (US$8.3 million). Among the documents lost are original research by Charles Darwin and German-Chilean paleontologist and zoologist Rudolph Amandus Philippi.

“This is a gigantic loss that goes far beyond infrastructural damage,” said University president Víctor Cubillos. “What is much more serious is the loss of the personal efforts, all the investigations, all the projects and all the original research material that the university had.”

All Headline News also reported on the fire, adding 'Original research materials of Charles Darwin on the theory of evolution were among the documents lost...'.

It brings to mind the recent near-miss at the National Library of Scotland.

1 December 2007

Not just an American problem (Part II)

As I have said before, and will assuredly do again, creationism is not just an American problem. The creationist creep is real, friends, and it's transatlantic.

In the latest episode, as reported by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, the Giant's Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Nature Reserve, and the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland, has become a target for creationist propaganda.

The 'Causeway Creation Committee' believe that Noah's flood, not a 60 million year-old volcanic eruption followed by accelerated cooling, created the distinctive hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway. They also believe that dinosaurs walked the earth alongside humans. Sounds like someone's been spending too many hours on the Answers in Genesis website and not enough reading peer-reviewed dino-science.

The Causeway Creation Committee says Noah's flood,
not an ancient volcano, created the Giant's Causeway, below.

(c) National Trust

Just a harmless bit of willful ignorance? Unfortunately, no. The Causeway Creation Committee want their 'theories' (which are not actually theories but dogma) presented in the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre and in the Ulster Museum, and in the long term they want intelligent design (creationism in science-sheep's clothing) to be taught as part of the science curriculum in Ulster schools.

But if any old dogma can make it into science class then why not also teach the legend of Finn MacCool? Supposedly the Irish giant built the causeway as a footbridge to fight his Scottish rival Benandonner (whose lair, Tolkien fans will appreciate, was called 'Fingol's cave'). Apparently, Finn MacCool got off to a good start, but then just as Benandonner approached on the new causeway, Finn collapsed with exhaustion. Fortunately the MacCool-witted missus saved Finn by covering him with a blanket and pretending he was a baby.

...to which I can't help adding (it being so close to Christmas) that this would not be the last time a supernatural being would be mistaken for a baby (oh wait, it's the other way around...).

So, to be fair (because we have to be fair, right?), the Giant's Causeway visitor centre should be teaching three theories for the creation of the Causeway: 1) 60 million year-old volcano, 2) Noah's flood and 3) Finn MacCool's giant biceps. After all, Stephen Moore from the Causeway Creation Committee did say that children should be allowed to have 'all the interpretations'.

I thought about ending my post there (boo-ya!), but there was one additional thing that concerned me about the Belfast Telegraph article, and I can't not mention it...

In the article, Jonathan McCambridge writes, 'Science tells us that the Giant's Causeway was created 60 million years ago....'. Hey, Jonathan, just who is this 'science' bloke, anyways? I'd sure like to meet him, because apparently he can 'tell' us all sorts of interesting things!

Science doesn't 'tell' us anything, folks. We help ourselves understand how the world works by using science as a method, but it is not passive and it does not involve 'listening' to some omniscient entity called 'science'. Sloppy language like this reinforces the commonly held misconception that science is something locked away in an ivory tower, and it also helps creationists claim that evolution is a religious belief.

But let's get back on track. Do we really need to worry about creationism creeping into British science education? I mean, this isn't some Kansas backwater, this is Britain! Surely these fundies won't be allowed to dictate what is taught in British schools, right? 'Fraid not: the creationists in Ulster have already racked up 1000 signatures but to date only the Belfast Humanist Society has spoken out publicly against Bible stories being taught in science classrooms there.

Which allows me to end where I began: creationism is not just an American problem. It's time for Britons to shake off the dust, proudly take up the mantle of their scientific legacy, and make some noise for the Enlightenment!