29 March 2008

Heavy Beagling = light blogging

This weekend is shaping up to be quieter than usual on the blog for the simple reason that not one but both of your Beagle bloggers are at Knowles Farm, Lawrenny, Wales, home of Beagle Project co-founder David Lort-Phillips, for a weekend Beagle Project board meeting. We're just a down the road (and even closer by water) from the future Beagle build site in Milford Haven, which of course we hope will one day be considered hallowed ground for Darwin enthusiasts.

27 March 2008

The Canadians have mount-ied a Darwin exhibition. (Updated)

Sorry. The Royal Ontario Museum is the current home of the Darwin 2009 exhibition (due to make landfall at the Natural History Museum in London in 2009): Logan Cowell, science and technology editor of Excalibur Online gives a thoughtful review. Excerpt:
Split into nine sections, beginning with ‘The World Before Darwin’ and ending with ‘Darwin’s Legacy,’ the exhibit is filled with original artifacts. These comprise the most compelling sections. A certain respect for Darwin as a naturalist is undeniable after seeing the rudimentary tools he used. His grandfather’s magnifying glass, for example, barely lives up to its name. That men of Darwin’s time could classify and catalogue living things as well as they did is an art mostly lost today.
I hope maybe some of our Canadian friends might be able to trickle over (nothing's very far away in Canada, I understand) and give us a more in depth look at it.

UPDATE: Glendon Mellow, AKA The Flying Trilobite is going for us. Now that I am looking forward to. Go visit his gallery.

26 March 2008

Research Councils UK do Darwin

RCUK have launched Darwin Today, a website intended to
"encourage people to discuss the wide range of contemporary research funded by the seven Research Councils that draws on Darwin’s theories. Monthly topic-based video-podcasts and magazine style articles, together with voting and discussion facilities, aim to entice visitors to interact and consider the research that is featured."
Click over, admire the site and help get the discussion going. The most recent question is: 'What is the relevance of Darwinism in today's modern life?'

25 March 2008

"For the oceans!"

Congratulations to Peter Etnoyer of Deep Sea News who has been honoured at the very glittery Goddard Memorial Dinner in Washington DC for his "outstanding and innovative use of satellite data" to describe migratory behaviour in blue whales and sea turtles in relation to sea surface temperature fronts. Peter says, "this is the first time the [NOAA David Johnson] award has been given for oceanographic work related to endangered marine species." Let's hope the trend continues. Click on over to congratulate Peter and read more about the links between space science and environmental science.

Introducing our British patrons

One of our patrons is a scientific descendent of Robert Fitzroy: Lord Julian Hunt CB, MA, PhD, FIMA, FRS. Lord Hunt is a former chief executive of the Meteorological Office and currently a Professor of climate modelling in the Department of Space & Climate Physics at University College London since 1999. As one who struggled with GCSE maths, I am told that mathematics doesn't come much harder than fluid dynamics (Lord Hunt's speciality while a Cambridge Professor). He is also deeply involved in government efforts to combat climate change and we look forward to inviting him aboard. His full CV is here.

Our sailing patron is a sailing legend: he makes me want to go down to my boat one quiet dawn, open the seacocks and let her sink because he had done it all. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston CBE was the first person to sail non-stop round the world single handed. He did in Suhaili, a 32 foot 14 tonne ketch which, although it made it it round the world and weathered some horrendous storms would make many modern sailors, used to their comforts think 'you did it in that?' His circumnavigation took 310 days and at the end he was seen by a psychiatrist who pronounced him 'distressingly normal'. If you haven't read his account 'A world of my own' (no Amazon link: support your local bookshop) find a copy pronto: it is a terrific read. Last year, he reprised his circumnavigation in the Velux 5 Oceans Race.

Helping us with political doors in Wales and Westminster is Lord Richard Livsey of Talgarth CBE, DL. As Richard Livsey he worked in agricultural management, first with ICI and later managing large farms in Scotland. He was instrumental in founding the Welsh Agricultural College and lectured there until elected MP for Brecon and Radnorshire in 1985. Outside politics his interests are numerous: he is a Trustee of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales and Chairman of Brecon Jazz Festival. He is a Vice-President of Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, a member of Talgarth Male Voice Choir, President of Talgarth Cricket Club, is a keen fly-fisherman, cyclist, cricketer, and Welsh Rugby supporter.

To come: our American Friends of the Beagle.

23 March 2008

Expelled!: another reason to build the new Beagle

Is anyone out there as disgusted as I am with the Expelled! brouhaha and it's nasty aftermath? Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed a big, hearty laugh at the Expelled! producers' expense when the story broke. But since then things have taken a down-turn: not only is the Expelled! camp playing dirty trying to cover it up (as expected) but the scientists (well at least the science bloggers) are arguing amongst themselves.

Advocates of Framing ScienceTM assert that when scientists endeavour to debunk creationist propaganda it elevates the creationists in the public eye, while framing skeptics like PZ Myers and Larry Moran (who has written some excellent criticism of framing) contend that compromise and science-as-sound-byte are surefire ways to lose our integrity. This debate has been escalating for a while, but today it went nuclear.

Is there anyone else out there wondering, like I am, whether weighing in on the framing debate might just be a big fat waste of time? I mean, aren't there some better things to be doing than having a turf war in science about who is allowed to do the talking? Last I checked science was supposed to be a democratic undertaking (and is thankfully moving even more in that direction thanks to open access). There are all kinds of scientists, hailing from all parts of the religious and political spectra, and I don't think we should pretend otherwise. I mean, doesn't highlighting the diversity of personalities and ideologies within science lead directly to the conclusion that anyone can be a scientist or at least think like one? And isn't that one of the Big Messages that we all want to promulgate?

In other words, science is both bigger and messier than either Myers/Dawkins or Nesbit/Mooney would have us believe. Myers/Dawkins contend (to the Expelled! producers apparent delight) that atheism is (or should be) the logical end point of scientific progress. Nesbit/Mooney contend that in public we should pretend the Myers/Dawkins position doesn't exist, and instead propagate the lie that all scientists are friendly, fuzzy religious moderates for the sake of political expediency.

So, what's a scientist to do?

May I humbly suggest joining me in support of The HMS Beagle Project? Anyone can make a direct donation with Paypal, or an indirect donation via one of our shops, but if you're in science then there's something else you could help us with...

Are you or your employer in a position to sponsor us? If so, get in touch. If you are an academic, is your University in a position to adopt us? If so, get in touch. If not, why not help spread the word? That's what I'll be doing, every single day (outside of working hours of course) until we have the 3.5 million GDP we need to build the new Beagle.

And then the real fun will begin: we'll leave the Nesbits of this world to their shore-bound squabbles and sail off into the new future of science outreach. Just like our tag-line says, we'll be "bringing the adventure of science to life".

The framing din will be muted by live web-casts of new species being discovered and trans-atmospheric classroom chats. We'll leave creationism in our wake as we circle the globe not just "promoting" but doing science and demonstrating that, well, that it rocks.

The new Beagle, through her mission, through her projects, and through her downright sexy tallshipness will speak for science on science's terms: out there, in the natural world, where things and ideas of beauty and wonder still await discovery.

22 March 2008

A dynamic duo, of the deep sea sort

And to think that while I've been gleefully steeping in the recent scandal and sensationalism in the science blogosphere, Jason over at Cephalopodcast has been engaged in much more edifying activities ...like creating the first of what I hope will be many Plucker & Bloat cartoons. Well done, Jason.

20 March 2008

This is the slipway where HMS Beagle was built.

There is no indication that the ship that changed history was launched here at Woolwich Dockyard in 1820: shame on Britain for leaving such a significant site in such a state.

Photos of Beagle Projecteers

These picture were taken nearly six months ago at a Beagle board meeting in Milford Haven (where the new Beagle will be built), and thus they are six months overdue on this blog. So, without furthur ado, from the left, I give you Beagle Project directors and co-founders David Lort-Phillips and Peter McGrath, administrator Perry Crickmere and director Adrian Richardson:

David Lort-Phillips again (left) and director Bob Clarke (right):

And in case you are wondering where the pictures of yours truly are in all this, my mug is amply represented in previous posts.

19 March 2008

On Beagle'd ground.

The Beagle Project descended on a cold grey London today to be interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 Programme about HMS Beagle. (Left to right: Dr Robert Prescott, David Lort Phillips, BBC producer Jeremy Grange) We went to the site of Woolwich Dockyard where she was built and launched in 1820. I stood in the very slipway, still there, choked with modern detritus and its role in building the ship which changed the world sadly unremarked.

Star of the show was maritime historian Dr Robert Prescott of St Andrews University who is cautiously optimistic that he has found the remains of HMS Beagle at Paglesham and has certainly recovered one of her anchors from the mud. He talked with David Lort Philips about his relative John Lort Stokes, who shared a cabin with Darwin and was with Beagle from her commissioning in 1825 to laying up in 1843.

Dr Prescott painted a terrific word-picture of what the scene must have been like when 74 gun ships of the line were on the stocks here, alongside the small, mostly un-celebrated fleet workhorses like Beagle.

I was hauled in to talk about the seamanship needed to sail an engineless square rigger, to defend the ship's seagoing honour (the class were called 'coffin brigs': unfairly so in my opinion) and outline how the rebuild will differ from the original. It was freezing, and the site is surrounded by brutal-looking blocks of flats which do a disservice to the site of the most significant dockyard for the biggest navy in the world at the time. Pics to come.

David Lort Philips quoted from his relatives final moments aboard Beagle after 18 years afloat: she had returned to Woolwich, unceremoniously tied to a hulk, her commissioning flag lowered. Captain Lort Stokes saw his men over the side one final time then:
I loitered a sort time to indulge in those feelings that naturally arose on taking a final leave of the poor old Beagle at the very same place where I first joined her in 1825...I have seen her under every variety of circumstances, placed in peculiar situations and fearful positions, from nearly the arctic to the tropic, cooled by the frigid clime of the extreme of South America, or parched by the heats of North Australia; under every vicissitude from the grave to the gay, I have struggled along with her; and after wandering together for eighteen years, a fact unprecedented in the service, I naturally parted from her with regret.
(Mariners are warned! John Lort Stokes and HMS Beagle in Australia 1837-1843, Marsden Hordern, , Melbourne University Press 1989.)

18 March 2008

What would you say to David Attenborough?

I got the chance to answer this question for myself last night when the great naturalist and television presenter delivered the Annual Student Lecture at the Natural History Museum. His title was "Unnatural History: The Controversy in Wildlife Films" and it was delightfully chockablock with film excerpts, interspersed with thoughts on maintaining integrity in natural history filmmaking.

While the crowd was waiting in the foyer beforehand, Sir David walked past me and I wanted to say something snazzy like "Private Life of Plants was the reason I switched to botany" but all I could do was grin like a madwoman. Note to self: rehearse next time.

Well, I'm glad to see at least somebody got it right (h/t Jessica Palmer):

16 March 2008

EO Wilson: "We need an expedition to planet Earth"

Yesterday's Financial Times gives us this gem:
“Humanity doesn’t need a moon-base or a manned trip to Mars,” writes Wilson in his recent book, The Creation. “We need an expedition to planet Earth, where probably fewer than 10 per cent of species are known to science, and fewer than 1 per cent of those have been studied beyond a simple anatomical description and a few notes on natural history.” At the same time, we are engaged in a genocide against those species, known and unknown; “the sixth mass extinction has begun”.
Enter the new Beagle as a symbolic flagship for a new era of wind-powered Earth exploration, needed now more than ever. I've sent a couple of emails to the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, asking whether they might fund just such an expedition to planet Earth, but, as yet, no reply...

And before I sign off, it must be said that space exploration has its place too, especially when astronauts and satellites turn their cameras towards Earth. But maybe I'm biased.

Hat tip to Bill.

15 March 2008

Beagle Project gets the finger (puppet)

The Beagle Project has found a supporter on YouTube:

Belated creationist response to Giant's Causeway post

Way back in December I wrote about the Causeway Creation Committee's efforts to get 1) their theories dogma presented in the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre and in the Ulster Museum, and 2) intelligent design taught as part of the science curriculum in Ulster schools.
The Giant's Causeway,
a World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland:

(c) The National Trust

Then the news went quiet and I forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when someone called "Paul" left a comment on my original post, saying he'd posted a reply at the Causeway Creation Committee's website.

In the meantime, I started a new blog called Data Not Shown as an outlet for posts that might not reflect the views of The Beagle Project team (or, perhaps more importantly, our potential donors), or were otherwise way off-topic.

So as not to ruffle feathers, I've posted my reply to Paul on Data Not Shown. Since nothing in this post is likely to be controversial amongst Beagle Projecteers or the wider circle of potential Beagle Project donors, I will post my response to Paul here. You see, unlike the post that inspired the creation of Data Not Shown, I'm not arguing here that religion and science are (or aren't) compatible, I'm arguing that young-earth creationism and science aren't compatible, which is not controversial. Not only that, but this post falls squarely into the reasons to build a Beagle category.

Now, back to the Causeway Creation Committee's response. "Paul" begins with a quote from my original post (“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”) but then quickly degenerates into name-calling (my boldface):

Previous to Darwinism, Creationism was the general scientific view – transatlantic. Thankfully it is still possible to be a Christian and a scientist, unless of course you live in a communist country, or some other kind of atheist utopia.

That's funny--well, not actually funny ha ha--but "funny" in the sense that that's the second time this week that someone has tried to claim that communism is an atheist ideology. Not only is that claim factually wrong but it also reveals something about the writer. You see, Paul appears to be aping the Discovery Institute's Wedge Strategy, which asserts that evolution (and by their extention atheism) is at the root of larger evils including "socialism", which is lumped right in there with such horrors as "hard rock" and "dirty books". Paul continues (again, my boldface):

thebeagleproject.blogspot.com states: “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.”

Well actually we do believe that a ‘volcanic eruption followed by accelerated cooling, created the distinctive hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway'. The only real difference is the dating and of course the rapid cooling...

"Only" rather trivialises this, don't you think? I mean, if we were having an argument about, say, less than 0.01% error or something, then maybe the word "only" would be appropriate, but we're talking about 60 million years vs. 4,500 years.
...which was most probably caused by fairly rapidly undulating water levels. The rising and falling sea levels deposited layers of earth between eruptions and as the sea rose it cooled each layer quickly, causing it to crack into columns.
Actually the cooling begins immediately after the basaltic lavas flow away from their superheated source and encounter anything relatively cold, be it water, air or surface rock. In other words, the cooling of lava (and subsequent fracturing) does not necessarily require water.
thebeagleproject.blogspot.com fails to point out that although they share much of the theory of formation of the hexagonal rock structures, they have no plausible explanation for how or why it occurred other than ‘volcanic eruption followed by accelerated cooling’.

Paul's right: not being geologists, "we" at the Beagle Project don't have a plausible explanation ...which is why we humbly turn to the peer-reviewed literature for help from experts in the field who do have an explanation which is not only plausible but testable. We critically read about the evidence and only then do we adopt the explanation as our own.

In the spirit of consulting peer-reviewed literature, I linked my original article to a simple Google Scholar search for "Giant's Causeway". But because it seems that wasn't convincing enough for Paul, I suppose I should now go ahead and spray some more direct links to primary citations for 1) the origins of (mostly) hexagonal basalt columns such as those found at the Giant's Causeway and 2) the correlated global evidence supporting a 4.5 billion year-old earth.

The simple fact is that no such structures, or anything of any distinctiveness for that matter can occur within a uniformitarian system. You see in a vain effort to remove any possibility of Noah’s flood from public consciousness, the more atheistic elements of the scientific community have removed global catastrophes from the text-books – leaving their somewhat concocted version of geologic history.

That's right, folks, we scientists spend all of our days and our many sleepless nights picking through science textbooks to remove evidence of catastrophes ...well, uh, except for the Big Five major extinction events which are widely accepted and taught in science classes, not least that pesky Cretaceous-Tertiary event that everyone knows about because it killed the dinosaurs. And what was that bit about "no such structures" occuring within a uniformitarian system? Well, I'm no geologist but I'm pretty sure that the science of geology is all about explaining, with precision, exactly how "such structures" can indeed form within a uniformitarian system.

Please see the column entitled ‘The Bible and Science’ by navigating through the About Us tab.

Okay, so I went there, and, though it's muddled, I think they are saying that religion and science are "inseparable", and that "this is the view held by the world's greatest scientists" which are, apparently, George F. R. Ellis, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. What, no Darwin? Alas.
Various quotes follow, interspersed with assertions like

"the philosophical view of the atheistic naturalist scientist (as opposed to the observational scientist) is that human life is of no more worth or value than a dust cloud or a black hole."

Aaaargh, I feel a spirited digression coming on ...if you want to read it, click on over to Data Not Shown.

The accusation that the Causeway Creation Committee spends not enough of its time reading 'peer-reviewed dino-science' could be partly due to the issue that increasingly, scientists that make proposals that are non-Darwinian are ignored by the peer-review system. This is an issue that Ben Stein investigates in his film soon to be released – ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.’

The modern synthesis was "ignored", then? I mean, that was a serious challenge to "Darwinian" evolution and it was not only not ignored, it formed an updated foundation for how we understand evolution today. Mind you, that doesn't mean Darwin was Wrong, it just means viewing his theory from a more advanced perspective, that is, illuminated by genetics. This just sounds like more complaining on behalf of people who are "ignored" not because their proposals are "non-Darwinian" but because their science lacks rigour.

I was actually taught the story of Fionn mac Cumhaill at school, and presumably so was the author of the article at thebeagleproject.blogspot.com. They seem to know the story well [not really, I just looked it up on the internet -n]. The different features of the causeway are referred to as different items belonging to the giant. And of course there is the name ‘The Giant’s Causeway’ – tends to give it away. So rephrasing the question I might ask “If you can teach a myth like that of Fionn mac Cumhaill, then why must the account of Noah’s flood be silenced with such aggressive force?”

Finally, it seems that Paul and I might be in agreement on something! I mean, as long as they teach Noah's flood as a "myth" just like the Fionn mac Cumhaill story, then yes, I do think it can and should be explained. We don't really think Fionn mac Cumhaill created the causeway, and we also don't really think that Noah's flood did it either. They're just good stories to help us understand how people used to make sense of the world.

Imagine it: hey kids, long ago, before the enlightenment, there was a myth that a giant made the causeway *snickers* and there was this other myth too that a big flood sent by an angry man in the sky 4,500 years ago made the causeway *more snickers*.

Especially since it proposes a cause to the causeway, which otherwise remains a scientific conundrum.

It's not a conundrum. See spray of primary references above.

So to my friend at thebeagleproject.blogspot.com - I gather that you are a Tolkien fan. I encourage you to send me an email, and I will happily send you a book which is one of my favourites. It was dedicated to Tolkien by one of his best friends, and I’m sure you will find it a worthwhile read.

I am a Tolkien fan, and I can only presume the "friend" Paul is talking about here is C.S. Lewis, who was not a young-earth creationist. Seriously, Paul, please don't try to convert me. It's condescending, and anyways, I've already been converted... twice. See, until I was about eighteen, I was an evangelical Christian. I read the Bible and absorbed its lessons with an open heart and mind, and yes I even read some C.S. Lewis (though it doesn't sound like you have), and then I decided, after careful contemplation and "soul"-searching, that it's just not for me.

12 March 2008

Londoners beware!

Pharyngula readers from London and beyond will be descending upon the Doric Arch near Euston station this Saturday the 15th of March. Details and comment thread at Data Not Shown.

9 March 2008

A very British happy birthday from the land of Darwin

and all at The Beagle Project to PZ Myers. PZ is a great supporter of the Project, and if you're a reader here, you're probably a Pharyngulite so I won't bother to list his many virtues. So here's the most British of happy birthdays, courtesy of Winnie the Pooh. It is Eeyore's birthday, and Pooh, being a bear of very little brain and unable to write, goes to Owl for help. Owl hoots a big game, but ain't all he's cracked up to be:
Owl licked the end of his pencil and wondered how to spell 'birthday'.

'Can you read, Pooh?' he asked, a little anxiously. 'There's a notice about knocking and ringing outside my door, which Christopher Robin wrote. Could you read it?'

'Christopher Robin told me what it said and then I could,' said Pooh.

'Well, I'll tell you what this says, and then you'll be able to.' So Owl wrote, and this is what he wrote...


Pooh looked on admiringly.
So, PZ, I know you're spending it quietly, but HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHUDY from all here, and keep goring them creationist oxen.

All quiet: on the western front(ier)

As you may have noticed, it's been a quiet week here at the Beagle Project Blog. I have been--and still am--in Colorado, visiting family and skiing. Now, some may think this is no excuse for neglecting one's blog, but let me explain: you see, there is a robust inverse correlation between sun intensity and depth of fresh snow on the one hand and nunatak blog posts/week on the other. It is a fact of nature, like evolution, and I am powerless to stop it.

So, until I'm back in the Big Smoke and recovered enough from jet lag to blog intelligibly, here's a gratuitous "wish you were here - ha ha ha" photo of my current location, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Beagle Project. In fact, you can't get much more landlocked than this, but hey, it sure is pretty, so there:

1 March 2008

Ancient and modern

Engine room. On the left, one of the two 400hp 8 cylinder diesels for when the wind is unfavourable (Beagle is planned to have two 225 hp engines) and in the middle the lower section of the mainmast, which rests on the keel. (The flourescent strip lights are authentic copies of the 1750 originals.) The engines use 2.5 tonnes of diesel a day at cruising speed (1500 rpm) which will push her along at 7 knots. Under sail she has hit 14 knots and as my host who was aboard during that run said 'that ain't bad for 370 tonnes'. The helm is operated using hydraulics powered by a generator (this ship has four) but has a manual backup, and when it's being done using human power it takes four people at the wheel:The spaghetti is just a few of the lines needed to hoist and set the sails on the mizzen mast (the small one at the back).

Essential for a robust response to creationists:

no they aren't: we've got the scientists, the theories, the supporting data mounting up day by day. We've got the fossils. The geological record. It's the scientific equivalent of opening the gunports. We have those guns, though.

So what's it like on a square rigger?

Well this morning I'm off for a guided tour of a replica Royal Navy frigate, so on my photograph-laden return will be able to give you a better idea of how we shoehorn modern necessities like civilised toilets*, engines and radar into the hull from the age of sail.

* On the originals, it was a plank with appropriate-sized holes which stuck over the side at the bows of the ship - the bow of a boat is also called her head, which is why the toilets were called 'heads', a term which persists on boats to this day. It was exposed both from a weather and personal point of view (fellas, you wouldn't want to take a book with you) and defaulters were often punished by being made to keep the heads clean.

Update: yup, plenty of civilized oceangoing throne rooms possible: