31 May 2008

Steve Jones reviews Voyage of the Beagle (yes, the book)

Today in that newly Murdochian rag, the Wall Street Journal....
Darwin's Joyful Journey of Discovery

'The Voyage of the Beagle' shows us a young man intoxicated with the tropics and careless of the risks

May 31, 2008

Ryan Inzana

Next year is Darwin year: the bicentennial of the great man's birth and the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of Species." The book is not the easiest of reads, but it is less of a trudge than Charles Darwin's four volumes on barnacles or his 15 works on topics as distinct as climbing plants and the formation of mold by earthworms. They tell, in plain and sometimes pedestrian prose, the tale of a life of observation and experiment that founded modern biology.

"The Voyage of the Beagle," in contrast, sings. Its language is that of a young man intoxicated by the tropics ("To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again") and careless of the risks ("Upon landing I found that I was to a certain degree a prisoner . . . a traveller has no protection beside his fire-arms"). The youthful Darwin was a master of unadorned English. He took with him more than geology textbooks: "Milton's Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton."

The joy of the journey was that it had a point. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux have each written great travel books about South America -- but why, in the end, did they bother? The smell of the agent, the contract and the advance hangs around their pages, but for Darwin (who was in no need of money) every paragraph exudes instead the heady scent of discovery.

Knowledge was mightily advanced on the expedition, but quite how it influenced his thinking is often misinterpreted. Darwin spent only five weeks of the five-year adventure in the Galapagos, with just half that time on visits to islands. He scarcely noticed the finches and lumped their corpses together into a jumbled mass. In fact, the local tortoises were more important. On the island of James he "lived entirely on tortoise meat . . . the young tortoises make excellent soup." In those lumbering creatures, Darwin saw, without realizing it at the time, his first hint of evolution, for animals from James were subtly distinct from those on Indefatigable and Albemarle nearby. In a rare conjunction of taxonomy with gastronomy, he noted that the James specimens were "rounder, blacker, and had a better taste when cooked" -- which at the time seemed little more than a curiosity but was in fact his introduction to the biology of change.

Much of his work was not on animals but on rocks; and in a few short weeks in the Andes (and a few days on the tiny island of Cocos-Keeling) he worked out how coral atolls were the product of small creatures that labor to stay near the surface while their basalt foundations sink beneath. The idea was dismissed as absurd until the drills of the military during the H-bomb tests on Bikini revealed the hidden foundations predicted a century before.

The Beagle book was the first step to our understanding why the world is how it is. Its last few pages have a strikingly modern resonance, for they predict what our native planet may soon become. A few months before returning home, the ship dropped anchor at St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, one of the most isolated islands in the world. Darwin was delighted by the place: Its volcanic mountain rose "like a huge black castle from the ocean." He admired the "English, or rather Welsh, character of the scenery" and noted to his surprise that the vegetation, too, was decidedly British, with gorse, blackberries, willows and other imports. On his first day, Darwin found the dead shells of nine species of "land-shells of a very peculiar form" (one of few mentions of snails in his entire writings) and noted that specimens collected from one location "differ as a marked variety" from others picked up a few miles away -- another hint of evolution. All apart from one were extinct and had been replaced by the common brown snail of English -- and American -- gardens.

Now things on St. Helena have gotten worse. The island has 49 unique species of flowering plant, and 13 of fern, all found only there. At least seven have been driven out since the arrival of men five centuries ago, two survive only in cultivation, and many more are on the edge. The last St. Helena Olive died of mold in 1994, and of the ebony thickets only two small bushes remain. Its giant earwig (at three inches, the world's largest), giant ground beetle and St. Helena dragonfly, all common in Darwin's time, have not been seen for many years. The snail seen by Darwin is now reduced to a population of about 600. The St. Helena Petrel is extinct, and just one endemic winged creature, the Wire Bird, is left, and that too is threatened.

Darwin looked back in his attempts to understand the present. He scarcely considered what the future might bring, for in his view evolution was so slow, and life so stable, that no great shifts were to be expected. A glance forward on the 200th anniversary of his birth shows how wrong he was. The world is already a far less interesting place than it was when he set forth on his circumnavigation and will soon become even less so: and no future explorer will ever write a book so full of the joy of unspoiled nature as is "The Voyage of the Beagle."

Mr. [sic!] Jones is professor of genetics at University College, London.
The above is quoted in its entirety from WSJ.com.

29 May 2008

Thomas Henry Huxley weighs in on the location of Darwin statue at the Natural History Museum

Hat-tip to David Williams for pointing me to this quote from an address by Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog", yes, but much more) on the gifting, in 1885, of a statue of Darwin to the Natural History Museum in London (then the British Museum, Natural History) ...yes, the same statue of Darwin that has just been restored to its original position atop the grand staircase.

Pay special attention to the middle paragraph:
"We do not make this request for the mere sake of perpetuating a memory; for so long as men occupy themselves with the pursuit of truth, the name of Darwin runs no more risk of oblivion than does that of Copernicus, or that of Harvey.

Nor, most assuredly, do we ask you to preserve the statue in its cynosural position in this entrance-hall of our National Museum of Natural History as evidence that Mr. Darwin's views have received your official sanction; for science does not recognise such sanctions, and commits suicide when it adopts a creed.

No; we beg you to cherish this Memorial as a symbol by which, as generation after generation of students of Nature enter yonder door, they shall be reminded of the ideal according to which they must shape their lives, if they would turn to the best account the opportunities offered by the great institution under your charge."

...read Huxley's address in its entirety here.
And so it may be that one day the Natural History Museum will swap out Darwin's memorial for another statue, perhaps to celebrate another occasion, or even re-replace it with Owen's statue (as I said before, Owen was a splendid scientist and champion of science-for-the-masses, if a bit of a curmudgeon, and he did found the Natural History Museum).

For now, though, I think it entirely appropriate that, to celebrate this period encompassing not only Darwin's bicentenary but also Wallace and Darwin's joint discovery of natural selection and the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, we have put Darwin's memorial back in the place where it was first unveiled. It is wholly in keeping with Huxley's plea in the last sentence quoted above, so long as we also bear in mind his warning* in the preceding sentence.

One of the best ways to heed it, as incited here on other occasions, is to welcome, perhaps even commission, honest appraisals of Darwin the man, warts and all, and for goodness sake, can we also please occasionally remember him without That Beard?

*Interestingly, Huxley's warning here would seem to anticipate later creationist claims that Darwinism is a religion ... or perhaps the creationists were, even then, using this as one of their talking points?

Post-doc in co-evolution of Darwin's finches and their parasites

And now for a little missive in the "if only I had two heads" category...

I don't think I've ever posted a job advert before, but this is just too brilliant to not. Arriving in my email in-box this morning from the indispensable EvolDir mailing list was this:
Co-evolution of Darwin's Finches and parasites

The Clayton Lab (darwin.biology.utah.edu) at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City is seeking a highly motivated postdoc for an NSF-funded project concerning Darwin's Finches and their parasites. The project, which is based in Utah and the Galapagos Islands, is at the interface of co-evolutionary ecology, immunology, behavior, and conservation biology. Although Darwin's Finches are one of the most famous examples of adaptive radiation, we know relatively little about the role of parasites and pathogens in their ecology, behavior and evolution. Unfortunately, finch populations have recently come under serious threat from the introduced tropical nest fly Philornis downsi. A better understanding of this parasite is urgently needed because of the danger it poses to these iconic birds. The overriding goals of this project are: 1) to conduct rigorous tests of the impact of P. downsi and other parasites on Darwin's Finches; and 2) to determine the ability of the finches to defend themselves against parasites. The project will focus on interactions between P. downsi and the Medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) on Santa Cruz Island; however, we will also study interactions between other species of finches and their parasite communities. We hope that this work will help conservation biologists protect Darwin's Finches from invasive parasites and pathogens in the

The postdoctoral position is renewable annually for up to three years, depending on performance and funding. The salary starts at $35,000 per year, plus benefits. We are interested in candidates with experience working under physically demanding field conditions. A background in experimental design and statistical analysis is essential, and some experience with population or epidemiological modeling is a plus. Experience with birds and parasites/pathogens is desirable, but not essential. Strong communication skills and experience mentoring graduate and undergraduate students are also desirable. Proficiency in Spanish (spoken and written) is a definite plus.

To apply, send a single email file with the items listed below to Dr. Dale Clayton, c/o Alyssa Farley at: alyssafarley@bioscience.utah.edu
1) CV including info on publications, field experience, and analytical skills
2) One page statement of research interests and future goals
3) Names & contact info (incl telephone numbers) of 3-5 referees who are familiar with the applicant's past research and skills.

Review of applications will start in mid-June and continue until a suitable candidate is found. The position could start as early as August, 2008. The University of Utah is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

Dale H. Clayton, Ph.D.
Professor, Dept. of Biology, Univ. of Utah
257 South 1400 East
Salt Lake City, Utah 84112
Voice: 801-581-6482; Fax: 801-581-4668
To say that this is a rather fine opportunity for someone just finishing their PhD is just a wee bit of an understatement.

28 May 2008


This is the 500th Beagle Project Blog post, everybody!
*anticipates deafening silence in comments*
Well, it's true; blogiversaries are generally significant only to the bloggers being honoured (by themselves), and yawn-inducing to readers, so I thought I'd make it a bit more interesting by posting a few Beagle Project Blog stats:

We made 242 posts to the old Beagle Project Blog site, which was active for exactly one year starting August 2006. Of these, 225 were posted by Peter and 17 an embarrassingly small number by me (in my defense, I only started blogging in March 07).

In a much shorter period of time--just 9 months--we've made 258 posts to this, our current blogspot. I'm relieved to see that I'm now pulling my weight as a co-blogger: 116 of these were posted by Peter and 142 by yours truly.

And now marching on to a few more blog stats, below I list the top three posts/links in each category (using MyBlogLog stats from this new site only). As you'll see, the take home message is "carnivals rock".

Number of views:
Number of comments:
Most-clicked links:
Top senders of traffic (single posts):
...excluding Science blogs:
I would have liked to show more (especially top referring sites, both including and excluding ScienceBlogs) but MyBlogLog seems to be preoccupied with something else. That and I need to go away now and ice my carpal tunnel.

27 May 2008

Darwin's statue safely moved

Last week I reported on the impending move of Darwin's statue from the café of the Natural History Museum in London to its more dignified original location at the top of the grand staircase. Well, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've been into the central hall and seen for myself that the scaffolding is down and Darwin looks just splendid up there (photos coming soon).

Read for yourself the official NHM news item and today's news coverage in ... wait for it ... The Daily Mail. Yes, there's our Charlie mixed in with the fishnets and footballers gossip. What's worse, although they get the general facts right about the statue and its move (most likely from an accurate NHM press release), the Mail has tacked on a rather ugly first sentence:

"Charles Darwin's theories have sometimes been accused of being elitist. So the father of modern science would surely have been pleased to be given pride of place in one of the world's most prestigious museums."

How can a theory (or set of theories) be elitist? Or are they implying that Charles Darwin was an elitist himself? It seems to me that they are, and I simply cannot let this pass: he most certainly wasn't elitist. Quite the contrary: he was delighted to learn that On the Origin of Species sold well in railway stations and he wished to be buried with quiet dignity in his local churchyard (he was buried in Westminster Abbey against his prehumous wishes). Oh, Guardian, where are you when we need you? It's not too late! Oh well, at least the pictures are nice:

Darwin statue
The statue of Charles Darwin is hoisted back into its place in the central hall of the Natural History Museum

The statue of Charles Darwin will take pride of place next to a Diplodocus skeleton, in time for Darwin 200, a nationwide programme of events in 2008/9 celebrating the bicentenary of Darwin's birth

The statue is moved during the night by a team of engineers

More pictures here.

25 May 2008

Good luck, Phoenix

I was going to live-blog NASA's Phoenix landing on Mars but then I found out someone's already doing it. Someone I can't really compete with. Someone inside Mission Control. Go there now. Oh, and you can also watch the whole gripping thing live on NASA TV.

Update 00:58 Monday BDT: the Phoenix has landed!
Update 16:22 Sunday BDT: glad to see the Phoenix is dominating national and international media today. My favourite picture is this:
Yay, science!

Kiwi teens "Find Time" to follow in Darwin's footsteps

From The Nelson Mail:
Finding Time for a British adventure
Marcus Stickley

Three Nelson College students will travel in naturalist Charles Darwin's footsteps through Britain after winning a prestigious national science film-making competition.

Ross Inness-McLeish, Oliver Neas, both 16, and Jack Tippler, 17, came first out of more than 50 teams from throughout the country in the Freemasons Big Science Adventures competition. Their five-minute film, Finding Time [link to right], explained how college old boy Ernest Rutherford's understanding of radioactivity underpinned Darwin's theory of evolution by showing that the Earth was old enough for the slow processes of evolution to have occurred.

Competition administrator the Royal Society of New Zealand chose the theme of Darwin and evolution to mark the 150th anniversary of the Wallace-Darwin paper on natural selection...

...continued at The Nelson Mail.
I hope the trio will come by the Natural History Museum and see Darwin's freshly relocated statue. Maybe some day (soon) they'll even consider joining in a trip 'round the world on the new Beagle.

See Ross, Oliver and Jack's winning video (complete with awesome popcorn analogy for radioactive decay!) at HotScience, worth visiting in its own right for a whole slew of great science videos.

22 May 2008

New in the sidebar: Beagle Project Audio Player

Now you can listen to all your favourite audio appearances by Beagle Projecteers using our shiny new Splashcast player.
<-- it's over there in the sidebar

20 May 2008

Breaking news: Stein-sullied Darwin statue restored to prominence

What an absolutely delicious bit of news I have for you today...
Unless you've been living in a hole (or possibly - gasp - not reading blogs), you will know of the statue of Charles Darwin at the Natural History Museum in London. It is the one that has been defiled by not only by its proximity to the dirty dish cart in the café but also by a recent 'contemplative' visit under false pretenses from one Mr. Benjamin Stein (right).

Now, it is true that Darwin has already got his revenge for the latter, slapping back, as it were, at Mr Stein. However satisfying that may have been, though, it did not change the fact that the statue was positioned in a lowly spot, ever in danger of being splattered by discarded cups of tea and the crumbs of scones, next to piles of highchairs and littered at his feet with discarded stir sticks.

Well, dear reader, as of today, all that changes. Without stealing the thunder of the intended museum news item (which I shall cover on its release next Monday), I can at least tell you what any astute museum visitor can see with her own two eyes this morning: that the Darwin statue is in the process of being restored to its former place atop the grand staircase.

The photo at left is a vertical panorama of the central hall, with the aforementioned staircase front and centre. Note the big scaffolding. Note also the little sign at the bottom of the stairs, which reads:

"As part of Darwin200, a national programme celebrating Charles Darwin's life, his ideas and their impact, we are planning to move the statue of Charles Darwin to replace the statue of Richard Owen in the centre of the Central Hall staircase."

Richard Owen is the founder of the Natural History Museum, great popularliser of natural history, coiner of the words "homology" and "dinosaur" but also, significantly, an opponent of Darwinian evolution. Owen fans will be relieved to learn that his statue will not be moved to to the café but to another spot in the museum that evokes its share of grandeur.

If you then walk out of frame, around to the left, and proceed back into the café where Darwin currently sits, you see this (right). The sign at Darwin's feet reads:
"Be careful - Darwin being cleaned"
[insert bad joke here]
And continues, "This statue of Charles Darwin is being conserved for Darwin200, a national programme for the next 18 months celebrating Charles Darwin's 200th birthday next year."
Indeed, this is the first of many museum events aimed to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009, and precedes by a few weeks the official launch of the Darwin200 anniversary period which includes not only the bicentenary of Darwin's birth but also the 150th anniversaries of the Wallace/Darwin paper at the Linnean Society on 1st July this year and the publication of On the Origin of Species on 24 November next year.

19 May 2008

Goodbye nunatak

Simplify, simplify.
Henry David Thoreau

One "simplify" would have sufficed.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
For over a year now I've been using the name nunatak as my nom de blog. But after reading with interest last month's discourse on the issue of pseudonymous blogging/commenting, and I must say that I've been persuaded by some of the arguments for using one's real name.

There are, of course, some very good reasons to be anonymous or at least pseudonymous online, such as hiding one's children's identities from smarmy--or even downright scary--denizens of the internet, or protecting oneself from discrimination at work, or even from potential threats from violent extremists of various stripes. The thing is, none of these apply to me. I've no children to fear for, and I think the benefits of being Karen James rather than nunatak online outweigh the potential disadvantages.

Of course, nunatak is not really a pseudonym because everyone can see who I am by clicking through to my profile ...but then doesn't that render nunatak sort of meaningless? Not only that, but nunatak has, on several of occasions, even sewn confusion, not least over its pronunciation.

So it's a fond farewell to nunatak--it was really fun sort of blah while it lasted; now you can just call me Karen. And as long as were talking about changes, I'm closing up shop at my side project Data Not Shown and moving to Science Friday Blogs, and I would be ever so grateful if you would go and vote on my new blog title.

Wait, actually, there is one thing I'll miss about being nunatak, and that's sharing a name with a (the?) British Antarctic Survey band, who played a Live Earth concert from Antarctica. If I'm honest with myself, though, this was definitely a case of cool by association, and that's not really a good enough reason on its own to keep the name.

Oh, and if some of you forget and call me nunatak or even Nun (you know who you are), well, that's okay with me, but I take no responsibility when other people squint at you.

Science on ships on the media:

BBC Radio 4 tonight 9pm, Gabrielle Walker joins scientists from the British Antarctic Survey on board HMS Endurance to look at the effects of climate change.

If you miss it, you can catch it using the BBC's excellent listen again feature.

18 May 2008

Arbor DNA

$10/£5 from every shop purchase goes to help build the new Beagle!

Two weeks ago I went to the New York Botanical Garden for a small but international meeting aimed at kick-starting a new project to amass a comprehensive database of short, diagnostic DNA snippets from the world's tree species. The hope is that a complete catalogue these so-called "DNA barcodes" will enable queries of unknown samples of root, wood, twig or leaf against the database. This ability will facilitate high-throughput biodiversity monitoring and environmental forensics, for example, to uncover trade in protected plants.

Similar projects have been underway for a while for various animal groups including birds and fish, but this will be the first major global barcoding "campaign" for plants. The organisational framework of this campaign (called "Tree-BoL" for tree barcode-of-life but also because "bole" is the stem or trunk of a tree ...oh, aren't we botanists extra clever?) is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which also supports the parent organisation Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) as well as Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) and Census of Marine Life (COML) among others. Forget the 'P', big biodiversity science is Alfred Sloan's middle name.

The aim of tree-BoL is to 1) build and 2) populate a database of DNA sequences from all of the world's tree species, of which there are about 100,000 (though of course this figure depends on how you define "tree").

At this point our regular readers might detect a snag (hardy har). A while back I wrote about the complex and difficult task of identifying a gene or genes to use for DNA barcoding in plants. So if we don't even know what genes we will be sequencing from all of these trees, isn't this project a bit premature?

Not really, and for two reasons: first, the vast majority of money and effort in a barcoding project goes into collecting, properly identifying/vouchering and extracting DNA from the specimens themselves. The DNA sequencing part is the final and easiest bit. That means that these samples can be collected and held for a while even if the argument about which genes to sequence is still unresolved; second, some real progress was made at this meeting towards agreeing a suite of plant genes for DNA barcoding (a final session at the meeting was devoted to this question, and agreement was reached on pooling all data resources to make a final decision).

The venue for the meeting was entirely appropriate; the NYBG's trees were positively dripping with spring blossom (photo above right). The other perk was that the Darwin's Garden exhibition had just opened, so there was ample reason to sneak away at lunchtime for a stroll around. I also learned that in addition to their beloved public face, NYBG has some world-class scientists ...and science facilities. Their molecular biology laboratory was sah-weet. Shiny new labs with big glass windows looking out over a pond and a whole bunch of mature trees (how fitting). It made me look forward to moving into our new labs in the second phase of the Darwin Centre building at the NHM even more than before.

And if all goes well, when we get there, it'll be full speed ahead producing barcodes for the trees of the UK, Europe and beyond.

15 May 2008

Reasons to build a Beagle (lost count + 2)

Today, Nature News (in brief) has this:
Cosmologist quits Britain over poor physics funding

A leading cosmologist is leaving the United Kingdom for Canada, in part, he says, because of the government's attitude towards funding physics research. Neil Turok, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge, says that recent funding cuts for fundamental physics in Britain “played a big role” in his decision to take up the post of executive director at the independent, non-profit Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Turok says the cuts, and a desire for more applied research, are “the latest in a long history of the [government's] misunderstanding of the role of basic science”. Turok will bring valuable research and leadership experience to the institute, says Perimeter's founder, Mike Lazaridis.
Sigh... and this from a country that produced Newton and Darwin. Why aren't British politicians excited about science? This is supposed to be a knowledge economy after all. Here at the Beagle Project we offer a reason to get excited. It looks like this:

14 May 2008

SciFoo times two (from the NHM, that is)

Turns out I am not the only Natural History Museum scientist to be invited to SciFoo; Vince Smith, a cybertaxonomist in the Entomology Department got invited too. This will be his second year in a row (ooo, ahh) so I'm hoping to get some words of wisdom about how to maximise the experience. Perhaps we can meet for coffee in that very same museum cafe where one Ben Stein got fish-slapped by one Chas. Darwin, as is wont to happen.

Tangled Bank #105

Welcome, readers, to this tag-teamed edition of the Tangled Bank blog carnival.

In the left-justified corner, all the way from the north Yorkshire coast, not far from where Darwin 'took the waters' in Ilkley, it's Peter McGrath.

And in the right-justified corner, coming to you from London, just a few miles away from Downe Bank, Darwin's inspiration for the tangled bank where "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved", it's Karen James.

Well, you glorious swine. Speaking for myself, my blogreading life was full enough without discovering some of the new delights carnivalled here. The long evening reading all these posts has been a 'mental riot' (Darwin's description of the intellectual ferment when he was incubating The Origin), for which many thanks and the RSS has a slew of new entries. A tangled bank is not a monoculture, and I think we can offer something for all here.

I would never call our dear readers much less our prolific bank-tanglers 'swine', however glorious, but I certainly do share Peter's admiration for this fortnight's entries.

In the beginning was not the word, it was the soup. This is a biochemistry-heavy post from Prof. Larry Moran at Sandwalk. What's the problem with the primordial? None.

Speaking of biochemistry, Giovanna Di Sauro gives us Who's afraid of Bisphenol A?, the first in a two-part series on toxicology and cancer biology (and I will remind our readers that cancer biology is very appropriate here at Tangled Bank considering that cancer is itself an evolutionary process).

Who can resist a Friday Parasite especially at Science Made Cool? Not I, having studied parasites in all their (slightly icky) glory. The ways parasites evade their host immune systems and spend all their time, well, eating and reproducing is my idea of good fun and great evolution.

And now to take the phrase "great evolution" as my cue, I give you the posts you've no doubt all been waiting for (drum roll): let's hear it for the platypus genome, correctly interpreted! Yes, everybody and their eutherian companion animal has been blogging this week about the nipple-less wonder of the south. In Weird animal, weird genome, Jim Lemire of from Archaea to Zeaxanthol gives us a handy list of highlights to get us started, but then the real fun begins with a series of posts roasting (as they should) both the intentional and unintentional misinterpretations of the results. Tiny Frog gives us The Platypus is not a Chimera, an excellent synopsis of how the creationists are trying to drag the noble platypus' genome through the post-flood mud, and PZ Myers at Pharyngula (duh) exceeds himself with his excellent myth-busting post The Platypus Genome.

As you will all now know, the platypus has its venom. Well, so the pufferfish has its neurotoxin; in Risk-Free Fugu? Rick MacPherson at Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice and Sunsets explores the Japanese delicacy and asks, is it as tasty if it can't kill you?

Oh, Podblack Blog, you bad thing. By you we are wrenched away from hard science to a very worthwhile look at science fiction films: as science, as teaching aids, as objets in themselves, and yes the French is intentional. She saves the best for the last line, though and all I would say is (a) it's the language and (b) yes, a lot of English humour is 'Oooops, vicar there go my knickers!' in nature. And we love it. And I bet that's the first time that's ever been said in relation to a Tangled Bank. Next!

Ames Grauwert! A law student (with a bit of science) who blogs at A Candid World crashes Tangled Bank and very welcome he is too. We just hope How Ben Stein destroyed intelligent design becomes settled case law not opinion.

And just in case ID isn't completely destroyed by Ben Stein, we have three related posts from Monado of Science Notes to finish the job: "Dealing with Evidence", "The Dembski Dodge" and "The Behe Blunder".

Russel Seitz, if there is a hell it is stacked a dozen deep with your kind. And if they write (and illustrate) a gralloching of Expelled like this, I will be happy waist deep in the lake of fire with you.

If you're not raised from the dead like Darwin that is... yes, that famous bearded personage whose pen produced the title of this here carnival is not only revived from his long slumber at Westminster Abbey but is also blogging.

If you don't relish Digital Cuttlefish's scansion, rhyme, metre and incision (often deployed to good effect in Pharyngula comments) sell your brain for catfood. DC has two for your consideration: ode to a Platypus genome and a cautionary tale of science run amok.

Meanwhile, how plastic is Horizontal Gene Transfer (and indeed what the dickens is it)? Plastids have the answer, says Joe at cotch.net, which really needs to be typed carefully.

It's Denialism Blog and PalMD's being such a tease and begging us not to click away: "It's just that this is such an interesting story, and I can't help sharing it. It is a shining example of one of the great successes of modern medical science, and stands in such stark contrast to the unfulfilled promises of the cult medicine crowd, with their colon cleanses and magic pills. This is the story of a real magic pill." Mate, it's what we're here for. Tell the story. He does, and I'll leave it to him to sum it up: "This is an incredible story. It follows almost 50 years of hard and brilliant work by many researchers named and unnamed, as they discover the cause of a disease, and it's treatment."

If you have never considered the biogeopolitics of bananas you really should, and the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog is the place to do it.

Meanwhile, Phil Plait (PZ paid us to put him this late in the carnival) at Bad Astronomy commits a shocking gaffe, and should hang his head so his NASA cap falls off. No he doesn't pass the port the wrong way - he wouldn't be in this Carnival had he done THAT - he asks us to help NASA sift through all the dooberrybytes (and that's a lot) of pics of the Martian surface to find the Mars Polar Lander. Hey America! You're not the only country to have lost a lander on Mars. What about looking for the UK's Beagle 2? We built the Beagle 1 as well (we know where that one is, though), and are planning to build the Beagle 3.

Greg Laden is an anthropologist, here writing not about man, but about man's best friend. Stop that! He's writing about the genetics of dogs. And if he'd been my genetics lecturer 20 years ago, I wouldn't still be looking at peas wondering how they fit all those wrinkles on.

While the mechanism of inheritance eluded not only Peter but, famously, Darwin, it was not lost on a team of Canadian scientists who utilised the fact that mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited to confirm that seventeen local residents of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in northern British Columbia share a maternal ancestor with a man whose corpse was disgorged by a nearby glacier. Cath Ennis at rENNISance woman, host of the previous edition of Tangled Bank, tells us all about it in her cleverly titled post, Your Father was an Iceman.

So, thank you for wandering through this tangled bank. Remember why we're here: we're fundraising to build a replica of HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin round the world and ultimately led him to write the astonishing prose poem to biodiversity that inspired this carnival of science writing:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.
I can't quite let it end there. See, a bit of a Darwinian purist myself, I prefer the first edition, in all of its earth-shaking raw glory, undiluted by successive rounds of editing in response to politically motivated criticism. In the first edition, it is an "entangled" rather than a "tangled" bank. Don't worry, I'm not suggesting the carnival be renamed; I do wish, however, that from this day forward everyone hosting the Tangled Bank carnival would start using the full quote rather than just the first bit which, due to its premature truncation ends rather flatly on "...Extinction of less-improved forms". Ho hum, huh? Instead, why not try Darwin's ending on for size:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Well, that's been fun. The awesome responsibility that is hosting a Tangled Bank next falls on Nobel Intent on 28th May. Send your submissions to jtimmer (at) arstechnica (dot) com.

Tangled Bank: posted here soon.

12 May 2008

Tangled Bank here, Wednesday. Submit now...

Submit through host(at)tangledbank.net, or to karen(at) and peter(at) thebeagleproject.com

Please, think of Molly. Submit now.

'Charles Darwin sailed these waters'

The BBC reports from the waters around Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn on Chilean scientists trying to quantify the effects of climate change. It sounds the same old story - too few research boats, too little time on the field. Well, the replica HMS Beagle intends to spend time down there as its ancestor did and climate change is right in our intended field of scientific research aboard. Captain Robert Fitzroy did, after all, found what became the British Meteorological Office.

Another reason for funding bodies, industry, governments and philanthropic bodies interested in climate change research to put their hands in their pockets help us build the replica.

11 May 2008

New in the sidebar: Beagle Project media archives

A few weeks ago, Michael Barton sent me an email suggesting we add a section to our sidebar providing links to our growing list of radio and other media appearances. A brilliant idea, now realised. Check it out.

10 May 2008

Commencement congrats

...to Dispersal of Darwin's Michael Barton, who graduates today from Montana State University in Bozeman with a major in the History of Science and a minor in Museum Studies.

Michael must have enjoyed his undergraduate studies because he will be continuing his education in that same university's graduate program in history.

I am sure you will join me in encouraging Michael to keep writing DoD ... how else would we all get our Darwin news condensed daily into enjoyably bite sized digests?

9 May 2008

What? Me? Invited to Sci Foo?

This morning, still jet-lagging a bit from my trip to New York, I opened my email and, lo and behold, I found this:

We'd like to invite you to join us on the weekend of August 8-10 for Science Foo Camp (or "Sci Foo"), a unique, invitation-only gathering organized by Nature, O'Reilly Media, and Google, and hosted at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

Now in its third year, SciFoo is already achieving cult status among those with a passion for science and technology. The Economist said that it "capture[s] the essence of innovation"; in a photo essay for Edge (http://tinyurl.com/3o9sam), George Dyson wrote of the "the impossible choice" when deciding which sessions to attend; another attendee described it simply as "The best gathering ever. Period."

As before, we will be inviting about 200 people from around the world who
are doing groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology. Participants will include not only researchers, but also writers, artists, investors, and other thought-leaders.

The format is highly informal: all delegates are also presenters and
demonstrators; the schedule is determined collaboratively on the first evening; and sessions continue to be organized and re-organized throughout the weekend. This creates a unique opportunity to explore topics that transcend traditional boundaries, and discussions are of a kind that happens at the best conferences during breaks and late into the night. Of course, there will also be time to have fun and relax at Google's legendary campus.

SciFoo 2008 will run from about 6pm on Friday, August 8 until after lunch
on Sunday, August 10. Campers need to make their own way to and from the event, but Google will provide accommodation and meals, and there is no registration fee. For those who don't have cars, there will also be free shuttle buses between the hotel and the Googleplex.

Please RSVP by replying to this email. We do have space restrictions, so
if you'd like to attend please be sure to reply as soon as possible, and in any case by May 16.

We hope to see you at the Googleplex in August!

Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media

Chris DiBona, Google

Timo Hannay, Nature

*rubs eyes*

*reads again*

*jumps from chair and dances a jig*

*sends RSVP and dances another jig*

A big, big thank-you to anyone who had any part in nominating me. I have a couple of guesses, but I suppose you can never know for sure with these things.

I can't wait to find out who else will be there. Hint, hint... allow me to direct your attention to the "Comments" link below.

8 May 2008

Heavy traveling = light blogging

As regular readers will know, I've been away in New York City at the tree-BoL meeting and a special curator's tour of the Darwin's Garden exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. All highly bloggable stuff, to which I fully intend to do justice over the coming days. In the meantime, here are a few photos to serve as placeholders:

Grand Central station

A picture speaks a thousand words: there is a US Armed Forces recruiting station right in the heart of Times Square

The Darwin's Garden banner on the library at the New York Botanical Garden

Central Park

Still life with Chrysler Building and flags

2 May 2008

Tangled Bank at the Beagle Project

With Nunatak away in New York doing proper science, it falls to me to do the blogkeeping. We're delighted to be hosting the Tangled Bank blog carnival on 14th May. The current Tangled Bank is up at Dammit Jim!, and if you haven't, click over there and read. Then start exercising the synapses and thinking up what you're going to write for us. Don't make like our hero Charles Darwin who took 20 years bring The Origin to market: you've got until the 12th of May to get your submissions in. Email your urls to us: karen(at) and peter(at) thebeagleproject.com.

If you're a blogger who's never submitted before, why not delurk and give us some fresh meat? The field is biology, medicine, science in general. Read the guidelines at the Tangled Bank site, you don't have to be a Ph.D. or a working scientist. In fact it would be enlightening to get some posts from people outside the profession on how science is perceived by the rest of us and how you think the mainstream media is doing in reporting science. Nunatak and I will be tag-teaming on the selection and writing.

And if your inspiration is down to seeds and stems, here's what Darwin wrote which inspired the carnival name:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.

1 May 2008

Attenborough on science and society.

If you love natural history TV David Attenborough should need no introduction, and in a speech last night he warned of a proliferation of TV chefs and lifestyle shows at the expense of factual programming. In particular:
"Do we really require so many gardening programmes, makeover programmes, or celebrity chefs? Is it not a scandal, in this day and age, that that there seems to be no place for continuing series of programmes about science or serious music or thoughtful in-depth interviews with people other than politicians."
He also said it was
"very, very sad" that the science show Tomorrow's World no longer had a place in the schedule. "If you want an informed society there has to be a basic understanding of science,"
(For those not up on their BBC Kremlinology, David Attenborough is not just a hugely talented natural history presenter, in the 1960s he was channel controller of BBC 2 and in the 70s Director of BBC TV Programmes so knows his onions in this area.) This is Nunatak's refrain: we can't turn everyone into scientists nor should we, but we do need a society with a better level of science literacy than at present, and a hands-on, sailing, eyes-on HMS Beagle sailing the world and streaming exciting science programmes back into classrooms and providing material for TV programmes and books will be one important part of that campaign.