29 August 2008

"Tras los pasos de Darwin", Beagle Project feature in Spanish newspaper Público

Gloria Rodríguez-Pina has written an absolutely knock-out article about The Beagle Project in Público (which is, it so happens, the only Spanish newspaper with a dedicated science section).
Tras los pasos de Darwin
Gloria Rodríguez-Pina - Madrid - 28/08/2008 21:15

Recién graduado en Cambridge, con 22 años, un jovencísimo Charles Darwin se embarcó como naturalista a bordo del bergantín HMS Beagle, en un viaje que duraría cinco años (1831-36). El padre de la teoría de la evolución describiría después esta aventura como el acontecimiento más importante de su vida, el que determinó la marcha de toda su carrera...(continued at Público)

Its length allows her to go into a fair amount of detail, she's put in lots of extra links and information in the side bar, and there are two bonus sections sections at the end - an interview with Rick MacPherson of Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice and Sunsets and a history of evolutionary biology and genetics.

Peter Etnoyer of Deep Sea News (moving soon to Discovery Blogs) also gave an interview but sadly it didn't appear in the article. No matter - with his permission, I'll copy his interview (in English) into a new post here ...and Rick's too in case like me you don't read Spanish.

Both of them deserve a very special shout-out, by the way, because they responded within twelve hours of my last-minute email asking for some external voices in support of the project for Gloria's piece. Thanks guys!

28 August 2008

With apologies to Winston Churchill

We shall go on to the end,
we shall blog in France,
we shall blog on the seas and oceans,
we shall blog with growing confidence
and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island,
whatever the cost may be,
we shall blog on the beaches,
we shall blog on the landing grounds,
we shall blog in the fields
and in the streets,
we shall blog in the hills;
we shall never surrender
our laptops; and even if,
which I do not for a moment believe,
this Island or a large part of it
were subjugated and starved of wifi,
then our Empire beyond the seas,
armed and guarded by the British Fleet,
would carry on the struggle,
until, in God's good time,
the New World, with all its power and might,
steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

27 August 2008

Deep Sea (HUGE) News

Kevin, Craig and Peter at Deep Sea News have been posting teasers for roughly the last 24 hours that they have some truly ginormous news to announce today. One of the teasers is a YouTube video of a Space Shuttle launch. If Deep Sea News is going to space I am going to die of envy.

They said they'd post it "first thing in the morning" so it's really gonna be any minute now for sure! So get on over there and hit "refresh" every few minutes or so like the rest of us.

25 August 2008

About the banner

Thanks to everyone who has complimented our spiffed-up new (okay, newish) look here at TBPB. Dedicated readers will have noticed a number of changes, from the slightly wider format to several new goodies in the sidebar, including fancy shmancy Splashcast audio and video player.

Most noticeable of all, though, is our all-singing, all-dancing banner up there. I figured that some of you might be wondering, "Okay, I can see that's Darwin there in the middle, and that must be the Beagle on the left, but what's that squiggly sketch hovering next to Darwin's temple, what ship is pictured upper right, and what gives with the sheet music?"

So, to slake your raging curiosity, I have decided to provide a key:

1. South America, surveying the coastline of which was the raison d'etre of HMS Beagle's 1831-1836 voyage
Source: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, Charles Darwin: a life in pictures
2. HMS Beagle as painted by Ronald Dean of the RSMA and kindly emailed to us by one Richard Johnson, who wrote, "[Ronald Dean] explained that the painting is a representation of the arrival of Charles Darwin at the Galapagos Islands. In the background is naturally HMS Beagle, whilst in the foreground, a small boat makes its way to the islands, carrying Charles Darwin (the figure in the bow). A biologist, who had developed an interest in Charles Darwin and later HMS Beagle, apparently commissioned the painting. The patron had also collected a lot of material and technical plans relating to HMS Beagle, which were temporarily loaned to the artist to ensure a ship portrait, which was as technically accurate as possible ... Although the oil painting representation of Beagle by the remarkable John Chancellor is the image that is familiar in peoples' minds, I thought might be interesting to see a different, less familiar interpretation, particularly since it features the famous English naturalist."

3. Male and female Geospiza magnirostris, one of the species of the so-called "Darwin's finches", as named and painted by John Gould and published in The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle
Source: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, Darwin, C. R. ed. 1839. Birds Part 3 No. 4 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. by John Gould. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co., [BIRDS Pl. 36.]
4. Title page of the book now called The Voyage of the Beagle (but then called Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, Under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.A. by Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S., 2nd Edition. 1845)
Source: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, Darwin, C. R. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition. London: John Murray., [page i]

5. Charles Darwin, age 32, five years after he returned from his voyage on the Beagle
Source: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, Charles Darwin: a life in pictures
6. Charles Darwin's sketch of his jury-rigged plankton net, about which he wrote in his diary on the 10th of January, 1832:
"I proved to day the utility of a contrivance which will afford me many hours of amusement & work. — it is a bag four feet deep, made of bunting, & attached to [a] semicircular bow this by lines is kept upright, & dragged behind the vessel. —this evening it brought up a mass of small animals, & tomorrow I look forward to a greater harvest.

"11th I am quite tired having worked all day at the produce of my net. — The number of animals that the net collects is very great & fully explains the manner so many animals of a large size live so far from land. — Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. — It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose."

In a footnote, Richard Darwin Keynes writes, "This appears to be only the second recorded use of a plankton net, the first being that of J. V. Thompson a few years earlier, of which CD may have learnt from Professor Grant in Edinburgh. It is evidently based on the oyster-trawl recommended to him in a letter from John Coldstream dated 13 September 1831 (see Correspondence 1: 151–3), which, however, was designed with a bar to scrape along the bottom rather than collecting at the surface in open water."

Source: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, [page] 21 TO C. VERD IS. JANUARY 1832
7. DNA, an appropriate curtain between the Victorian and modern sections of the banner

8. Yours truly, in the grip of full-on wild-eyed excitement to be sitting in the Space Shuttle cockpit simulator at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas (photo by Mike Barratt); for more info about our pending collaboration with NASA, see Houston, we have a partner and Pics in space

9. The International Space Station, aboard which NASA astronaut and physician Mike Barratt will be spending six months starting March 2009. Mike is the instigator of the NASA-Beagle Project collaboration we've got bubbling away in the bureaucratic cauldron.

10. Peter McGrath, co-blogger on this here Beagle Project Blog and co-founder (with David Lort-Phillips) of The HMS Beagle Project, looking ever so sailorly.

11. The beautiful and evocative rigging of the Swedish Ship Götheborg, which I photographed when I was at a reception aboard following a meeting at the Linnean Society of London. Read more here and see how the HMS Belfast ceremonial gun fares against the Götheborg's in the last video listed in our Splashcast player at left, "Gotheborg sails from London".

12. The unofficial Beagle Project anthem (we are still eagerly awaiting submissions for official Beagle Project anthems ...ahem)

Dreaming of the new Beagle

"The Captain's Dream", a tee by Christopher Buchholz, for sale over at Threadless:

h/t Michael Barton

23 August 2008

"We are preparing, folks, for challenges we don't even know exist right now"

For me, seeing my nation's flag hoisted to the Star Spangled Banner at the christening of this ship (in my adopted hometown for that matter) is far more exciting than hearing it above an Olympic podium:

h/t Deep Sea News

22 August 2008

Evo-devo in Michigan: genetic analysis of the evolution of petaloid bracts in dogwoods

Our friend and guest blogger Nicole Maturen, pictured here with one of her research organisms, will defend her PhD dissertation this Monday at the University of Michigan. Go Nicole!

A thousand words

Barcoding blogger's daughter, 19, identifies mislabeled sushi with DNA

DNA barcoding is sometimes greeted with skepticism not only by professional taxonomists and systematists, but also by a broader community of scholars with concerns that barcoding advocates' claim that it will "democratise taxonomy" are over-inflated.

Today in the New York Times there is a story that, in its small way, lends support to the barcoding camp. Two New York teenagers, one the daughter of Mark Stoeckle, a researcher at Rockefeller University who writes the Barcode of Life Blog, have used DNA barcoding to test whether fish in their favourite sushi restaurants is what it says it is on the menu. From the NYT story:
They found that one-fourth of the fish samples with identifiable DNA were mislabeled. A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming. Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt. Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species.

What may be most impressive about the experiment is the ease with which the students accomplished it. Although the testing technique is at the forefront of research, the fact that anyone can take advantage of it by sending samples off to a laboratory meant the kind of investigative tools once restricted to Ph.D.’s and crime labs can move into the hands of curious diners and amateur scientists everywhere.
Best of all is that the two girls, neither of whom intends to major in science at university, have contributed, as amateurs, to the development and use of DNA barcoding. This is, I hope, a harbinger of things to come, when droves of amateur scientists contribute to a truly public effort to identify and conserve the dwindling diversity of life:
The students worked under the tutelage of Jesse H. Ausubel of Rockefeller University, a champion of the DNA bar coding technique. As for Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stoeckle, Dr. Ausubel said they “have contributed to global science” by adding to the database, built on a model similar to that of Wikipedia, in which people around the world can contribute.

In a way, Dr. Ausubel said, their experiment is a return to an earlier era of scientific inquiry. “Three hundred years ago, science was less professionalized,” he said, and contributions were made by interested amateurs. “Perhaps the wheel is turning again where more people can participate.”
Read the full story at the New York Times.

21 August 2008

A very important message from the Friends of Charles Darwin

Red wine came down my nose. And all over my once white macbook. Thanks Richard.

Britannia rules the waves

Note: this blog post has an obligatory soundtrack (mp3).

Many thanks to British sailors Paul Goodison, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson who have, by winning yet more Olympic gold medals, enabled me to use the above title, which I hatched only just too late to use atop my first post on British Olympic sailing gold.

19 August 2008

Ship-wrecked reefs

ResearchBlogging.orgLast week in a brilliant, ranting post on the fiasco that is EU fishing policy, lunartalks concluded, "Extensive marine reserves should be declared policed and anyone fishing in them punished severely, their boat confiscated, cleaned and sunk as an artificial reef. We don’t need fish on our plates. We do need a functioning marine ecosystem."

Most of the comments on this post circled around whether such a dramatic response as stopping eating fish was actually part of the solution, but I couldn't help notice another point to pick on--the one about sinking ships as artificial reefs. See, as luck would have it, there's a paper out today in PLoS ONE that addresses the impact of shipwrecks on reef ecosystems. And fittingly, the particular shipwreck examined in the paper was even a fishing vessel.

In "Phase Shift from a Coral to a Corallimorph-Dominated Reef Associated with a Shipwreck on Palmyra Atoll" authors from the U.S. Geological Survey provide evidence to support the claim that shipwrecks may seed or facilitate the spread of "unwanted species" on coral reefs in a phenomenon known as a "phase shift".

In a phase shift, the dominant biota of a coral reef is swapped for something else. More often than not, this something else is a bad something else, and long term negative consequences ensue. Potential causes of such shifts include human disturbance, pollution, or changes in particular groups of ecologically important subsets of the coral biota that trigger some kind of imbalance that nucleates the phase shift.

An example of such a phase shift can be found at the site of a long line fishing vessel that wrecked in 1991 on the remote Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the central Pacific:

1991 wreck of long line fishing vessel off Palmyra atoll.
Credit: Thierry M. Work (USGS)

In their PLoS ONE paper, the authors document a transition at the site of the shipwreck from coral to the invasive corallimorpharian Rhodactis howesii (normally rare or absent in Palmyra). Their evidence spans both space and time: this unwelcome invader is not only more abundant near the ship than farther away from it, but its abundance also increased exponentially, as documented by subsequent surveying. R. howesii was also found around buoys installed on the atoll as recently as 2001.

Reef covered by non-native Rhodactis howesii. Native corals are completely absent.
Credit: Thierry M. Work (USGS)

The authors claim that "this is the first time that a phase shift on a coral reef has been unambiguously associated with man-made structures." Their claim is based not only on their observations as outlined above, but also on the fact that Palmyra is so remote and has suffered minimal human impact in recent times (except, apparently, for the shipwreck and the buoys).

It will be interesting (and rather depressing, I suspect) to see and how quickly R. howesii spreads in the future, and I'm guessing the authors have every intention of tracking this. Also interesting is the question of why this phenomenon occurs. The PLoS ONE press replease quotes the lead author as saying that one possibility is that iron leaching from the ship and mooring buoy chains, accompanied with other environmental factors particular to Palmyra atoll, are somehow promoting the growth of Rhodactis.

So let's see, iron might be bad for reefs then? Don't tell anyone at Planktos. Actually, do.

In addition to fortuitously highlighting the huge black box that is the potential risk of feritilising the ocean with iron in a hubris-clad bid to solve the climate change crisis, the authors' intended message is (lunartalks take note) that "the extensive R. howesii invasion and subsequent loss of coral reef habitat at Palmyra also highlights the importance of rapid removal of shipwrecks on corals reefs to mitigate the potential of reef overgrowth by invasives."

Work, T.M., Aeby, G.S., Maragos, J.E., McClain, C.R. (2008). Phase Shift from a Coral to a Corallimorph-Dominated Reef Associated with a Shipwreck on Palmyra Atoll. PLoS ONE, 3(8), e2989. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002989

18 August 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin: liveblogged here (3).

Breaking news: 'the evolution of lungs doesn't create air'

Well blow me down. This revelation is from a Comment is Free piece in the Guardian which gives the Genius of Charles Darwin a booting for giving creationism and intelligent design a booting and for not considering 'evolutionary convergence' which
"raises the possibility of directionality in evolution."
Er, TGOCD was (and this evening will be) about the genius of Charles Darwin (the clue's in the programme title), not about
"a new collection of essays by leading evolutionists, philosophers and theologians in a book, entitled The Deep Structure of Biology."
Go and read the whole thing. I did and I shall now go and start removing the shrapnel from my recently exploded bilgeometer from the cat, ceiling and walls.

The Genius of Charles Darwin part 3

8pm Channel 4 tonight, will be liveblogged here stating at 8pm, feel free to join in with comments (liveblogs 1 and 2). Here's what the C4 blurb says:
In this final episode Dawkins examines why Darwin's theory remains one of the most controversial ideas in history.

As Darwin set out on the voyage on the Beagle he still believed that god created the world and everything in it. But the evidence he discovered - fossils, patterns of anatomical resemblance, startling similarities of embryos and domestic breeding - demonstrated the truth: that all life forms vary and that some are more likely to reproduce, passing variations on. His wife Emma, however, was deeply religious and Darwin never criticised religion in public but he believed that "science would bring about a gradual illumination of minds".

Today, Dawkins argues, science has the evidence to prove that evolution is true. Modern discovery of the DNA code which links all life has added to the mountain of evidence showing that evolution is a fact. So why, he wonders as he meets creationists in America, is opposition to evolution more aggressive than ever?

Dawkins is also concerned that back in the UK teaching evolution has become a hugely sensitive issue for science teachers: "This is multicultural Britain. And one of its fault lines runs straight through our children's classrooms. How do we reconcile scientific truth with the deeply held convictions that bind religious communities?"

Returning to the school he visited in episode one, Dawkins confronts the science teachers and challenges their view that they "can't get in to the business of knocking down kid's religions and the religions of families." "There really is", he says, "something special about scientific evidence. Science works; planes fly. Magic carpets and broomsticks don't. Gravity isn't a version of the truth; it is the truth. Anybody who doubts it is invited to jump out of a tenth floor window. Evolution too, is reality."

This equivocation, Dawkins says, began with the Church of England who, rather than attack Darwin, embraced him in a "comfortable relativist fudge". So he meets the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask how he reconciles Darwin and the laws of physics with the miracles described in the bible.

Finally, Dawkins travels to meet an old friend, Dan Dennett, who shares many of his own beliefs, to answer the question Darwin himself was confronted with: how can we find solace in a godless world?

17 August 2008

British sailing is golden

Well done to Ben Ainslie, Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson, Britain's newest Olympic gold medalists in sailing. Do I need to say something here about how the same British maritime history and tradition of excellence that buoyed these ladies and gentleman to victory in Beijing can and should also be celebrated by re-building one of the most famous British sailing ships of all time? Nah...

13 August 2008

Glendon Mellow (aka the Flying Trilobite), what a hero.

We have been strucken by Glendon's 'art in awe of science' productions for a while now. His fictitous fossil alter ego is The Flying Trilobite, which has just by some process new to science (shall we call it tatonomy?) made it onto Glendon's arm.

Well the generous Glendon has offered to donate a portion of the sales of his surreal "Darwin took steps" portrait, his contribution to Darwin Day 2008. Many thanks Glendon. Now check out his blog and visit Glendon's Deviantart Gallery. And if you want some scientific artwork with a twist, I'm sure Glendon would happy to accept the occasional commission.

Glendon's Redbubble shop, from which Darwin Took Steps and other great pieces arts can be bought, is here.

11 August 2008

The genius of Charles Darwin: liveblogged here (2).

The genius of Charles Darwin part 2

Tonight Channel 4, 8pm BST. For those you who live in Abroad, it will once again be liveblogged here. Here's the series overview:
In the second programme Prof. Dawkins explains that Darwin's Theory of Evolution presented a disturbing truth: that humans are animals – the fifth ape. This forces us to question whether our morals and manners are just a veneer. He confronts an issue that even Darwin skirted around – the evolution of human beings – and asks 'what does it mean to be evolved'? And in world where religions attack Darwinism for excusing selfish or even barbaric behaviour, Dawkins is forced to enter Darwinism's heart of darkness.

Although natural selection is the driving force of our evolution Dawkins clarifies that this does not mean that society should be run on Darwinian lines. "As a scientist I'm thrilled by natural selection, but as a human being I abhor it as a principle for organising society."

And humans are not immune to the nightmarish Darwinian process. Dawkins travels to the slums of Nairobi where hundreds die of AIDs each year. Here he meets prostitutes who seem to have acquired a genetic immunity to the HIV virus. This resistance, it seems, can be inherited and so, over time, will become more prevalent, shaping the community here. "This," Dawkins tells us, "is the unstoppable force of natural selection".

Dawkins travels between Kenya (the birthplace of not only Dawkins, but the human race), America and the UK to explore what evolution really means for humans and human society.

Starting out in Africa, he speaks to palaeontologist Richard Leakey who assures him that "we are closer to chimpanzees than a horse is to an ass". But Dawkins finds that many religions are nevertheless censoriously opposed to Darwin's Theory of Evolution. He cannot convince evangelical Bishop Bonifes Adoyo that man evolved from ape, and posits that many (fearfully) reject Darwinism as a goal-less, soul-less theory. If nature – often ruthlessly competitive – is the model for human society then surely we inhabit a 'dog eat dog' world.

Exploring this line of thought, Dawkins investigates the world of the entrepreneurial businessman and social Darwinism, examining whether there are parallels to be drawn between economic and biological systems. He also explores the way in which Darwinism has been abused by those who have associated it with the eugenics movement or those who manipulate it to justify racism and right wing politics. Finally, in examining both the 'caring' behaviours of human beings and animals, he examines how the moral code of human beings, and their displays of sensitivity and altruism, can be reconciled with the idea of the survival of the fittest.

Confederation of British Industry calls for better science teaching.

Not for the first time the CBI has called for an improvement in school science education to ensure Britain's future business competitiveness.

Only 7% of British 16 year olds study biology, chemistry and physics as separate exam subjects, the majority following less specialized combined science courses. Richard Lamber the CBI's director general says that science graduates enjoy among the best starting salaries and are likely tobe in grear demand in future.

He was supported by James Smith the Chairman of Shell UK, Bob Taylor the Managing Director of generation for energy company E.On and Iam Coucher the Chief Executive of Network Rail, all of whom said that Britain would need large numbers of scientists and engineers to meet the energy, climate change and infrastructure challenges of the future. And for the larval scientists of today, that requires the more comprehensive start offered by 3 science GCSEs.

The CBI offers a five point plan to improve science teaching in schools:

The CBI's five-point proposal for science in schools:

1. Automatic opt in to Triple science. 40% of 14-year-olds automatically opted in to Triple science GCSE courses, which is the best preparation for further study. Just 7% of 16-year-olds currently take three science GCSEs.

2. Improve school buildings and science labs. Government has allocated £45 billion to improve school buildings including labs (Under Building Schools for Future - BSF) but must make the investment a reality. The programme is supposed to be over 20-25 years but the intial target of 100 BSF schools by 2009 is unlikely to be met as only 13 have opened so far.

3. Upgrade careers advice. £120m of new funding to pay for one-to-one careers advice at ages 14, 16 and 18, which will help challenge misperceptions about science and engineering degrees. The CBI says companies also need to take further steps to encourage young people into these careers.

4. Schools must prioritise science by timetabling specialist science teachers to deliver Triple science as soon as it is practical. Timetabling problems should not be difficult to overcome where schools have the necessary physics and chemistry specialists. The government's new £5,000 'golden hello' payments are also starting to increase the number of science graduates training as teachers.

5. Offer financial incentives. Give bursaries of £1,000 a year to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates to help pay tuition fees - at a total cost of around £200m a year - to reflect the importance of these skills to the UK economy.

To which I would add, the CBI could ask Shell and E.On to dob in £1 million each (any other CBI members interesting in promoting science education and science literacy will be welcome to contribute, too), and we'll put a new HMS Beagle at the disposal of the British scientific education community to help liven up science teaching.

10 August 2008

SciFoo 2008: Science Comedy

Note: Updated 10 August to correct tipsy typos and 14 August to correct misquotes (basically, to make them funnier in type).

It's 8:30pm in Silicon Valley. I've had a couple glasses of wine. So to share with you a bit of the evening-at-SciFoo vibe, here I give you some punchlines from the session by Brian Malow, Science Comedian:
  • We're trashing the planet - and we don't even have space travel. Doesn't that seem backwards? FIRST, perfect interstellar flight, THEN fuck up the home planet! It just makes better sense.
  • Life is meaningless, a biochemical accident. We're pond scum, a temporary manifestation of the evolving DNA molecule - a long chain of nucleotides with a day job.
  • I don't believe in a Supreme Being or even a Deluxe Being... maybe a Being with Extra Cheese.
  • Frontiers are dangerous, just ask Marie Curie.
  • That joke was endothermic.
  • Chimps don't have lips like ours ...you know ...lips like sugar.
  • There was a guy at the airport who talked so loud (on his cell phone) it was like his last phone was a Dixie Cup and string.
  • If Karma exists it's clearly in the Beta Phase. And most likely it's vaporware.
  • The reason we do so much drugs and alcohol is because we have these big brains - we know too much. And the main thing we know is: we have knowledge of our own mortality (I don't mean that as a spoiler). We know we're gonna die. And the other animals are spared that. No wonder dogs are so happy-go-lucky, they have no idea Death lurks around every corner.... although Chihuahuas are kinda scared, I think they know something....
I think this calls for an instant rimshot.

Darwinalia in the Sunday newspapers.

He was the father of one of the most important scientific theories of all time, but Charles Darwin also turned his formidable intellect to a less weighty question – do blondes have more fun?
From the Sunday Telegraph.

And an AA Gill review of The Denius of Charles Darwin in the Sunday Times. Darwin comes out of it well, Prof Dawkins less so.

9 August 2008

SciFoo 2008: a quickie at lunchtime

It's Day One and I've got a few minutes after lunch* and before the first afternoon session to type out a quick update.

Last night was the big opener: dinner and drinks followed by the most amazing couple of hours where every SciFoo Camper introduced him/herself, their affiliation and three words/phrases which they felt described their interests, followed by more drinks. Picture a room full of 200 of the brightest minds in (and around) science, and hearing each say the three most compelling things they can think of to describe their work. My own humble tags were "biodiversity, DNA and the Voyage of a New Beagle". Other examples included “energy, epidemiology and economic justice”, "scientists are sexy", “geographic storytelling”, “art and science of jazz improv”, "infectcious disease modeling and surveillance", “DNA from dead things & giant squid” and “ecology of ignorance”.

My favorite session this morning so far was called "seducing the public with science", about which more tonight/tomorrow. For now, though, pictures!

SciFoo swag!

On the way in...

The main room at SciFoo Camp is set up as ...well ...a camp.

The opening session included short (mostly) and snappy (mostly) introductions from every camper.

*yes, the food at Googleplex is as good as they say

8 August 2008

SciFoo 2008: T minus 1 hour to SciFoo Camp

I am now in my hotel room in Silicon Valley and in one short hour, Google's shuttles and "G-Cars" (is it just me or do these rides sound like they might just be pimped?) will come to whisk me along with what is probably best described as a cross-section of the world's science literati to Googleplex for dinner, libations and the first of three days of high science drama.

I still remember how excited I was when I received my invitation to Science Foo Camp (or simply SciFoo), and now that I'm here that sense of excitement is back in force. A quick scan of the invitee list has yielded at least thirty names of people I'm determined to meet, including a few celebrity scientists.

Sights and sounds so far have included seeing several pasty white bodies at pool-side sunning themselves whilst tapping happily away on their Macbook Pro keypads: a science blogger's paradise.

I will endeavour to post updates & photos here at least once a day throughout the weekend and I will wrap it all up with an enriched omnibus post (which I will have plenty of time to write while waiting in limbo at Denver International Airport for six hours on Monday).

Here we go!

Darwin's Bulldogs

'Natural selection is a philosophy of beauty and imagination'

Leading article in today's London Times.

5 August 2008

Media and blog reaction to 'The Genius of Charles Darwin' (updated).

In the Guardian, Charlie Brooker is just on fire. Any scientist who feels under-appreciated should go and read this. Pardon me if I quote:
Or rather, take The Genius Of Darwin (Mon, 8pm, C4), the latest documentary from professional God-hatin' Professor Yaffle impersonator Richard Dawkins, which sets out to calmly and lucidly explain a) Why Darwin was so ace, and b) Just how much evidence there is to support his findings.

Darwin's theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it's been under attack since day one. That's just tough luck for Darwin. If the Bible had contained a passage that claimed gravity is caused by God pulling objects toward the ground with magic invisible threads, we'd still be debating Newton with idiots too.
Update: ah, joy. The Guardian's Nancy Banks-Smith is possibly the finest television reviewer to grace the planet or the language and she too watched TGofCD. Go read.

The Daily Telegraph: James Walton contrasts Dawkins's enthusiasm for evolution with his inability to see a religious belt without hitting below it.

Merle Brown at The Herald says just what I thought of the programme: was the subject matter gripping enough to stop passing viewers going on to the soap operas? Probably not, she decided, but was enthusiastic about the quality of the programme.

Slamming your hand in a car door may be preferable to reading The Daily Mirror's forty-watt review of the programme, but I include it for the sake of completeness.

A truly informed commentator is Mark Pallen, Professor of Microbial Genomics at Birmingham University. He writes an excellent overview of the programme:
In general I thought it was an accomplished entry-level piece on Darwin and evolution that will go down well with non-expert viewers (as judged from a sample of my wife and two children) and meets Dawkins’ usual high standards of linguistic craftsmanship—I particularly liked the one sentence summary of natural selection: “The race is survival, the finishing line reproduction!”
Prof Pallen does have reservations - he really is worth a read. His blog The Rough Guide to Evolution is new, and should be bookmarked.

For the reaction of the best informed and most erudite evolutionary elephant in the blogosphere, go and read Milennium Elephant's "Darwin was a genius but these guys are nuts!".

Dan at Wordage broadly gave it the thumbs-up as an explanation of evolution.

Richard Darwkins makes Frugal Dougal at Tales from a Draughty Fen grumpy, so he never misses a gawk at the Dawk. A thoughtful but disapproving review which takes issue with Prof. Dawkins' constant attacks on religion.

The title Question Darwin tells you all you need to know about this blog's opinions on Darwin. It's a lengthy negative review, with one punchy comment. "There are none so blind as those that cannot see."

Benedict White at aconservative's blog thinks "Darwkins is a plonker". Too much Richard, not enough Charles, Benedict thinks.

If I've missed your review, leave a comment or drop an email to peter -at- thebeagleproject.com

4 August 2008

Liveblogging Dawkins on Darwin....

The genius of Charles Darwin: liveblogged here.

For those of you benighteds in foreign lands, the programme will be liveblogged here from 8pm BSE. I mean BST. Get a bucket of chair and pull up a popcorn, here's my previous liveblog of a Dawkins programme to see what you're in for, but we now have flashy new liveblog technology and people will be able send comments and join in. Here's a sneak proview courtesy of C4 (which coincidentally mentions the importance of HMS Beagle in Darwin's thinking):

The genius of Charles Darwin

Channel 4 this evening at 8pm, presented by Richard Dawkins. The series website is here, and we are told episode 1 goes like this:
In the first part of the series, Richard Dawkins retraces Darwin's journey as a scientist. He re-examines the rich evidence of the natural world – iguanas on the Galapagos islands, giant fossilised sloths in the Americas and even pigeons back home in England – which opened Darwin's eyes to the extraordinary truth that all living things must be related and had evolved from a common ancestor.

Darwin knew his espousal of evolution would cause outrage, challenging, as it did, the prevailing religious view of the world and our place in it. But, as Dawkins explains, it was really his theory of natural selection that undermined the notion of a benevolent God who designed all creatures great and small. Returning to his own birthplace, Kenya, Dawkins considers the brutal realities of the struggle for existence for wild animals on the plains of Africa. Here, he argues, we see the ongoing process sex, suffering and death, that drives evolution onward as the fittest survive to reproduce and the weakest perish without offspring.

And humans are not immune to the nightmarish Darwinian process. Dawkins travels to the slums of Nairobi where hundreds die of AIDs each year. Here he meets prostitutes who seem to have acquired a genetic immunity to the HIV virus. This resistance, it seems, can be inherited and so, over time, will become more prevalent, shaping the community here. "This," Dawkins tells us, "is the unstoppable force of natural selection".

Finally Dawkins visits a state of the art laboratory in America where scientists can now compare the genetic code of all living things, finally vindicating Darwin’s theories once and for all. "He showed us that the world is beautiful and inspiring without a God. He revealed to us the glory of life and revealed who we really are and where we've come from".

But back in Britain can Dawkins convince a year 11 science class that evolution is the truth? Fearing that "a few hours in the science lab is no substitute for a lifetime of religious indoctrination" he takes the teenagers to Dorset's Jurassic Coast to examine fossil evidence for themselves. But will this win over this sceptical audience?

Episode two details here. Channel 4 are keeping details of episode three close to their broadcasting chests (damn them!)

Excited mails have been flying around Beagle Project personnel. Yes our DVDs are set. Yes we would like Prof. Dawkins aboard when we have the new Beagle built, and yes I am sure everyone will remember what Darwin wrote in his autobiography:
The Voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.
Which is exactly why we ned your support in building another one.