24 September 2008

Billionaires: six tanks of gas, or one new Beagle? Time to choose.

Meet GigaYacht "A":

The cost of fueling me for three months would build a new Beagle.

...about which Mark Knowles writes,
Introducing “A” - the most recent member of the giga-yacht club, and to put things in perspective, the fuel tank is 757,000 liters. Diesel fuel costs around €1.40 per liter currently, so it would cost just over €1 million to fill the fuel tank. $1.4 million US just to fill the tank. That amount of fuel will last 15.5 days at cruising speed.
In other words, the cost of filling this boy toy's tank six times (which will propel it for just three months), is equivalent to the cost of building the new Beagle, which will circle the globe using eco-friendly sail-power, spreading the spirit of scientific adventure of everywhere it goes.
“A” is 118 meters long, and from whichever angle you see her is perfect, not a poor line in sight. I understand there are three swimming pools aboard, an owner’s suite, 6 guest suites and accommodations for 42 staff, which includes 5 guest’s staff.
What, no laboratory? No plankton nets? No ROVs? No thermocyclers? No masts to climb? No sails billowing in the salt breeze? No young people earning their tall ship sailing and science stripes? Bah.

“A” was built by Blohm & Voss, in Germany, and was previously designated SF-99, then “Sigma,” when the design went over 99 meters. The design was by Phillipe Starck, and has come in for some considerable criticism. You either love her, or hate her.

Oh, now there's a tough one.

h/t Craig McClain

23 September 2008

Hello Galápagos!

I occasionally check our map of visitors (very kindly provided gratis by Clustrmap) to see if any new places have tuned in to the Beagle Project. I always keep an eye on the Galápagos Islands, hoping for a click, and today, there it was, red as red! So helloooo there, whoever you are, and welcome to The Beagle Project Blog!

In other Galápagos news, researchers at Yale report that an extinct species of giant tortoise from the island of Floreana (which you might remember from my earlier post, Saving Darwin's muse), might be brought back from the dead.

I'm guessing some of you are probably having visions of Jurassic Park in the Galápagos, but it's not as sexy/scary as that. The methods by which these tortoises can be brought back are tried and true breeding and artificial selection (from which Darwin derived his then new idea of natural selection), though in this case instead of just selecting offspring that look like the extinct tortoise the researchers can use DNA to monitor their progress. This is called marker-assisted selection, and...

Hmm, I think this calls for a new post specifically about the paper. In the meantime, I can recommend the BBC news item.

21 September 2008

NASA newses

Congratulations to NASA astronaut and space medicine expert Mike Barratt, our friend soon to be in very high places, for passing his flight qualification exams. He's now officially eligible to leave the Earth's atmosphere (makes my PhD defense seem rather dull, alas).

We are also on the cusp of having some other Very Exciting News on the NASA front in the near future, so watch this space (ba dum tisk).

19 September 2008

Open Access fail

Today's Science Magazine has the following article in its "News of the Week" section:
House Weighs Proposal to Block Mandatory 'Open Access'
Jocelyn Kaiser

Last week, members of a powerful House committee held the first-ever congressional hearing on a controversial policy requiring researchers to make their papers freely available to the public at a U.S. National Institutes of Health Web site--and floated a proposal to overturn it.
But when you* click on "Read the Full Text", you get their subscription access page:

Not as ironic as PZ Myers getting expelled from Expelled, but pretty close.

*99.999% of everyone, including me, even thought I am a practicing scientist at a large scientific institution

16 September 2008

Registration open for ScienceOnline'09 and OpenLaboratory'08

The 2008 Science Blogging Conference in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina was without a doubt one of the brightest highlights of my year. In two short, snowy, jetlagged days, I met an amazing number of kindred spirits, a significant number of new professional contacts and one famous panda. Nearly a year on and I'm still reeling with gratitude that Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker spent so much time on my behalf convincing the conference sponsors to pay for my flight from London to Raleigh-Durham. Thanks guys!

Registration is now open for the 2009 Science Blogging Conference "ScienceOnline'09". I've already registered and so have 17 28 others. As you'd expect with such a progressive topic, the conference is expanding this year to include two days of talks instead of one, and, like last year, these will follow the "unconference" format, which I've now experienced several times and can highly recommend it.

Timed to coincide with the conference is the publication of Open Laboratory 2008, an anthology of the best writing on science blogs from 2008. Submission is now open - you can submit however many posts you want, from your own blog or someone else's. I was one of the judges last year and was very impressed by both the quality and quantity of submissions. Thar's some gud writin' in them thar interwebs!

This will be the third year for Open Laboratory. The previous years' anthologies can be found here:

15 September 2008

On this day in 1835

...the HMS Beagle arrived at the Galapagos Islands. In addition to being a particularly auspicious moment in history and therefore worthy of mention, it gives me another welcome excuse to post this picture.

Beagle off the Galapagos by John Chancellor.
© Dr Gordon Chancellor and reproduced with his kind permission.

The Galapagos Archipelago is covered in Chapter XVII of The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin; the chapter contains this wonderful table indicating how many plant species are endemic to the Galapagos Archipelago, and, of those, how many are endemic to a single island.

Plants of the Galapagos Archipelago as published in The Voyage of the Beagle.

Island endemism (as evidenced in Darwin's own experience initially by tortoise shell shape and mockingbird distribution) was a (if not the) key clue that got Darwin's mind set on a path towards natural selection. In Darwin's words,
"The distribution of the tenants of this archipelago would not be nearly so wonderful, if, for instance, one island had a mocking-thrush, and a second island some other quite distinct genus;—if one island had its genus of lizard, and a second island another distinct genus, or none whatever;—or if the different islands were inhabited, not by representative species of the same genera of plants, but by totally different genera, as does to a certain extent hold good; for, to give one instance, a large berry-bearing tree at James Island has no representative species in Charles Island. But it is the circumstance, that several of the islands possess their own species of the tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder. It may be suspected that some of these representative species, at least in the case of the tortoise and of some of the birds, may hereafter prove to be only well-marked races; but this would be of equally great interest to the philosophical naturalist."
Read the rest of Chapter XVII, "The Galapagos Archipelago", of Voyage of the Beagle here.

14 September 2008

Tristero's day job

Tristero, author of Digby's Hullabaloo who famously wrote "Darwin's not a stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce, pip-pipping his way across the Empire", is the online alter ego of composer Richard Einhorn, pictured at right, who has spent the last year and a half composing The Origin: An Opera-Oratorio Inspired By Charles Darwin to premiere in February 2009 (naturally).

At Digby's Hullabaloo you will find a detailed explanation of The Origin including two trailers. Also check out Richard's other audio clips and the website of Kitka, the haunting Eastern European women's vocal ensemble that "sings Darwin’s autobiographical writings; they are his public persona, his worldly voice."

13 September 2008

The failure of names

This is a 'Beagle blog backlog' post, begun on the 12th of April, 2008 and finished today.

I've drawn from Orion before for this blog . It's a beautiful magazine to hold in your hands, and free of advertisements, too (it's supported by the Orion Society, whose mission, "to inform, inspire, and engage individuals and grassroots organizations in becoming a significant cultural force for healing nature and community" I like very much), so it's the one subscription I've thought worth the expense to keep up.

To get a flavour of the loveliness of this periodical, check out the free sample issue of their new 'digital edition' which seems to do a pretty good job of retaining the beauty of its physical twin. In this sample issue is a wonderful piece by James Prosek called The Failure of Names about the intersection between taxonomy and art.

Normally at this point I'd give you a single image and an excerpt and then a link to the source for the rest, but this time I've decided to copy it here in full because the pdf on Prosek's site is too low res to appreciate the artwork and you'll have to do a lot of clicking and navigating to get to the right page in the digital issue of Orion (which doesn't provide a permalink to the piece). So, without further ado...

The Failure of Names
An artist puts his faith in diversity over taxonomy

LEFT: Double Pheasant, 2006
RIGHT: Bird of Paradise, 2005
“There have been too many Adams, and they have named everything.”
—Harold Bloom

When I was four or five years old, I would draw birds at the kitchen table. As I finished each piece I asked my mother to write the names of the birds beneath the pictures: Cock of the Rock, Plate-Billed Toucan, Motmot. Somehow a picture wasn’t finished if the animal’s name wasn’t there.

When I learned to write, I scrawled the common and scientific names of each creature beneath my drawings myself—by example of Audubon, or any others who made paintings in the natural-history tradition. At nine I developed a passion for trout and began to compile a list of all the diverse types I could find in books and magazines. In my mind, an animal was distinct from others if it had been given a scientific name. My view was that the classification of creatures was figured out by authority figures and that I should defer to that authority.

In the process of painting different types of trout, though, I learned that even the authorities could not agree on the names they gave to describe the enormous diversity of fishes in the Salmonidae family. Some trout had been named a separate species and subsequently renamed a subspecies, placed in a different genus, or just pushed into a category with allied species. The history of the naming became as interesting to me as the physical diversity of the fishes themselves, which I loved to paint.

I wanted to believe that there were many more distinct creatures rather than fewer, because then I had more trout to paint and to put into what I hoped would eventually become a book of the trout of North America. I used any and all sources I could find in assembling what eventually did become my first book, Trout: An Illustrated History—a book of seventy watercolors. I had not yet explored the idea that naturalists named things because they wanted to create a legacy for themselves, or wished to be published more, or because of an innate human compulsion. I accepted the names without question—at least where there was consensus. Where there wasn’t, I either made an educated decision or included the argument over a species’ status in the text that would accompany each fish.
Old Squaw, 2007
Since I had seen only a fraction of the trout I painted in my book, there was some amount of mythologizing and imagination involved. I had traveled across country with a friend for a summer when we were just old enough to drive, and we hiked and searched out native trout in many western states. The rest I painted from photos other people had taken and from descriptions in old books. A favorite source was David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann’s 1902 book, American Food and Game Fishes. Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, named a fair number of the native trout west of the Continental Divide, including some trout he described only from dead specimens. The “longfin char” of the Canadian Arctic was based on a tenuous description from a remote lake in Greenland. But Jordan was an authority, so I happily added his fish to my list, and painted it from his descriptions.

As I painted trout through my late teens, major shifts in trout taxonomy were taking place. Through genetic analysis, which was fairly new in the early ’90s, it was discovered that rainbow trout (from the Pacific coast) and brown trout (introduced from Europe) were not as closely related as once thought. The genes showed that the rainbow trout was more closely related to Pacific salmon, fishes that die when they spawn, of the genus Oncorhynchus. The brown trout was more closely related to the Atlantic salmon, and remained in the genus Salmo. The native trout of my home state, Connecticut, the brook trout, was actually a whole separate genus, Salvelinus, more closely related to the Arctic char than to the rainbow or brown trout. Technically, it was no longer correct even to call the book I was working on Trout. I found myself wanting to ignore the namers because they were getting in the way of my own personal vision.

I began to understand that species were less static than the fathers of modern taxonomy—those like Carl Linnaeus—once believed. That nature was static and classifiable was an idea perpetuated by the natural history museum (repository for dead nature), the zoo (repository for living nature), and the book (repository for thoughts and images related to nature). These mediums were all distillations of nature, what individuals of authority deemed an appropriate cross section to present to the public. None had adequately represented Nature—at once chaotic, multifarious, and interconnected.
Spiral Flicker, 2006
In the process of painting and writing my second trout book, Trout of the World, Igathered most of the information firsthand during extensive travels through Europe and Asia. As I saw more of the world and its trout in person, a few things became clearer to me. A species like the brown trout, its native range stretching from Iceland to the Pamir Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, from the Kola Peninsula in Russia to Morocco, was highly variable. Pretty much every stream I pulled brown trout from, they looked different—not only every population, but every individual. There was no way that names could account for all this diversity. Were names then inadequate in the face of our changing relationship with, and view of, nature?

Ironically, despite the beauty and diversity I had witnessed, the differences between the fish I saw were not as great as I’d wished they’d been—not as great as the differences between the trout in my first book, when I accentuated characteristics that I had deemed important, based on bad photos and vague descriptions and colorful names. I was conflicted—I loved the names that had first led me to recognize the existence of diversity (golden trout, Oncorhynchus aguabonita; blueback
trout, Salvelinus oquassa), but as I learned more I wanted to throw away the names, step beyond those constraints, in order to preserve a sense of wonder that I had felt from an early age.

Such thoughts were the origin of the curvilinear lines in my present work. For a long time I thought that my profession would be architecture, and that’s what I initially studied in college. The first paintings I did with lines emanating from creatures were meant to be imaginings of what God’s or Nature’s blueprint of a particular creature might look like. After drawing curvilinear lines, first emanating from the points on the body of a seahorse, I realized the lines were helpful as visual aids to point out particular parts of a creature that I wanted to bring attention to.

The lines activated the space around the animal in a satisfactory way, erasing the need for the name to be written beneath. In this way, the lines became a very personal visual taxonomy, replacing the lingual one. The lines in these works are also there to acknowledge that nothing is absolute, that even the laws of physics, though tested again and again, may one day buckle in the face of some unknown force. How can we say for sure otherwise? We willingly accept the way people in the past have viewed and arranged the world. Does bowing to that authority prevent us from looking at things with a fresh perspective? Naming gives us the illusion that nature is fixed, but it is as fluid as the language used to describe it. It is a challenge of the artist (if no one else) to un-name and re-name the world to remind us that fresh perspectives exist.

LEFT: Winter Wren, 2006
RIGHT: King Vulture, 2006
To see more of James Prosek’s work, visit his website.

Note: I couldn't help noticing on my second read that there is something here quite similar to Diana Sudyka's art. The specimen-centric, scientific attention to detail, the care taken to present the information accurately, and the 'curvilinear lines', which remind me of the lines adorning Diana's home page. Not only that, but Mr Prosek (pictured right) works from specimens, like Diana. So, Diana and James, if you're not acquainted already, then let this be a prompt.

Beagle blog backlog: a dashboard dust-up

Step one: admitting you have a problem

I have a problem. I start writing blog posts and then don't finish them. After about a week, those that had a news hook (which is most of them) lose their timeliness and ultimately they, together with a few other non-newsy drafts, get pushed off the bottom of the page by newer posts and drafts. After that, they are out of sight, out of mind and doomed to collect dust in the dashboard until such time as they are so outdated that they must be deleted, or, much more rarely, refreshed, finished and published.

Full disclosure: the Beagle Project Blog dashboard, this morning.

I could make a number of excuses - I'm busy, I have a day job (and, as the scientists among you will know, science is more a day & night job), and I work in a place where backlog (boxes of specimens that have been collected but not yet accessioned) is a normal part of the visual backdrop.

But here's the rub: I'm pretty sure it's my better, meatier posts that aren't making it out into the world. This is bad, and I want to fix it.

And so, starting today, I'm going to begin digging up, finishing and publishing those drafts, obsolescence be damned. Watch for "Beagle blog backlog" in the header.

Postscript: this is my problem and mine alone. Co-blogger Peter does not seem to suffer from my affliction; in fact, I'm pretty sure he can whip out a blog post in seconds with one hemisphere of his brain tied behind his back.

On your mark, get set, subscribe

One of our favourite blogs, Deep Sea News, has completed its much anticipated move from Seed's ScienceBlogs (affectionately known as 'the borg' in science blogging circles) to the Discovery Channel. Their new digs are sleek and ever so subscribable.

It's interesting that the move coincides with simultaneous upheaval in the lives of two of its authors: Kevin Zelnio (also of The Other 95%) has just relocated with his family to the North Carolina coast to start his new job as a research technician at Duke University's Marine Lab, while Peter Etnoyer and his family are weathering Hurricane Ike.

This is a good opportunitiy to thank Peter and Kevin in particular for their unswerving support of the Beagle Project. I met both of them at last year's Science Blogging Conference in North Carolina and they've been championing the project ever since. Thanks, guys. Looking forward to enjoying a cup of grog with you on the deck of the new Beagle.

11 September 2008

Calling all American expats

This blog revolves around the Beagle Project, and, though for obvious reasons we're not shy of defending evolution against pseudo-scientific nonsense, we don't often venture into politics here, but I've decided this one thing is too important not to break the silence:

My fellow American expats:
register to vote now
...before it's too late.

9 September 2008

"Helping to understand our world, working to protect it, and welcoming people from all its four corners"

To make up for the fact that I was apparently mute in my live webcast today (thanks for letting me know, Richard, I've passed your comment onto NHM's Nature Live team), I give you a sleek and sah-weet new vid of the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum. It's really fantastic. Click it!
"...our very own metamorphosis..."

My one qualm? The part where the narrator tells us hundreds of species are going extinct before we even know they exist and then says, "But don't worry--well not too much--90% of all living things are still to be discovered." Uh, no. I'm sorry, I know this isn't cheerful enough for a public promo video, but do worry.

Other than that the video is gorgeous and inspirational.

Voyage of the Beagle live webcast: today at 12:30 BDT

Warning: this post contains shameless self promotion. The faint of heart may want to turn away now. I shall be interviewed in a live webcast today at 12:30 (London time, BDT = GMT+1) at the Natural History Museum in London. We'll be talking about "The Voyage of the Beagle"; this is part of the new "Darwin the Man" Nature Live season at the museum. You can email in your comments and questions from the website:

6 September 2008

The sad wreck of our maritime heritage...

Frank Pope writes in today's Times about the neglect of historic shipwrecks around the British coast. It's a thoughtful piece that criticises English Heritage's laissez faire attitude to historic shipwrecks.

I was at school when a group of volunteers (and Navy divers) pulled the Mary Rose from the muddy gloop of the Solent near Portsmouth. The morning that the hull was raised from the water almost brought the country to a standstill: TVs in every school showed the moment.

Since then she has been seen by 8 million people and has provided astonishing information about life in the navy in the time of King Henry VIII. Skeletons of archers with curved spines and damaged shoulders from the effort of repeatedly drawing the 150 pound plus drawstrength bows. A surgeon's kit that made me shiver to think that it was ever used on un-anaesthatized human flesh. You think a needle hurts today?

Thousands of wrecks dot the British coastline. Take a sonar-equipped boat over a wreck site on a chart and it is rare you find anything standing proud of the seabed: sands shift and bury, trawls snag and rive apart, storms batter and seawater corrodes. These wrecks, respected by Mr Pope are important but raising and conservation costs a fortune.

As objects they are instructive. But boats are not meant to be in drydock or museum: they execise their magic only when afloat and when people are aboard them of seeing them under way. HMS Victory and the Cutty Sark, although great and noble ships feel motionless and dead in their dry docks, confined by steel trusses. The Grand Turk, currently in Whitby harbour has water under her keel, movement in her hull and a feeling that she wants lines dropped from the dock and a voice roaring 'hands aloft...lay out!' to send topmen racing up the ratlines and out onto the yards to set sail.

Raising the dead is worthwhile, but giving the young and old of Britain (and the rest of the world) a living historic ship to marvel at and lay aloft aboard is a greater aim. That's why we're doing this, raising funds to build a new HMS Beagle. Her remains lie in the anoxic mud of the river Roach: we would like to see them raised, conserved and displayed. She changed the world for the better in the way few other ships can claim to have done.

But a new HMS Beagle, with a crew of young people at the halyards raising the mainyard so that the mainsail fills to the wind, and later after a day afloat, exhausted, being told tales of seafarers past by the crew. Now that's the way to grip the tripes of a new generation and tell them of our seafaring heritage. Give them the living before the dead.

The George Carlin of science

Meet my friend Joe Quirk, whom Howard Bloom calls "the George Carlin of science":

2 September 2008

An unexpected gift

Today at work I got a phone call out of the blue from someone called Richard Johnson, saying he had recently been mentioned on our blog, and that he had something for me and could he come by the museum and give it to me.

At this point, I confess that my mind was racing to remember whether and when I'd written about Richard Johnson, who he was, and therefore whether the "something" was likely to be something I actually wanted. But I thought he sounded nice, and the name had a friendly familiarity to it, so I said okay, and he said he'd be there in twenty minutes or so.

I can't believe I even hesitated, because a quick search hit this recent post about our new banner, where Richard Johnson is identified as the one who brought our attention to and sent us a digital copy of the painting of the Beagle by Ronald Dean that features on the left hand side of the banner. So when the phone call came that he was waiting for me at the reception desk, I went downstairs with some excitement, and there he was, with a nice big printed copy of this, in a glass mount:

Charles Darwin arrives in the Galapagos by Ronald Dean, FCII, RSMA.
(Image updated April 1, 2013 with copyright overwritten at the request of the artist. -KJ)
Richard and I had a nice chat about maritime paintings (he is something of a buff) and Darwin and the museum and the Beagle Project, then we both went our separate ways back to our workdays.

So, thanks, Richard, for making my day and also thanks to Ronald Dean for painting this inspirational picture and giving us permission "to use it any way that we wish and that we approve of".

Darwin Centre launch video (my twenty seconds of fame)

The Natural History Museum's press launch of the new Darwin Centre is underway. The second phase of the Darwin Centre building ("DC2" as we call it) is due to open to the public next year, though molecular biology lab staff including yours truly will start moving in in January 2009. There's a new website with all sorts of info and a little video about the museum, starring two ten second segments of a somewhat sleepy-looking me, gesticulating wildly and repeating myself (why do I do that?):

1 September 2008

Coming soon: recap of London Science Blogging Conference

...but for now, I'll just let these pictures do the talking:

Professor Steve Steve, Saturday.
Photos stolen borrowed from the comment thread at this End of the Pier
Show post which in turn stole them from M@ Brown's flickr photostream.

This post has nothing to do with The Beagle Project

...but I can't help it. My heart is going out to the two million people who are evacuating from New Orleans ahead of Gustav's landfall:

Hurricane Gustav, now. Source: NOAA

But you know, now that I think about it, this does have something to do with the Beagle Project. Two somethings, actually:
  1. See, if the outgoing US administration valued the (unpoliticised) advice of scientists more, they might have prepared better for Katrina and now for Gustav. One of the aims of the Beagle Project is to increase scientific literacy (I think much more important than increasing the number of young people who enter science), and the primacy of scientifically sound advice in government decision-making, not only with regard to hurricane prediction and preparedness, but also on issues ranging from energy to stem cells, from research to education. Please visit the Union of Concerned Scientists for more information on the many links between science and policy.
  2. Though it's not correct to blame any single storm, drought, flood, ice shelf collapse or extinction event on climate change, it is correct to blame increases (and in some specific cases decreases) in their intensity an frequency as a whole on climate change.* And hurricanes, with their terrifying power and high news profile, are symbolic of that whole. The Beagle Project will provide an eye-catching platform for current climate change research and in doing so will raise awareness about its present and future impacts on people and on biodiversity (Darwin's "endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful").
*This is not my personal opinion. It is a statement based on a massive collection of overwhelmingly convincing scientific research results. A good place to start is NCAR's "What happens when climate changes?", a link I got from the excellent blog Real Climate.