Category Archives: Uncategorized

Blue Planet II is smashing the viewing figures

In one of the most reassuring signs this year, the cutting edge nature documentary series Blue Planet II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is dominating in the ratings here in the UK. On the night of the season premiere on the 29th of October, Blue Planet II was watched by an average of 10.3 million live viewers, compared to 9,6 million for the Strictly Come Dancing viewers (which was on before), and 4.3 million for X-Factor. I end up watching the show on a Monday, whilst many others watch it through the week, apparently bringing the figures up to 14.01 million.

For the second episode, set in the darkest depths of the oceans, 10.8 million watched live – a figure which will rise when the full viewing figures come in. Last year’s Planet Earth II never dipped below 11 million viewers per episode, peaking at 13.14 million, so Blue Planet II looks to be surpassing it already. I’d love to know how much of the audience is young people potentially being inspired both to study and protect their planet. I’d also like to review each episode, but that’s not going to happen.

If you’ve not managed to watch the show already, enjoy the trailer.

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Jurassic Park – the most important fan theory and the franchise future which never was

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I hate Jurassic World. My opinion on the film is often dismissed due to the assumption that I hate it because of scientific inaccuracies, when really I think it is a terrible film which failed to understand what was good about the original Jurassic Park film. Worse than that, it was a success, meaning that we now have no chance of getting a better version of the franchise and have to suffer through more sub-par films. Admittedly, I did have some accuracy-related criticisms before the film came out and since then I added a few more (bloody inaccurate stegosaurs), but mostly I hated it as a piece of cinema, to the point where I have several draught posts which went on and on critiquing the film that I doubt I will ever publish.

At around the same time as I was becoming increasingly despondent about the franchise, I was rereading the books. I couldn’t help but think that the franchise would slot right in with the modern move towards the big budget, gritty, serialised TV shows. Jurassic Park was a brilliant family film, whereas Jurassic Park the TV show could be much more adult watching (with a better name, naturally). The films do not follow the books, leaving a lot of unseen events which could be pilfered from the writings of Crichton whilst adding a lot more. I wanted to see more about the business side of things, the ruthless industrial espionage which jeopardises everything. The show would be about people, not dinosaurs, much in the same way that The Walking Dead is about people rather than zombies – they just happen to be people living through a zombie apocalypse.

My idea faces some major obstacles, not least that Jurassic World did well and its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is out next year (I will still try to stay optimistic). The other major problem is that a series with similar themes has recently done brilliantly: Westworld. Also from the mind of Michael Crichton, Westworld has many of the same philosophical themes, lots of intrigue surrounding business, and some fascinating characters. It’s what Jurassic Park could have been.

I will still fantasise about what could have been and a recent fan theory has plugged some gaps in my ideas. Originating on Reddit, this fan theory has found a wider audience thanks to Cracked covering it in one of their videos. Watch for yourself:

Why do I love it? Well, firstly it makes quite a lot of sense and takes care of some inaccuracies. It also takes care of one of the major scientific inaccuracies in Jurassic Park which I don’t have a big problem with for the original film – the technique for extracting DNA just would not work. This never particularly bothered me as it was wild speculation at the time which made the film work, it’s only really since then that scientists have been able to say that it is inaccurate. So is the new technique mentioned in Jurassic World, by the way. Rebooting the series would have us relying on a well known inaccuracy, whereas this fan theory suggests that us film-watchers have been misled in the same way that many of the major characters were misled.

Imagine incorporating this fan theory into a rebooted TV series. Dodgson’s company, BioSyn, would desperately be trying to copy InGen’s cloning technique and failing miserably, having to resort to espionage and theft in an attempt to find out just how Hammond was doing it. Meanwhile, Hammond was taking more of a Jack Horner-esque approach by manipulating the genetics of extant animals, putting him over a decade ahead of BioSyn. It was all a show but he needs experts to sign off on the park and establish that these theme park monsters are convincing as dinosaurs. At the same time, we would be seeing many of the park issues which are found in the book, particularly escaping dinosaurs (a friend of mine suggested a Predator-style film as a worthwhile sequel, which would make an excellent focused episode) and we would have some resolution on the sick Triceratops (which is a Stegosaurus in the book).

In Jurassic World, the Masrani company owns the park and it is they who are responsible for abominations such as the Indominus rex. I’ve disliked the idea of hybrids since the original Jurassic Park 4 concepts came out, so basing a film around them was unlikely to ever really appeal to me, however, in the context of my imaginary series, the Masrani company might be a competing company who have managed to see through the InGen ruse and are making their own dinosaurs, even looking at bizarre hybrids which tend to fail (in a castle in Switzerland?).

There is plenty of source material available too. There were a number of comics which, if I remember correctly, did look at escaping dinosaurs having to be tracked down. There was also a planned animated series set after the first film – Escape From Jurassic Park – aimed at adults and which had some decent ideas. Some of the artwork is available and a full rundown of the individual episodes too, see here. I particularly like the duplicity of Hammond, deceiving the others into thinking that he intends to set up a biological preserve when he plans to reopen the park, the introduction of new characters, the development of BioSyn’s Dinoworld resort in Brazil using stolen InGen dinosaurs, issues arising for BioSyn due to the rapid growth of InGen dinosaurs, raptors hunting marines, escaped dinosaurs spreading through South America causing opportunist hunters, poachers and scientists to try to stake their claims; all ideas which could be used.

Admittedly, a Jurassic Park reboot series could go very wrong. I don’t hate the series Terra Nova, but that is nowhere near the quality I would want even though it was a dinosaur series produced by Spielberg.

Alternatively, Cracked also did a video about how to improve Jurassic World through a simple tweak:

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I love you to the Moon and back

I’m not the most romantic of people. Despite at least one of my favourite films being a quirky romance (Amélie) and my favourite poem fitting into that category (He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven by WB Yeats, but also check out my favourite Yorkshire dialect poem Erroo’as by Benny Wilkinson), I tend to cringe when anyone is being soppy about their partners. The phrase I love you to the Moon and back has always garnered a derisive snort from me, but that will have to stop.

The Moon is an average of 238,855 miles from the Earth and at perigee, its closest point, it is 225,623 miles away. On average, a person walks around 7,500 steps per day, which amounts to around 216,262,500 steps in an 80 year lifetime. With the average stride, this amounts to around 110,000 miles, which isn’t enough to get halfway to the Moon even at its closest point. Loving someone to the Moon and back would equate to around four lifetimes of walking, which is extremely dedicated.

It is also approximately 451 times more miles than the romantic benchmark set by The Proclaimers. 

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Science and the EU

Science is one of those pesky areas of study which can impact on any part of life whether you realise it or not. Scientific research affects the technology we are becoming increasingly reliant upon, it affects healthcare, how we understand and respond to climate change, how we can feed and house an increasing global population, how we can provide energy on a sustainable level, and how we understand our place on this planet and in the universe, among other things. Having UK research at the forefront of science is advantageous as we become more aware of some of the many obstacles we will face over the coming decades.

Currently, the European Union is increasingly the world’s biggest scientific contributor, ahead of the US and China, and the UK sits alongside Germany as one of the major influencers within the EU network, recently becoming number one globally in terms of scientific productivity. The UK is able to help guide scientific research which benefits us, the EU, and has a global impact. Science is becoming increasingly collaborative and we are at the forefront of that progress as a member of the EU, winning the majority of the most prestigious grants (€1.7bn to Germany’s €1.1bn from 2007-2013). In the current funding period, UK-based researchers are lead coordinators for 892 projects, whilst Germany boasts 532 lead coordinators and our position within the EU gives us priority access to major scientific facilities throughout the union.

The UK spends 1.7% of GDP on research, below the average of 1.9% for EU nations, but this is not an issue whilst in the EU. In the 2007-2013 period, the UK gave €78bn to the EU, €5.4bn of which went into research and development; the UK received an impressive €8.8bn in grants for R&D in return. Universities in the UK receive around 16% of their research funding from the EU and 15% of academic staff are non-UK EU nationals (rising to 20% in elite universities).

The free sharing of ideas, increased mobility of scientists and increased collaboration are all major contributors to the advancement of science, which are all achieved through our position in the EU. We also have collaboration between universities, industry, regulators, and healthcare providers, all facilitated by our EU membership (the Innovative Medicines Initiative, for example). The life sciences industry alone is worth around £56 billion per year to the UK economy and EU membership encourages major medical technology and pharmaceutical companies to base projects in the UK.

What if we leave? 

Outside of the European Union, 13 countries successfully receive funding for scientific research, most notably Switzerland and Israel. Both Switzerland and Israel are associated states which are more successful than the UK with grant applications to the EU and receive more funding per capita as well. The UK also has major collaborations with CERN and the European Space Agency, both of which are outside of the EU and are hugely successful on the global stage. EU regulations on clinical trials have been accused of hampering medical research in the UK and the EU’s position on GM crops is enforced – both of which can arguably be improved by leaving the union.

It is not out of the question that the UK could continue to receive EU funding for scientific research, but it would likely take a heavy blow. Those prestigious grants where the UK lead with €1.7bn from 2007-2013? Switzerland and Israel won €0.6bn and €0.4bn respectively. Those 892 lead coordinators? Israel can boast 90, whilst Switzerland manage 15. Some might argue that the money we save through EU payments could be used to fund our own research, even though we would likely still make payments and the economy is expected to suffer during the negotiation period after we depart the union. Our 1.7% of GDP spent on research is paltry compared to Switzerland (2.8%) and Israel (4.4%) and would, if anything, decrease.

One of the major appeals for leaving the EU is the ostensible ability to better control our borders and clamp down on immigration. In order to access EU research networks, freedom of movement is required in order to become an associate state (Israel get out of this due to the date they became associates). After Switzerland’s referendum to limit migration, they were reduced to partial associate status, heavily impacting their ability to receive funding and precipitating a loss in confidence in their researchers’ abilities to commit to EU projects. If they continue their fight against mass immigration, they might find theirselves relegated to third country status and take a further hit to their funding.

Upon exiting the EU, the UK would give up a key position in the European Research Area Committee, able to attend but with restricted input. Priority would be lost for access to facilities, major biotech and pharmaceutical companies would have less incentive to base research in the UK, and non-UK EU researchers would have fewer reasons to remain or take work in the country.

Conclusion

Whether we should remain in the EU is a multi-faceted issue and should not be decided based on a single policy, but when it comes to scientific research it seems obvious to me why fewer than 1 in 8 UK scientists thinks that we should leave. We can either go it alone and risk taking a huge nosedive in available funding, risk scaring off EU researchers and companies, and take a hit to our global standing, or we can remain a heavily funded leader of one of the top research networks in the world. Hindering our scientific advances will only exacerbate other issues which are becoming increasingly important, so this is about much more than science.

A few resources:

The parliamentary science and technology committee inquiries, here.

The inquiry case for remaining in the EU, here.

The inquiry case for leaving, here.

The Nature poll, here, and an article about the debate, here.

Some useful figures on the funding, here.

And some opinion articles which influenced this hasty blog post, here, here and here.

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I’ve been absent…

I haven’t posted anything since early December, something which needs to change as soon as possible. December was an incredibly busy month, so naturally I struggled to find time to write (and when writing anything science related you really should take your time). Then I got out of the swing of things. The 6 Nations rugby is getting in the way a bit lately, but I need to stop making excuses. Expect a few short pieces, maybe some personal things.

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What’s in a title? – Eokinorhynchus the spiky, armoured worm

If this were a popular blog and not in its nascent stages I would run this as a competition. Titles for science news articles are tough to write and are not often the choice of the author of the article. They need to be attractive, yet risk being misleading click-bait, and they need to be informative which risks being dull. Here is a recent example that has me stumped and wondering what others might come up with.

The news in question is the discovery and description of Eokinorhynchus rarus, along with other unnamed kinorhynchs, providing the first evidence for phylum Kinorhyncha in the fossil record. It is from the Cambrian period and may prove crucial in understanding the evolution of related groups, not least its own. The scientific paper naturally went for the informative title: Armored kinorhynch-like scalidophoran animals from the early Cambrian.

Image credit: Dinghua Yang

Here are a few examples of science news sites and the headlines they went with. First, I Fucking Love Science:

IFLS kinorhynch

Naturally I did click it when I saw it, but that’s because I am already interested in anything which lived “half a billion years ago”. Calling it a spiky, armoured worm is not helpful at all, especially given the attention span of many of their readers – they often think two different pieces of news are about the same thing, even when the articles clearly state otherwise (I dare you to read the comments). They have published a few articles about spiky, armoured worms from the Cambrian, from many different phyla, so whilst it might be attempting to sound interesting it will inevitably create confusion. livescience went with the following:

Livescience kinorhynch

They have obviously gone for attention grabbing with no hint at the importance of the beast. Possibly my favourite comes from ZME Science:

zme kinorhynch

Yep, you read that correctly. The great news about Eokinorhynchus is that it is “ridiculously” armoured (as armoured as it gets!). The article itself isn’t much better. The South China Morning Post went for the most optimistic and patriotic option:

scmp kinorhynch

It’s the most sensational of the lot and, though it does mention it in the headline, its focus is not the armour of old E. rarus. And finally, forgive me for this, but the Daily Mail seemed to really want to put emphasis on how old it is.

daily mail kinorhynch

Half a BILLION indeed. I can mock the headlines offered by other sites, but I honestly don’t know what would be better. Emphasising its potential importance might not be appealing to the casual reader without risking exaggeration (or capital letters). Trying to sound exciting has focussed on the armour of E. rarus, which doesn’t have wide appeal (and may make some think they know it already). What’s the secret to a good headline for palaeo-news?

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Missing Precambrian Animals – Namacalathus?

When we look at the fossil record, the Precambrian can easily be presented as a world without animals, particularly bilaterally symmetrical animals, before they rapidly appeared and diversified during the Cambrian period. Skeletal fossils – bits of shell and other hard parts – appear at the end of the Ediacaran period, then become much more diverse (and recognisable) during the early Cambrian. What we have from the Ediacaran period are mostly soft-bodied organisms, some of which resembled fronds sticking out of the sediment, whilst others rested on the surface, and yet others stuck in the mud. Although some of these organisms have been linked to modern animal groups, all have been cast into doubt at some point; there are very few which might be animals though they may be close to the base of the animal family tree. The little skeletal forms, such as Cloudina which resembles a stack of plastic cups, are thought to be no more complex than jellyfish at most.

When we look at the molecular data, it suggests that the major animal groups, including phyla, had evolved during the Precambrian. Bilaterian animals were supposedly quite diverse and even quite complex. The body fossil record does not line up with this data, nor does the trace fossil record (there are some putative bilaterian traces, but nothing definitive until close to the base of the Cambrian). This leads to an obvious question: where are all of the fossils?

In 2000, a fossil from Namibia was described and named Namacalathus hermanastes. These fossils were shaped like goblets on a stalk, with a large hole in the top of the goblet, and a number of windows around the sides. It lived sticking out of microbial mats, possibly filter-feeding in late Ediacaran reefs. It reproduced asexually, budding off little daughter versions of itself. This mode of reproduction led to its interpretation as a diploblastic animal, perhaps closely related to jellyfish and corals along with Cloudina. 

A new study has suggested that Namacalathus is not a simple cnidarian, but a full-fledged bilaterian. Not only that, but a crown-member of a group called the Lophophorata, placing it close to the brachiopods and bryozoa. They analysed the structure of the shell of Namacalathus and found that it had features only found amongst lophophorates. They also found possible evidence of an organic-rich layer within the wall, a feature found in brachiopods, and they noted that the clonal budding occurs in a bilaterally symmetrical pattern. It is suggested that the soft parts of Namacalathus would have been bilateral, despite the hard parts possessing a different symmetry. This new interpretation may provide evidence for the existence of bilateral animals with skeletons in the Ediacaran period, but it is guaranteed to be controversial. Reconstruction of the living Namacalathus. 1, stem; 2, parental cup; 3, daughter cups; 4, hollow ciliated tentacles; 5, spines; 6, lateral lumen; 7 central opening; 8, inner skeletal layer—foliated with columnar microlamellar inflections; 9, internal (middle) skeletal later—organic rich; 10, external outer skeletal layer—foliated with columnar skeletal inflections (image copyright: J. Sibbick).

References

Zhuravlev, A.Yu., Wood, R.A., Penny, A.M. 2015. Ediacaran skeletal metazoan interpreted as a lophophorate. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 18181. [Link]

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