Category Archives: Uncategorized

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. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under Cambrian, Palaeontology, Uncategorized

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]

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Update on updates

This blog never took off, which is a shame. For a number of reasons I haven’t been writing as much as I used to, but I clearly want to get back into it. In order to give this blog a little boost, I am going to share some posts from the old blog, which was hosted on Blogspot and had the same name.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Jurassic World – an opinionated review of the trailer

I’ve been talking about Jurassic World for years, though naturally referring to it as Jurassic Park 4 for most of that time. I’ve followed rumours down dead ends and was excited when it was announced, though also a tad nervous. So with the release of the trailer I am finding a lot of friends interested in my opinion. There’s a lot to take in from such a short clip, but that is no surprise, I have been a Jurassic Park fan for 21 years, I even still own all of my old toys, so I am heavily opinionated when it comes to my beloved JP.

I don’t expect them to live up to the first film, but I at least hope that it is better than the third (which I still watch at least annually). The trailer has me feeling that it will be better than the third in many ways, but with many of its own shortcomings. JP3 rarely felt like a Jurassic Park film. The tone was all wrong, the dinosaurs were over the top, and overall it seemed like a lazy effort. Following Spielberg is no easy task, and Joe Johnston’s efforts were closer to Jumanji than Jurassic Park. Those snippets from the Jurassic World trailer suggest that Trevorrow might be able to get the right feel for the film, at least in terms of cinematography. That already is a big step up from the third.

I watch the trailer and I do feel pangs of excitement. The music is done beautifully, with the chilling piano version of the theme tune causing my hairs to stand on end. The cast looks strong, especially for anyone who fell in love with Guardians of the Galaxy this summer (I am Groot). We also have the possibility of dinosaurs we have not yet seen on Isla Nublar or Isla Sorna (hybrids not included). The Jurassic Park films have been fantastic for bringing less popular dinosaurs to the public’s attention and making them household names; I’m surprised that no celebrity has named their child Velociraptor yet. We can expect more of the same from the new film.

My views on this trailer are divided between three parts of me. The kid in me (that’s psychological, I am not a cannibal) is excited. It looks like an exciting monster film and it has dinosaurs in it! That’s really all I need if it is well directed and acted. I have high expectations for the effects (not based on the trailer) as many of the effects from the original film stand up rather well today. The near life-long Jurassic Park fan part of me is clinging to the positives that I have already mentioned, but has some negatives hampering that somewhat. The palaeontologist in me is conflicted. I will allow the latter two to speak negatively, though this is more an expression of my worries. Overall I am looking forward to it and will likely go to see it twice, even if I hate it.

2014-02-28 22.22.44

Apparently I drew this at the age of 9, though I signed it years later.

As a Jurassic Park fan I want to see the first two films done justice (yes, I love The Lost World as well).  I might not get all of the toys as I did when I was younger, but they had better produce some maps that I can get my hands on. I loved seeing the attractions they have, I wanted to be there, at least up until I saw the Gyrosphere. One of the things I love about Jurassic Park is that it is science fiction which feels like it could actually happen. Sure, once you delve into the more esoteric aspects of the science you hit lots of roadblocks, but it is believable enough to work as a plot device. Michael Crichton may have written a story which is rather anti-science, but he did put forth fantastical ideas which embraced up to date thinking at the time (ignore the The Lost World book though, he filled it with fringe ideas). I don’t think it is wrong of me to want Jurassic World to keep in line with the first film’s believability.

So why is the Gyrosphere an issue? It looks futuristic. So does the monorail, which is odd, considering monorails are not future technology. The Jurassic World park looks like it is in the future, not now. I can’t imagine myself sitting in a Gyrosphere, gazing at sauropods plodding past, especially when a jeep would have done a decent job. The park has been functioning for a few years as well, yet these things don’t even look used. This stands out in a trailer, but in the context of the film it might not pull me out, or at least I hope.

I was excited to see the giant mosasaur thing (though I am not looking forward to all the “aquatic dinosaur” misconceptions) and it didn’t bother me that they fed it a listed species. They clearly did it for effect and can get out of it by pointing out that their cloning technology can be used to maintain a population of sharks (If I was to create a flock on condors on this island, you wouldn’t have anything to say). But then they introduce the supposed ace up their sleeve – the hybrid dinosaur which is being dubbed the “D-rex”. I don’t want it. I fondly remember some of those early story ideas, where some of the DNA from Isla Nublar has been recovered by a different company, based in a castle in the Swiss Alps, cloning hybrid dinosaurs as weapons, trained by David Boreanaz. I fondly remember them because they sounded so bad. Yet it sounds scarily similar to what we are being offered in Jurassic World.

They do look cool though…

I do get it though. It is intended as a clever comment on the consumerist nature of the theme park attendees in the film, whilst also being a comment on the film goers watching this work of fiction. T. rex is not exciting enough? Here, have two. You want more? Here’s Spinosaurus. Where do you go from there when the audience wants things to get bigger and better? Trevorrow and colleagues have decided that ‘better’ means man has to tinker with nature. Sometimes this approach of adding more works, the prime example perhaps being Aliens, though that did not depend solely on expanding its xenomorph repertoire and count. I’ve spent a fair bit of time asking myself what they could add to excite your average film watcher who feels that they have seen everything Jurassic Park has to offer. And yes, I did consider hybrids.

I am not totally against hybrids. Those dinosaurs in the first film were hybrids using dinosaur and amphibian DNA, but they stayed close to what palaeontologists were discovering about dinosaurs at the time. A few tweaks to well known dinosaurs here and there could work well. Dilophosaurus in the first film might not have been accurate, but it was great to see and I would not want to face one. Though the dilophosaurs come across in the film as though they were a bit unexpected, it would be easy to attribute this to some of the DNA which didn’t come from the dinosaur. A slight tweak to a big predator could work very well. One which would have potential is found in The Lost World, where carnotaurs have the unexpected ability to blend in with their surroundings. The book doesn’t make much use of them, depicting them as ambush predators which don’t need to move much. But this could work well in a film, where they would be depicted as more aggressive.

Some good artwork by Paulo Marcio.

Instead of tweaking known dinosaurs, they have gone further. The hybrid is rumoured to be a cross between a T. rex, a Velociraptor, a snake (I forget which), and a cuttlefish. Those cuttlefish genes might give it the ability to blend with its surroundings, just like those carnotaurs, but they had to throw more in there. (I have seen a rumour that it can fly, based on some of the camera shots and the comments about how it escaped, but it seems more likely to me that it can camouflage itself.) So this hybrid is taking us close to the old rumours, though those also included dog DNA for loyalty, chimp DNA for whatever reason, and even human DNA. It is also rumoured that subsequent films will be heading further in that direction. I can only hope that these beasts actually look good and draw me in, though realistic dinosaurs would do a far better job for me personally.

So having cringed at the Gyrosphere and the hybrid dinosaur, I was then treated to more cringing at the end, when Star Lord rode out on his motorbike with a posse of raptors. When I first saw Jurassic Park in the cinema I fell in love with the raptors. During my favourite scene, where Phil Tippett allowed the raptors to run free in the kitchen, I actually jumped onto my dad’s knee. I was frightened. And in awe. Those clever girls were formidable. They were the xenomorphs of the franchise – cold, calculated killing machines. They were glorious. The Lost World had that excellent long grass scene, followed by the exciting, yet at times silly, scene in the compound. But then Jurassic Park III came along and tried to put too much emphasis on their intelligence, pushing them into the realms of the ridiculous. Ignoring the talking raptor in Alan Grant’s dream, their behaviour was jarring. They had gormless conversations and constantly gave that knowing look which makes them look like cartoon characters. I want my older raptors back; they scared me as a kid and I loved it. But now we find that they have been trained.

You look stupid.

You look stupid.

I can see the appeal in training them. Not just from the perspective of the characters in the film, but from an animal behaviour point of view. We see large predators interacting with humans without killing them, having reared them and engaged them for their whole lives. It makes sense to try this with raptors, even if you don’t intend to use them as bio-weapons. But it does take the edge off of them. I liked my raptors when they couldn’t be contained, the raptors which gave Robert Muldoon cause to declare that they should all be destroyed. I have my fingers crossed that using them backfires horrifically. I would like to see raptors doing more mundane things, such as lazing about, but I also want to see them in killing mode.

The palaeontologist in me has some concerns which may be quite predictable. I am aware that said palaeontologist in me is potentially more informed than the vast majority of the target audience, having acquired a degree in palaeobiology. You will also find my name in the acknowledgements of Dean Lomax’s excellent book Dinosaurs of the British Isles, which I mention in the hope that any dinosaur lovers reading this will go and buy it (I think I actually distracted him more than I helped). Us palaeo-nerds don’t want to spoil the fun. Science is exciting, that’s why we obsess about it. A lot of palaeontologists, from budding palaeontologists through to the professionals, and not forgetting avid fossil collectors who do it as a hobby, have been inspired by Jurassic Park. We have a vested interest in it. And let’s not forget that palaeontologists are part of the audience.

Buy it!

By the time I saw the trailer I had largely gotten over some of the scientific issues. When Trevorrow tweeted that there would be no feathers I had a massive rant, but since then have come to terms with it. I understand the continuity argument, even though there are ways around it (it’s a new company, it’s potentially a new batch of dinosaurs, they have updated their approach by using bird DNA instead of amphibians, for example). Hopefully they will put emphasis on these being genetically modified theme park monsters. I may be able to suspend disbelief if they do that, just as I won’t seriously question where they got mosasaur DNA, or why that wasn’t a mosquito in amber in the trailer.

Entomologists, look away now.

Perhaps the lack of up to date dinosaurs is Henry Wu’s doing (the only character returning from the first film). If I remember correctly, in the book he wanted to tinker with the dinosaurs to make them fit the public conception, make them easier to control, and even easier to see. Instead the park ended up hosting dinosaurs which fit the scientific research of the time, which they are no longer trying to do.

So continuity is fine, but as someone who has studied science to degree level I have another issue. A lot of Crichton’s work set scientists up as the bad guys; they don’t stop to think of the consequences of their advances. This was a major theme of the first film and has returned for the fourth. This understandably grates on me, but I will let it slide. But then the trailer has one particular line which stings a bit: “We have learnt more in the past decade from genetics, than a century of digging up bones.” Whilst it is true that genetics is the better dataset to study evolution, at least in terms of phylogeny and mechanisms, it is not the better dataset for studying dinosaurs. However, if we were to acquire dinosaur DNA, it would be extremely useful for studying dinosaurs, and in the Jurassic Park universe they have done just that. But to have such a line in a film which rejects what we have learnt in the last twenty years “digging up bones” is a big middle finger to hard working palaeontologists.

Why do we want a monster film to provide more accurate dinosaurs? It is not hard to find dinosaurs in the media, they are everywhere. The media provides the public with their conception of dinosaurs and Jurassic Park managed what even the best documentaries struggle to do – they got scientifically up to date dinosaurs right in the public’s view. Palaeontologists aren’t film makers, most aren’t even artists in a more general sense, they don’t have the ability to do what Jurassic Park can do, nor do they have the money. Even when supposedly scientifically accurate dinosaur documentaries come out, the experts aren’t always listened to. Jurassic World could do the palaeontology world a favour, even with their ridiculous hybrid in there, it could update the public perception of dinosaurs, and can you imagine the reviews from experts? But instead it seems that Trevorrow has embraced the anti-science aspect of Crichton’s writing whilst ignoring the side which embraced new discoveries.

Overall I am trying to stay open minded. I have worries because I love the franchise so much and because I love palaeontology. The film has so much potential, but the more I learn about it the more my worries increase. It is like I have seen that there are free drinks at the bar, only to find that the only free drink is water. I’d rather have a beer, but the water will do fine, except that it seems I only get water because I love palaeontology. I am sincerely hoping that the film is so well made that I get lost in it.

By John Larriva

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized