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David Ng

David Ng likes to find funny things to show in your next science talk.

Art, nature, the history of science, and whoa, aren't these beautiful?

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Plate 73 of the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China, 1774-1856. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

Reeves was an English tea inspector, but also amassed a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings of plants and animals during his time in Canton.

A few weeks back, I had a great conversation with Judith Magee, Library Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum. From this conversation, as well as others (thanks Peronel, Martha, Bergit), it soon became clear that there were many individuals within the museum that had a passion for things pertaining to the humanities and the arts (see also this previous post).

In particular, the museum happens to house a vast collection of illustrations and paintings, many of which were originally produced as a way to scientifically document new species, new cultures, and other things observed during expeditions. However, it's also clear that apart from their historical value, these pieces of artwork also have immense aesthetic value. They. Are. Beautiful.

And speaking to Judith, you can literally feel the enthusiasm and affection for such pieces. Judith talked to me about writer/artists such as Alexander von Humboldt, John Bartram, as well as the wonderful drawings collected by John Reeves.

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Why natural history museum collections rock!

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Photo: Tom Goskar. Used with permission.

So far, it's been a very interesting experience in the month and a bit into my sabbatical at London's Natural History Museum. First off, there was that element of giddiness: coming back to an iconic institution that takes me back to my time as a kid in awe of dinosaurs, blue whales and all the sparkly stuff in the mineral exhibits. Next came, a weird sort of pride - like as if being in the museum's great hall, looking up at the beautiful ceiling, and standing in between a Diplodoccus skeleton and a statue of Darwin, made me feel privileged to be a scientist. I felt as if I was in the best-club-ever: one that carried on the work of so many pioneers whose efforts are housed in this museum. But then a strange feeling of discomfort settled in. This was because the science that goes on here, by and large, is quite foreign to the medically genetic driven projects of my own background. In other words, the bench tops here do not always require pipettemans and overpriced electronics. However, after having had the privilege of meeting some lovely people at the museum and viewing a few of these collections, I've come to really appreciate the importance of biological curation.

1. The collections serve as the physical and open portal to specimens needed for biodiversity research.

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Chic apartments for London birds

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Take a look at this art project entitled, "Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven"

In the sought-after London boroughs of Chelsea and Islington, inner city birds often have to claim their nesting space quickly! However, birds that are open to changing their wild ways might be convinced to try out the innovative bird-housing concept developed by the artists at London Fieldworks. The "Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven" opened recently as part of the Secret Garden Project by UP Projectsand hopes to develop into a haven of biodiversity and create a new public awareness of the ecological and cultural value of urban green spaces. (via Inhabitat)

These look very pretty, although I am curious as to how they fare when the tree moves or when it grows.

As an added layer of biodiversity speak, there's a bit of irony in the title of the project. Turns out the "Tree of Heaven" or Ailanthus altissima is actually a tree species of much botanical interest in London, and elsewhere in England generally. Essentially, a lot of folks are quite concerned that this ornamental turn invasive species is poised to rocket in numbers. It's one of the fastest growing trees around, it's allelopathic (meaning it produces a chemical that inhibits the growth or other plants), and its seed production capabilities are almost unmatched. In fact, the female tree is capable of producing upwards of 30,000 seeds per kilogram of tree! That would be akin to a small tree as heavy as me (at about 160 pounds), being able to produce 2.2 million seeds!

Why is this tree a particular interest these days? Well, over the years, climate has been steadily getting warmer and sunnier in England, and given that the Tree of Heaven is shade-intolerant, the extra sunlight is possibly giving the opportunistic tree the small push needed to expand greatly in numbers.

Anyway, perhaps this means more places for the birds to live?

Chewbacca, Han Solo and R2D2 drawn as if part of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh

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Illustrations by James Hance, used with permission.

I'm surprised I didn't catch this earlier, but James Hance has recently released a series of lovely images. Here, he re-imagines Han Solo as Christopher Robin, Chewbacca as Pooh Bear, R2D2 as Piglet, and even (this is cool) an AT-AT as Eeyore.

Definitely go to his Cartoon page to see the images in their full glory. Also this just in - James writes:

The first Wookiee the Chew book gets published today (September 1st) and will be available from either my website or comic stores in Jacksonville. My main hub is at Cafe 331, downtown Jacksonville. I'm there every Saturday with prints, paintings and books.
Link

Nagoya COP10 Primer #3: with a small reference to LOL cats

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(Continuing on from previous primers: 1. Star Wars | 2. Kevin Bacon)

O.K. now on to business... Here are the Convention on Biological Diversity's three basic objectives:

1. The conservation of biological diversity

2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity

3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources

They also have - or had rather - a goal, a biodiversity target, which was the following:

In April 2002, the Parties to the Convention committed themselves to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.

This was also the reason why 2010 was proclaimed as the International Year of Biodiversity.

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Can crowdsourcing produce funny humor pieces? The next step

In case you missed it, here is the set up.

And from the comments from that previous post, there were many great titles. Some lend themselves more to an essay type humour piece, whereas others were just funny as one-liners. It was tough choosing, but I'm going to go with two titles. One is a tweak, but seems to involve a subject matter near and dear to Boing Boing readers, plus should be good for a funny list (from edthehippie). The other seemed to win the popularity contest, and is definitely a title with great potential and hopefully providing some creative space for folks who like to write a little more than one sentence (from artiefx0).

Anyway, without further ado, here are the titles!

CHAPTER TITLES FROM MY UNICORN PHYSICS TEXTBOOK

and

AN OVERVIEW OF ANIMALS THAT WOULD EXIST IF THE WORLD WERE SIGNIFICANTLY MORE AWESOME THAN IT ACTUALLY IS

Game on! (Note: please use the keyword "unicorn" or "awesome" to let me know which piece your comment is alluding to).

Neglected organisms haiku

A couple years ago The Science Creative Quarterly started asking for phylogenetic haiku: or poetry of the 5-7-5 form that focused on a specific organism. We actually have hundreds of submissions, but haven't had a chance to sit down and present them all as a single collection (one day, we'll get to this, one day).

Anyway, it's quite striking how in haiku land, it's the "un-cute" that gets the most representation. This is awesome to me, as usually in the world of media, it's the cute and cuddly that tends to win the limelight (dolphins, pandas, baby seals, anyone?).

So in an effort to continue this trend, why not an open thread where you have a chance to compose a haiku on an organism you're pretty sure has never had the privilege of being set to poetry. The goal here, of course, is that if you google your organism's name as well as the keyword "haiku," it will be this post that will sit on the number one spot.

Anyway, I'll start:

Look! Bryozoa!
Like the Borg, but cellular.
Small, strange, and pretty.

Question: How long would your Ph.D. have taken if everything worked?

When I meet other scientist types, this can be one of the most interesting questions to throw out there.

We can use mine as an example. I did my grad studies in Microbiology and Immunology, but basically I was doing biochemistry type work (cancer research with a lot of molecular stuff). It took me just over five years to finish this sucker which is pretty typical in North America. Of course, when I take a critical look at my thesis and calculate: "What if this thesis literally shows all of my work, because everything I did, worked? What if I had magic fingers throughout my research and never had a failed experiment!?"

Using this rubric, I calculate that my Ph.D. in biochemistry/molecular biology type work could've taken about, DUM-DUM-DUM...

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Note that this figure also includes the 3 months needed to write the damn thesis itself! This means that technically my thesis is reflective of only 3 months of successful experiments: or as I like to think of it -- four and a half years of failed experiments!

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How to get a lecture hall full of people to make Chewbacca sounds

To promote a student conference, here is a little video I made recently:


p.s. If you're a student and at the University of British Columbia, you should totally check out the TEDxTerrytalks conference, and even apply if you think you've got something interesting to say. It's awesome!

Hail the mighty microbe! Bacteria on hand at the Deepwater

Just so that we don't forget that in the area of biodiversity, microbes do indeed rule the Earth, Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science does a great job of reporting on a recent study looking at the Gulf and its ever changing bacterial community.
In the Gulf of Mexico, nature's janitors are hard at work, mopping up the aftermath of a man-made disaster. On 20 April, 2010, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig unleashed the largest oil spill in US history. Now, a team of American scientists led by Terry Hazen have shown that just a month or so after the incident, a microscopic clean-up crew had already started to digest the mess. The ocean is home to many groups of bacteria that can break down the chemicals found in crude oil. Some, like Alcanivorax, are oil-eating specialists that are usually found in low numbers, only to bloom when oil spills provide them with a sudden banquet. That's exactly what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico. Hazen has found that these oil-eaters have swelled in number in the contaminated waters.
Oil Eating Bacteria Have Started to Clean the Deepwater Horizon Spill

Nagoya COP10 sidebar: UNFCCC YOU!

201008270654 Just a quick Nagoya related sidebar (see other Nagoya COP10 posts here and here).

I'm not sure if it's deliberate or if it's accidental, but the UN seems to be on a roll with ironic convention acronyms. In case, you weren't aware, a convention is international politics jargon for "treaty." There's two in particular that involve the environmental landscape:

First is the U.N.F.C.C.C. -- this is short for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the thing that gave us Kyoto and Copenhagen), but as my friend Allen pointed out, doesn't it sound more like a curse that a UN member with a stutter might say when working with other UN members?

Then we have the C.B.D., the Convention on Biological Diversity, the subject of my ongoing posts on Nagoya (part 1|part 2). Except that CBD is also the acronym for Cannabidiol, which according to Wiki is, "a cannabinoid found in Cannabis. It is a major constituent of the plant, representing up to 40% in its extracts."

We can only hope that there isn't any confusion on this matter for the delegates at Nagoya.

This is not a perfect dinosaur turd. Or is it?

A few weeks ago I had a chance to chat with Paul Taylor in the Paleontology department of the Natural History Museum. I was chatting with him about a curious specimen that has, over the years, gained a little bit of notoriety in the museum's collection. You see, it was a mystery.

Biggg-Dino-Crap

What you're looking at is a slide of Dinocochlea ingens. On the left, you've got the original 1922 paper which detailed the 1921 finding; in the middle, an image from a newspaper of the day (which I think would make a brilliant T-shirt!) depicting the scale of the odd find; and on the far right, you can see a scan of the only photo that records the original "in ground" condition of the specimen.

The history of the find is pretty interesting since the hypotheses that have been given for its identity include (in order of their proposal):

1. It is a fossil of a FREAKISHLY big snail!
2. It is a coprolite, a.k.a the remnant of a giant turd (most likely from an Iguanodon).
3. It is a concretion fossil formed from the indents left underground by a spiraling path of a very small burrowing most likely worm-like organism.

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Citizen science and why biodiversity is a great portal to discovery

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(Image: Stemonitis) In case you don't have a handy dandy seaweed identification key, get your free one here and do some science.

Recently, a friend asked me about my earliest childhood memories, and two very vivid ones came to mind. First, there is this image of a sycamore seed falling from the sky; the aerodynamic wonder that can helicopter down from the tall heights of a tree. Second, and also involving the act of looking up, I remember seeing the underbelly of a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, suspended in air in the London Natural History Museum's great Mammal Hall. In fact, I remember thinking it was the most massive thing possible, no doubt reflecting my own childish perspective. It is also the the emotional reason of why I'm doing a sabbatical there.

In both cases, the memory relives not only what I saw, but also a sensation. This being a quickening of my heart, a very corporeal buzz, and a sense of clarity in my head that has stayed with me throughout my life. You see, this is what discovery feels like. And from an educator's point of view, this I think is biodiversity's greatest strength. The flora, fauna, and terrains of our graceful planet contain a whole world of discovery. It only takes a single child and a trip outdoors, to realize that it is arguably our planet's richest resource of intellectual query.

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Can crowdsourcing produce funny humor pieces?

"Reviews on historic books by people who haven't actually read the book."

"Likely names of organisms had Linnaeus been a science fiction fanboy."

Although I still have difficulty considering myself a writer type, what little experience I do have in this world is mostly limited to publishing humour pieces. I guess my niche is to do this and still stick to science and technology subjects. So far, I've been lucky enough to have gotten quite a few pieces published in various places (you can see a partial clip list here), although often I think my geneticist title was key in throwing editors off. In fact, one of the reasons the Science Creative Quarterly (which I edit) exists is that I thought it would be cool to have a portal for "literary science humour."

Anyway, when I write a humour piece, I usually start with a quirky title (the two of mine above being prime examples), and then kind of let the ideas flow from there. As well, if you just peruse the SCQ's humour archive, you can readily feel the potential of each humour piece just from the title. Consequently, I've always wondered if crowd sourcing the comments on a blog post might be a good way to produce a decent humour piece. This might fail epically, but I always thought it would be worth a try - especially if I ever had a chance to give it a go on a website with clever commentary and excellent traffic.

So, just for fun, let's see if we can first start with an interesting title. I've got a few that have been sitting in my head for a while as backups (at the top of this post), but hopefully, we can come up with better ones in comments below. In other words, here is the first task:

Can you come up with a humour piece title that lends itself to potentially funny answers?

(PS: We'll also stick to things that are science- or technology-related, since those I have a bit of experience in as an editor.)

It's Stitch-a-Squid time!

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Photo: Lauren O'Farrell (Stitch London)

If you're around and about London, enamoured with invertebrates generally, and have always wondered if knitting and you were meant to be; well, here's the perfect opportunity to find out. This Friday evening (August 27th), from 6pm to 9:30pm, at London's Natural History Museum, Stitch London will be on hand at to show the public how to make anatomically plausible sea life (with "probably the easiest knitting pattern ever"). This will be part of the last of the museum's summer after hours evenings. As well, it sounds like they're working on something big!

Come and see Stitch London's incredible knitted giant squid on display in the Central Hall. The giant knitted sea creature is a replica of our famous 8m giant squid specimen, Archie, held in the Museum's Zoology Spirit Collection. Amazingly, the huge knitted Archie is being created with orange yarn made from recycled plastic bags!
Stitch-a-Squid information

Ding dong, the (species) is dead. Bell ringing for biodiversity

201008250738 In an effort that reminds me a little of Earth Hour (where folks are encouraged to turn off their lights and appliances for one hour), there is now a suggestion that a concerted attempt at bell ringing would be a fitting (and possibly worthy annual) tribute to biodiversity.

This is largely being mediated by the Church of England, International Year of Biodiversity UK, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, with inspiration provided by the MEMO project. What is the MEMO project? Well, this is pretty cool - basically:

MEMO is a collaboration of scientists, sculptors and stonemasons dedicated to communicating the reality of the current extinction crisis by creating a perpetual memorial. The aim is to erect a stone sculpture featuring the carved images of the species being made extinct, which also supports a huge bell. The bell and sculpture will be built on the cliffs of the Isle of Portland. This is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site whose 95 miles of fossil rich cliffs already record 185 million continuous years of the history of life. The great bell will be tolled whenever a species is declared extinct.

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Tripod fish: a fish that stands


Video link

The other day, I went through the Deep Sea exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Deep Sea ecology is pretty interesting and especially great for the variety and oddness in creatures that dwell there. Case in point are Tripod Fish.

These deep sea beauties have long extensions coming out of their fins (two from their pelvic fins, and one at the back from the caudal fin), such that they are able to "stand still" on the ocean floor. Here they can wait very patiently for prey to come wandering into their vicinity.

Presumably a great way to conserve energy, although it would be interesting to examine whether there is a reason for the stilts being a certain height (i.e. do the crustaceans that the Tripod Fish feed on, prefer to hover at a certain depth, or do currents close to the ground uplift material in a certain way?)

Nagoya COP10 Primer #2: with a reference to Kevin Bacon

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Yes, even Kevin Bacon is part of an ecosystem.

(Continuing on from "Nagoya COP10 Primer #1: with Star Wars references").

Given that the Nagoya COP10 meeting is all about the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), it's probably a good thing to talk a little bit about the convention itself. Let's start with the general stuff, i.e. what it represents, and then save the specifics for later posts.

Put simply, it's the international treaty whose aim is to look after the Earth's biodiversity. Here, the CBD defines biodiversity as:

"the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems."

In other words, the CBD is there to suggest (as well as enforce) that we as humans, should try to have a decent relationship with all of the other organisms found on our planet.

This might sound obvious, but one of the problems with the notion of biodiversity is that sometimes, it feels like it just doesn't get enough credit - somehow it doesn't feel like a "serious issue." You say the word biodiversity, and most likely these idyllic images of the someplace scenic pop into your head - maybe, you even imagine lots of birds chirping in the background, a deer or two in the distance, and of course, a bear who may actually be waving at you. For lack of a better word, Biodiversity just feels "nice."

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Where are all the awesome "Scientific Method" slides?

I said it before - the scientific method is awesome: but where are the cool visuals for it? You do a Google image search for the term "scientific method" and you're awash with pretty basic and frankly uncool flowcharts. There's even a weird acrostic involving slow rabbits, which is kind of funny, but hardly something that exudes awesomeness.

The one below is the one that I've made for my lectures, but unfortunately, my artistic talent is pretty much limited to "using a pretty font."

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Slide link

Here's another I use for making hypotheses, with the scenario being a decline in birth rate and a decline in stork population occurring at the same time. Still, this is just using my other artistic talent which equates to "use the other pretty font you like."

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Slide link

Would be wonderful though, if there are some out there that use cool illustrations or just nail it in the visual information department. If you know of any do pass them on in the comments.

Post-It note showing all of Chewbacca's dialogue from Star Wars

Screen Shot 2010-08-20 At 1.53.24 Pm This cartoon from Savage Chickens is freaking brilliant! Who knew Chewbacca was so versatile?

A wonderful Where's Waldo-ish/biodiversity book for little ones

Spot-Itpiuvy

I have to say that I'm really quite enamored by Delphine Chedru's book, Spot It! Find the Hidden Creatures. The art is pretty mesmerizing, especially with the hide and seek factor involved (the book has 14 hidden animals and one farm girl). As well, a lot of it, I reckon would look pretty good on fabric, on walls, on my computer desktop.

Here, see if you can find the bee:

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And now look for the owl:

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(Book images used with permission, copyright Delphine Chedru)

Nagoya COP10 Primer #1: with references to Star Wars

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Image: Nagoya Congress Center plus Millenium Falcon reworked from original photo by Paula Pedrosa. link.

So what is up with this Nagoya thing? Well, it's a big international meeting that is happening in Nagoya's Congress Centre (see the picture above), starting on October 18th and lasting until the 29th. No doubt, you weren't necessarily lured into finding out more by the conference's bouncy theme song. You certainly weren't intrigued by the reams of official documents, frequently released, yet all stoically written.

The problem is, is that there is a lot of jargon in how all these meetings go down. You have a "Conference of the Parties" (or COP), you have "Conventions," and you have "Secretariats." I chose not to mention the "Subsidiary Body" part, because I believe that would have formally made the previous sentence the most boring in the universe. And as if that wasn't bad enough, a lot of these documents have been written in a painful policy speak/legalese type of language, seemingly in an effort to make readers endorse the extinction of the writers responsible. Worse still, Nagoya isn't getting a ton of media coverage, and that means you don't tend to have needed public commentary like you did with similar recent outings (for instance, Copenhagen comes to mind).

Lucky for us, there seems to be a lot of similarities between these United Nations' affairs and how planetary politics appear to be run in the world of Star Wars. In any event, the similarities are good enough to warrant having a go at bridging the two. This might be simplifying things a bit, but the analogy would basically work a little like this...

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2010 is a key year for biodiversity stewardship

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Slide: David Ng from Georgia Strait ad (circa 1997). link

Well, this is pretty cool. Thanks to the fine folks at Boing Boing, I've got a two week stint here where I get to write and share things that I happen to find interesting. As well, (and this is the important bit), I'm really going to relish the opportunity to interact and learn from the Boing Boing community itself.

Anyway, to put things in context, I'm involved in an education laboratory in Vancouver, where most of my activities are guided by a simple idea - that the "scientific method" is, frankly, awesome.

Seriously, it's one of those things that tends to not make the headline, because media generally gets caught up in the data (cancer cure found!) However, the method is really quite beautiful and in my opinion needs to be talked about more. After all, it's a pretty remarkable way of thinking that allows us to make reasonable sense of what we see around us. And as a consequence, it's played a central role in a wide myriad of things and events that we think of as being impactful, twee, wonderful, and/or frightening.

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