Monday, 31 October 2011

Happy iHalloween

This photo is of the pumpkin that my wife carved for Halloween this year:
It was taken on my iPhone, uploaded to Dropbox, downloaded onto my iPad, cropped using PhotoPad and then blogged with BlogPress*. Isn't technology wonderful?

[*I'm actually a bit annoyed with BlogPress at the moment as it is refusing to pull anything down from online. Hopefully, iOS5 will sort that out, once I can persuade my work PC to let me upgrade. (My recent Windows 7 upgrade has done something strange to iTunes.)]

UK science gives great bang for buck!

One of the great things about going to International conferences is seeing some of the work that goes on "across The Pond". This can be both inspiring and depressing - the scale of some of the work is fantastic but, at the same time, it's the sort of stuff that can only happen on a generous budget.

In the UK, we typically have a smaller pot to play with but that doesn't mean that we don't do good stuff. Indeed, a recent Science news piece highlights two recent studies that show (1) the UK “"attracts more citations per pound spent in overall research and development than any other country", and (2) the UK now tops the charts when "ranked by average number of citations" (see figure). Above and beyond this, some of my beleaguered colleagues should also take heart that "The Thomson Reuters report says that ... biological sciences are the strongest area of U.K. research".

It's easy to get depressed with all the budget cuts but hopefully this will inspire us to keep "punching above our weight". (Or, better still, encourage more funding for what should be a source of national pride.)

(By the way, this image was grabbed from the PDF using iAnnotate on my iPad - a great App whose praises I must later sing.)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Small but perfectly formed

After my recent post about bobtail squid, I felt that I should give some airtime (if you're using WiFi) to the little ocean critters that I am actually involved with: the beautiful Emiliania huxleyi. It's not really a "critter" as such at all - it's a tiny marine phytoplankton, so it's more like a plant really.

Emiliania huxleyi (fondly known as "E hux") is a "Coccolithophore"; the funky appearance comes from the armoured "coccolith" plates that cover the outside of these tiny single-celled organisms. Nobody really knows what coccoliths are for but they are one of the primary reasons for the interest in species as the plates are made out of calcium carbonate. This makes E hux and its relatives a potentially potent carbon sink despite their minuscule size. (The scale bar in the image is 2μm, which is 1 million times shorter than Darth Vader.) This is because huge numbers of coccoliths sink to the sea floor and ultimately become the chalk of the future.

Although it would seem to make more sense to make these plates externally, they actually make them internally and then export them whole, as this video (of a different coccolithophore) shows. In the words of the experts:
"The coccoliths are rather large relative to the cell size; if scaled up to human size it would be like a person giving birth to a car wheel or a dustbin lid."
The project that I am involved with is primarily concerned with Ocean Acidification, which is one of the lesser-known aspects of climate change due to rising carbon dioxide (CO2). Approx a quarter of atmospheric CO2 is dissolved by the world's oceans. As CO2 levels continue to rise due human activity, the amount of dissolved CO2 therefore also increases. This, in turn, lowers the pH of the ocean, which makes calcium carbonate - the stuff of coccoliths, skeletons and shells - dissolve more easily. The prediction, therefore, is that this will be bad for calcifies, making calcification itself more difficult and reducing the effectiveness of the calcium carbonate structures that they make. (Although we don't yet know what E hux uses its coccoliths for, it's a fair bet that their important.)

The good news is that, as Dr Ian Malcolm would say, "Life finds a way" and so there is every expectation that E hux and friends could evolve and adapt to the elevated CO2 levels. The bad news, though, is that rate of man-made CO2 increase is so fast that they may not have the time and capacity to adapt before the oceans get too acidic for them. It is therefore important that we understand both how calcification is regulated and what the capacity of E hux for adaptation to high CO2 is. Until we get a handle on this, we also don't really know how E hux will respond. Will the increased solubility of the calcium carbonate release more carbon into the ocean, making things even worse? Or, will E hux respond by making thicker coccoliths, incorporating more carbon and help to offset some of the effects of human emissions? (At least, that's my understanding of the main questions.)

In a future post, I'll outline a bit of what we are doing. (I say "we" but my contribution is actually pretty small.) For now, though, just marvel at their coccospherical beauty:

Monday, 24 October 2011

CreatureCast: awesome videos of crazy critters

In an interesting article about the need for evolutionary biology to go viral, I just came across a fascinating website called "CreatureCast", which features videos of crazy and awesome creatures, made by the Dunn Lab at Brown University. I have only watched the jellyfish one so far but it's well worth a watch. Click here or, alternatively, check out this collection on iTunes:

Cover Art


Dunn Lab


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Quantum Levitation: I don't understand it but I like it!

This YouTube video shows something called "quantum locking" of a superconductor in a magnetic field, causing it to levitate in a most outstanding fashion. My brain is too tired now to even try to understand the physics behind this (and I am not sure I would understand even if it wasn't) but the video is well worth a watch anyway!

Quantum Levitation video

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Hacienda Monasterio, Ribera del Duero - a Spanish red to beat Rioja

Last night was the first tasting for the university wine club. The theme was "New vs Old Spain" and we "tasted" (drank!) three whites and three reds. When I think of Spanish wine, I always think of a red Rioja, which is probably my favourite type of wine - I certainly don't remember having a bad one.

One of the good things about attending the wine club is that you get to try things that you wouldn't normally. In this case, it was three Spanish whites, including a White Rioja. I can't say that I will be having any of them again (one tasted like sherry (yuk!), one smelt like cat pee, and (the nice) one was only available in Spain) but it was good to try them.

The reds were more to my taste, including a rather nice Rioja from the Muga winery. Wine of the night (for me), however, went to the Ribera del Duero from Hacienda Monasterio. This one was a bit above my usual price range, at about £30 a bottle - one of the other great things about the tastings. Really good, though. It's still above my price range but I'll definitely remember it for special occasions!

Location:Southampton, UK

Friday, 14 October 2011

My new favourite squid

They say that you learn something new every day. One of the perks of my job is that some days I get to learn several things! One of today's discoveries was this lovely critter (image from the Microbial Life Educational Resources at Carleton College) - isn't (s)he cute‽

This is the wonderful Hawaiian Bobtail Squid. And they really are full of wonder. Bobtail squid are one of nature's "bioluminescent" - light emitting - organisms. As if this is not enough, they are also a great example of that most inspiring and uplifting phenomenon of symbiosis; the bioluminescence is provided by a species of bioluminescent bacteria that live in special "light organs". Nature may be red in tooth and claw but sometimes creatures can get along. (Actually, all multicellular animals are really ecosystems of numerous bacteria, some of which are "friendly", but most don't have anything as cool as glow-in-the-dark Vibrio fischeri.)

The presence of the Vibrio allows the squid to alter its brightness to match the ambient light. It does this using an ink sac, which can essentially block out the light to differing extents. Simple but effective. What do the bacteria get? The squid feed them on amino acids and sugars, which are pumped into the light organ.

As with many marine symbioses, the bacteria are spread horizontally - adult squid vent bacteria daily into the ocean, which can then colonise new squid hatchlings. Although fantastic, this can present a headache for evolutionary biologists trying to predict responses to climate change, for example. Not only do you have to account for host adaptation but potential adaptation (or frailty) of the symbiont, and the interaction of the two; indeed, the paper that drew my attention to these guys was looking to do just that. (In it, they use one of my programs, which is nice (and always surprising) - not just for the citation but also because, abeit in a tiny and trivial way, I feel like I am contributing to the understanding of these amazing creatures.)


The "Curry Lover's Cookbook" Lover

Last night I cooked a couple of dishes from Mridula Baljekar's "Curry Lovers Cookbook". This is a favourite of mine and thoroughly recommended for anyone, as the name of the book suggest, loves curry.
The first dish was an old favourite, of chicken saag. I tone down the heat a little, with a but less curry powder and chilli than asked, but otherwise stick much to the recipe in the book. I won't reproduce it here (buy the book!) but here's the potted version:

Cook the spices and onions, then add the tomatoes.

Blend cooked spinach, garlic and ginger.

Mix together the onion, tomatoes and spinachy goodness.

Stir in the yogurt and simmer.

Add the chicken, cover and simmer until lovely...

...ignoring requests to dish up early!
For the second dish, we were a little more adventerous and went for something new. I've never cooked okra before but my wife is a big fan, so I made the "okra in yogurt". There's actually not much yogurt involved but it's very easy and super-tasty. Best of all, you only need on pot and you can prepare the whole lot while the chicken saag is simmering away!

Wash and chop your okra into chunks.

Fry some onion seeds,
chilli and sliced onion.

Add turmeric and dessicated coconut.

Add the okra and stir-fry briskly.

Then stir in some yogurt, tomatoes and coriander before serving.

Finally, make the cat jealous!
As well as yummy recipes, the book starts with great sections on the different regions of India, their cuisine, and lots of great stuff about the different ingredients that you find in curries and how to balance a menu etc. Educational, beautiful and delicious!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A storming beer from bath ales

After a reasonable amount of procrastination, I decided not to the gym today. After having an uncharacteristic cooked breakfast this morning and coffee & cakes this afternoon, this is not a decision I am entirely proud of. In my defence, I've been twice this week, which is good for me.

Against my defence, I decided to have a beer instead. Back in my defence, it is a very tasty beer! "Barnstormer" by "bath ales" is a dark, rich bitter, perfect for a (slightly) wintery evening.

Here's what they say:

"Rich in fruit with hints of chocolate, this full-bodied dark ale is a complex but deeply satisfying beer."

Sums it up pretty nicely, I think.

Location:Southampton, UK

Cracking coffee (and cakes!) at the Santo Lounge

Today, we got up at silly o'clock to watch the rugby. What a great decision that turned out to be! Both my adopted (Ireland) and actual (England) teams lost - and deservedly so. It's a shame that France chose this particular game to start trying but what can you do?

To commiserate ourselves, and reward our subsequent efforts in the home cleaning department, we took off to the local cafe bar for coffee and cakes.I love coffee. More precisely, I love good coffee! (There's a bit of a tautology here as I basically define good coffee as that which I love!) The Santo Lounge in Shirley does good coffee. It also does a tasty range of cakes, which work well in the commiseration/reward stakes!

The Santo Lounge is part of the Loungers chain on cafe bars. The first one we went to was The Trago Lounge in Portswood, which is in a former Pizza Hut - a great trade for Portswood in my opinion. This was a brunch visit, which made it a doubly good discovery as we had been looking for a decent brunch place in Southampton for a while. The Trago Lounge nailed it, as did the Santo lounge in subsequent visits. Having such a place so close is as dangerous as it is convenient!

The Trago Lounge also did fantastic coffee (and cakes), like the Santo Lounge. This bodes well for rest of the chain, so if you have a Loungers cafe bar nearby, I thoroughly recommend checking it out. I know some people have problems with chains - especially chains of cafes or bars - but when they're good, it doesn't bother me at all!

Friday, 7 October 2011

What's the atheist equivalent of RIP?

It's always a little strange when a truly famous person dies, especially one made famous by being so bloody brilliant at their job; even more so when the results of that job genuinely change the lives of millions. There are few people that really change the world - even most world leaders don't really make an awful difference in the grand scheme of things. Steve Jobs undeniably changed the world and I can't help feel that the world is a poorer place today for his loss. (Even with all the monopolising and money-grabbing that makes me moan about the "evil" Apple corporation from time to time.)

I was going to title this post "RIP Steve Jobs" as the general sentiment - a respect for the deceased and their memory - is right. The implied sentiment - that Steve Jobs is still hanging around in the giant Apple Store in the sky - is certainly not right, though. This is a problem I've encountered before: what is the atheist equivalent of "RIP"? I'm yet to find something that carries the same sentiment but without the baggage. (It's funny how, like Apple products, the influence of religion pervades all things even when you are "on the other side". (Traditionally, I'm a PC/Windows man!))

Anyhoo... I love my iPhone. I love my iPad. I wouldn't have either without Steve Jobs. Hopefully his memory will inspire others on to greatness. It may be tough in the modern age but one man can still change the world and make it a better place.