Saturday, 6 December 2008


It's going to be a little untidy here at DNS while I mess around with the layout, finally populate that scrawny sidebar over there and, most importantly, set a few rules about what this blog is and isn't going to be about. Yep, we're talkin' discipline. And it's not even New Year's Day yet.

Speaking of reinvention, don't miss Richard Grant's play-by-play account of transitioning from science to, well, not science. I'm not entirely clear yet what Richard's new gig is but whatever it is, if these posts are any indication, he's going to shine:
And in case you're wondering why he's talking about leaping out of a void, you might do well to take in Jennifer Rohn's April 2007 excellent post on leaping into one.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Five Things

Michael Barton tagged me with the Five Things Meme. And so, without further any ado:

5 Things I Was Doing 10 Years Ago:
  1. Mourning the loss of my father
  2. Mourning the loss of my grandmother
  3. Enduring the mid-PhD doldrums
  4. Enjoying the company of my the fellow residents at 2333 N. 58th Street in Seattle (including Luna the malamute, may she rest in peace)
  5. Starting my second season of telemark skiing
5 Things On My To-Do List Today:
  1. Finish manuscript for submission to Molecular Ecology Resources (or Systematics and Biodiversity, haven't decided yet) and circulate to co-authors
  2. Assemble, edit, align and export DNA sequence data for another paper I'm working on
  3. Buy plane tickets to North Carolina for ScienceOnline'09
  4. Try to forget that, back home, everyone is getting today off of work and gorging themselves on turkey and stuffing
  5. Write this blog post (check!)
5 Snacks I Love:
  1. Tortilla chips and homemade guacamole
  2. Whole wheat toast with butter and raspberry jam
  3. Green & Black's Milk Chocolate
  4. Pretty much anything from the deli at Carluccio's
  5. Innis and Gunn
5 Things I Would Do If I Were A Millionaire:
  1. Give £60,000 to the Galapagos Conservation Trust for their Floreana mockingbird campaign
  2. Give £5 million to to The HMS Beagle Project
  3. Send anonymous money-grams to friends and family in financial stress
  4. Donate to various environmental, humanitarian and progressive charities
  5. Buy a small house with a big garden and then hire Ten21 Architecture to make it into the eco-home of my dreams
5 Places I've Lived:
  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Colorado Springs
  3. Fort Collins
  4. Seattle
  5. London
5 Jobs I've Had:
  1. Veterinarian's assistant
  2. Tour guide at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs
  3. Research assistant
  4. PhD student (yes, that most certainly does count as a job, thankyouverymuch - worked hard, got paid ...a little)
  5. Research scientist
I'm not going to tag anyone right now. Too lazy. I might add some tags this weekend.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Shake your frozen assets

I got hip to mobile clubbing when I read (and, I admit, wept over) a Guardian piece appropriately titled An Explosion of Delight, which describes the scene at London's Liverpool Street station on an October evening in 2006, just over a year after the horrific terrorist bombing there, when hundreds if not thousands of people who had moments before seemed to just be going about their daily commute, suddenly broke into dance at the appointed moment.

And so it was, that on that evening, by participating in a public expression of joy and solidarity with hundreds of perfect stangers, Londoners took back Liverpool Street Station from the terrorists:

There's another mobile clubbing event coming soon, this one timed to help us all shake off some of our financial frustrations by shaking our booties frozen assets this Tuesday, at 6:20pm, outside the Bank of England. For more info click the bank note:

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Everything's gonna be okay: Obama is a Mac

This is a new series in which I plan to highlight how everything's gonna be okay* now that we've elected the anti-matter opposite of George W. Bush to the highest office in our humble little land.

Part I: Obama is a Mac

Obama uses a Mac. I love the idea that there will be a Mac laptop on the desk in the Oval Office. I mean, how cool is that? And is that a photo of Martin Luther King Jr on the table next to the Mac? And is that a clever little Pac Man sticker on his Mac eating the Apple? Oh, I like what I see, Mr. Obama, I like.

...and so is Biden! Somebody pinch me.

*yes, I know that Obama's not a silver bullet (no such thing as a silver bullet in our complex world) but he's as damn-well close to it as I can possibly wish for at this stage in our history, and I intend to celebrate that, so there.

Monday, 10 November 2008

'Mama Afrika' dies at 76

I first came across Miriam Makeba when my friend Jennie (Stella's mum) put me onto Makeba's mind-bending, world-expanding Qongoqothwane, (The Click Song). From there I ran out and bought the album Africa (back when we still physically ran out to buy albums).

I was blown away by the power of her voice and its comforting, encircling maternal resonance. Maybe that's what earned her the nickname 'Mama Afrika', though I suspect that was only a small part of it - she truly was an African icon - a exile of South Africa during apartheid. From the New York Times:
Widely known as “Mama Africa,” she had been a prominent exiled opponent of apartheid since the South African authorities revoked her passport in 1960 and refused to allow her to return after she traveled abroad. She was prevented from attending her mother’s funeral after touring in the United States.

Although Ms. Makeba had been weakened by osteoarthritis, her death stunned many in South Africa, where she stood as an enduring emblem of the travails of black people under the apartheid system of racial segregation that ended with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.

In a statement on Monday, Mr. Mandela said the death “of our beloved Miriam has saddened us and our nation.”

He continued: “Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

“She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours,” Mr. Mandela’s was one of many tributes from South African leaders.

“One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing,” Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement. “Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song.”

For 31 years, Ms. Makeba lived in exile, variously in the United States, France, Guinea and Belgium. South Africa’s state broadcasters banned her music after she spoke out against apartheid at the United Nations. “I never understood why I couldn’t come home,” Ms. Makeba said upon her return at an emotional homecoming in Johannesburg in 1990 as the apartheid system began to crumble, according to The Associated Press. “I never committed any crime.”

Music was a central part of the struggle against apartheid. The South African authorities of the era exercised strict censorship of many forms of expression, while many foreign entertainers discouraged performances in South Africa in an attempt to isolate the white authorities and show their opposition to apartheid.

From exile she acted as a constant reminder of the events in her homeland as the white authorities struggled to contain or pre-empt unrest among the black majority.

Ms. Makeba wrote in 1987: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realizing.”

Her path was marked by the stars of the southern hemisphere
and she walked the length of her days under African skies...

Goodbye, Mama Africa, and thank you.

Too bad the Obamas aren't a good-looking couple

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

I voted: can I have my free coffee and sex toys now?

Vote, people!

Black Bromptons bearing bounty

pip-pip gives us this wonderful photo of a quintessentially English Brompton folding bicycle (be still my beating heart) with a lush harvest of leeks from the allotment. Two years ago last week I snapped this photo of our Brompton with a truly ginormous butternut squash from Wimbledon Farmers' Market:

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Stella by starlight

Welcome to the world, Stella! Your mother has put out a request for lullabies but after having racked my brain for two weeks, I couldn't come up with anything, and though I do plan to ask my own mum, she is on an RV trip right now. However, a little searching yielded this, something that I know both of your parents will dig:

Languages from the Cradle is a European Union funded project to collect the lullabies of Europe. Learn more in this mp3 from United Nations Radio (did you know there was such a thing? neither did I) including a lovely Sudanese lullaby, and don't miss the Languages from the Cradle wiki.

I also offer two lullabies from my favorite British songstress, Kate Rusby. The first is a real lullaby and the second and third are two versions (second one is live and I love how the audience embraces it ...I even see some young heads nodding off) of a traditional song that works well as one:

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Scientist Pin-Ups: Kitty Joyner

Thanks to Darwin-dispersalist Michael Barton who suggested this pin-up, asking, "do engineers count?" I was pondering my response to the question as I clicked through to the link he sent me and as soon as I saw the oh-so-pinuppable-in-that-1950's-you-know-what-I'm-talkin'-'bout-way image I knew my answer had to be hell, yes.

Kitty Joyner, electrical engineer, at Langley in 1952 (NASA Images).

On top of being aesthetically beautiful, this pin-up is hot for the following reasons:
  1. I have a soft spot for NASA
  2. Kitty Joyner is not a household name and as such provides another much-needed example of a 'normal woman' in science
  3. Even in 2008 a woman engineer is a relatively rare thing (in the US, only 12.4% of electrical engineering bachelor's degrees went to women last year); I can't imagine how rare it must have been in 1952 ...perhaps this is the tail-end of the of the Rosie the Riveter era?

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Down syndrome research pop quiz: fruit flies 94, Sarah Palin zilch

This story has already been covered to death (or at least I hope so) on teh interwebs, but I must have my say. You see, when Palin dissed fruit flies...

...she didn't just diss fruit flies and the general and specific importance of model organism research (for which she is rightly and expertly skewered by Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Berger and others). She also dissed me.

As mentioned previously here and here, I did my PhD research on the fruit fly* Drosophila melanogaster. Specifically, I worked my butt off for six years to understand some of the myriad and complex functions of a fruit fly gene called Ras (the human counterpart of which plays a role in the onset and/or development of almost every kind of cancer) on the ovarian and embryonic development of the fruit fly, and how this has been modulated during fruit fly evolution.

That's right, friends, I am officially (and, it must be said, very proudly) on Sarah Palin's shit list: not only did I do research on fruit flies (booooo!) but I also did research on evolution (hissssss!).

But enough about me.

Almost unbelievably, Palin's sneer came directly on the heels of her own call to help families with special needs kids like her nephew with autism and her son with Down syndrome. See, in Palin's (surprisingly young) universe, it cannot possibly be fathomed that something as obscure as a fruit fly could help special needs kids. But a quick search on PubMed for 'Drosophila and "Down syndrome"' yields 94 peer-reviewed research articles including this one [my emphases]:

Dscam guides embryonic axons by Netrin-dependent and -independent functions.

Andrews GL, Tanglao S, Farmer WT, Morin S, Brotman S, Berberoglu MA, Price H, Fernandez GC, Mastick GS, Charron F, Kidd T.

Development. 2008 Oct 23. [Epub ahead of print]

Developing axons are attracted to the CNS midline by Netrin proteins and other as yet unidentified signals. Netrin signals are transduced in part by Frazzled (Fra)/DCC receptors. Genetic analysis in Drosophila indicates that additional unidentified receptors are needed to mediate the attractive response to Netrin. Analysis of Bolwig's nerve reveals that Netrin mutants have a similar phenotype to Down Syndrome Cell Adhesion Molecule (Dscam) mutants. Netrin and Dscam mutants display dose sensitive interactions, suggesting that Dscam could act as a Netrin receptor. We show using cell overlay assays that Netrin binds to fly and vertebrate Dscam, and that Dscam binds Netrin with the same affinity as DCC. At the CNS midline, we find that Dscam and its paralog Dscam3 act redundantly to promote midline crossing. Simultaneous genetic knockout of the two Dscam genes and the Netrin receptor fra produces a midline crossing defect that is stronger than the removal of Netrin proteins, suggesting that Dscam proteins also function in a pathway parallel to Netrins. Additionally, overexpression of Dscam in axons that do not normally cross the midline is able to induce ectopic midline crossing, consistent with an attractive receptor function. Our results support the model that Dscam proteins function as attractive receptors for Netrin and also act in parallel to Frazzled/DCC. Furthermore, the results suggest that Dscam proteins have the ability to respond to multiple ligands and act as receptors for an unidentified midline attractive cue. These functions in axon guidance have implications for the pathogenesis of Down Syndrome.

In other words, research on fruit flies is helping us to understand Down Syndrome better. The same can be said for almost all human biology, both pathogenic and 'normal' (whatever that means).

And here's where Palin's mocking is even more resonant: the reason fruit fly biology illuminates human biology is because our genomes are so similar and the reason our genomes are so similar is because we inherited them from the last common ancestor of humans and fruit flies [cue Sarah Palin's head popping off and steam shooting out].

*Though not technically correct, 'fruit fly' is the colloquial name for the monumentally important model organism Drosophila melanogaster. True fruit flies belong to the insect family Tephritidae and it was in fact a research project on these Tephritid flies that Palin was so gleefully skewering as wasteful earmark spending. Some have argued that this fact exonerates Palin-- i.e. that she was not mocking D. melanogaster research because she knows how important that is (right, as if Palin knows the difference between true fruit flies and model organism 'fruit flies') but rather she was mocking Tephritid fruit fly research. Problem is that the project she mocked is more applied to human benefit (in this case agricultural productivity) than most D. melanogaster research, not less, so there's that argument out the window.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Scientist Pin-Ups: Senta's sexy sextant

Senta Osoling learns how to determine latitude by using a sextant in September 1942 at Polytechnic High School, Los Angeles (which is, coincidentally, where my father went to high school). Senta later became a chemist, and is now the Director of National Center for Improving Science Education. Profiled here.

h/t Michael Barton

Friday, 17 October 2008

"I'm a scientist, and I'm voting for Barack Obama"

Scientists and Engineers for America Action Fund and ScienceBlogs have launched A Vote for Science, a collection of YouTube videos made by scientists explaining who they are voting for and why. So in addition to casting my absentee ballot, I think contributing something to A Vote for Science should be my other pre-election duty this weekend. I'm not sure I need a whole video, though, when one picture pretty much says it all:

A good friend's uterus, this week. I'm going to hazard a guess that this future heir of our environmental legacy is not going to look back kindly on the folks who chanted "drill, baby, drill! and pretended for way, way, way too long that climate change wasn't caused by human activity.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Scientist Pin-Ups: DNA's dark lady

Update: Elke and Miriam have accepted embraced the challenge!

In this first installment of Scientist Pin-Ups, I have decided to feature an important (and lovely) figure in the history of science: Dr Rosalind Franklin. I have selected three imminently pin-uppable pictures of Franklin, but before you feast your eyes, please take a moment to read this short excerpt from the National Library of Medicine's excellent Rosalind Franklin Papers:
Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) was a British chemist and crystallographer who is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. It was her x-ray diffraction photos of DNA and her analysis of that data--provided to Francis Crick and James Watson without her knowledge--that gave them clues crucial to building their correct theoretical model of the molecule in 1953. While best known for this work, Franklin also did important research into the micro-structure and properties of coals and other carbons, and spent the last five years of her career elucidating the structure of plant viruses, notably tobacco mosaic virus.
There is also the brilliant BBC Four documentary, The Dark Lady of DNA (called Secret of Photo 51 in the US) both with associated online content. Now on to the pictures:

Rosalind Franklin, "seen here serving coffee in evaporating dishes at her Parisian laboratory in the late 1940s" (image from NOVA's Secret of Photo 51)

Rosalind Franklin on holiday in Tuscany in Spring, 1950.
Image from the National Library of Medicine's Rosalind Franklin Papers

Rosalind Franklin mountain climbing in Norway, ca. 1940s.
Image from the National Library of Medicine's Rosalind Franklin Papers

In my next post I will highlight one more historical (lovely) figure in science before moving on to caricatures of sciency sexiness (as I said in the grand challenge, the Scientist Pin-Up is ultimately what we're after here, the idealized sexiness of scientists). But I couldn't move on to that until I set the baseline with some big-name scientists with beautiful visages to match their profound intellects.

If you know of a good Scientist Pin-Up that you'd like to see featured in future posts, please post a link to the image(s) in comments.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


*shakes off cobwebs and preoccupation with politics*

My friend M sent not one but two shots across my bow today. The first was her assertion on Facebook that the only sandal Birkenstock should bother producing is the Milano. Pfffft. Everyone (minus one) knows the Arizona is where it's at.

The second, and this is going to be the subject of this post, was her post on [name of blog removed], [name of post removed]. In the challenge post, M gives us a tantalizing spread of brainy-therefore-intimidating-and-inhibited-therefore-oh-so-debauchable-therefore-sexy pin-up girls.

Which is all well and good.


Why do the librarian types get to have a monopoly on brainy-sexiness? Where are the scientists? We're brainy, after all, and therefore I think we should bebetter represented in our cultural repertoire of brainy-sexy images.

And therein lies the challenge: go ye my minions readers and find me images of sexy scientists! Extra credit will be given for images which are caricatures of sciency sexiness. The Scientist Pin-Up is ultimately what we're after here, the idealized sexiness of scientists.

I will now gather a few starter images, and recruit a few allies, and will get back to you soon with my first salvo of sexy science images. In the meantime, please post links to your own submissions in comments. At some stage we'll do a poll or a vote or something. Winner to receive bragging rights and possibly a mention on the Cafe Press t-shirt that I plan to make from the winning image with the caption "science is sexy".

Monday, 25 August 2008

Why I'm a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists

  1. Read this
  2. Support this
  3. Vote for Obama*

*I took the photo at right while on a trip to Washington DC last November. If it's this stained and peeling on the outside, what's it like on the inside? If John McCain gets elected, we can hope for more of the same.

Friday, 4 July 2008

By the dawn's early light

This is my fifth Independence Day as an American expat in the UK. Every year, I take a few minutes to read the Declaration of Independence, copied in its entirety below, and every year I am surprised afresh by feelings of homesickness and nostalgia that wash over me on this day to remember the high ideals to which we aspire.

Today is an especially good Independence Day for me, because for the first time in a long time, I have real hope that in November this year, we will "throw off" our current government and "provide new guards for our future security". Of course, I'm talking about the potential that we might signal, both to ourselves and the rest of the world, by the election of Barack Obama as our 44th President, that we as a nation are finally waking up and shaking off the last eight years of bafflingly woolly-headed nationalism in favour of a fresh new progressive, globally aware patriotism.

I look forward to the possibility that on Wednesday the 5th of November this year (which, coincidentally, is a big night for fireworks in the UK - how handy!), I might wake up and be able to hold my head up high again as an American abroad, proud of the corrective action that we have taken by electing Barack Obama and in so doing taking a first step towards healing the many wounds, both inside and outside of our country, that have been either inflicted or infected by the present administration, for which, I might add, I most certainly did not vote. Either time.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Saturdays are for catblogging

...or so says Lunartalks. Excellent - this is just the trigger I've been waiting for to unleash these homemade LOLs:

Thursday, 29 May 2008

In which I wake up to a sexist leaflet on my doorstep

In case there is anyone out there laboring under the impression that it is 2008, prepare to be disabused:


Sunday, 25 May 2008

Christmas in July, or, how to set a girl-scientist's heart a-flutter

I organise. It's heritable, too; my mother is a world grand-master list-maker who taught me, among other things, how to use the backs of envelopes to survive paper shortages (which pose a serious psychological risk to list-makers) and save the planet at the same time (list-makers love killing two birds with one stone).

Through my life, I've met a few others like me, most notably my friend Jennie with whom I sat back to back during grad school. She and I fanned the flames of each other's list-mania and to this day we exchange new and improved ways of making, keeping and organising our lists.

And oh boy, do I need my lists. I've got my country's Charles Darwin's five two hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding Beagle Project science programme to arrange, my wife research to murder publish, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped. (If you're really confused right now, stop reading this and go watch The Princess Bride.)

I've tried a few different organising systems, including but not limited to:
This year, though, I think I've finally hit on a winner: a combination of iCal (especially using the File > New To Do function) and Moleskine's Weekly Notebook. Nearly halfway through 2008, it's working really well.

I really like how the calendar is on the left hand side of the opened diary, and on the right there is a simple ruled page to jot down notes (that way your notes are instantly traceable by date). I love my Moleskine, and I look forward (as all list-makers do) to the end of the year when I can start with a shiny new Moleskine with fresh, clean pages.

Problem is, I'm already starting to accumulate things for 2009 and my Moleskine ends in December. What to do? I turn to the last page and keep a list (I'm so predictable) of things that will have to go into my 2009 Moleskine. It's not very satisfying but at least I know I won't forget anything important.

You can imagine my delight then when I found in my in-box an email from UK online Moleskine dealer MojoLondon that Moleskine is now selling 18-month diaries that start in July and go through the end of the following year. That means I can start my clean and shiny new Moleskine this July ...a mere four weeks away. And here I thought I had to wait until Christmas.

The big decision is whether to get the Large Weekly Notebook Hard Cover or the Extra Large Weekly Notebook Soft Cover. What a lovely decision to have to make. I think I'll go put it on my to-do list for tomorrow.

Update, 2 June 08: Lacy has discovered an even better way to make sure you don't forget any of those important t0-dos.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Apparently, celebrity Nature editor Henry Gee and I both:

  • work from home on Thursdays
  • suffer a gag reflex from the close proximity of over-perfumed/cologned train passengers
  • think 'presenteeism' is so not Web 2.0
  • advocate an expansion of London's new ban on alcohol on public transport to include talking, overt sexual display and smelly grooming products
Source: Dr Gee's amusing Nature Network blog post, Aboard the 06:55 from Much Twittering.

P.S. Please, dear reader, kindly vote for my new SciFri blog name, upper right.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Moving to Science Friday & vote for new blog name

In January I met Talia Page and Ann Marie Cunningham of Talking Science at the Science Blogging Conference in North Carolina, and they invited me to write for Science Friday Blogs (the site is currently being re-vamped to be way more blogolicious).

I've always loved Science Friday--Ira Flatow's calming tones and fascinating guests used to help get me through Friday afternoon fruit fly ovary dissections in grad school--and I admire their ambitions, so I consider it a real honour to be asked to blog with them.

You can probably tell from my patchy posting here that Data Not Shown has been something of an experiment. I wasn't sure when I started it how many posts I'd end up wanting to write that weren't appropriate for The Beagle Project Blog, and I think the answer has turned out to be a resounding "not many".

So. I'm closing up shop here at Data Not Shown and re-inventing myself a little bit for the new Science Friday blog. I think part of the reason I didn't get really jazzed about Data Not Shown is that it didn't have a coherent and succinct theme. Thus my aims for the new blog are:
  1. to post regularly if not as often as I do on the Beagle Project Blog, say, once a week to start.
  2. to write themed series' of posts, for example a weekly biology and/or evolution glossary entry, a series of interviews with scientists I admire, or maybe even a series of video podcasts from the lab and other parts of the Natural History Museum.
I am also thinking of re-naming the blog. Please use the poll on the upper right side of this page to let me know what name you like best.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to seeing you over at SciFri blogs!

Friday, 25 April 2008

Plant genomes made easy

Science has a new multimedia feature on plant genomes "From evolutionary insights to crop development" which does a pretty good job demystifying plant genomics in reasonably* plain language.

*If you've had a basic biology class and know the meaning of such words as "chromosome", "gene" and "DNA replication" you should be able to follow along.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

When people do good

Whether inspired by a religious mandate to love others or a humanist motivation to engage in acts of kindness towards one's fellow man, I am always heartened to hear stories about my fellow humans who do good.

Most of these stories don't make the headline news and so go largely unnoticed until they happen within our circles of acquaintance. Case in point: my friend Lacy Claeys, a dentist from Helena, Montana and her young dental assistant, Helena High School senior Luke Dutton, rode a bus for 22 hours south of their comfort zones to perform heroic acts of kindhearted dentistry on young orphans in Juarez, Mexico.

Some of their stories are so unfathomably heartbreaking--like the 12-year old prostitute with a herpes infection in the back of her throat--that it's no wonder Lacy and Luke are having trouble reintegrating back in Helena. To say I wish them well would be an understatement.

So here's to all the unsung heroes out there like Lacy and Luke, may they find the strength to do more good, and may we all--regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof--be inspired by their acts of human kindness and willingness to expose themselves to soul-wrenching poverty despite the psychological consequences.

Read more about Lacy and Luke and their great big hearts at

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Radio Ga Ga

I'm on the radio! Listen again (mp3) and/or visit Atheists Talk. It's a full hour of Peter McGrath and me stumping for The Beagle Project, so you might want to use the loo and get some popcorn before you click.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Squiddy tour for science bloggers and UK Pharyngulites

Following on from the successful first meeting of the UK Pharyngulites in early March, I am pleased to announce another opportunity for sciencey bonding in Blighty ...this time over squid!

I'm organising it over at The Beagle Project Blog. Hope to see you there!

Photo by Peter McGrath, co-founder of The HMS Beagle Project.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Hide the children: creationist Ken Ham is coming to Blighty

Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Kentucky, will be delivering several talks in the UK over the next month. You know what to do, my freethinking friends:
28-30 March Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales (Firm Foundations Creation Conference, a "residential conference" *shudder*)

31 March Liverpool

1 April Grimsby

2 April Bedford

3 April Leicester

4-5 April London (Creation Conference)

9-10 May Belfast (this is an important one, methinks, because it seems likely to attract proponents of the notorious Giant's Causeway Creation Committee)
I am going to try and attend the London conference. It is a ticketed event and so I have emailed the organisers (yes, using my real name) and will post an update here as soon as I know any more.

Hat tip to Marc.

Update: Tickets to the London event cost £5 for Friday, £10 for Saturday and £15 for both days. So, is it worth a fiver to confront Ken Ham in person? Hmmm.

Here is a part of the PDF I received in response to my ticket enquiry:

Monday, 24 March 2008

Sheer comic genius from Rick MacPherson

Click the crop to see the full comic strip...

Sunday, 23 March 2008

On my honour, I will try (3/4)

This is the third post in a four-part series, begun over on the Beagle Project Blog in Part 1 (which includes an introduction to The Science Scouts) and Part 2.

ere is the third batch of my Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique badges:

The "I've done science with no conceivable practical application" badge. Well, maybe I lack imagination but I simply cannot conceive of a practical application that might come from an understanding of the evolutionary mechanism of interspecific variation in fruit fly eggshell morphology. The whole point was to understand evolution just a little bit better, and to me that is enough to make it worthwhile. That said, science for curiosity's sake also sometimes leads to practical applications that are only as yet inconceivable but may very well become earth shatteringly important at some later stage. For example, there's the story of that guy who was fascinated by the mold spores that landed on his petri dish (inconceivable!) but then it turned out to be the source of Penicillin. 'Nough said.

The "science has forced me to seek medical attention" badge. More people can claim this badge than probably realise it, especially if we count mental health, which I think we should. I get the badge for a number of reasons: 1) repetitive strain injury, numbness in my right hand and a strained muscle in my neck, all from writing my thesis, 2) astigmatism partly due to looking through a microscope for too many hours per day in grad school and 3) Temperomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) from PhD related stress.

The "somewhat confused as to what scientific field I actually belong to" badge. This badge was made for me. During my PhD I moved from developmental genetics to evo-devo. Now it's even more pronounced; you see, sometimes a geneticist can feel rather alone in a natural history museum. For example, whenever I meet a new member of staff or visitor, the question always comes up, "so, what group of plants do you work on?" Me: "Uh, um, well, see, I work on genetics/genomics as they apply to just about any group of plants." Them: "oh" *walks away*. It turns out that when one's "specialty" is (or was) Drosophila melanogaster, that doesn't seem to count. Sometimes this transdisciplinary thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. Oh well, it seems to be working out okay.

The "works with acids" badge. Two words: deoxyribonucleic acid. Then there are all the other acids which come with working in any wet lab. I won't bore you with the details. They really are boring. Really.

One batch of badges to go! Sneak preview in the sidebar.

Friday, 21 March 2008

What are you doing here?

...when you could be wetting yourself with laughter over what will likely be one of the biggest stories to hit the science blogosphere this year: the famous biologist-blogger PZ Myers (but inexplicably not the even more famous biologist-author Richard Dawkins) was expelled from a screening of creationist propaganda film Expelled! Many thanks to Greg Laden who has put together (and kept up to date) an impromptu blog carnival about it. Now get on over there for a dose of hand-rubbing glee!

Update 1: What Bad Astronomy said.

Update 2: Digital Cuttlefish has already set the saga to verse. Bravo!

Update 3: Thoughts from Kansas has a wonderfully concise analysis:
"If you make a movie that falsely claims there's a massive conspiracy to expel dissenting voices, it's probably unwise to then expel dissenting voices."

Thursday, 20 March 2008

In which I recant my aversion to marriage

As most of my friends and family know (and some lament), I am apathetic about and occasionally hostile towards the institution of marriage. But today, my armour has been chinked by the thought of a bridal registry that includes this:

"evo-cut" cutlery by Harry White
evo-cut is a one-off set of cutlery designed according to the principles of population genetics and natural variation. Rather than just having two sizes, this set or population of cutlery shows continuous variation in size and shape. Further, the set shows inheritance of several kinds of mutation, as explained by a family tree, that alter the cutlery functionality, sometimes in unexpected and useful ways. Because the cutlery pieces show natural variation in size, there is always a piece suitable for every age, appetite and ability. Through use and exploration, the true adaptive potential of different pieces will be discovered and the novel functionalities revealed when the situation demands it, just like evolution. evo-cut is now the property of Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design and is occasionally on display.
You can view close-ups of both the cutlery and its pedigree at Harry White Design. This is simply wonderful. Morning cereal would never be the same.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A Somewhat Old, But Capacious Accolade

Many thanks to MissPrism at A Somewhat Old, But Capacious Handbag who has rated lil' ol' Data Not Shown "E for Excellent"!

Of course, the decks were stacked in my favor (just a little), because it was yours truly wearing my Beagle Project Blog hat who rated MissPrism "E" in the first place. But hey, I'll take it, because when one's blog is young and still a little wayward like Data Not Shown, one is obliged to enthusiastically trumpet any and all instances of link love that one can get.

And I now humbly bestow the "E for Excellent" upon the following blogs (yes, it's an entirely separate list from the Beagle bestowal):
  • Botany Photo of the Day was my very first regular blog read from way back in the day when I didn't even know what a blog was... you know, like two years ago.
  • Just today I discovered the Londonist, for Londoners in the know.
  • A Natural History of Runswick Bay, written by none other than fellow Beagle Blogger Peter McGrath, brings all manner of treasure from England's northeast coast direct to our desktops.
  • Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita, a real-time blog by intrepid marine environmental scientists, on location from the place where plastic crawls away to die live forever.
  • The Oyster's Garter: smart and sassy, in a sciencey way. In other words, I love it.
  • Space Cadet is off to kind of a slow start but I really like what I see there and think it should be encouraged.
  • xkcd, "A webcomic of math, romance, sarcasm and language". Also has an utterly fabulous online shop.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Pharyngula readers: what a handsome bunch!

While I was stuck at home coughing up greenish phlegm, a gaggle of previously unacquainted Pharyngula readers descended (as planned) on the Doric Arch near Euston Station in London. Malcolm FCD reports by email:
"We started at the Doric Arch, and went on for a pizza. We pretty well agreed we'd like to do something similar in 6 - 8 weeks... Starting with Debi on the left and going clockwise around the table, we were ___, ___, Malcolm, ___, ___, ___ and ___. Disclaimer - I don't know who wants their names published... Malcolm (posting as Malcolm, FCD)"
I'm really bent that I couldn't make it, but delighted to hear there will be a next time! I think you'll agree, this looks like an excellent bunch of people. If you were there and don't mind having your name attached with your face, please let me know in the comments and I'll fill in the blank that corresponds to you.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Giant's causeway digression

I just can't hold it in any longer. I've been over at the Beagle Project Blog writing my counter-response to the Causeway Creation Committee's reply to my 2007 post "Not just an American Problem (Part II)". I was really trying to keep the whole science vs. religion thing out of it, focusing instead on science vs. young-earth creationism. But when I read this:
"the philosophical view of the atheistic naturalist scientist (as opposed to the observational scientist) is that human life is of no more worth or value than a dust cloud or a black hole" got personal. Paul, I am getting really, really tired of the claim that the ability to value human life must necessarily stem directly from a belief that human life was purposefully created by a big guy in the sky. It mustn't. In fact, often religiosity correlates with bad behaviour. Get over it.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Science spam

The daily barrage of Viagra, Microsoft software and Rolex rip-offs is bad enough, but recently I've noticed a category of specialised spam reserved just for us scientists. For example, today I received this:
Dear Dr. James,

Cloning is tedious and unpredictable. The process can get stuck anywhere. For example, the template may be hard to get or a restriction site may be not available. Sometimes ligation doesn’t work. All these problems may stop your great idea from becoming a high-impact publication. Our Gene Synthesis Service offers an easy and affordable alternative to solving all these problems by yourself.

And keep the rest of the matter in mind:

· De novo synthesis can start right after we receive your sequence
· Codon optimization is included, compliments of GenScript
· Unlimited mutations – at any position
· We deliver your gene in any vector, including those suitable for protein expression

Get a sense of how easy and comprehensive our service is – ask for quotation today

Our customer representatives are available 24 hours, Monday through Friday. You may contact us anytime for assistance. Please check our contact page for our local reginal numbers.

Gen Script Corporation - VWR Strategic Partner
120 Centennial Ave., Piscataway, NJ 08854
Tel: 1-732-885-9188 ext 128
Fax: 1-732-210-0262
Sadly, it appears that even science spam is rife with bad English ("And keep the rest of the matter in mind") and innuendo ("sometimes ligation doesn't work", "unlimited mutations - at any position"). What do they think, that I'll be titillated by their promise to "deliver your gene in any vector" and do some impulse shopping at VWR?

Sunday, 24 February 2008

UK Pharyngulites unite!

Confirmed! Come one, come all to the London Pharyngula readers' meet-up on Saturday, 15 March, 7pm at the Doric Arch near Euston Station. When you get there, look for the Pharyngula embryo sign, right. Also, I will wear my Beagle Project t-shirt.

PZ Myers noticed something of "a strange phenomenon" (if you can still call social networking on the internet a strange phenomenon...) that began when Pharyngula readers in Boston organised a local pow-wow marked, of course, by squid. He thought (and I think) this is something worth propagating and so suggested we all get into it and start forming satellite Pharyngulite clubs all over the world.

Turns out there are lots of us here in the UK. As of 19:14 GMT on Sunday, the following had identified themselves in PZ's comment thread as habitating here:
  • Mark UK (Edinburgh)
  • Jonathan (Sheffield)
  • Didi (Norwich)
  • Peter Mc (Whitby)
  • mmghosh (Bristol)
  • Don (Tynedale)
  • Miss Prism (London)
  • Marc (London)
  • Maureen (Hebden Bridge)
  • oh, and me, nunatak (London)
  • You?
So, I thought I'd create a post to help us organise ourselves without having to wade through the hundreds of comments over at PZ's place.

If you are in the UK and interested in meeting up please leave a comment here. If people want to spin off and form sub-groups that's fine by me, everyone's welcome to do their own thing of course!

So, I think all that's left to say is: go forth into the Comment thread, all ye UK Pharyngulites, and self-organise!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Total lunar eclipse begins in four hours

At 1:43am GMT (8:43pm EST) the Moon will enter the blurry edge of the Earth's shadow, called the Penumbra. Then, at 3:01am GMT (10:01pm EST) the total eclipse (Moon in the darkest part of the Earth's shadow, the Umbra) will begin, and will last for 50 minutes before the Moon begins its slow exit from the Earth's shadow through the Penumbra on the other side.

So put on a pot of Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee and get ready for a lovely reminder of the orbital dance that takes our cold and lonely Moon about our precious Earth about our helium Sun. Me, I'll be reminiscing about my close encounter with Moon rocks back in November.

More info at NASA (naturally) including diagrams like the above for other time zones and an explanation for why the moon is depicted here moving from east to west.

Update 21 Feb.: Stayed up until 2am only to be thwarted by London fog. Damn. Others were more fortunate. My favorite picture at right, the eclipse as seen from Cape Town.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Curing the disease of human self-importance

Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire* changed my life. More specifically, it changed my lazy, conceited assumptions about the primacy of human consciousness.

Sure, I'd known for a long time that the Great Chain of Being (and its counterpart in evolutionary language, the concept of "higher" species the highest being Homo sapiens) is a load of anthropocentric hogwash. And I've known for slightly less time that there are several simple but earth-shaking ways to visualise the specific truth and putridity of said hogwash.

One of these is this simple list of the number of genes in various genomes that have been sequenced:
Thale cress.....25,500
Sea urchin......23,300
Fruit fly........13,700
Baker's yeast....5,800
E. coli...........4,400
Then, for the more visual among us, there's also the lovely evolutionary tree of life, with its teeny tiny "you are here" annotation (high res pdf):

So, then, if we already know that humans are not at the top of some mistakenly conceived evolutionary escalator, what's so special about The Botany of Desire*?

The core concept of the book boils down to this question: what would happen if we looked at agriculture "not as an invention, not as a human technology, but as a co-evolutionary development in which a group of very clever species--mostly edible grasses--had exploited us/figured out how to get us to basically deforest the world" to benefit their genetic legacy?

It's a new way of thinking about agriculture, to be sure. But how is Pollan's idea any different or better than the list of gene numbers (in which the relative positions of rice and humans are already fairly suggestive of some kind of grassy overlordship), or the "you are here" tree of life?

Pollan's hook does go deeper than the list and the tree, by penetrating the skin of human physical form and getting down to the sinew of human intention. But is the botany of desire really anything more than a "literary conceit" as Pollan himself calls it? Does it actually benefit anyone or anything beyond giving us "some entertaining insights"?

In his Ted talk, below, Pollan argues, I think convincingly, that there are real tangible benefits to thinking about ourselves in this new way. For example, he cites its power to "really make us feel the Darwinian idea". It certainly did that for me. I had seen any number of "you are here" diagrams but it didn't really come home until I thought about how I was being expertly manipulated by the edible grasses.

But enough of my trying to explain it, why not hear it straight from the eloquent and impassioned Pollan himself:

H/t to Greg Laden.

*no Amazon link, support your independent bookstore