Category Archives: biology

A Bird that Teaches Itself to Sing: The White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned sparrow ©Tim Jones
White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) ©Tim Jones

I’ve just finished Richard Dawkins’s self-narrated audiobook of  An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, where, introducing a task given to him by his research supervisor Niko Tinbergen, related to nature versus nurture aspects of animal behaviour, he makes special mention of the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli).  As it happens, earlier this year I caught this native of North America pecking at a fig.

White-crowned sparrow ©Tim Jones
White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) ©Tim Jones

Is behaviour built in at birth – innate and instinctive?  Or is it learned from experience?  One way ethologists, who study animal behaviour, try to answer such questions is to compare the behaviour of subjects artificially deprived of normal early life learning opportunities with those raised in their natural habitat.

Richard DawkinsIn the case of birdsong, tests on Sedge Warblers show they automatically know their song without ever hearing the tune from another bird.  As Dawkins puts it, they ‘fumble’ towards the final song, trying different sounds and sequences from which they assemble a correct version; so the process is innate: it’s all ‘nature’.

The White-crowned Sparrow also teaches itself to sing its unique song by fumbling and picking out the good bits, but, unlike the Sedge Warbler, it needs to have heard its song from another White-crowned sparrow in early life; it needs a prompt to know where it’s going – so to speak.  As for many animal behaviours, including human behaviours, the White-crowned Sparrow’s song is the product of a nature-nurture combo of innate and learned influences.  Dawkins wonders what similar early life deprivation experiments, within ethical bounds, might be made to study the human condition.

You can hear the White-crowned sparrows song here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Sticky Moment with a California Tree Frog

Tree frogs in trees are just fine, but tree frogs on plate-glass windows are better – because then you get to see their slightly icky fascinating undersides.

Pseudacris cadaverina - California Treefrog ©Tim Jones
Pseudacris cadaverina – California Treefrog ©Tim Jones


I must admit, what struck me most when this guy landed – ‘thunk’ – out of a fig tree onto our window in Los Angeles, was how much his (her?) legs looked like raw chicken.  I’ve always shied away from those cuisses de grenouille opportunities, but I know the meat is often compared to chicken.  IMG_2517_280Why frogs and chickens developed that way is an interesting question, but not for today’s post.

Rather, now I’m back in the UK , where the frogs are less acrobatic, I’ve tried to figure out how our unexpected visitor managed to cling on.


Wet Adhesion

To understand that for the West Indian tree frog, Oseopilus septentrionalis, researchers Hanna and Barnes used active and anaesthetised frogs in experiments that measured the forces they apply walking up vertical surfaces, the angle at which they drop off a gradually inclined surface, and the shear force experienced by an individual toe when the surface it’s attached to is suddenly slid from under it.

The experiments involved placing frogs on a variety of strain-gauge instrumented platforms and surfaces, and making videos of frogs placed on runways and rotating discs of transparent perspex.

The researchers concluded that the primary mechanism tree frogs use to get a grip is exactly the  same as that which keeps a sheet of wet paper stuck to the side of a glass: wet adhesion.

IMG_2517_2_280rotWet adhesion combines a mix of viscous and surface tension forces, both of which require liquid and, in the case of surface tension, an air-liquid interface.  In the tree frog, that liquid takes the form of mucous – wait for it – pumped out the ends of its toes.

The mucous appears from perfectly smooth-looking toe pads that are actually covered in thousands of peg-like cells between which mucous flows from glands.  I can see something going on in my own photographs, but the structure is clear in the SEM picture below.



Hanna and Barnes’s also looked at how tree frogs release themselves to move.  The frogs peeled rather than pulled their feet off surfaces, the peeling force engaging automatically in forward movement, but not in reverse or when the belly skin of the frog made contact with the surface.


Frogs placed on a slowly rotating vertical disc reorientated themselves to avoid facing downwards – presumably because of the involuntary forward travel or detachment that would induce.  At first sight then, my Pseudacris cadaverina appears to defy that rule – because he’s clearly inverted in one of the pictures; but that could be explained by the extra adhesion he’s getting from the inner thigh area – corresponding to the aforementioned belly skin.  What’s more, the authors point out that toe pads have developed independently several times in tree frogs, so the observed peeling mechanism may be peculiar to Oseopilus septentrionalis.

I would have liked to spend more time with this little guy, but after about ten minutes I looked up and he’d gone – probably back into the fig tree.  But for a while there he sure provided a level of interest, conversation, and intrigue way out of proportion to his size.  Ribbit.

Apparatus to measure climbing force


Tree frog toe pad. After Hanna & Barnes, 1991.
Tree frog toe pad. After Hanna & Barnes, 1991.




1. Adhesion and detachment of the toe pads of tree frogs. Gavin Hanna, W.John Barnes. Journal of Experimental Biology 155, 103-125 (1991)

Sticky End for a Carpenter Bee

Carpenter Bees look like Bumble Bees, but are black all over with an almost hairless abdomen.  A penchant for boring into wooden structures to make their homes makes them unpopular with owners of wooden homes – understandably.

Carpenter Bee Caught in Spider Web (Photo: Tim Jones)
Carpenter Bee Caught in Spider Web (Photo: Tim Jones)

I snapped this one, dead, hanging directly over the back door porch.  Which is a little worrying, seeing as the web it’s hanging from belongs to one of these guys:

Black Widow Spider (Photo: Tim Jones)
One I took earlier. Black Widow Spider (Photo: Tim Jones)

Recognizable by its bulbous abdomen and red hour-glass insignia, the Black Widow spider weaves a characteristically disheveled web.  This Western Black Widow, Latrodectus hesperus,  is the only kind found in California. (Reminder again that I’m visiting the US at the mo’; we don’t get these in the UK – thankfully.)

The popular myth that a Black Widow bite will, guaranteed, kill a person outright dead everytime seems a bit overblown (ref. University of California.).  But reports of painful muscle cramps, fever etc. suggest gloves are a good idea if you’re clearing out that dark corner of the garage; that’s where we found this guy.

See how in the top photo the web shines so nicely in the backlight?   That property, combined with the phenomenal strength of spider silk, wasn’t lost on the US military who, during World War II, harvested Black Widow spider silk for use as the cross-hairs of gun-sights (ref. Popular Science March 1944)

Here are some Carpenter Bees in happier times:

Carpenter Bee on the wing (Photo:Tim Jones)
Carpenter Bee on the wing (Photo:Tim Jones)
Carpenter Bee on the wing (Photo:Tim Jones)
Carpenter Bee on the wing (Photo:Tim Jones)



Leicester’s Famous Bones

Model of Richard III's Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)
Model of Richard III’s Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)

Spending time in my original home town of Leicester last week was a chance to get better acquainted with the city’s recently recovered celebrity, King Richard III no less, at an exhibition in the ancient Guildhall.  I also got to visit another of my favourite Leicester museums, The New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, which has its own bones to shout about.

Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard III

The search for Richard started in August last year, when the University of Leicester working with the King Richard III Society discovered and recovered a skeleton – everything but its feet – from a central Leicester car park: a car park that overlays the site of the former Greyfriars Priory.

Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Greyfriars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Grey Friars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

With a barrage of forensic tests and historical interpretation brought to bear over several months, including a DNA match with a living descendant, the remains were finally declared the real deal in February this year.

An unlikely prospect made good for historians and archaeologists, I’m guessing I’m not the only one raised in the city for whom the find has a special fascination.  I lived close to the King Richard’s Road; and as kids we visited nearby Bosworth Field, where Richard fell in 1485; and I can remember some rivalry with the local ‘King Dick’s’ school.   The science labs where I studied for A-Levels were literally a stone’s throw from the burial site.  I’m not suggesting Leicester folk spend all their time sat round thinking about history, but there’s always been a general awareness in the air.

Leicester are proud of their find (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester are proud of their find. There are several posters like this around the town (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard’s character in life, unambiguously portrayed by Shakespeare as one of murderous villainy, is disputed – not least by the splendidly motivated Richard III Society.  But there’s no doubting his popularity in death – not if the queues to the exhibition are anything to go by; I gave up on my first attempt and came back early the next day.

Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)
Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)

Rather than the real skeleton being on display, there’s a model of the skull and a light-table graphic representation of the bones.  The side-on curved spine characteristic of scoliosis is clearly visible: doubtless the origin of historical reports/myths/exaggerations on Richard’s appearance and gait.

 Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
 Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

The suite of scientific tests used to characterise the remains included DNA Sequencing for identification, Radiocarbon Dating for age at death (1450-1538), Stable Isotope Analysis (tooth enamel) and Calculus Analysis (tooth plaque) for diet, health and lifestyle.  The Leicester University team successfully matched mitochondrial DNA from Richard’s teeth with that from his living descendant Michael Ibsen.  For more on the science, see Leicester University’s Richard III website.

New Walk Museum

Passing on Richard’s queue that first day gave me plenty of time to explore Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

 New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)

New Walk Museum & Art Gallery

I’m spoilt for museums in London, but still have a soft spot for Leicester’s New Walk.  It was the first museum I visited as a child: with an indoor goldfish pond and scary Egyptian mummies standing at the top of the stairs as you went in.  The fish have gone, but the mummies are still there, better contextualised now in a special ancient Egypt exhibit.  And overall they’ve done a great job of keeping up with the times.

On this occasion, supporting a special exhibition on DNA,  I caught a lunchtime lecture on the human genome, by Dr Ed Hollox, a Leicester University geneticist whose talk focused on the genetic basis and geographical distribution of milk (lactose) intolerance.

Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The Leicester group have also printed a 130 volume hard copy of the entire human genome – as a communication exercise in getting over the sheer size of the thing.  The volumes, printed in tiny 4 point font, are on display at New Walk.

 Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)

The Rutland Dinosaur

Back to the bones, and this c.168 million year old Ceteosaurus Oxoniensis , known as The Rutland Dinosaur.

The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The long-necked herbivore’s fossilised remains, recovered in 1968 from Great Casterton, Rutland – the county just East of Leicestershire – have a special claim as the most complete (about 40%)  Sauropod found in the United Kingdom.


I’m not alone in my childhood memories of New Walk Museum.  In this video, Sir David Attenborough, who hails from Leicester and stays close to the museum, recalls his early impressions.  Incidentally, the chair he mentions, belonging to the giant Daniel Lambert, is now in Leicester’s Newarke Houses Museum – but that’s a different story.

Let’s not forget too that one of the oldest fossils in the world is kept at New Walk: the pre-Cambrian Charnia fossil, as featured in Attenborough’s First Life series (for more on that, see Return to the Land of Charnia).

All of which lets me finish on a nice obscure link, almost as unlikely as finding Richard III in a car park.  Which is to realise the roof tiles from the Greyfriars Priory, recovered from the excavation and featured in the Guildhall exhibition, come from the very same Swithland slate quarry where Charnia was found.

Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)
Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)

Busy Bees

Bee and flower at Huntington Gardens © Tim Jones

Here are a few shots I took this afternoon of bees feeding on/pollinating one of the many species of Aloe that populate the Huntington Gardens.

Bee and Flower ©Tim Jones

The bees burrow and completely disappear inside the tubular orange flowers.

Bee and Flower ©Tim Jones

Bee with Flower © Tim Jones

Bee and Flower © Tim Jones

Bee and Flower © Tim Jones
Bee and Flower © Tim Jones
Gone (almost).

These two shots show the pollen baskets:

Pollen baskets are attached to the hind legs by a single hair
Pollen baskets are attached to the hind legs by a single hair
Bee entering Aloe flower with pollen baskets
Bee entering Aloe flower with pollen baskets
Aloe plant at Huntington Gardens © Tim Jones
Aloe Plant at Huntington Gardens (San Marino)
Humming Bird Feeding on Aloe (©Tim Jones)
These guys get a look-in too



Swans – Synchronised Preening

You may have seen swans performing various synchronised movements or ‘dances’ together on the water at mating time.

The pre-copulatory rituals extend to preening, and although we’re out of the breeding season, this local pair I snapped this afternoon are clearly keeping in practice.  Their synchronised stink-eye, reserved for loose dogs and over-eager photographers, is pretty impressive too.

Mute Swan Pair in Synchronised Preening (Photo:Tim Jones)
Mute Swan Pair in Synchronised Preening (Photo:Tim Jones)
Mute Swan Pair in Synchronised Preening (Photo:Tim Jones)
Mute Swan Pair in Synchronised Preening (Photo:Tim Jones)
Mute Swan Pair in Synchronised Preening (Photo:Tim Jones)
Mute Swan Pair in Synchronised Preening (Photo:Tim Jones)



Planetfest 2012 – Curiosity Knows No Bounds

Planetfest (Photos: Tim Jones)
NASA’s Charles Bolden and Plantetary Society CEO Bill Nye at Planetfest 2012

Unless you spent last week vacationing at the bottom of a Titan methane lake, you can’t have failed to notice NASA has just placed its largest, heaviest, and most advanced rover yet – the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, on the surface of Mars.  And ‘placed’ it was  –  nice and gently – by a rocket powered crane.

Sky-crane descent of the Mars Science Laboratory ‘Curiosity’ Picture: NASA

Even though I followed the moon landings, the idea of visiting Mars, in any form, still has a ring of science fiction about it.  But last weekend at my first Planetary Society Planetfest in Pasadena, California, Mars for me and 1500 others became extra-real, as we stood enthralled and affirmed in the knowledge that, for all our faults, human beings can still pull this stuff off.

There were nail-biting moments and fascinating discussions.  What I’ve put together here is a summary from my notes, mixed in with thoughts and photos to give you a taste of what went on.

Let’s set the scene with a JPL simulation of Curiosity’s landing:

And here’s the reaction where I was sitting in the Planetfest crowd:

Now meet four of the Planetary Society team who managed the panels, reported live from JPL, introduced speakers, and generally held things together from Saturday through to Curiosity’s landing late on Sunday evening:

Bill NyeBruce Betts

Jim BellEmily Lakdawalla

Left to right from top: CEO Bill Nye; Director Projects Dr.Bruce Betts; President Jim Bell; Technology & Scientific Coordinator Emily Lakdawalla.

Emily Lakdawalla at Planetfest 2012 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Emily Lakdawalla at Planetfest 2012

Arriving early Saturday morning for a front row seat, I knew I was off to a good start when NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green sat next to me and slipped me a couple of mission pins.

Jim Green (Photo: Tim Jones)
Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green reviewed fifty years of solar system exploration at NASA: missions past, present, and possible future.

It also helped that by the time Curiosity touched down we were already Mars experts, thanks to two days of presentations from the likes of ‘Mars Czar’ Scott Hubbard.  Hubbard, now an aeronautics professor at Stanford, authored NASA’s ten-year Mars program in which each mission informs and sets direction for future missions under a guiding science strategy of ‘Follow the Water’.  That strategy has morphed to ‘Seek Signs of Life’, with the qualification that Curiosity isn’t looking for living life as such, but evidence of past life or conditions that might have supported it (incidentally, there’s an article on this aspect by Stuart Clark here in the Guardian newspaper).

'Mars Czar' Scott Hubbard, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University (Photo:Tim Jones)
Scott Hubbard “I was first Mars Czar”
Rosaly Lopes-Gautier, JPL
JPL Volcanologist Rosaly Lopes-Gautier explained some crucial differences between the geology of Earth and Mars

We can follow the sequence.  Launched in 1996, Global Surveyor spotted evidence of flash floods, old polar oceans, and water-modified rocks.  In 2001, the Odyssey probe detected possible water ice at the pole (using gamma ray spectroscopy), which in 2008 Phoenix confirmed, actually scraping some of it away.  The 2004 Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, also found evidence of historic water in the form of tell-tale hematite ‘berries’. And in 2006, the high-definition imaging ability of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor (MRO) convincingly separated out surface features caused by water from those by wind.  MRO images were also instrumental in identifying Gale Crater as Curiosity’s landing site.  It’s sitting there now, in shake-down mode.

Matt Golombek, Senior Research Scientist JPL
Matt Golombek, JPL

Choosing Gale Crater, said Senior Research Scientist Matt Golombek, as with any landing site, is all about balancing science and safety: a negotiation between scientists who want the rover to go places where it can do interesting science, and engineers who have to build something that will get it there.

Site choice is also iterative with spacecraft development during the build, consistent with a rigorous systems engineering approach that underpins Hubbard’s original strategy and integrates the science/engineering/management teams.

Gale Crater and Curiosity landing site (Photo: NASA)
Gale Crater and Curiosity landing site (Photo: NASA)

So why choose Gale Crater from what started out as fifty possible landing sites?  Firstly, it doesn’t contain many mini-craters for Curiosity to accidentally land and get stuck in; but as importantly, great science waits there in accessible layers of sedimentary rocks stacked up around its central peak – Mount Sharp: layers where we might find signs of an environment for past life.

Pasadena Convention Center (Photo:Tim Jones)
Pasadena Convention Center

“The history of Mars is in this hole”

So said Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion describing how, over the weeks and months, Curiosity will explore the 96 mile wide Gale Crater, moving in on the three-mile high central peak, analysing rocks as it goes – remotely by shooting them with a laser and looking at the emitted light, and by pulling samples into its onboard chem. lab.

Each layer of the ancient deposit at Mount Sharp represents a step back in time, and as the side of the deposit has eroded away, Curiosity doesn’t need long drills to reach them.  We may, said Chief Engineer Rob Manning, find evidence of a historic “warm wet Mars”, or even the complex carbon calling cards of past life.  Unlike the earlier Spirit and Opportunity rovers – essentially geophysics platforms – Curiosity, with its onboard chem. lab, is equipped to find them.

Curiosity’s driver, Scott Maxwell, used the analogy of backing your car out of the drive with a 15 minute throttle delay for an entertaining introduction to roadcraft on an alien world.  The key tip it seems – based on experience with the Spirit rover – is don’t drive to anywhere you can’t see!

Rover Driver, Scott Maxwell (JPL)
JPL MSL Driver, Scott Maxwell
Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion (Photo:Tim Jones)
Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion
Chief Engineer MSL, Rob Manning (Photo:Tim Jones)
Chief Engineer MSL, Rob Manning

After Curiosity?

I guess next to the landing itself, the dominant buzz was around how best to counter a slowdown in the pace of planetary exploration and NASA budget cuts.   Crazy as it felt against the euphoria of Planetfest, NASA has no follow-on missions to Mars scheduled after Curiosity (although India plan an orbiter for 2014). [Update 20/08/12, InSight Mars planned for 2016].

In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to actually paying for it, space and planetary exploration simply aren’t a priority for – as one delegate described the general populace – normal people.  The Curiosity mission cost every American $7, or I guess about $1 /year.  What’s seven bucks?  One burger meal?  A movie rental?

Science fiction author David Brin echoes the common frustration that we’re not doing enough, fast enough, in space.  Where’s the desire? asks Brin, reminding us we have a strong track record of achieving challenging, unlikely, tasks if we really put our minds to it, and pointing to that fairyland in the desert we call Las Vegas.

David Brin (Photo: Tim Jones)
David Brin

Asked what it might take for a NASA budget hike to receive more popular support, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver suggested discovery of evidence for extra-terrestrial life or intelligent life might do it, or, less attractively, an asteroid threat to the planet.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (Photo:Tim Jones)
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver

It’s not that there are no ideas for a further  mission.  That would likely involve bringing material back to Earth for detailed analysis by many different laboratories and researchers: a ‘sample return’ mission.

Meantime, the Planetary Society reiterates the case for continued investment to support (America’s) national interest.  That includes Bill Nye’s argument for ‘trickle-up economics’, whereby exploration project investments in a region attract the best educators, lift regional and national education standards, motivate a new generation of technology workers – ultimately strengthening a country’s role as an innovation economy (the only sort that has much of a future in my view).  That’s before the global economic and political stability benefits to other, if not all, countries stemming from international co-operation in space.  These are the kind of messages  NASA Adminstator Charles Bolden and JPL Director Charles Elachi endorsed the Planetfest audience to get across to their elected representatives (i.e. Congressmen).

Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator (Photo: Tim Jones)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
Charles Bolden and Charles Elachi (Photo:Tim Jones)
Charles Bolden and Charles Elachi
Dr Charles Elachi, Director Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Dr Charles Elachi, Director Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I suspect it also helps to have a few star quality communicators, not to say terminal space enthusiasts, on the case – like Bill Nye, Emily Lakdawalla, and Astronomy Outreach Specialist and Planetfest cheerleader Shelley Bonus :

Shelley Bonus (Photo:Tim Jones)
Shelley Bonus “Curiosity Knows No Bounds!”

Commercial Space

Will the future of space be saved by the market?  NASA has made extensive use of commercial contractors since before the Apollo program, and now an upswell of new businesses like SpaceX, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic, bringing with them new business models and work cultures, present fresh possibilities.

The role and opportunities for private investment were explored by a panel comprising Andrew Nelson from XCOR, developer of the Lynx low earth orbit rocket plane; George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, and your best bet for an early space holiday; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, an initiative which, among other things, is in the process of spawning a host of mini-moon-landers; and David Giger of SpaceX, the group whose Dragon capsule in May 2012 hooked up with the international space station.  Lynx and Dragon were both on display.

XCOR Lynx at Planetfest Pasadena (Photo: Tim Jones)


Andrew Nelson, XCOR (Photo:Tim Jones)
Andrew Nelson, XCOR

As a trend, relatively well understood processes like taxiing to Earth orbit look likely to migrate almost 100% to commercial interests, leaving NASA and the publicly funded space efforts of other nations to push the exploratory envelope.  But it’s not clear-cut.  Peter Diamandis reckoned the first manned mission to Mars could be a private venture – and made a bet with Whitesides to that effect (freebie to orbit on Virgin Galactic if he wins).

George Whitesides (left) and Peter Diamantis (Photo: Tim Jones)
George Whitesides and Peter Diamantis

Private entities can take bigger risks where they’re justified by attractive financial returns.  Diamandis believes asteroids will be commercially mined in the next 10-15 years.  Some contain precious metals, others carbonaceous chondrites – loaded with hydrogen and oxygen (as water) that, converted to fuel could be stored in space depots; beats lifting every ounce to orbit as we do now.  These ideas could revolutionise the fuel logistics of solar system exploration.  Science might be coincident with commercial ventures – but it’s still science.

All that said, with private investments apparently self-limited to the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions, the panel believed public investment is still important.

SPACEX Dragon Capsule at Planetfest Pasadena (Photo: Tim Jones)
SPACEX Dragon Capsule at Planetfest Pasadena

One company already working with NASA is Sierra Nevada, who were involved building the sky-crane which, when this picture of Executive VP Mark Sirangelo was taken, had yet to lower Curiosity safely on to Mars; so maybe that’s a nervous smile.

Exec. VP Sierra Nevada Corp., Mark Sirangelo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Exec. VP Sierra Nevada Corp., Mark Sirangelo

But as one of three suppliers chosen to develop launch systems to reach the space station, along with Boeing and SpaceX, Sirangelo can be happy.  On a more sombre but celebratory note, Sirangelo presented a tribute to the life of astronaut Sally Ride, who died in July this year.

Manned Missions?

Mentally photoshopping human figures into Martian panoramas is irresistible.  And while the debate around the merits of manned versus unmanned exploration trundles on, some folks, like aerospace Engineer, Founder and President of the Mars Society, and author of The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin, just want to get on with it.

President of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin. (Photo:Tim Jones)
President of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin, whose enthusiasm alone should get him to Earth orbit, favours the systematic transfer of first unmanned, then manned, modules – for fuel generation, living, etc. –  to Mars over a period of years.  At least his approach side steps the popular but contentious (and somewhat macho?) debate around who’s ready to hop on a one-way mission.  When X-Prize founder Peter Diamantis asked who would volunteer at 75% and 50% risk levels, the show of hands by my reckoning was  reserved and super-reserved (although as George Whiteside commented, enough for a crew!)  Diamantis reckoned he’d sign up at the 50% risk level.  I got the impression from NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden that he personally supports manned exploration.  Further pressure for manned missions comes from advocacy groups such as Artemis Westenberg’s Explore Mars, whose optimistic goal is to see humans on Mars by 2030.

Artemis Westenberg (Photo: Tim Jones)
Artemis Westenberg

Of course, you can go to Mars in your imagination when you like, a mission delegates at Planetfest prepped for with the help of the Space Art panel.  Led by President of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, Jon Ramer, the five space artists discussed the ins and outs of their craft applied to scientific visualisation, fine art, book, and movie work.

Space Artists (Photo:Tim Jones)
Space Artists. From left to right: Jon Ramer, Don Davis, Rick Sternbach, Don Dixon, and Aldo Spadoni.

Staying with the arts.  In tribute to science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, who died in June this year, co-founder of the Planetary Society Louis Friedman, with actor Robert Picardo and space historian Andrew Chaikin, led a poetic tribute to the visionary and sometimes controversial author of The Martian Chronicles.

Louis Friedman (Photo: Tim Jones)
Louis Friedman
Space Historian Andrew Chaikin
Space Historian Andrew Chaikin
Robert Picardo reads Ray Bradbury (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo reads poetry by Ray Bradbury

Diversions and Surprises

Bill Nye may be the CEO of the Planetary Society, but for half an hour on Saturday he donned his trademark lab coat to become 100% ‘Science Guy’ in a liquid nitrogen-fueled double act with actor/director Robert Picardo.  The session ended with Bill feeding marshmallows at -370 F to Picardo and young members of the follow-on ‘careers in space’ panel.

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (the 'Science Guy')(Photo:Tim Jones)
Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science
Bill Nye launching smoke pulse (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye launching smoke pulse
Robert Picardo (Photo:Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo
The Right Stuff (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Right Stuff

Special Guests

A host of special guests appeared on Sunday afternoon, perhaps the most diverting being writer / producer Ann Druyan, who was married to and worked with the late Carl Sagan.

Joined on stage by Family Guy producer Seth MacFarlane, Druyan shared progress on a new thirteen part re-make of Sagan’s famous Cosmos series that will be aired on Fox Network and fronted by Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Ann Druyan (Photo: Tim Jones)
Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan (Photo:Tim Jones)
Ann Druyan

It’s encouraging that Druyan is staying close to the production, and through MacFarlane aims to maintain the production values and ethos of the original show.  Asked whether climate change would be addressed in the updated version, Druyan said it would be – as it was in the original.  Also, there would be less emphasis on the nuclear threat.  Again in common with the original, efforts will be made to bridge any perceived science-religion divide, perhaps through an appeal to common goals around themes like preservation of the environment.  As one delegate put it, Carl Sagan could ‘disagree without being disagreeable’.  It will be interesting to see what Tyson does with the Cosmos mantle.

Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Photo: Tim Jones)
Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan
Seth MacFarlane (Photo:Tim Jones)
Seth MacFarlane (Photo:Tim Jones)

Until Next Year

That’s all folks.  All in all a pretty unforgettable weekend.  Anyone feeling a bit cynical about space exploration or those who support it would do well to sample one of these gigs.  Bill Nye is dead right when he says adventures like Curiosity represent mankind at its best!

 Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs by Tim Jones


Of related interest on Zoonomian

Buck Rogers – A Copper-clad Lesson from History

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory



Book Review – Here Is a Human Being, by Misha Angrist

Here Is a Human Being

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1 edition (1 Dec 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0061628336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061628337
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.9 x 22.9 cm




Between 2006 and 2010, half a million 40-69 year olds, including yours truly, joined the UKBioBank project.  We agreed to share lifestyle and medical information – not to mention blood, saliva, and urine samples – all to help researchers get a better handle on the incidence, cause, and treatment of disease.  With enough subjects, the logic goes, associations between an individual’s characteristics and their health can inform our understanding and treatment of the wider population.

No surprise then that only a few pages in to Misha Angrist’s  Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics I spotted the obvious link between his experience as the fourth subject in Harvard Medical School’s Personal Genome Project (‘PGP) – the theme of his book – and my own humble contribution to medicine.  Both projects are based on ideas around association, to one degree or another involve genomics in support of healthcare goals, and as James Watson said to Angrist on the value of personal genomics, they create “a more compassionate, better society”.

Clearly, there must be differences, otherwise I’d have got to write the book and hang out with the likes of Stephen Pinker – with Angrist settling for the return bus fare to a medical testing center in Croydon.  The distinction is mainly down to issues of privacy, plus the fact that Angrist’s genome was sequenced when it was still a big expensive deal to do that.

UKBiobank data is anonymised.  Even the researchers working with my genome (if and when it’s ever sequenced) won’t know my name .  Angrist’s PGP data, however, is public: genome, life style, medical history; it’s just out there – totally, with his name on it.  To take part in PGP you have to take an exam to show you know what you’re doing; those in the spearhead PGP-10 group required a Masters level training in genetics.  More importantly, as Angrist gets to see his own stuff under the PGP rules, he can share the motivations, emotions, excitement and anxieties that go with that kind of exposure and self-knowledge.  (How effective promises of confidentiality in programs that have them really are is a whole different, but related, topic.)

Human genomics is a young field.  The first composite human genome was published by the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003.  A parallel commercial project led by Craig Venter and the Celera Corporation published Venter’s personal genome in 2007.   Early processes were slow and costs correspondingly high; but the promise, particularly for medicine, was great.  Now, as the dream of a medical revolution fades, and free-falling costs open the way for mass genomic profiling, attention has turned more to protecting the public from what some see as a useless, possibly dangerous, product of an immature science – peddled by an exploitative industry.  Insurance companies circle round the latest hot tool for risk minimisation, ready to turn our genome against us.   Bridging the exclusive and commodity phases on the human gemonics timeline, Angrist brings an insiders eye to bear on an uncertain period.  As he says “I had arrived at the theatre early enough to grab a good seat, but the carpenters were still building the sets.”

It’s fashionable to talk about personal genomics in terms of its profound complexities and limitations, and not its useful applications.  You can see why though.  In predicting disease, genes tell only part of the story alongside environmental factors.  As Angrist says, we need to link environment (was a child exposed to lead paint), phenotype (how much did it weigh), and lifestyle (what did I have for breakfast) with personal genomic profiles.  He cites rheumatoid arthritis as an example where from twin studies we know the risk is only 50% genome related.  Disease  is sometimes associated with single defective genes, but more often is the combined expression of many genes interacting with each other and the environment.  Relevant genes may exist anywhere throughout the genome, requiring researchers to search the whole smash – with no clues on appearance or location.  To complicate things further, the same disease is caused by different gene combinations in different people.

That’s not to say some genetic associations don’t give personal genome candidates pause for thought.  When, in a separate study, James Watson’s genome was sequenced, he chose not to know his risk of the incurable Altzheimer’s disease; Angrist’s fellow PGPer Stephen Pinker made the same choice.  As interesting perhaps is the fact that many people do want to know their Altzheimer’s risk – despite the disease’s incurability, and that studies show they can handle the knowledge.  Angrist has a special interest in the breast cancer gene variants BRCA1 and BRCA2, as his daughters would be at an 80% life-time risk were he to pass on defective versions; it seems personal genomes aren’t so personal after all.  In one of the most human moments in the book, Angrist sits  alone with his genome report, about to discover this type of information for the first time.

Angrist is at pains to show where human genomics contributes beyond disease prediction, pointing to work on: drug efficacy across ethnic groups and individuals (testing for hyper-sensitivity to warfarin blood thinner), resolution of paternity disputes (10% of  fathers are not biological), donor screening (of blood and sperm), and identification of lost racial origins or heritance.  One company specialises in providing genome-based nutritional advice, perhaps advising someone whose gene mix inhibits calcium absorption to consider taking a supplement.  Ethically intriguing applications include the use of genetic selection to identify our ideal partner or love match.  These on top of the widely used law enforcement applications of DNA we know and love from TV shows like CSI.

Angrist weaves plenty of historical, technical, and commercial detail into his personal story, much of it original and drawn from interviews with fellow PGP’ers (a truly mixed bag of characters and motivations in their own right), PGP Founder George Church, and a host of specialists in genomics and medicine – including some insightful tid-bits from former HGP Director Francis Collins and James Watson.

You won’t retain it all – I sometimes lost track of who exactly developed what, when, and where; who went bust and reappeared again, etc. – but the main take-away is clear enough.  That despite any limitations and historical hype – “the marketing of personal genomics has outpaced the science” – personal human genomics is far from valueless, and has great potential if we hang in with it.  Specifically, Angrist believes the tangled complexity of genotype-phenotype associations may unravel if a sufficiently large sample of cross-referenced data is available.  And with over a thousand active participants in the PGP in 2012, and thousands more in the queue, it looks like that might just happen.


Misha Angrist blogs at GenomeBoy.


Also of interest:

Grease Ants

Grease Ants (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grease Ants (photo:Tim Jones)

Meet the Grease Ants (Solenopsis molesta).  Smallest ants I’ve ever seen. One or two millimetres long, they look like specks of dust at first glance, but on closer inspection are perfectly formed little ants.  This bunch is a minor infestation running around the kitchen surface where I’m staying in California – or rather an ex-infestation, as I’m afraid we had to zap them.  Native to most parts of the U.S.A. – for sure we don’t have anything like this in Surrey – they’re also known as thief ants for their behaviour of stealing food from other ant colonies.  They also like grease.  The UK 20p piece is for size comparison – it’s about the size of a U.S. nickel.

Naturally, there’s also a Grease Ant Movie.  Shot in low light with the iPad camera, so excuse the less than National Geographic production values:




Nesting Grey Herons

Grey Heron with nesting material (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron with nesting material (Photo:Tim Jones)

Quite a cold afternoon’s walk today; but the sun was up, the golfers were out, and so too were our local herons.  I snapped this one just before sunset.   He’s a Grey Heron (Aredea cinerea) and common in the UK.  (I keep an eye out for the Blue Heron and super-rare Purple Heron, that occasionally visit the UK, but have seen neither.)

Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)

Herons nest in colonies, and this one looked like it contained three birds: two adults flying back and forth to the nest, and a smaller ‘second winter’ juvenile that stayed put (the one on the left of the pair in these shots).

Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)

I was surprised to see nest-building this time of year, but the hardy heron’s extended breeding season sees them happily dropping eggs in late February.  That’s not to say the smaller bird here is a chick – they leave the nest by 10 weeks, and this one’s plumage is too mature.  I’m guessing it just wasn’t his/her shift for twig collection.

Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)

They’re fantastic birds to watch.  Very noisy and, to my eyes, especially dinosaury.  I also like the retracted neck position adopted for steady flight; it’s like their head goes along for the ride in upper-deck business class.  It’s also one way to tell herons apart from cranes.

Grey Heron flying with retracted neck (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron flying with retracted neck (Photo:Tim Jones)

The Heron’s nest is a large flat platform of twigs in the top of a tree.  The males do most of the collecting, the females most of the building.

Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Heron (Photo:Tim Jones)

These last two shots of the nest show an adult bird on the right, and what I suspect is a ‘second winter’ juvenile on the left (tell me if you think differently).   Despite the stance, there was no feeding going on here.

Grey Herons: adult (right) with 'second winter' juvenile (left) (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Herons: adult (right) with 'second winter' juvenile (left) (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Herons: adult (right) with 'second winter' juvenile (left) (Photo:Tim Jones)
Grey Herons: adult (right) with 'second winter' juvenile (left) (Photo:Tim Jones)

It’s days like this that justify carrying heavy cameras and lenses around on the off-chance something might show up.   Next phase is to return with the tripod and get some HD movies of these guys. Watch this space!