Category Archives: Visits

Getting Cute at Disneyland

What do they say?  It’s never too late and you’re never too old?   I finally made it to Disneyland (Anaheim) last week.

There we were: doing all the rides – some several times, eating food that’s bad for us, buying stuff we don’t need.  I so want to take the Star Tours sim home with me.

It’s a hard experience to knock.  Except, looking round, aren’t the Disney icons a bit thin on the ground, especially that icon of icons – Mickey Mouse.  Where’s the guy off the TV with his big mouse head, big mouse eyes and ears, flowing tailcoats?  Okay, between whipping round Space Mountain and transfering the contents of the flume into my fleece, our accessibility to roaming mice is limited; but I’m still half disappointed (half thankful too) we’ve avoided a mugging by the world’s cutest rodent – me with my ‘1st Visit’ badge an’ all.

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse (Photo:Tim Jones at Disneyland, Anaheim)
Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse (Photo:Tim Jones at Disneyland, Anaheim)

Then at the end of the day, as we sit munching Mickey surrogate pretzels, the mouse himself finally shows on the Parade float; and with that box ticked, we head home to live happily ever after.

Hurtling down LA’s great big freeway, I can only mull, through waves of incipient indigestion, the definitive paper on ‘the impact of twelve hours of corn dogs, ice cream and churros on the human body under intermittent acceleration to 3g’.  Shelving that due to data-weakness in cotton candy (with a recommendation for further work), I move to the important question of why exactly is Mickey Mouse so very popular?  Some thirty years ago, evolutionary biologist and sometime Disney scholar Stephen J Gould asked the  very same question.

Gould’s essay, Mickey Mouse meets Konrad Lorenz, originaly pubished in the May 1979 issue of Natural History, and reappearing as  ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse‘  (link to pdf) in the Panda’s Thumb collection of essays, is a light-hearted yet sound scientific analysis of how Disney artists changed Mickey’s features over the years to make him more innately appealing to us.  Perhaps not knowingly, but in biological terms they’d neotenized him, migrating his more adult features to the juvenile forms we see, and are programmed to endear, in human children.   It’s one of my favourite pieces of science communication and a recommended read.

Disneyland (Photo:Tim Jones)
Disneyland (Photo:Tim Jones)

Animals, real or caricatured, score high on the cute scale if they have: (a) a large eye size compared to head-length, (b) a large head size to body-length, and (c) a large cranium (Gould measured a ‘cranial vault’ ratio for this, only meaningful for Mickey in profile, but equating to what Lorenz describes as “predominance of the brain capsule”).  They display short, thick, extremities – like  stubby legs (Disney achieved the illusion by putting Mickey in shorts), and a short snout (in cartoonland, only villains sport pointy snouts  – think the weasels from Who Framed Roger Rabbit).

The principles from Lorenz’s and Gould’s work have been applied to everything from vehicle design to this assessment of how cute NASA’s Mars rover Spirit is,…to pretzels.

 Applied to animals, they suggest our attitude, affection, concern, and the general way we treat species will be influenced by how closely each resembles a human child – how juvenile they appear.  Conservationists call it ‘survival of the cutest’ –  whereby public conservation support favours attractive species over more deserving cases under a greater threat of extinction.   It’s the reason pandas and badgers get more sympathy than the Purple Burrowing Frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis), or the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) – to pull a couple of real lookers from the IUCN Red List; the former is ‘endangered’, the latter a ‘near threatened’ species.

Even favoured species like dolphins fall off the radar once a variant moves away from a norm we can easily anthropomorphise.  Compare the  Ganges (endangered) and Yangtze (critically endangered, possibly extinct) river dolphins with their slightly odd-looking extended beaks, with the familiar smiley Common Short-Beaked dolphin (‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN list).

Purple Burrowing Frog


Helmeted Hornbill. Not such a pretty boy (Wikicommons)

I’m bringing badgers into this because of their prominence in the UK news at the moment, where the government has introduced a controversial culling policy to reduce Bovine TB, which badgers carry.   Controversy centres on the effectiveness of culling (by shooting at feed lures) over other controls like vaccination, and a general point on how transparently science or politics based the decisions have been.  In terms of its conservation status, the Eurasian Badger (Meles meles) is classified by the IUCN as a ‘least concern’ species.

Eurasian Badger

Taking nothing away from the arguments, it’s interesting to test the badger against Gould’s cuteness criteria to see how looks might be influencing popular support.  I got the idea from this Guardian piece that’s against the culling, but suggesting that with respect to “one of Britain’s best-loved animals”…”our attachment to badgers may be irrational” (as is culling, in that author’s view).

Off the blocks things don’t look so good, Mr Badger being a fully paid-up member of your actual weasel family an’ all.  But he’s not stoatish, and from various photos on the web (my preferred methodology short of taking callipers to roadkill), I score him an apparent head to body ratio of five (20%), falling to four (25%) when he bunches up like they do.  Not even up with Mickey’s early Steamboat Willie incarnation at 35%, but still in the ballpark.

Compared to Mickey’s eye to head ratio of 27% to 42% over his career, our badger comes in at unbecoming ratios as low as 7% (measured up the snout, nose to ear) to at best 15% (measured in profile).  But look again.  What we really see in a badger’s face isn’t its beady little weasel eyes, but that glorious stripe (think pandas eyes).  Calculated on stripe width at the eye, the ratios triple, up to a far cuter 35% for the profile.  On the stubby legs criterion the badger is home and dry; it’s hard to even make them out under the fur – a bit like Disney hiding Mickey’s spindles under baggy shorts.  The snout is an enigma though, and there’s no getting round it.  Does the apparent integration of snout, cranium and neck into a continuous cone soften the effect?  Or maybe we see tufty ears and forgive the pointy nose?  On balance though, based on the numbers but with some reservations, I’m going to give the badger his cute badge.

California Ground Squirrel (Photo:Tim Jones)
California Ground Squirrel. Fillng his face – incidentally – improves his cute ratios

I’m not sure the Germans would agree though.  A more oblique cuteness indicator mentioned by Gould, but one I like if only for its reminder of that mouthful of letters Germans use for squirrel – Eichhörnchen – is the wider association of the German diminutive form with certain animals and not others.  So there’s also Rotkehlchen for Robin and Kaninchen for rabbit – all officially cute animals.   I wonder if the trend follows in other countries using a diminutive suffix?  Anyways, the Germans have nicht so honored the badger, who’s a plain simple Dachs (the origin of Dachshund, no less).  I’m making my own stories up now, but have just too many Germans Robin (Photo:Tim Jones)been bitten by (rabid or otherwise) Dachs?  Is the Dachs ‘one of Germany’s best-loved animals’ ?  Guinea pigs are off the cute scale, but Peruvians don’t lose sleep over serving them up for lunch.

And what do North Americans make of their badger, with it’s somewhat skunky appearance?  (To my eyes, the American badger is actually flatter faced and all-round cuter)  And before I diss. skunks too far, remember Pepé Le Pew? – not a million miles off Mickey on the cute ratios.  I don’t know how far Gould and Lorenz factored in cultural variables like these; could be an interesting research topic.

Pepé Le Pew. Even skunks can be cute (Copyright: Warner Bros.)

To wrap up then.  On badgers, I suspect some folks do support them just because they’re cute, but I’m also sure many look rationally at the bigger picture.  Aside from Gould’s criteria, perhaps we should just ask ourselves if, under similar circumstances, we’d put the same effort into saving the poor old Purple Burrowing Frog?

At end though, any improved awareness of factors that influence our thoughts and actions, but are outside our immediate consciousness, is valuable.  That’s what Gould is doing.  I’m just relaying the message and expanding it a bit.

I also like badgers.  And gibbons.




Mickey Mouse meets Konrad Lorenz. Natural History 1979, 88 (May): 30-36.

At the Planetary Society Blog, HERE, Melissa Rice tests the appearance of NASA’s now defunct Mars rover Spirit against the same Gould cuteness criteria discussed in the post.  Fantastic!

A Century of Southern California Aerospace

Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)
Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)

One of my favourite NASA clips shows the 1972 Apollo 17 lunar module blasting off, bringing home astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt – the last humans to set foot on the moon.

The film is presently looping, next to an R-18 rocket engine like the one used in the ascent, at the Huntington Library’s  Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition –  chronicaling a hundred years of Southern Californian aerospace.

RS-18 Lunar Module Engine on Display
RS-18 Lunar Module Engine on Display (Photo:Huntington Library Flickr)

There wouldn’t be much of an economy in the region if it wasn’t for aerospace  – that, and the entertainment industry.

From the first fly-ins and air-meets of Wright Brothers’ style aeroplanes in 1910, to the birth of commercial aviation in the 1920s, to World War II fighter production and surveilance aircraft for the Cold War, to a still evolving space programme; this single-room display is an impressive distillation of the events, people, and motivations behind it all.

Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at the Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)
Blue Sky Metropolis Exhibition at the Huntington Library (Photo:Tim Jones)

Documented photographs dominate the display.  I liked this shot of a flight hostess in 1929, framed serving tea in the doorway of a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) passenger aircraft – something of a contrast to pilot Amelia Earhart leaning against the hanger doors of an aircraft factory.

TAT Hostess, 1929 (Photo: Huntington press release)
Amelia Earhart at Lockheed, 1930s (Photo: Huntington press release)









Politics might not be the most noble motivation for the conquest of space, but the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians in 1957 sure pushed the pace.   In 1958, under Eisenhower and with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA was formed.  Later that year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Explorer 1 satellite (the horizonal object in the glass case above) shot into orbit in response to the Sputnik challenge.

The accompanying social commentary is also fascinating, and with family connections (on my wife’s side), we found the photographs of 50’s/60’s laboratory life – like JPL’s all-women ‘platoon’ of mechanical calculator operators lined up at their desks – especially interesting.

(A recent scholarly analysis of NASA history can be had for free in NASA 50th Anniversary Proceedings, NASA’s first 50 Years:Historical Perspectives.  For cultural insights on the era, see my posts Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science and Buck Rogers – a Copper Clad Lesson from History) )

The exhibition isn’t just about NASA though.  For more info, check out the website or visit till the 9th January 2012.


Charlie’s Rose

Charles Darwin wrote about roses in his The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, but I’m guessing he didn’t expect a variety would be named in his honour.

Charles Darwin rose in the grounds of the Huntington Estate, San Marino (Photo:Tim Jones)
Charles Darwin rose in the grounds of the Huntington Estate, San Marino (Photo:Tim Jones)

I stumbled upon these today in the gardens of the Huntington (Library, Art Collection, Botanical Gardens) Estate in San Marino.    According to this rose dealer, the variety is hardy, with a ‘strong and delicious fragrance that varies between a soft, floral Tea and almost pure lemon according to weather conditions’.  Sounds like it would be right at home at Darwin’s former home in Kent (where it may indeed be for all I know).  Whatever.  Compared to some of the other blooms on show today, most of which were wilted or entirely dropped off in the December chill, these Darwin specials are putting up a pretty good show.

Charles Darwin rose (Photo:Tim Jones)Charles Darwin rose tag (Photo:Tim Jones)

Contrary to popular opinion, the British aren’t all manic gardeners, and I wouldn’t ordinarily get over-excited about a rose garden.  But spurred on by the father of evolution, I scouted out a few more scientifically inspired varieties.  Marie Curie is hanging in there but looking the worse for wear:

Marie Curie rose (Photo:Tim Jones)And one Archimedes would have approved of:

Eureka rose (Photo:Tim Jones)

Leonardo needs some tidying:

Three for the astronomers:











The geologist’s choice looks the part:





Arctic explorers only:

Then a few others that aren’t really scientific but I find interesting, intriguing or odd – I didn’t expect to find ‘Pimlico’ and the ‘Radio Times’ in California – included:

Whisky Mac, Anne Boleyn, Radio Times, Brilliant Pink Iceberg, Brownie, Everest Double Fragrance, Moon Shadow, Bewitched, Pimlico ’81, Amelia Earhart, The Doctor, School Girl, Yellowstone, Octoberfest, Charles Dickens, Dynamite, and Smiles.

Maybe gardening’s not so boring after all.

Huntington Rose Garden on a sunnier day in 2013 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Huntington Rose Garden on a sunnier day in 2013 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Flower Atlas

This beautiful flower arrangement I stumbled upon today has got to be the world’s most colourful interpretation of the Atlas myth.

Flower arrangement representing Atlas. By Sandy Hine and Anne Harman (Photo: Tim Jones)
Flower arrangement representing Atlas. By Sandy Hine and Anne Harman (Photo: Tim Jones)

In Greek mythology, the punishment meted out by Zeus to Atlas for his siding with the Titans against the Olympians was to carry the heavens on his shoulders for all time.

Atlas at the Rockefeller Centre (Wikipedia)

We’re familar with the statues of muscular bearded guys kneeling under spheres – sometimes with the earth substituted for the heavens.  And in her book and film Longitude, author Dava Sobel tells how as a child she was inspired by the Atlas statue outside New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The Atlas arrangement by Sandy Hine and Anne Harman is one of many on display under the theme Myths & Legends at the annual Florimania exhibition running 1-3 April at Hampton Court.

The New Tower of London

Tower of London and London Bridge Tower 'Shard of Glass' under construction (Photo:Tim Jones)
Tower of London and Shard London Bridge under construction (Photo:Tim Jones)

There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned touristy day out at the Tower of London.  I’ve lived in Central and Greater London for over ten years, and still get a buzz checking out the Crown Jewels, being mesmerised by the ravens, and eating ice-cream and other stuff that’s not good for me.  That’s exactly what Erin and I did last week.

But as we walked back to Tower Hill Underground, I spotted a change on the horizon.  O.k., hardly spotted, you can’t miss it; but I thought this was an arresting juxtaposition of William the Conqueror’s fortress from the 1080s with what is rapidly becoming Europe’s tallest building: at 1084 feet, the London Bridge Tower, or ‘Shard’.

The Shard’s medieval look at this stage of construction adds to the effect; the end result in 2012 will look more like these mock-ups at the Shard website.  I like the look: good Superman pad.

Heat-damaged bayonets from the 1841 fire

The original Tower has suffered several near misses over it’s 1000 year life, surviving the Great Fire of London in 1666, another fire in 1841 hot enough to melt cannons, Nazi bombing in the Blitz, and a terrorist bombing of the central White Tower in 1974.

Let’s hope the Shard doesn’t have to endure a similar bashing, not that anyone expects it to be standing in 1000 years.  Do they?

Tower of London at night (Photo:Tim Jones)
Tower of London

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Here are a few pictures from my visit last week to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Voyager at JPL

JPL, the NASA funded laboratory operated by Caltech, hold an annual public open day in May.  What’s less well known I think is that they also run 2 hour (free) tours twice a week for anyone who can book ahead and has appropriate photo i.d.  (you’ll probably need to book a month or more in advance).

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo Tim Jones
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, La Cañada Flintridge

Hopefully these pics give a flavour of the visit which, thanks to JPL engineer Randy Wesson, was quite excellent.

Truth be known, I’ve been impressed with JPL’s communications since the late 1970s, when they mailed to me in the UK a substantial pack of planet and probe photos.  Ah, the things that went on before the internet!

Well worth planning ahead and booking a visit if you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area.

In the museum, full-size models of some familiar probes including Voyager, Cassini, and Galileo were on display.

Museum at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Photo Tim Jones

Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity Rover.
Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity Rover.

Our tour took in the famous ‘Darkroom’ control room at the Space Flight Operations Facility, and the Mars Science Laboratory Project (MSL).

JPL’s Martian programs were in evidence, including the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Mars Science Laboratory Rover due to launch in 2011.  Spirit has over-performed against design expectations but is now stuck in the Martian surface: one of the laboratory shots above shows the simulation rig being used to test possible escape strategies.

For more info. you should of course visit JPL’s own superb website – where I see they’ve just started streaming live construction of the Mars Science Laboratory Rover.


Accidental Pepper’s Ghost

This picture of a rare bakelite coffin in the London Science Museum’s plasticity exhibition is also an accidental recreation of the Victorian optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost.

Pepper's Ghost effect in a bakelite coffin at science museum
Bakelite coffin at the Plasticity exhibition, London Science Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

In one version of the illusion, an audience member stands in the coffin on a stage, and the rest of the audience watch as he gradually decays into a dancing skeleton before their eyes.  In that case, the image of a brightly lit skeleton placed in a pit in front of the stage is reflected by an angled sheet of glass placed between the audience and coffin.

On similar lines, a less elaborate experiment you can try yourself with a sheet of plane glass and two tea-lights is described in this piece from the Naked Scientists.

I’ve had this picture for a while, and only noticed the Pepper’s Ghost effect when I pushed the shadow enhance slider on iPhoto.  Quite scary seeing oneself encoffined.  Good job I’m not superstitious….

Let’s Make A Comet

Having unaccountably failed to spot comet McNaught on its recent visit, I was compensated last week by a meeting with this artificial comet created at the Griffith Observatory .

Demonstrator Grace holds the artificial comet (Photo:Tim Jones)

Demonstrator Grace is holding the tangible product of last Friday’s  ‘Let’s Make A Comet’ event, held in the Griffith’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theatre.   And I have to say, it was one of the best half hour’s worth of science communication I’ve seen.

I think the shear fun value had a lot to do with it.  And although the show was geared to a young audience, there was no dumbing down of the science or talking down to the kids.  Presentation style and jokes were witty rather than silly, patronising, or childish; and references to popular culture, like Harry Potter and the Transformers movie, were entertaining but topic-related.  The professionalism of the two demonstrators / presenters really made the show, and it’s taking nothing away from the scientific knowledge and skills these guys have, to say they were genuine entertainers.

The comet was made by mixing together common substances containing the elements found in real comets.  So that meant shaking up water, sand, carbon, and cleaning fluid (ammonia) together with dry-ice, or frozen CO2, in a plastic bag; the details are here on Griffith’s Teacher Resources page.

Griffith Observatory (Photo:Tim Jones)

I liked the hidden plan to pull an audience in on the promise of seeing a comet being made, then to educate them on broader themes and related topics; the practical demonstration happening only at the end of the session.   There was nothing sinister in that though, and it all went down well with the bulk of the show taken up with a mix of talk, slides, videos and Q&A breaks.  A lot of ground was covered, ranging from the chemical and physical requirements for life, to how the solar system is thought to have formed, and a pretty good introduction to astrobiology – including a discussion of extremophile life-forms.

Lecture theatre events are inevitably going to be a little one-way, but there was good engagement through the Q&As and frequent questions back to the audience. And it’s not like this was a public consultation on the risks of nanotechnology, the material being relatively uncontroversial.

Having the finished item available for inspection after the show was a big plus, and I’m sure the memory of it will for many people be a lasting anchor for the science they picked up.

A Bone to Pick with Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Before heading back to LA from Santa Barbara last week, Erin and I made a final stop at the local natural history museum.  I’ve blogged before about how great this place is. Not the largest of museums, but somehow managing to cover all the traditional departments through locally themed exhibits – and all in the most beautiful location.

whale skull at santa barbara museum of natural history
Whale skull at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, June 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)

In the 18 months since our last visit, two new exhibitions have appeared, and the bird gallery has reopened following renovation.  But to our surprise, all that is left of the museum’s flagship exhibit – a 72ft Blue Whale skeleton – is it’s head.

The complete whale skeleton in 2008 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Nice spot..... (Photo:Tim Jones)

For the 20 year old skeleton, one of only five on display in the USA, is in need of a major overhaul.  The skull will be completely replaced, and the remaining bones will be refurbished or replaced.

The $500,000 needed to complete the work is being raised by inviting donors to sponsor individual bones and sections of the skeleton through the ‘Buy-A-Bone’ scheme (links to the Museum’s website).

The right to name this particular Balaenoptera musculus has already gone – for a cool $100k.  But the skull and vertebral column are still up for grabs at $75k and $137k respectively; most of the ribs are available at $25k each, the left flipper at $13k, or one of twelve carpal bones can be yours for the pocket money sum of $500.

So go ahead – pick your bone!