Saturday, 27 February 2016

Captured by the Camera - The Iron Birds fly off into the Sunset

The Iron Birds at College Lake
College Lake is a large nature reserve, near Tring, which is on the site of a very large chalk quarry excavated in the second half of the 20th century as part  of a large cement works (now closed and demolished).

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Peace in our time - Not with BRexit.


Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain holds high a worthless piece of paper in 1938
So we vote for a simple sound byte.
Is it Yes? Is it No? Which is right?
For our future depends
On electoral trends.
Should we leave? For we need to unite?

 At a global level we face some very serious problems. We appear to be on the brink of a very nasty religiously inspired war, where already large numbers of refuges are flooding into Europe and nowhere in the world is safe from the human bombs and guerrilla tactics of the enemy. Recent banking history also suggests that the world currency markets are not that stable and an economic crash could come at any time. In addition we have had month after month when the world’s average temperature has broken all previous records and there can be no doubt that climatic changes and rising sea levels will have major long term consequences for future generations. What history teaches us, is that when a society faces serious challenges there is a real danger that it disintegrates into warring factions who put short term self-interest before the long term collective interests.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Environmental Limerick: The Albatross

I admire the old man albatross
For he knows that his wife is the boss
So he waits on the nest
As she flies East and West
To catch fish 'neath the old Southern Cross

Albatross nesting on the Falkland Islands
A Barry Mead Photograph

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Could a Humanities approach to the Environmental Crisis work?

Are we clever – or is it just vanity?
Things are changing – we need more humanity.
If the sea levels rise,
It is nature that dies,
We must act - or the future's insanity.

I have just completed the FutureLearn course “Environmental Humanities – Remaking Nature” run by the University of New South Wales. This looks at the way in which the Humanities can temper the scientific and technological approach to the problem. The course highlighted the weaknesses in an overtly anthropocentric approach which looks for sophisticated technological solutions (which will probably not succeed) and which ignores the fact that we are part of the natural world.

To me the most important part of the course related to helping people to understand what is happening by using various storytelling techniques – which is why this post starts with a limerick. The course, coupled with ideas from other FutureLearn courses, also influenced my new mission statement, and the new approach taken in presenting posts on this blog.

Mission Statement

We are all, both individually and as a society, trapped by boxes - some physical, some mental. Some of these boxes are built from our childhood experiences, some from the customs and beliefs of the society in which we live, some are imposed by the technology we use, and ultimately we cannot escape the planet on which we live. 

The aim of this site is to look creatively at some of the issues involved and present them in an educational way. It will also look in more depth into the achievements and limitations of the human mind – and look in detail at one possible model of how human intelligence has evolved.

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Monday, 15 February 2016

The Enterprise Shed (FutureLearn)

Do you have good ideas in your head?
Why not share them with others instead!
You can find a good source
On a FutureLearn course
In an entrepreneural shed.


A course called "The Enterprise Shed" run by Newcastle University started of FutureLearn this morning which sounds interesting. I am not sure I have time to do it, but there is no charge for joining so I have decided to dip my toe in the water and see what it is like and can report back here if it is of interest.

Captured by the Camera - Musical Reflections

A Reflective Tuba Player at the Xmas Farmers Market, Tring
When I am out with my camera I am always looking for reflective surfaces which might give an unusual picture and this one, of a tuba player provided one large and four small reflections of the euphonium player and the former Rose and Crown hotel.
Earlier reflective pictures show Tring Church Tower, while Bridge over Troubled Waters was taken on the Aylesbury branch of the Grand Union Canal.

How a very young baby sees the world

A new baby's brain is exact
It can see things you can't; that's a fact,
But its brain has to choose
What to keep, what to loose
And the key shapes it needs to extract.

Trying to find out what a very young baby actually sees would seem to be an almost impossible job, but a recent Scientific American article summarizing research by a team led by Jiale Yang of Chuo University, Japan, has produced some interesting results.

Friday, 12 February 2016

So what are Gravity Waves



Two black holes, when they met, cause a cavity
In the space time contin’um called gravity
And the waves, fast as light,
Prove that Einstein was right,
As the scientists claim, with audacity.

The science involves much complicated mathematics but a simple model will explain the basic idea.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Why were stone handaxes made in the same way for a million years?

Early man made some useful hand tools
And no-one could say they were fools
But the axes they made
They failed to upgrade
‘cause no-one could teach them the rules.


In considering the evolution of human intelligence there is uncertainty about when an effective language first emerged and there is also a mystery of the early stone hand axes, which were made to the same design for about a million years. If the early hominins who made these tools were really that intelligent one might expect that someone in more than 70,000 generations would have found a way of making better stone hand axes.

The Black Kite - A Bird that uses fire as a tool

An intelligent bird is the kite,
For a fire it knows how to ignite.
And some scientists claim
It can carry a flame
So its prey can be caught in their flight.

Yesterday the British newspapers were full of the news that Black Kites in Australia deliberately removed burning embers from a bush fire and dropped it on nearby grassland, setting the grass alight. The small mammals and lizards living deep in the grass would become visible as they tried to escape from the flames, and could then be easily caught.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

What trees should we plant to combat global warming


An old oak tree at Ashridge
Climate change is a fully proved fact.
Keep our woods and our forests intact.
But should we plant more?
Conifers I deplore;
Oak and beech are the trees that attract.

This limerick was inspired by today's news on the BBC web site "Wrong type of trees in Europe increased global warning." 

The Time Machine (and other "futures" short stories)

“Eureka” shouted the scientist as he completed work on the new super-intelligent computer which controlled an attractive looking robot. A little more work and we can all live like Greek gods, waited on by robots.


In the next lab another scientist was building a time machine and decided he couldn’t wait and used his invention to visit this idyllic Grecian future.

He landed in a wonderful garden where rather bloated but otherwise god-like figures feasted. He discovered they were called Eloi and marvelled at the success of his fellow inventor’s computer. "Surely this must be a living Paradise" he thought.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Environmental Limericks

On the FutureLearn site there's a course
(New South Wales is a source I endorse)
It's environmental
With  humanities (gentle)
Put over with plenty of force.

I  have recently been doing a number of FutureLearn courses, as they encourage me to think outside the box and the current one is on Environmental Humanities, put on by the University of New South Wales. As scientist with little formal training in the humanities I have found the discussion so far interesting- and the comments between the students on the course stimulating.

We are all trapped on a planet where the climate is changing and part of the course involved students suggesting a task area and relating it to the discussions. I though about how, through this blog, I could introduce more environmental posts to alert people of the issues by linking simple poetry to a topic - by resurrecting my limerick posts - although I do not promise one a week, which was the original idea.

Were there significant differences between Neanderthals and us?

Adam Benton, on Evoanth recently posted an interesting article "How similar were Neanderthals and humans?" which looked at the evidence and while there are definite differences it is not clear how significant they are -in deciding why they became extinct and we did not.

I responded:

It might be worth thinking about later encounters – when the Europeans discovered America and Australia. The Europeans came off best because they had the stronger cultural communal knowledge base, which enabled them to build more powerful weapons. It might be a complete accident of history that the discovery of how to make iron happened on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other.


Could we have done better than the Neanderthals because we had a better cultural knowledge base which gave us more advanced technology and allowed us to work together in larger groups, perhaps with some people beginning to take on specialist roles. At the time that language was first appearing the key to having a better cultural knowledge base would be having a more powerful language. Thus it may be that when modern humans first met with Neanderthals we collectively “knew more” – so we came off best – just as Europeans came off better in America and Australia – because they had better technology.


If we look at language as a self-modifying tool there were almost certainly some key “inventions” – such as being able to differentiate between the past, present and future, counting, etc.  Perhaps it was just an accident of history that one of our species, rather than a Neanderthal, made the first key technical advances which allowed language to develop and that Neanderthal brains were just as capable in that respect as our own.