Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Unexpected ricochets

I totally love this! Well, I would, wouldn't I? And it wasn't even done using Photoshop, according to, whence I stole it!

Do you remember Clippy?

This post is really, really funny!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Teaching children about evolution

Last night, as we were supping a glass of anaesthetic just before going to bed, I was musing about how one might teach children about the concepts of science and evolution. I wasn't really planning to do anything, but just wondered what one might do.

Obviously a children's book is one approach, though I couldn't possibly write one, nor illustrate it. I wondered about a website, possibly in the format of an FAQ, though again, I couldn't actually create much of the content myself.

That was how we left it, as idle, late-night speculation, but then this morning, Jenny sent me a copy of an article published by Springer, in New York, which she'd come across. I can't post the whole article myself, as that would infringe copyright, but you can see the abstract here.

Essentially, the research was designed to find out whether children of about 6 and 8 were capable of understanding some of the fundamental concepts which you really have to grasp if you're going to learn about evolution.

The justification for doing this work was new to me.

Unless an individual pursues a post-secondary science degree, most exposure to the science of evolution occurs in the secondary science curriculum (Gross et al. 2005). Until relatively recently, abstract scientific concepts from biological evolution were rarely included in the early elementary science curriculum (Gross et al. 2005, 2007). Yet, research has shown that students begin to develop lasting ideas of science, particularly in biology, at a young age (Kelemen 1999). Many additional studies reveal that young learners develop and retain naïve or folk theories of biology or evolution concepts (Hatano and Inagaki 1994; Inagaki and Hatano 2004, 2006; Solomon 2002; Springer 1996). Once young learners develop conceptions, they tend to retain them, resisting explanations that differ from their perspectives
I was going to snip out the references, but then remembered that that is one of many criticisms of anti-evolution literature - they quote stuff, without giving the references, so even though I doubt you'll follow any of this up, the refs are in!

If they retain their previous ideas about evolution despite being taught about it in secondary school, it follows we have to get to them earlier than that, and finding out how possible that would be was the purpose of the research.

They took about 30 children aged about 6 from a kindergarten school, and a similar number of second graders (about 8 I think) from another school, and devised cool lessons to teach them.

The younger kids got to compare the forelimbs of some tetrapods:
Again the goal for the kindergarten lesson was the exploration of organisms’ similarities and differences, which are key concept for understanding speciation. After some discussion, we determined to use the forelimb of vertebrates as a context for the lesson. The forelimbs of many vertebrates are remarkably similar and yet discernibly different, which provides an ideal condition for teaching the similarities and difference of organisms. Furthermore, we recognized the importance of using organisms that were familiar to the kindergarteners, so that the students would be able to utilize their prior knowledge. Therefore, we selected a variety of vertebrate organisms from the local environment that were readily recognizable by young learners. Our final list of vertebrates included: manatee, bat, monkey, cat, and alligator.
Interesting choice, which tells us a bit about where the study was located - manatee, monkey and alligator would not be that familiar to 6 year olds in Washington State, I surmise!
The first activity of this lesson introduced the students to the similarities and differences of animal bone anatomy. In this activity, the students (working in pairs) viewed full-page illustrations of the forelimb bone anatomy of our five selected animals. Our science educator then instructed the students to identify what was the same about the arrangement and number of bones and what was different about the arrangement and number of the bones in the illustrations. The science educator instructed the students to color the similar features among the pictures using the same colors to show each similarity. The researchers and teachers both facilitated and observed this activity.
That is neat, and simple, and about 80% of the students 'got' it. Since 6 of the 30 had learning disabilities and 4 did not speak English as their first language, that seems pretty good to me.

There was more, but I'll spare you the details. Next was to use popsicle sticks and tongue depressors to lay out what they would expect the bones in a dog's leg to look like. About 75% of students, some with prompting, were able to assemble the dog's leg bones correctly. The final exercise always did seem challenging to me - draw a dog in motion, taking into account what you've learned about the bone structure. None of them could do that.

The second graders compared living and a fossil bird. This involved discussion about what birds do, differences between flying and aquatic birds, and a comparison with Hesperornis, a fossil bird. The students did well, but I think the results were not as clear-cut as for the kindergarteners.

The conclusion, as you might expect, is that if you design your lessons properly, the tinies really can be taught quite a few of the basic concepts, so teaching them science and evolution is practical, and I think, essential.

Here's the abstract from the paper.
State and national standards call for teaching evolution concepts as early as kindergarten, which provides motivation to continue developing science instruction and curriculum for young learners. The importance of addressing students’ folk theories regarding science justifies teaching evolution early in K-12 education. In this project, we developed, implemented, and researched standards-based lessons to teach elements of evolution (speciation and adaption) to kindergarteners and second graders. Our lessons attended to the students’ prior knowledge, and utilized inquiry and modeling to teach and assess their ability to recognize patterns of similarity and differences among organisms. Using their products and comments as evidence, it was apparent the students were able to communicate recognition of patterns and effectively apply their knowledge in near transfer activities, indicating they achieved our learning objectives. This provides support for teaching evolution concepts in the early grades and evidence of the ability for young children to effectively engage in supported inquiry and modeling for learning science.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Gloucester Cathedral

We've been doing the sung services in Gloucester Cathedral for a week, and that aspect was fantastic. We work very hard, and by the end of the week are singing much better than at the start. We did lots of stuff and if you're interested, you can see the programme here. Mostly it went fine, with the odd bit that wasn't quite up to scratch. eg when the organist forgot we were doing an introit (a short piece before the service starts) so just played a single note, which would normally be used by the precentor to sing the opening responses. Wikipedia has a page about evensong if you're interested. Here's a picture I took, which I think fascinating.
When I see arches like this, with what is obviously an extra bit tacked on later, I immediately suspect there was a cock-up, and I think what happened here was there was no proper design. Or possibly they changed the design of the roof after they'd built the walls. Either way, I reckon the roof-builder started getting on with it, but when he looked at the transept (the bit that runs at right-angles to the main axis of the church) he suddenly said "Oh bugger, the vaulting comes way down into the opening of the transept arch. How are we going to sort that out?" Answer; stick in a sort of secondary arch across the main one, to take the weight of the roof at that point. Worked too, and I have to say, it's a very elegant solution.

It was still a cock-up, I'm sure of that!

And we were staying in self-catering cottages some miles out of Gloucester, which didn't look at all promising, but in fact were fine. An added bonus of self-catering is that we meld together much better as a group, sharing out the cooking and cleaning, and generally being much more sociable than when we stay in a choir school and are fed by dinner ladies. They generally want to get off home, so dinner is early and short, and then some of us retire to the pub, while others don't. In self-catering it's all more leisurely and there's much less inclination to bugger off and drink somewhere else.

It wasn't all roses, however, as my mum is very ill, and we spent the week juggling visits to her with the usual rehearsals and services. I found the whole business intensely stressful and came home yesterday completely mentally drained.

Mum's problem is actually probably several problems of old age (she's 86) but the one we're most worried about at the moment is a kidney infection which has not been responding well to the antibiotics. Fortunately she's just been switched to a different flavour, to which she seems to be responding better.

I happen to be reading a book called How We Die, which talks at length about renal failure, and I see the symptoms in mum. As your kidneys stop working properly, your blood chemistry goes out of balance; your memory starts to fail and you become confused. Confused old folk forget to take their medication, which makes them worse. And so on.

We're getting a care package together, organised by the Social Services, but it won't start until Wednesday week, and I really don't know how we're going to cover things in the interim.

Oh yes, my two brothers and I all live about 150 miles away from mum, so it's not exactly easy for us to drop in and make sure she's eating, drinking and taking her medication.

When my time comes, having no kids to run around after me, I'll just get the kidney infection and die, I guess. Yes, I'm in a terrifically positive frame of mind!

Friday, 14 August 2009

An invisible dot on an invisible dot

To get a flavour of just how insignificant we are in this fabulous universe, take a look at this short video.

I just thought "Wow! That's fantastic!"

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Botanists honour David Attenborough

The BBC reports the finding of a new, giant pitcher plant in the Philipines, which the discoverers have named Nepenthes attenboroughii in honour of naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough. I love this, since Attenborough is a big hero of ours. Not sure how you're supposed to pronounce attenboroughii though! attenburrow-ee-eye I suppose.

The pitcher plant is among the largest of all pitchers and is so big that it can catch rats as well as insects in its leafy trap.
And they also found some striking blue mushrooms which are also new to science.
Accompanied by three guides, the team hiked through lowland forest, finding large stands of a pitcher plant known to science called Nepenthes philippinensis, as well as strange pink ferns and blue mushrooms which they could not identify.
I can't resist the temptation to include the photo of the mushrooms!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Fascinating fungi

There's an interesting report in Biology News about a fungus parasite of carpenter ants. That the fungus kills the ants has been known for ages, but what this study showed was that the fungus somehow persuades the dying ant to descend from its normal habitat in the forest canopy to take up station on the underside of a leaf around 25cm from the ground.

There it takes its death-grip of the leaf with its mandibles, and dies. The fungus continues to spread through its body, digesting everything except the muscles holding the mandibles closed and finally producing a fruiting body out of the ant's head.

Spores then rain down onto passing ants to continue the life cycle. The location of the dead ant is the perfect microclimate for the growth of the fungus and also seems to provide the perfect height for the spores to infect future victims.

And the ants tend to avoid passing too close to infected individuals, but it's obviously not a perfect strategy.

Ain't evolution wonderful?

No swine flu for Israelis

This would be funny if there weren't so many deluded souls who think it will work. The Beeb is reporting that a group of rabbis has flown around over Israel praying and blowing magic trumpets to ward off swine flu. No really, they did it on Monday.

The flight's aim was "to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying in Yedioth Aharanot newspaper.
Riiiiight. I don't suppose we had walls come tumblin' down at the same time, did we?

And of course, they're not allowed swine flu, what with pigs being unclean, so they don't; they have H1N1.

And they really do believe it:
"We are certain that, thanks to the prayer, the danger is already behind us," added Mr Batzri was quoted as saying.
Though I don't suppose they believe it enough not to get vaccinated....

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Secular Students at the Creation "Museum"

I've been catching up a bit on last Friday's visit of the Secular Students' Association visit to the Creation "Museum" in Kentucky, and I just love this variant on the Xian/Darwin fish motif!

PZ Myers has a posting with links to numerous reports by folks who were lucky enough to actually get there.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Joke about an old jew

A jewish friend sent me this, so I feel OK posting it. Actually, it's not anti-semitic at all.

A female CNN journalist heard about a very old jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time, so she went to check it out. She went to the Western Wall and there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site.

She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.

"Pardon me, sir, I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. What's your name?"

"Morris Fischbein," he replied.

"Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?"

"For about 60 years."

"60 years! That's amazing! What do you pray for?"

"I pray for peace between the Jews, Christians and Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults and to love their fellow man."

"'How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?"

"Like I'm talking to a f****n' brick wall."

What can I say? Could it be that that's what he'd been doing all that time?

Orchid deceives hornet with scent

Orchids attract their pollinators with a variety of intrigues; some simply offer nectar, others offer sex by pretending to be females of the relevant species, and so on.

Now Dendrobium sinense, a Chinese orchid which gives no reward at all, has been found to attract the hornets that pollinate it by giving off a smell the hornets can't resist. There's a report here in Biology News.

The researchers, at the University of Ulm in Germany, noticed that instead of simply landing on the flowers, the hornets actually pounced on them. Then they discovered that the scent given off by the orchid is very similar to a pheromone given off by the bees the hornets prey on, when attacked. So the hornet smells what it thinks is its prey species and attacks, which is all the orchid needs to achieve pollination.

I just love evolution; it's just so interesting, and the adaptations of plants and animals are exquisite!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

We grow veg

Over the past few years, we've been growing a few veg. We've not given over much of the garden to it, so don't expect to be self-sufficient or anything like that, but we like having a few of our very own fresh veg in the summer and autumn.

This year we're growing tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse. For the past several years the tomatoes have been outside, but the weather has been so cold and wet that they've got blight in August and not been worth having.

So outside we have climbing green beans, courgettes, onions, carrots, yellow beetroot, salad leaves and carrots. The potatoes are growing in old compost bags, a trick I saw for the first time last year.

You take an old 50 litre bag and punch some holes in the bottom, then fill it about a third with whatever growing medium you feel like using, then plant a couple of maincrop seed potatoes.

As the haulms grow up, add more compost, and keep doing that until the bag is reasonably full. You have to keep watering and feeding, too, probably more than you'd imagine. The idea is that as you earth up the plants, they start a fresh layer of tubers, so in theory, you get lots more potatoes than if you just planted them in the ground.

We had 5 bags and the potatoes really are delicious. The beans are being very productive, too, and the courgettes are the best we've ever grown. We have 3 plants, and can't keep up. We're looking up soup recipes, but it looks as though they don't really make a good soup, so we're not sure what we're going to do.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


I have to tell you, that this is seriously good. Trust me, I'm a computer programmer; there's just enough chili to make this into a really classic marmalade!

I got it from my local farm shop, but it's available on the net here. I've yet to explore, but already I see hot rhubarb and ginger jam. Oh boy!

Monday, 3 August 2009

Two-tier agapanthus

We've been growing agapanthus in our garden for a number of years now, and they're particularly good this year. This photo is of one of a row of white ones next to a brick-built pond, and I took it because I spotted that it is a double-decker.

Normally, of course, the stem rises up and at the top there's a mass of small flowers, each borne on its own thin stem.

In this case, however, one of those thin stems is much more substantial, and terminates in its own, mini-head.

I don't suppose it's all that unusual, but I've not seen an agapanthus like that before. Sadly, most of the flowers on the same plant are normal, so it's not a fabulous new breed!

Update on the hand operation

On Wednesday I was back in Addenbrookes having the plaster splint and its associated grubby bandage removed, and getting a fairly normal, self-adhesive replacement, along with occupational therapy instructions to encourage the hand back into normal working shape.

Yesterday I finally removed the last of the dressings, and I'm now showing off my Harry Potter scar. It's almost 9 cm from end to end and is a zig-zag cut with three 1 cm cross-cuts and is healing well. I was going to post a photo, but I realise not all of you want to see it, so I've stuck it up on the server and if you're interested, you can check it out by following this link.

The violet-coloured line is where the surgeon drew the line he was going to cut with biro before he started. What has washed off by now is the big black arrow he drew with a broad felt-tip on my wrist, pointing to the offending finger, and the big black X on the back of said finger, just to make sure he sliced up the right bit.

After all the horror stories you hear about people having the wrong operation, I was actually rather comforted by both the X and the arrow, since they reduced the chances of my becoming one of those unfortunate statistics.

Dara O'Briain

I'm just sticking this up because I think Dara O'Briain is brilliant and this is a 6 minute slice of a recent show of his. So you can waste 6 minutes of your working day like I just did. But make sure you don't actually laugh out loud or your boss will want to know why your nose isn't firmly applied to that grindstone!