Friday, 23 November 2012

The (less) wild yoof of today

If you're over, I don't know, say forty, I bet you think the yoof of today  are a wild bunch of binge drinkers and druggies, rude, noisy and aggressive in public, the girls all getting themselves pregnant while they're still at school.  OK, I exaggerate, but I'd bet you, like me, thought there's more than a grain of truth in the stereotype.

Think again.

According to this article in a copy of the Economist magazine which Jenny picked up on the train yesterday, they're rather more conformist than we imagine.

In 1998, 71% of 16 - 24 year-olds admitted drinking alcohol in the previous week, while in 2010 the figure was 48%.
Drug-taking is down faster, from 20% to about 11% (I'm interpreting the graph, so don't have the exact figures.)
Teenage pregnancies are down 25% since 1998, to 1969 levels.
School truancy rates and youthful criminality are down since 2007.
According to the Offending, Crime and Justice survey (when?) people born between 1992 and 1996 are less frequently rude and noisy than their older cohorts were at the same age.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Learning about beetles from old books

What can you discover about beetles by studying mediƦval books?  Well as it turns out, there's one thing you might be surprised by.

This article on the Discover blog, reports the findings of an evolutionary biologist, one Blair Hedges, from Pennsylvania State University.

Hedges examined woodblock illustrations in books printed in Europe between 1462 and 1899, and measured 3,200 beetle holes.

Between these dates, many books were illustrated with woodblock engravings, and what was new to me (despite being rather obvious) is that when the wood was engraved, it had no visible wormholes, but it did have beetle larvae living inside, so some time after the engraving was finished, adult beetles would emerge, leaving a misnamed wormhole.  We assume it was too expensive to throw the block away, so pictures were printed with white circles marking where the beetles had emerged.

Hedges found that there were two sizes of round hole, and that these pricisely matched two species of European furniture beetle, and only them.  The smaller holes were made by the northern furniture beetle and the larger ones by the Mediterranean furniture beetle.

OK, that's not terribly exciting, though it is novel.  But if you check out where the books were printed, you find that the two species were distributed quite separately, with a clear demarkation line between them.  Presumably the northern species liked it cooler and wetter, while the southern species liked it hotter and drier.

Until now.  These days, the northern furniture beetle is found all the way south to the Mediterranean, and the Mediteranean furniture beetle is found all the way up to northern France and Germany.  It hasn't made it to the UK or Scandinavia yet, as far as we know.

The speculation is that the protected environment inside our houses has allowed the beetles to extend their territories hugely.

And all discovered by measuring printing defects in old books!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Police dog

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Friday, 16 November 2012

Superb Fairy-Wrens learn in ovo

Just had an email from the British Trust for Ornithology which included this link to a fascinating article about Australian Fairy-Wrens.  Apparently, as a defence against cuckoos, Superb Fairy-Wren females sing to their eggs, and what they sing includes a nest-specific key call which the young, having hatched, have to repeat back to the parents before the parents will feed them.

Researchers were recording near the birds' nests to see if they could record any anti-predator calls, but what they got was the mothers singing to their eggs.  They determined that the key call was nest-specific by swapping batches of eggs between nests.  The embryos learned the key call from the foster mother, showing that it was not inherited from the parents and must have been learned in the egg.

The young have about 5 days before they hatch to learn the key, while cuckoo embryos, because the eggs are laid later, have only two days.  It's a clever strategy, but still only works about 40% of the time, as the cuckoo chicks try out various different calls in the hope of striking lucky, which presumably they do much of the time.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Talking up the project

On Saturday, Jenny and I went down to London to University College, where Jenny gave a 45 minute talk about the project at the Geologists' Association's Festival of Geology. It was very well received, and she was asked to sign a copy of her book!

Jenny was the last of four speakers, and was preceded by Professor Iain Stewart, geologist, vulcanologist and TV presenter.  He turned out to be just as nice as he seems on the telly.

It turns out he knows Tim Kearsey from the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh and Sarah Davies from Leicester University, had been speaking separately to them in the past few weeks, but only realised that the projects they were so excited about were one and the same, namely Jenny's Romer's Gap project.  He sat in on Jenny's talk and was very complimentary when we chatted afterwards.

On Monday I drove Jenny over to Leicester for her to give the same talk to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society.  Her talk was timed to start at 7.30, which would have meant some awkward train journeys, but it was no big deal for me to drive her over there, particularly as they paid for my diesel and gave me a nice dinner!

Before dinner, we managed to see a display of some of the rocks Carys and Sarah had collected in August and October, some sawn in half and polished, and that was really fascinating.  I need to learn some sedimentology, as every time they talk about the stuff they do, I'm completely baffled.  Mostly the people there were students, but there were a few from the Lit and Phil Soc.  Jenny took along a selection of the fossils we've collected, which stirred some interest from those there.

Leicester Lit and Phil is obviously thriving, as there were well over 100 people there, perhaps more than at the GA meeting on Saturday, and they were clearly just as interested in what Jenny was saying as the London crowd.  Overall, a very interesting few days.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

President Obama

Be interesting to see what changes the republicans make in response to this. I did read some time ago that if Mitt Romney lost, the party as a whole would lurch even further to the right. 

Shame Congress is under republican control.  That'll make it much harder for Obama to actually achieve much.