Thursday, 17 September 2015

New Beginnings...

It may look like I have abandoned ship but nothing could be further from the truth, I have merely swapped vessels. For a long time I have been toying with the idea of trying out a new blogging platform but I resisted as I didn't fancy having to start again from scratch. Having looked at a few options though I have taken the plunge.

There are two main reasons. Firstly, this blog was never really meant to be about science and scepticism yet that is what it has become, mostly because I really don't get the chance to travel or take pictures like I used to; so for a while now I thought that I would like to separate out the two. Secondly, the Google Blogger platform really hasn't changed in 5 years; it has become increasingly outmoded and is in dire need of an update. If I'm going to start a new blog it isn't going to be on Blogger. My new blog, Skeptilogicon (forgive me the American spelling but most of my readers are from the US), was born this past Wednesday and can be found on WordPress which is, frankly, a far more comprehensive blogging platform.

I will still be posting here when circumstance permit, although it will now be a lot more infrequently; I don't travel much these days whereas I can read and write about science from the comfort of my own tube train. If I happen to take a pretty picture I'll be sure to share it. In the meantime, feel free to come on over to The Skeptilogicon and get your daily dose of science and scepticism.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Latest Pluto Pictures!

Last week NASA revealed the latest awesome images of Pluto from the New Horizons mission. Check out this amazing image of the Cthulhu Regio and Sputnik Planum below. I can see that the image has been horribly compressed when I uploaded it to the blog so it's well worth clicking on this link to the hi res original.

The dark mountainous region is Cthulhu Regio whilst Sputnik Planum is the vast, flat, icy, white expanse. The plain is another example of the puzzling lack of craters on Pluto's surface, which implies a younger age for the surface than anyone had predicted. Contrastingly, Cthulhu is the most heavily cratered, and therefore oldest, region yet seen.

According to Principal Investigator Alan Stern the most surprising thing revealed so far by the mission has been the sheer breadth of geographical features found on Pluto; it's just as varied and interesting as Mars.

The new image is a mosaic made from images downloaded since September 5th when the probe began its year long download of the data it accumulated during the flyby. We're going to need to be patient to get it all but, on the upside, it means there's lots of goodies still to come.

NASA, pluto

Monday, 14 September 2015

Badger Parade Postponed

Obscure 20 year old British comedy references aside, Governments, unfortunately, have a nasty habit of picking and choosing scientific data to fit their ideology. The latest example from our current Government concerns badgers once again. Badgers are a natural reservoir of a type of tuberculosis that also happens to infect cows. Farmers don't like having their cows infected with TB and so are generally in favour of eradicating badgers anywhere near their farms. Most farmers and other rural types tend to vote Conservative and so it is that the humble badger finds itself pitched against the might of Her Majesty's Government.

Over the past two years there has been a pilot study in two areas to see if culling badgers will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. The pilots were based on an earlier study, The Krebs Study, that found that to achieve a 12-16% decrease in bovine TB incidence you had to kill at least 70% of the badger population every 4 years. Yes, you read that correctly. 70% of badgers have to die to achieve a very modest decrease in the numbers of cows getting TB. The Krebs Study also showed that if you failed to kill as many as that then there was a good chance that you could actually increase the spread of the TB because the badgers become a lot more mobile once they realise the apocalypse has arrived. Who could blame them?

The pilot was conducted in two English counties, Gloucestershire and Somerset, where it was necessary to kill at least 615 & 316 respectively. By the end of the allowed 6 week period of the cull (the time frame is kept short so that the blow can be dealt swiftly to the badger population before they have a chance to move elsewhere) 341 badgers had been killed in Somerset and only 274 in Gloucestershire. On top of this, an independent expert panel found that the method used to kill the badgers (trapping them and then shooting them) was inhumane; an unacceptably high percentage of them were found to suffer and for longer than was permitted.

It is difficult to see how this pilot scheme could be used to justify rolling out the culling program more widely. It's quite possible that the cull could have made the situation worse and hundreds of badgers will have suffered and died for no purpose. The pilot was broadly based on research carried out over 8 years by Professor Rosie Woodroffe. She has publicly stated that the Government's position is not backed up by the evidence. She says, 'This announcement plums new depths. In [cherry picking the data], it does a disservice to the farmers it seeks to protect, by feeding their hope of a solution to the TB problem with an approach which actually risks making the problem worse.' Indeed.

Apparently building a decent fence would be too much effort to go to. Image used with permission

Friday, 11 September 2015

Treellions and Treellions!

Good news! Thanks to combining different counting techniques we now have our most accurate ever count of the number of trees on the planet. The new figure is approximately 3.04 trillion trees. That's a lot of wood and constitutes a 7 fold increase in the previous best estimate. But don't get excited, there aren't 7 times more trees on the earth than there were last week, we've just conducted a better census.

Previously we have used just satellite imagery to count them but this isn't great at estimating density. From hundreds of miles up it isn't easy to see if a green canopy is made up of lots of smaller trees or fewer larger ones. The new technique involved amassing as many ground based surveys as possible, actually getting outside and counting the number of trees in a given area (over 400,000 hectares in total!), and then cross referencing these areas with the satellite imagery. This then allowed the researchers to know for sure what images of a particular nature translated to in reality. They then extrapolated out over the rest of the planet and Bob's your uncle.

Their results are published in this open access paper from Nature. In it they note that the number of trees has decreased by an astonishing 46% since humans came on the scene and that the number is decreasing by about 15 billion trees each year. This new data will hopefully provide more detail for climate change models and also assessments of items like soil erosion, water purification and other functions that trees perform free of charge.

I fear bonsais were not included in the survey. Image used with permission

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Oldest Living Vertebrate Returns to English Rivers

Great news! One of the, frankly, most terrifying creatures I've ever laid eyes on is making a comeback in English rivers. The lamprey, asides from being some kind of monster from a Guillermo del Torro film, is actually very interesting. It is the oldest known vertebrate still alive today having been around for over 350 million years; that's over 100 million years before even the very first dinosaurs evolved. Lampreys are jawless and instead have a circular mouth with row upon row of pointed teeth, see below if you want to have nightmares. Did I mention that they can grow to be a metre long?

Anyway, although they used to be very common and successfully survived hundreds of millions of years of change and upheaval across the planet, in the last couple of hundred years their numbers dwindled over Europe and they are now endangered. However, a project by the Environment Agency has led to increased numbers across parts of northern England. The two main problems the eel-like fish had were pollution and river blockages like weirs and dams. Many UK rivers are now the cleanest they've been since the Industrial Revolution and the blockages are being overcome with the installation of lamprey tiles. These are cheap tiles that have broad based cones sticking up from them that the lampreys can curl around and use to gain purchase as they travel up river.

As unlikely as it seems they are, apparently, delicious to boot. Lamprey pie was a mainstay of royal banquets for a millennium and is still sometimes found today, for example at the Queen's jubilee celebrations in 2012. But be warned, the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon reports that Henry I was killed by consuming 'a surfeit of lampreys' in 1135, a fish that he loved but which 'disagreed with him'.

Image used with permission