Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Evolving jellyfish and budgie smugglers

I was watching an episode of the BBC's South Pacific documentary series the other night (strong on the breathtaking National Geographic-style photography, weaker on the show tunes). Towards the end, there was some stunning footage of countless jellyfish in the marine lakes of Palau. The commentary went like this:

At the end of the last ice age large areas of this landscape became flooded as the ice melted. In the process , over 70 marine lakes were created.

Cut off from the outside world, these lakes produces some unique animals. One of these was an ocean predator with long tentacles, but here it evolved into a harmless, graceful wanderer.

Jellyfish normally feed on small fish, but in the lakes there was little prey, so their bells have become home to millions of tiny photosynthesising algae.

When exposed to sunlight, these algae produce sugars which, in turn, provide their hosts, the jellyfish, with food. Now, each day, the jellyfish migrate across the lake, following the arc of the sun....

So, with little danger and a never-ending supply of food, the jellyfish have multiplied ... and multiplied ... and multiplied...

Cue some hypnotic pictures of teeming hosts of jellyfish pulsating through the sun-drenched blue waters (as the BBC footage presumably won't be on iPlayer for very long, here's some more footage of the jellies that somebody's posted on YouTube). A great spectacle, but after watching I got a glimpse into the mind of a creationist. I just couldn't get my head round the evolution that was supposed to be going on here. This stuff happened comparatively recently, at the end of the last ice age - say, about 14,000 years ago, so it's quite recent in evolutionary terms. The lakes flooded, jellyfish somehow got into them and then became cut off. So far, so good. But then, I seemed to be hearing, the food ran out, so the jellyfish evolved from being carnivores into creatures fueled by photosynthetic algae. This boggled my mind a bit.

It almost sounds as if the food ran out and before they staved to death, these guys start using algal byproducts for food instead. Evolution between meals. Now that's not going to work. As usual, the real story's a little more subtle and complicated than that. There's an excellent article entitled Darwin's Jellyfish in National Wildlife Magazine which fills in the missing parts of the story making it less mind-boggling but more interesting and understandable:

Palau’s first marine lake formed just 12,000 to 15,000 years ago after the last ice age ended and sea levels rose. Palau’s rock islands were limestone peaks riddled with erosion-carved channels, fissures and depressions. Seawater seeping through the limestone transformed the largest depressions into marine lakes and swept in the larvae of spotted jellyfish and other sea creatures. In a mere moment of evolutionary time, the landlocked jellyfish radiated into five different subspecies, each attuned to its own isolated “island” of seawater. The jellies in the deepest lakes, which filled first and are therefore the oldest, diverged the most from their lagoon-living ancestor...

The myth of Palau’s “stingless” jellyfish has a certain beating-swords-into-plowshares charm: The supposedly predatory ocean jellies, confined to the peaceful lake, became gentle algae farmers. Not true, says Martin: “The lake jellyfish do have stingers, and they do use them to prey on zooplankton. Lake jellies actually get more of their energy from prey than lagoon jellyfish.”

Luckily for snorkeling tourists, the lake jellies’ sting-power is geared toward flea-sized crustaceans called copepods. Your lips might tingle if you smooched a jellyfish, but nothing more. As for the farming legend, the jellyfish do not “eat” algae. Like their lagoon ancestors, the jellyfish simply absorb their algae’s photosynthetic leftovers. The jellies get about three-fourths of their energy from algal excretions and the remainder from prey. In essence, the jellyfish are landlords that hunt a bit on the side.

The jellyfish-algae partnership did not originate in the lakes, either. Ancestral spotted jellyfish brought the arrangement with them. “Spotted jellyfish in the lagoon have basic behaviors that help ‘sun’ their algae,” Martin explains. “They move eastward in the morning. The lake jellies have adapted this migration to each individual lake. The most spectacular migration is in Jellyfish Lake.”

So, fast evolution, to be sure, but the jellies haven't actually stopped hunting and their ancestors were already making use of algae to sustain them, long before a few of them became trapped in the marine lakes. They are "harmless graceful wanderers", but only from a human point of view - their reduced stingers aren't harmless to the tiny zooplankton they still hunt. The BBC film is still stunning, but it makes a lot more sense if you read the full story of the jellyfish.

Because the jellyfish stings are harmless to humans, a lucky few get to swim in the middle of these massive migrations. Whilst looking for details of these creatures, I stumbled across this Flikr memoir of swimming with the jellies. I also discovered a new expression. Because the jellies' sting is too feeble to hurt humans, you can discard your protective wetsuit and swim among them wearing only your budgie smugglers.

budgie smugglers plural noun Austrailan (coll) a stretchy garment worn over the buttocks and genital area when swimming; speedoes (trademark); tight swimming trunks.

Isn't Aussie slang wonderful? I don't know what the lifespan of the phrase "budgie smugglers" will be, but I'm guessing it's going to easily outlast "staycation." Survival of the fittest - it happens to words as well as jellyfish.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Going nowhere 2

Another new word heard on Radio 4 this morning. Somebody was blathering on about how it might be a good idea to negotiate with members of the Taliban who were prepared to "renunciate" violence. I don't think this guy was trying to introduce a neologism, he just needed to look up "renounce" in a proper dictionary.

I was only half listening, but I'm not sure that there's much room for negotiation with a bunch of religious monomaniacs who detest all the values the West is fighting to preserve in Afghanistan. Maybe the military need to change tactics to stop their own people and Afghan civilians being killed at such a rate. Maybe they might even have to conclude that the war is unwinnable with the resouces they could reasonably commit, but negotiating with the Taliban? You're not going to convince anyone to do that if you can't even learn to talk proper...

Going nowhere

I heard someone on Radio 4 trying out a new word this morning. "Staycation"; it sounds a bit like "vacation" and is supposed to mean not going abroad on your holidays. Quite topical in these recessionary times, but I'd be surprised if it catches on and I'll eat my sun hat if it gets into any dictionary you've ever heard of.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Correction, by jingo!

Reading yesterday's on line report from ITN, I thought that two pilots had successfully recreated Blériot's cross-Channel flight on the anniversary date and I'd assumed that one of them was Mikael Carlson. It turns out that French air traffic control grounded Carlson due to high winds. French pilot Edmond Salis did cross on the appointed date, (accompanied by another pilot in a two-seater replica) whilst Carlson also made it eventually, but a day late.

Needless to say, The Daily Mail manged to turn its headline into an anti-French rant ("Fury as French keep Bleriot's plane grounded on centenary"). A hundred years on and the jingoism hasn't changed.

Anyway, here's Edmond Salis doing it on the day.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Happy landings and playing the game

Mikael Carlson and another pilot, Edmond Salis have landed safely after recreating Blériot's pioneering cross-Channel flight. Another Blériot-related piece by Rose Wilde in The Times archive blog relates how The Times' leader writer in 1909 spent more time sympathising with Hubert Latham the Anglo-French pilot who lost the race to be first over the Channel. Wilde writes:

Typical British reaction. There's nothing we like like a good loser.

I'm not so sure - as I see it, Blériot was the underdog and we Brits supposedly like to stand up for the plucky underdog. I think the British press were on Latham's side because he was Anglo-French, not just plain French. Simple jingoism, in my opinion, rather than cheering on a gallant loser...

The spirit of Blériot

Here's a nice little vid from the BBC about the Blériot XI recreated by Mikael Carlson. He's hoping to recreate the cross channel flight itself some time today - good luck!

Friday, 24 July 2009

That magnificent duffer in his flying machine

Just gone; 40 years since the first moon landing. Just coming up, 100 years since the first foolhardy daredevil crossed the English Channel in a heavier-than-air flying machine.

I use the words "foolhardy daredevil" advisedly. Reading his biographical details, Louis Blériot sounds like a bit of an aeronautical duffer, albeit a brave and persistent one. According to the Century of Flight entry I've just been reading, he was a pretty terrible pilot, clumsy , accident prone and had little grasp of aerodynamics, (fortunately, another aircraft engineer, Gabriel Voisin, helped out with some of his designs). In 1907, Blériot produced the world's first successful monoplane - although the term "successful" is quite relative in this context, as the aircraft was quite unstable and soon crashed. Other than this, there were quite a lot of failures and lots of crashes (Blériot seems to have belonged to the "any landing you can walk away from is a good landing" school of flying).

Then, the Daily Mail offered a £1,000 prize for the first successful flight across the English Channel. By then, Blériot had developed the Blériot XI (pictured above), a monoplane which had set a European record by staying airborne for over half an hour. Even so, when he borrowed some money for his cross-Channel attempt, the accident-prone Blériot was definitely not the favourite to be first across the water. Also in the running was the gentleman adventurer Hubert Latham, wealthy, Anglo-French heir to a banking fortune. Latham had a larger, more powerful aeroplane called the Antoinette, a large ground crew, a hanger and a generally well-funded, well planned operation. Also in the running was another well-heeled competitor, Count Charles de Lambert, trained to fly by the Wright brothers themselves and equipped with two Wright aeroplanes, considered at the time to be the world's best design.

As Ecclesiastes pointed out, the race is not always to the swift, and nobody's immune to time and chance. De Lambert crashed one of his planes on a test run and decided to drop out rather than risk the second one in a cross-channel attempt. This left the field open for the favourite, Latham, and Blériot.

Latham had the first shot at the Channel on July 19th 1909. Seven and a half miles out, the fatal flaw in Latham's smooth, well-funded operation became apparent - the Antoinette's engine, although big and powerful, wasn't all that reliable and cut out with Latham out over the sea. With considerable skill, he managed to land the Antoinette on the water. It floated and he sat nonchalantly smoking a cigarette as he waited to be rescued, which he duly was. Latham's spirits weren't dampened by his experience and arranged to race Blériot across the channel as soon as a new Antoinette was made ready and the weather was good enough. Good weather was forecast for the morning of July 25th, so the two men arranged to fly at dawn, Latham effortlessly confident of victory. Unfortunately for Latham, his engineer failed to wake him up at the arranged time of 3.30am.

Blériot, although suffering from burns from a racing accident was up in time. He took off just after half past four in the morning. He was hampered by being ill, having no navigational aids, and practically no instruments in his plane and probably by the aerodynamic drag of his unfeasibly bushy walrus moustache. For a while, after he lost sight of landmarks, was alone with the sea and the sky; "I am alone. I can see nothing at all. For ten minutes, I am lost", he said. The weather began to deteriorate with winds and gusts of rain. But the little Anzani rotary engine kept going and eventually Blériot spotted the English coast ahead. Shortly after that, he crash-landed into a field and the underdog became an international celebrity, (those were the days, when you became a celebrity by doing something remarkable, rather than just by appearing on some vacuous reality TV show).

Centenary celebrations are planned in France and Britain.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Free your mind

Blogging's been light recently - I've been quite busy with one thing and another (although that's not necessarily the same thing as being productive). I've been reading Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, the book of the newspaper column. It would have been an entertaining read if Goldacre had simply pointed at some of the more bizarre claims of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and laughed. In fact I'd be a bit worried about anybody who couldn't see the funny side of claims that wearing a bit of quartz round your neck, sticking a candle in your ear, or putting a hosepipe up your bottom represent new "wellness paradigms" or some such nonsense. Taking the mick out of the more obviously wacky side of CAM is easy (although no less entertaining for all that), but Goldacre tackles some more tricky targets, in particular, high profile nutritionists.

These people are harder for the lay person without any scientific training to spot. They've been called the stealth bombers of the CAM movement, deploying the sort of words a real scientist or medical professional might use - vitamins, trace elements, enzymes, proteins and antioxidants, rather than showing up on the nutter radar by ranting on about chakras, meridians, auras and electromagnetic vibrational systems. I must admit to having been taken in myself, having taken a look at a copy of Patrick Holford's The Optimum Nutrition Bible a few years ago.

To my shame, after a not very rigorous skim through a few chapters which I thought might be relevant, I gave his book the qualified benefit of the doubt (fortunately I've been in generally good health, so I didn't feel obliged to read any of his advice with great attention, but I might have given it a try if I'd had some of the symptoms of the conditions he attributed to suboptimal nutrition). Reading one of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science columns about Holford, some time later, it began to dawn on me that I'd been had. I could have read more about exactly was wrong with Holford, but I wasn't sufficiently interested in health and "wellness" issues to follow it up - I was aware of the, the Holford Watch site, but didn't spend any time on it, partly because the the various single-issue "watch" sites sound a bit obsessional to me. Which is a pity, because the Holford chapter is a gem.

It was humbling but instructive to read Ben Goldacre taking The Optimum Nutrition Bible apart in detail, picking out such choice nuggets as:

  • cherry-picking the data to support his conclusions
  • citing flawed, and now retracted papers by a discredited researcher
  • over-interpreting the results of valid studies to make claims the researchers wouldn't recognise
  • a claim that doses of vitamin C are more effective than AZT in treating AIDS
  • making dramatic claims, (for example that giving autistic children doses of vitamin A has an extraordinarily beneficial effect on their social interactions) without any references
  • reassuring the reader by throwing in the occasional piece of commonplace, common-sense dietary advice among the impressive-looking tables, diagrams and technical-sounding stuff about hormones, lipoproteins and digestive enzymes.
Underneath the sometimes plausable-sounding complexities, it's really simple - The Optimum Nutrition Bible is a book by a supplement pill salesman, explaining how most of our medical problems can be solved by eating more supplement pills.

In reality, better minds than Holford's are confused by the intricacies of diet. As Goldacre points out, in theory, ingesting more antioxidants sounds like a good idea. When the idea is tested in trials, the results suggest that there's no beneficial effect from increasing your antioxidant intake - in fact, high levels may even be harmful. In reality, the best advice is the stuff that's simple and easy to understand - eat a varied diet, including plenty of fruit and veg, don't smoke, don't drink too much alcohol, take exercise. It might not be easy to do, but it's easy to get your head round - so chuck out the spin and over-complication, along with the pills the nutritionists would love you to buy and free your mind.

There's lots more good stuff in Bad Science about the relationship between medical science, flawed medical science, PR, the media, pharmaceutical companies torturing the data to push the latest miracle cure and much, much more. It's a piece of hard investigative work and clear thinking that stands head and shoulders above much of the reflexive "churnlism" that propagates so much of the misinformation Goldacre uncovers.

After being so easily taken in by Holford, maybe I am getting the message. One of the pharmaceutical companies' tricks, pointed out in Bad Science is the medicalisation of an ever-greater range of conditions which were formerly just normal, if sometimes unpleasant, parts of life (inventing a syndrome to fit a pill they just happen to have). In one of his recent columns Ben Goldacre notices the invention of Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder as the latest example of this trend. A while ago, with less style, knowledge and insight, I noticed the same thing - this reassures me that I do occasionally pay attention.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

It came from the veg patch

After last year's venture into Chard, this year's slightly unusual vegetable is kohlrabi. It's not a big crop, but here's the first one we've harvested. I wasn't sure what to do with the alien-looking tentacled purple blob , so mashed it up roughly with carrots. It wasn't a taste revelation, but it was quite pleasant, which is more than we can said for last year's chard, which grew vigorously, but was a bit of a penance to eat. Somebody on line claimed that chard stalks were a bit like asparagus, although I can tell you from personal experience that you'd be about as likely to confuse chard stalks with asparagus as you would be to mistake the Eiffel Tower for a fun-sized Snickers bar.
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Monday, 6 July 2009

Flagging interest

"There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum"
Arthur C. Clarke

Greetings, fellow earthlings! The image above is a design for the Flag of the Earth, created by James W. Cadle in 1970, in the wake of the first Apollo moon landing. It features a stylised section of the sun's disc, a blue circle representing the earth and a smaller white circle for the moon. It's an interesting alternative to the other coloured scraps of cloth that humans are always squabbling over and deserves another showing, with the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up.

I started looking at flag-related trivia after reading Flags of Forgotten Countries at Dark Roasted Blend (an article from which I pinched the Arthur C Clarke quote above). Among many other factoids, I discovered the origin of the two-headed eagle that became a symbol of Russia under the Tsars (and has been rehabilitated by the nationalists in the present Russian Federation). I'd always thought that this mutant bird looked a bit odd, but didn't know why it had two heads. The reason, apparently, is that the bird was first used on a Byzantine standard. It was a version of the Roman Eagle, the two heads, symbolising the fact that the Byzantine Empire looked both west to Europe and east to Asia. Here's a version of one of the the original Byzantine double-headed eagles, the emblem of the Palaiologos dynasty:

After the fall of Constantinople, Byzantine refugees ended up in Moscow, where their Imperial symbol was adopted by their Russian Orthodox coreligionists. At various times, this funny-looking bird has also been adopted as a national symbol by Albania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Montenegro, Serbia and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, among others.