Thursday, February 23, 2006

The magical mining microwave

Just published in the The Guardian's weekly technology section.
Wave goodbye to the daily grind

Microwaving rocks to release the minerals inside could save the mining industry millions and halve its use of electricity

Natasha Loder
Thursday February 23, 2006, The Guardian

Sitting innocuously on a bench in a laboratory in Chelmsford is what has been advertised as the "world's most powerful microwave". It's a slightly grubby white plastic oven that was, apparently, bought at Currys by researchers at the technology company e2v. In anticipation, I have brought a bag of potatoes. Trevor Cross, e2v's technical director, reckons his souped-up beauty can cook a baked tatty in 0.02 seconds, although he warns that it might not really resemble a potato when it is done. It might be vapourised. (more...)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The aves, and ave nots

More on the bird flu front from The Economist this week. With bird flu detected in wild birds in a dozen European countries, and in the poultry across Egypt, Nigeria and India, we will be publishing a story in the science section looking at the increasing evidence that the trade and movement of poultry is playing in the spread of this disease. Along with this article will be an editorial arguing that amidst the flap about bird flu in wild European birds, we are missing more far significant events in the spread of bird flu in Africa. Versions of these articles will appear over the next few days.

Update 24th February:

The aves, and ave nots
Feb 23rd 2006
Avian influenza is spreading to many new countries. But migrating wild birds may not be the only culprits
IN AROUND a month, bird flu has appeared in a seemingly alarming number of new countries. The disease is already endemic in the poultry flocks of much of Asia. In the face of the relentless march of the H5N1 virus around the world, fatalism is not an appropriate response. Better to look at exactly what is going on. (more...)

Editorial: Ominous
Feb 23rd 2006
Bird flu spreads around the globe
FOR most of the past three years, the highly pathogenic bird flu known as H5N1 has been found mainly in Asia. Suddenly it has arrived in many countries in Europe, triggering widespread alarm. The detection of the virus in wild birds across Europe is certainly a cause for concern, particularly to Europe's poultry farmers, who are rightfully worried that the presence of the virus in wild birds will increase the risk to their flocks. However, in the midst of a European debate about the benefits of vaccinating chickens and whether or not poultry should be brought indoors, there is a danger that far more significant events elsewhere will be overlooked. (more... subscription required)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Ecology goes open source

Last week I spent some time in Brazil, near the astonishing Iguacu Falls--easily one of the great natural wonders of the world and far more impressive than Niagara.

A group of scientists know as TEAM, which stands for the Tropical Ecology, Assessment & Monitoring Initiative, met near the town of Foz do Iguaçu, from February 10-14, 2006, to discuss biodiversity monitoring. The group has a sizeable chunk of money from the foundation backed by Intel founder Gordon Moore, and TEAM's job is to find long-term ways of monitoring biodiversity across the planet.

Its harder than it sounds. Ecologists tend to work on their own, in their own particular ways and on their own favourite sites. Now, to accomplish a planetary-scale task, they have to become more "open source", by agreeing on common protocols for studying everything from vegetation to mammals, and (gasp!) sharing data. It seems that a lot of progress was made at the meeting. Even slightly cynical scientists seemed to think that TEAM had found a good recipe for sucess, even though the meeting, according to one, had had "all the hallmarks of disaster" before it started.

One of the stars at the meeting was a gentleman called Scott Brandes, who works for TEAM, and who has come up with a portable and easy way of doing acoustic monitoring--that is, listening to and identifying insects by the sound that they make. It has so thrilled some of the other scientists there that the technique looks likely to be taken up by the primatologists--who want to use it for monitoring nocturnal mammals. To hear more about this, listen to a report for Science in Action on the BBC's World Service this Friday (and repeats), or via the listen again on the programme's web page.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Animal names

Recently published in The Economist...

Names for sale
Feb 9th 2006
The ancient science of taxonomy might benefit from a little modern marketing

CALLICEBUS AUREIPALATII is a Bolivian monkey whose biggest claim to fame is that its name came by way of an internet auction. It was purchased last year by a Canadian online casino for $650,000; and thus the Golden Palace monkey came into the scientific literature and Bolivian conservationists hit the jackpot.

If that all sounds a bit infra dig, the facts of the matter are that millions of animals are in need of names and that taxonomists require all the inspiration they can get. Frequently they name their discoveries after each other, after members of their families and (at least in the days when private patronage financed collecting expeditions) after the rich dilettantes who paid the bills. But that leaves plenty of critters without a moniker, so the net has been cast wider. (more...subscription required).

Today we have naming of parts

Feb 9th 2006
A global registry of animal species could shake up taxonomy
AT THE moment, the department of entomology at London's Natural History Museum is being rearranged, by bulldozer. It isn't a bad emblem for the broader changes transforming the science of taxonomy. Walls and ceilings are being torn down, and the tatty furniture has been thrown out. Change was due, because nearly 250 years after Carl von Linné, a Swedish naturalist, invented the modern system of naming living creatures, taxonomists still have no official list of all the animals discovered so far. This makes the work of biologists, ecologists and conservationists—who rely on species names to know just what it is they are studying and conserving—more difficult than it need be. (more...)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What's in a name?

This Friday, we'll be publishing an article and an editorial on taxonomy. Its about the proposal to create an official register of animal names--known as Zoobank. Already a few little gems from the article are strewn on the cutting room floor. One of them is an interview with Doug Yanega, an entomologist and museum curator at the University of California, who believes taxonomy has become too cumbersome. He told me, “The man who got me started in my career worked for 30 years on a bee subgenus that was so large and unwieldy that he died before publishing a single revisionary or descriptive work.” An official master list that was published by taxonomists would make the process of describing new species and finding supporting material easier, he adds, and make taxonomy more exciting and easier to pursue. Furthermore, anyone with an interest in a particular group of animals would know exactly who works on it and what the latest information is.

Dr Yanega also had some fascinating comments on the problems he faces, and how some kind of official list of animal names might help:

"As it stands presently, all taxonomists have a fundamental problem in simply keeping track of all the literature, old taxon names, and other miscellania associated with their group of interest. It's not that it's completely unmanageable, but it does have two real impacts: (1) it slows things down and compels one to "scale down" [taxonomic projects can't get too ambitious]... and (2) it creates a barrier to anyone attempting to "break into" a taxonomic group for which there is no surviving expert who has done all the legwork...both problems will be greatly reduced by having a Registry - coming out of the spin-offs that such a Registry will facilitate, such as a digital library of original descriptions and revisionary works, and a database linking taxon names to institutional holdings of those taxa, and digital libraries of images of type specimens.

A single authoritative list is the requisite foundation for any of these more ambitious undertakings - the reality of this conclusion can be seen easily enough, by looking at which taxa in the world already *have* some of these resources developed: they are all cases in which the underlying list of taxa has already been worked out and made public - small, well-defined groups that have a relatively high proportion of taxonomists to taxa (like fish, or birds, etc.).

As an entomological taxonomist, whose general sphere of activity encompasses over 90% of the known taxasphere, and who - even when narrowly focused - can find himself dealing with a single genus that contains more species than the entire Mammalia, the prospect of ever having such a set of resources that I can use is still daunting, though, and cannot even be dreamt of until and unless we have a master list of all their names. For people who work on fish, or birds, or dinosaurs, a Registry might be a fairly trivial addition to the tools at their disposal, but for the rest of us working on all the *other* life forms, it's anything but trivial.

Even worse, I'm not just an entomologist, but a *museum curator*, which means that I can, potentially, have to deal with ANY of the over 1 million named insects, and have to track down any of the over 6 million published names applied to those species. If I had a master list, I would be able to simply check off our holdings against that master list, and could thus fairly readily inform the world at large what, precisely, my collection contains. At present, were I to simply compile a list of taxon names as they appear in our collection at present, at least a quarter would probably be incorrect, and I have no easy way of making the necessary corrections. Extend that to every other museum curator in the world, and we're not talking just simple bookkeeping, but a major tool for networking and data sharing."