New Blighty


These kind of wtf moments seem to come every day from this worst-government-in-Australian-History government. “I drive to Canberra to go to Parliament … and I must say I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive,” Mr Hockey said. “I think they’re a blight on the landscape.”
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All those photos of psychopathic morons proudly showing the bleeding bodies of lions, giraffes, bears, wolves, elephants they have blasted with high-powered penis substitutes? Guess they think we will be envious of their prowess.

Makes good people not envious but sick to their stomachs seeing these vicious fools posed with their killing machines with foot triumphantly on top of the body of their victims. Makes them determined perhaps to try to stop this evil.
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Doctor, doctor, gimme the news


All over this planet, millions of species representing the end point of 4 billion years of evolution, living in ecosystems representing the end point of millions of years of ecological interaction, are being made extinct at a rate probably unprecedented in the history of Earth, and towards an end point seen only a few times in that history.

An incredible 100,000 or so species are estimated to be going extinct each year towards a total loss in just a few decades of at least half those existing just 100 years ago (when the extinction rate first gathered pace). My feeling is that estimates like “a half” represent scientists being cautious. That really the planet is faced with the extinction of 90% or more, and the last time that happened was a quarter of a billion years ago. The last time anything like the extent of the events of these two centuries happened was 65 million years ago as a large meteor exploded against the planet. The last significant set of extinctions was around 25,000 years ago as the climatic events of the end of the ice ages drove many large species, especially mammals, to extinction.
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Phantom menaces


I’ve been watching, at long last, the three Star Wars prequel movies (yes, yes, I know how truly awful the first two are NOW, but you didn’t warn me, did you?). Something struck me as I watched the endless computer graphics supplying background to the endless special effect fight scenes.

It has long been a commonplace that the representation of “alien races” in science fiction always gets it wrong. In brief, for this is totally irrelevant to the essay, natural selection will work exactly the same way wherever life appears in the universe. And we know that physics and chemistry is uniform. So alien body forms can’t be just random collections of unconnected exotic features, and bodies are limited by physical and chemical laws. So Wookies, possible, Jar Jar Binks, not so much.

Where was I? Oh yes. Aliens are wrong, but so, generally, are the planets they are portrayed as living on. Many Star Wars planets are portrayed as having surfaces totally covered by cities composed of huge skyscrapers and clearly intended to indicate populations of billions of beings. It is an old concept in science fiction. I guess based on the ideas of inevitable massive population growth, endless technological innovation, and cities as the ultimate expression of human evolution and civilisation.
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Desert profit


“My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Duke of Wellington, letter from the field of Waterloo (June 1815)

Tacitus some 1700 years earlier – “They rob, kill and plunder all under the deceiving name of Roman Rule. They make a desert and call it peace.”

At Xmas I came across a sad piece talking about Xmas 1913, looking at what a number of young men were doing that Xmas, and what would happen to them in the Great War. That is, die.

The essay beautifully makes the obvious point that 1913 marked the end of the old world. Nothing would ever be the same again – “What the war changed most, as Philip Larkin suggested in his great poem “MCMXIV”, written in 1964 for the half-centenary of the war, was the social deference born of ages; a blind trust in authority; a belief that everything was most likely to advance towards a better world. “Never such innocence again.””
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Like snowflake crystal


When I was, many years ago, a youngish archaeozoologist (or zooarchaeologist, the difference in name being a matter of taste), one of the skills I needed, and had, was a combination of pattern recognition and pattern memory. I would be faced with dozens, hundreds perhaps, of pieces of bone in various sizes, shapes, colours, textures. The challenge was to look at them one at a time and remember that you had seen, somewhere else on the table, perhaps in another bag or box, another piece that was similar, very similar, in colour, texture, and that had a broken end that matched this broken end. I could reach out for where I knew it was and, hey presto, join together two parts of a broken bone.
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Fiery particles


So here I am again. Blogging, one-handed, in the oncology day treatment ward. For the last time. Ever.

No, mustn’t tempt the fates, waiting with their deadly scissors to punish both optimism and hubris. This is hopefully the last chemo treatment (astonishingly number 19) for quite a while after two years and 4 days since my first one, an age ago.

Side effects a bit rough last time, hope better this time.

This whole process is a bit like burning the forest to get rid of weeds and then seeing the good green shoots appearing again through the blackened landscape. Chemotherapy burns up all the white blood cells, including the bad lymphoma particles, and then the blood ecology comes back.

But just as the forest is damaged by each fire, and the more you burn, the less well the ecology recovers, so the more you “burn” the good cells in the body the more you damage them, and the less your body returns to normal. Moderation in both are needed.

There, managed to combine my fire research with my cancer treatment, not a bad metaphor eh?

So don’t forget to vote for me as Best Blog at – page 5 under THE Watermelon Blog.

The Old Astronomer*


Look, there’s a lot of different careers I could have had. Hell, had three different ones, three and a half, as it was. But if I ever manage to decide what I want to do with my life (and yes, that is a winged chariot you hear), astronomy is right up there as a possibility.

Oh, not really a possibility, with my lack of physics and mathematics abilities. I suppose my wishful thinking was always based on Herschel, hell Galileo, staring at the mysterious skies through a telescope and seeing, things never seen before, heavenly messengers.

We are of course, long past the time when amateurs could point a telescope from their backyard and make discoveries in the cosmos. Although, that said, it is from a backyard not a million parsecs from mine that a chap does keep making discoveries, most recently of bits of a comet crashing into Jupiter.

But my old eyes are too old anyway, these days, astronomy a young person’s game, these days. Besides, had my academic careers, working in zoology and archaeology. But it’s all the same thing, really, archaeology being part of zoology, and zoology a subsection of astronomy.

What was the question? Oh, you think I need to defend those suggestions? Well, if I must, it’s your blog.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Carl Sagan of course, in a rather wonderful thought. We don’t need to go out to the stars, they have come to us. And not just to humans, but every living being on the planet, and the very structure of the planet we live on.

The other rather wonderful thought is that we, you and I dear reader, are related to every other human being currently on the planet, and all those who came before. And if that isn’t a wonderful enough thought, we, you and I, are also related to every other living being, animal and plant, on the planet. How good is that eh?

And not just related in the literal, direct genetic sense, but in an ecological one. As the first of the apes that would become human walked across the African savannah they began to adapt to different habitats to their nearest relatives, and to make use of different plants and animals in their diet. Their hunting will have subtly altered species compositions among their prey and plant foods. And eventually, as some groups shifted towards agriculture or pastoralism, their interactions with other species actually affected evolution, in a process we call domestication.

We study early humans in exactly the same way we study their relatives, through palaeontology, studying not only their bony remains, but, where possible, diet and behaviour. As we reach the creation of stone and other tools we call this branch of palaeontology “archaeology”, but it’s all one thing. And palaeontology is of course just one aspect of zoology.

Convinced yet?

But wait, there’s more. For a long time another branch of zoology (well, biochemistry, but really I’m in an imperial mood) has investigated the origins of life. Plenty of ideas, successful experiments in forming organic molecules in conditions approximating early Earth in terms of water, heat, electrical discharge, low oxygen, clay minerals etc. But all with the deliberately built-in, assumed requirement that organic had to come from an original inorganic chemistry on Earth. [This is, was, a necessary assumption. The nonsense from Hoyle and Wickramasinghe about life forms arriving on Earth from comet tails or whatever was not only mad-brained, but didn't affect the study of the origin of life, merely shifted the location to somewhere else where, obviously, organic must have still been derived from inorganic, and on a surface of some kind].

But the young lads and lasses of modern astronomy have shown in effect (and I never thought I’d find myself writing this phrase) that Fred and Chandra were sort of right. No, no, not in the sense of showers of frogs or beetles or bacteria from outer space, I haven’t lost my wits totally (nor my sarcasm). But what recent years of observation have shown us is that organic molecules of various kinds are common in space. Are produced, as I understand it, from dust clouds and the radiation from evolving and exploding stars. That it isn’t necessary to start from scratch to form life on this planet (and quite possibly also on Mars and moons like Titan and Enceladus), but that various organic molecules will provide a kind of kick start for electrical discharges, water, heat, clay substrates to go to work and develop the kind of self-reproducing complex organic molecules we call “life”. [This also, incidentally, makes it absolutely certain that many other millions of the planets the young astronomers are now also able to observe will also have life].

So, not just star stuff to build bones etc, but the very materials that can, in the right conditions, form life, come from out there. There is no gap between us and all the other life forms on this planet, and none between our organics and those spread throughout this awfully big universe. Another rather wonderful thought.

Oh, and of course no longer any need to distinguish between astronomy, zoology, and archaeology. And no need for me to plan (thank goodness) another end of life career – I always was an astronomer really, it turns out, just one studying the bits of the universe that happened to sit on this planet.

Not now, sadly though, a young astronomer but an old astronomer. Almost as old as the universe, I can feel it in my bones.

*see poem “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams about a third of the way through my “Values” section, click tag above or

The Write Stuff


“…he lounged up and down the pavement, and gazed vacantly at the ground, the sky, the opposite houses, and the line of railings. Having finished his scrutiny, he proceeded slowly down the path, or rather down the fringe of grass that flanked the path, keeping his eyes riveted on the ground. Twice he stopped, and once I saw him smile, and heard him utter an exclamation of satisfaction. There were many marks of footsteps on the wet clayey soil; but since the police had been coming over it, I was unable to see how my companion could learn anything from it” … “… the murderer was a man. He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar. He came here with his victim in a four-wheeled cab, which was drawn by a horse with three old shoes and one new one on his off fore-leg …” Sherlock Holmes ‘A Study in Scarlet’.

When I was young I thought “Oh, if only I could write like Enid Blyton”. A little later it was “Oh if only I could write like WE Johns”. Then followed Charles Dickens, and a little later JD Salinger, and on and on through a life spent reading and writing. These days I will read some beautifully argued and written blog post or newspaper column and think, oh, if only I could write like that, perhaps I should copy their style, see what I can do.

But you can’t, really of course. Your writing style is born with you, grows with you, is the result of nature and nurture, is as individual as a fingerprint.

Or your track through a desert. It is often remarked (though I think much exaggerated and mythologised) that Australian Aborigines, Kalahari Bushmen, North American Indians, can identify not just which species of animal they are tracking but an individual, and the same when tracking humans. And what they were doing – here they paused to rest, here ate some food, there drank, at this point they were running, at that they were sleeping and so on. A track across a landscape becomes a history of an individual.

As does the track across your life of the things you write. We all leave behind not broken twigs, crushed leaves, footprints in soft mud; but letters, wills, academic research papers, letters to editor, books, post cards, theses, speeches, school essays, diaries, newspaper columns, poetry, book chapters, reviews, referee reports, and, more recently, emails, tweets, blogs. We don’t all leave all of those of course, but the combination of written works we do leave will also help to define our lives, define who we are, as much as the style and content of what is written.

Some disciplines impose strong frameworks not just on what is written but on how it is written. Law, Science, Medicine, Engineering, for example, impose style and content requirements that greatly reduce the individual footprint that can be produced in them. On the other hand writing history for example, or of course literature, is very much open to, indeed demands, that the writer develop their own style.

So you could, and people called biographers do, deduce a great deal about a person, their personality, ideas, creativity, influences, life story, from the written works they leave behind. A box, an attic, full of old papers doth a biography make. But for it to be a true, accurate, portrait of a lady, or gentleman, the record must be complete. There are many heartbreaking stories to the biographer or historian, of letters burnt after death on an author’s instructions (Dickens for example), of manuscripts lost in some way, of material discarded when a family moves house, and, these days, of crashed computers or damaged discs. The problem is not just that some detail is absent, some chunk of time not described, but that the missing material may well have totally altered our understanding of a life, a character, an achievement.

Material from which to cut the whole cloth of a life need not be actually physically lost, but can be merely lost sight of. A classic example in science is Gregor Mendel. He published the paper which showed how genetic inheritance worked in 1866. It was ignored for the next 34 years (and all his papers burnt after his death in 1884), during which time Darwin’s discovery of natural selection remained without a proper framework of genetic inheritance, until rediscovered in 1900. It was only after that time that modern genetics began to develop, and the genius of Mendel recognised. There have been many similar cases in all scientific disciplines I suspect.

This kind of failing is not just a thing of the past. Today the standard approach to “reviewing the literature” in an academic paper is to look only at the last few years, an event horizon at 5 years apparently prevents any further investigation. A literature review once was, should be, the following of a trail of evidence and argument back to its origins, in order to understand the life story of a theory or set of data. It only takes one or two literature reviews in which some papers are ignored for them to disappear into a black hole and never be referenced again (because future researchers will come to this point in their search and, not finding them, remain unaware of their existence).

Does it matter? Yes it does. If older works disappear from consideration then newer ones will keep reinventing the wheel, keep coming up with suggestions long ago dismissed for good reason (see my earlier post “The Burning Bush” for an example of this). Science is supposed to grow steadily as data and ideas accumulate, not keep slipping down to the bottom of the hill and start again the next day.

And for the individuals concerned (like poor old Mendel), ignoring work is as bad as having the maid burn a manuscript while lighting a fire, or work being done on a computer tape that can no longer be read by modern computers. Their life story, their achievements, their personal style as illustrated in the fingerprints of their writing, will be invisible to history, be incomplete. And we have no Sherlock Holmes now to decipher the biographical footprints scuffed out by policemen.

No one will ever know I smoked Trichinopoly cigars.

We need to talk about Kevin


The other day I saw the start of one of the Kevin McCloud lifestyle programs “Grand Designs” (a British series which follows people building unusual/interesting houses). I was struck by his opening scene. The camera ran a close-up on his face as he walked along. He said “What do you do in Britain if you want to build a house in the wilderness?” As he spoke the camera panned back to show that he was walking across a paddock, one of hundreds of acres of such paddocks as far as you could see, of pasture for sheep (which were, lambs at foot, dotted across the grass)! It would have been impossible to find a scene less “wildernessy”.

So pause for a moment, as I did, to absorb this incongruity. He isn’t a stupid man, Mr McCloud, so what on earth did he mean? Well, what he meant was that “wilderness” is anything that isn’t in a city. It’s like the ancient Greek sense of “Barbarians” meaning anyone who wasn’t Greek living in a Greek City State (a concept shared with most other cultures, everywhere from England, to China, to Aboriginal Australia, but I digress.

Let’s look at another, related, misused word, “pristine”. Once it meant what “wilderness” once meant – an environment unmodified by humans. Then it was turned on its head, by advertising agencies who decided it had a nice sound, to use, essentially, for a landscape with grass. As in a pristine golf course, a pristine housing development, a pristine farm (see the overlap with McCloud). But then it developed to pristine beaches (with added sand, breakwaters, carefully manicured by sand graders), pristine tropical islands (totally turned into tourist resorts) pristine snow resorts (trees and boulders removed from runs, ski lodges added, artificial snow created by machines), and so on. In this most recent sense it means something like “picturesque” “chocolate boxy” “place that photographs well” or, most simply “special offer, wouldn’t you love to have a holiday here?” Or, in a general sense, places that aren’t the city. Which brings us back neatly to Mr McCloud and his sheep paddock.

In the old days in Britain “wilderness” meant basically “places where we haven’t cut the trees down yet”. They were, consequently, dangerous, and might hide wolves, bears, brigands, ghosts, evil spirits and so on. A farm definitely wasn’t wilderness, but what lay beyond its fence line was.

The Romantics adopted this kind of definition, but turned it into a positive (following the original lead, in a different sense, of Rousseau). Wilderness was where we could get back in touch with nature, get away from the artificiality, indeed evils, of the city, where we were never meant to be, and get back to our roots. Now, instead of being feared, wild places of mountain or swamp or forest were celebrated in art and literature. People went hiking in them, climbed mountains, communed where the wild things were.

And then began creating “wilderness” on their estates – artificial waterfalls, clumps of trees, piles of rocks, fake ruins of temples, and so on. You could visit “wilderness” without the bother of travelling. And paintings, by Constable for example, treated as a single landscape the trees and rivers as well as the farm cottages or watermills or labourers in a field. At the same time the population was on the move as those same labourers tossed it in for more lucrative and perhaps easier work in factories and moved their families into town. The countryside was where they had escaped from, the primitive life, and they had no interest in it. If you needed a holiday from town then you travelled to a seaside resort which was a different kind of town, with a “pristine” beach, but with all the comforts of home. All views, and behaviour, which were exported to Australia with the first convicts and settlers.

So we come, gradually, to McCloud’s definition. Both symbolically, and actually, civilised life is in the city, and all that lies beyond is untamed, and rather threatening and uncomfortable, wilderness. Which people never really see, never want to see. Holidays still involve travel to artificial resorts (either in Australia, say the Gold Coast, or more often these days, in places like Thailand or Bali), the more “pristine” the better. They don’t involve contact with actual wilderness.

Does it matter? Of course it does. If wilderness is an undifferentiated “other” world out there beyond the outer suburbs, and a golf course or resort are “pristine”, then efforts at conservation will make no sense to you. Conversely nonsense like “farmers are the only true conservationists” or “miners restore the environment after mining” or “logging is good for forests” or “you got to choose between frogs and people” will seem to make perfect sense.

If you have no idea that what are trendily called “ecosystem services” these days – clean air, water, pest control, soil conservation – can only be provided by intact functioning ecosystems (wilderness), then you will see no problem in losing them. When populist politicians from Left or Right, or unionists, or big business, call for the felling of forests, the trawling of oceans, the complete use of river water for irrigation, the construction of huge open cut mines, the opening up of the North, shooting or grazing in forests, removal of marine reserves, the culling of bats or crocodiles, the public, in blissful ignorance, will applaud and vote accordingly.

Until the public understands that farmland is an environment little less degraded than cities and suburbs, and that actual functioning wilderness is consequently only in tiny, rapidly disappearing, areas, which are being woodchipped, mined, cleared, developed as I write these words, then there is no hope of trying to develop a public, and therefore political, conservation ethos.

Perhaps I could start with Kevin McCloud. Get him to make a program.