Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Back To School #2: Alternative Lunchbox

Palaeontologically correct it may not be, but I thought the use of googly eyes made this superior to the lunchbox of a few weeks ago:

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Palaeontologist At The Airport

Over at Ask Doctor Vector, Matt has recounted his recent experience transporting a cow shinbone through an airport. It reminded me of an incident as I was returning home from SVP last year.

I loaded my bags onto the conveyor, did my usual striptease (since almost everything I own or wear has at some point set off the metal detector), and proceeded through to collect my bags. The Homeland Security officer was looking aghast at my bag's image on the screen, running it backwards and forwards, zooming in, flicking between different views.

Until she turned to me, looking extremely confused, and said "Ma'am, do you have a dinosaur in your bag?". When I replied in the affirmative, she just let it through with no further questions.

This was the dinosaur in question. Rather makes one wonder what the officer would have done if the answer had been "No"...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Sometimes Humanity Sucks

The Natural History Museum isn't just the South Kensington site - its bird collection, for example, is housed north of London in Tring, Hertfordshire. Many of the non-British readers might have been unaware of this; unfortunately the thieves who broke into the collection on 24th June and stole several rare bird skins were not ignorant of this fact.

A statement from the Museum is online here. Professor Richard Lane, the Director of Science at the NHM, said:
"The birds that were stolen formed part of the nation's natural history collection, painstakingly assembled over the last 350 years. The 70 million specimens looked after by the Natural History Museum are a resource of international importance in the development of scientific knowledge. Our ornithological collections are amongst our most heavily used and are consulted by researchers throughout the world, who either visit Tring or request loans from us. The knowledge gleaned from these collections can help protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us."
In this technologically advanced age, Hertfordshire Police now have an official YouTube channel, and released this video:

I didn't know we had a National Wildlife Crime Unit, but I'm pleased they exist and are involved in the investigation. One thing is clear - this is not the sort of thing that opportunistic burglars steal. These bird skins haven't been nicked in order to fund a crack habit. To my mind (uneducated as it is in criminology) this is far more organised - stealing to order, for rich private collectors perhaps. If that is the case, then perhaps there will be more leads than one gets with the average house burglary (although as I discovered, not even the irrefutable DNA of the burglar left in our house could make up for the incompetence of Ealing Police - ask me about that sometime...). I'm sure we'll all be hoping to hear shortly that the birds have been found and the thieves caught.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Happy Left-Handers Day, Fellow Southpaws!

Today, 13th August, is a cool day for me. It's my "half-birthday", meaning I am now just six short months from the big 3-0. It is also International Left-Handers Day, where (if you choose to celebrate) the 10% of us who have to exist in a right-handed world can turn the tables and designate a "Lefty Zone" (don't worry Paul, given this morning's smoothie incident you have enough trouble coping with ambidextrous and right-handed equipment, let alone stuff designed for a lefty, so consider yourself spared!).

So here's a list of everyday equipment that I have to struggle to use, use with my non-dominant hand or try to find a left-handed version:
  • Pens (we need quick-drying ink or a pen that will adapt to the different way a lefty has to hold a pen to see what they've written, and the nib has to be able to cope with a lefty pushing rather than pulling the pen across the page - biros saved our lives!)
  • Rulers (I have a left-handed ruler now, where the "0" is on the right hand side)
  • Scissors (using a right-handed pair makes it very difficult to see the line that needs to be cut)
  • Cake forks (never any point in giving me a righty cake fork because I won't use the "blade")
  • Kettles (the level indicator is almost always set up so the handle is on the right hand side - I've adapted to using it right-handed)
  • Computer mice (once upon a time there wasn't an option to swap over the buttons, or spend ages in computing classes switching the mouse to the other side of the keyboard so I learned to use it right-handed)
  • Microwaves (all the buttons are on the right hand side)
  • Can openers (thank goodness most of the plastic ones out now are ambidextrous)
  • Ticket barriers (I still have a fumble at the ticket barriers as I remember to swap hands or cross my left arm over my body)
  • Hockey sticks (despite an average of three lefty students per class my school had no lefty hockey sticks, so I played with a right-handed one and sucked badly at hockey)
  • Computer keyboard (the sodding number keys are always on the right hand side, making fast data entry difficult for the lefty)
However, while these things are an annoyance (and probably much more so for people who cannot use their right hand for anything - I'm at least moderately ambidextrous with some things), I wouldn't be so foolish as to expect massive design changes in things like ticket barriers and microwaves. I'm sure if it bothered me enough I could get a left-handed keyboard, and stationery and kitchen equipment is well catered for at Anything Left-Handed.

A couple of years ago I mentioned research on the LRRTM1 gene, which may go some way to explaining why three members of my family were or are left-handed (out of 10 of my grandfather's descendants plus himself). It'll be interesting to see which hand Grandpa's great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren use, and whether the world will be a little less frustrating for them to live in.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Palaeontology Benefitting The World

As I have frequently ranted about on here, palaeontology is often seen as a frivolous pastime of no real benefit to the rest of science, let alone the world at large. Some people feel the same way about the Space Race, teflon frying pans notwithstanding. But here's an example, in New Scientist today:
How to digitally iron out chewed-up photos
A sophisticated imaging technique used to enhance fossils and ancient engravings may soon help you erase rips and creases from old photographs, using just an ordinary flatbed scanner. Tom Malzbender of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, and his colleagues pioneered a method of taking scores of digital photographs of a textured object from slightly different angles to create a computer model of the object's bumps and ridges.
There you go, a technique developed in the course of palaeontological and archaeological research could be a mainstream feature of flatbed scanner software in years to come.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Back To School #1: Kit

Lunchboxes ain't what they used to be. 25 years ago, when I started school, I had a plastic Peanuts lunchbox with a thermos inside. Now look at what you can buy:

And on the back is a load of NHM-sanctioned trivia:

Here's the question. Can a respectable biology lecturer at a further education college get away with having her sandwiches in this?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Exposure To Science In Magazines

Just under two weeks ago, I posted about a quiz testing the science knowledge of the average American, with results broken down by demographic. I noted that the only questions where women scored more highly than men were the life/health science stories, and we got a nice bit of discussion going as to why this might be. KJHaxton hit the nail on the head:
I wonder if it is to do with they types of media each gender is exposed to - women's magazines may be more likely to carry health information, programs (esp in the US) pitched at men focus on more physical things.
So I was tickled to see an example of this in action today.

Fellow palaeo-blogger and far-too-occasional drinking buddy Dave Hone is having a busy week, partly caused by this article. I've only just asked Dave for a PDF (and he might not even have a copy himself yet!), but here's the gist. Adult dinosaur bones are not commonly found with predator tooth marks, nor are adult bone fragments found in the stomach contents of predatory dinosaurs. Add in a distinct lack of juveniles preserved in the fossil record (along with the caveat that a fair bit of this may be attributed to taphonomic bias) and observations of extant predators tending to go for juvenile prey as an easier target than a sick or elderly adult and certainly easier than a healthy adult, and one can hypothesise that adult theropods were preying on predominantly juveniles.

Dave's got a comprehensive post on the paper on his blog, and he says himself it's almost as long as the paper, so I recommend going over and having a good read. But this is the bit that tickled me: it got picked up by GQ Magazine!

I don't know how many countries GQ has reached, but (originally short for Gentlemen's Quarterly) it is at the higher end of the spectrum of men's glossy magazines. It has the articles that all you boys say you read Playboy for. It has fairly intellectual (for a glossy) journalism, and a low tits quotient. The article itself is pretty good - there is no mention of the word "boffin", they've spelled "palaeontologist" correctly, remembered to capitalise the genus name of the dinosaurs concerned, and pretty much explained the journal article for non-scientists. This may be the very first time the word Lethaia has featured on any men's magazine website, but let's hope it's not the last.

Here's the kicker though - there is no way, if I go to the Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan or Glamour websites, that I would see this article or anything like it. I searched for the word "dinosaur" on each website, and all I got was a designer's fashion show where he/she had been "inspired" by One Million Years BC.


It really does seem as though women are only allowed to be interested in science that directly affects them as wives and mothers and consumers of expensive cosmetics. It's okay to inform men about cool science that (sorry Dave) won't have any impact on their daily lives, because men like cool stuff. Maybe dinosaurs would make it into the women's glossies if they were suddenly found to have been bright pink.

Your thoughts, oh loyal readership?
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