19 July 2014

Lamarck Fish Merchandise!

Well, after a small amount of prompting, I've set up a CafePress shop, where you can buy your very own branded wear with Nigel the Lamarckian Fish Giraffe Beast proudly displayed. On you go - shop 'til you drop!

12 June 2014

Interesting bad soil problem...

Houston, we have a problem.

I've been a little concerned about the soil in my front garden, so tried a little experiment. I had a few spare tomato seedlings, so after leaving them outside for a week or so to acclimatise them to the cold, I planted them into the soil directly, with plenty of water etc. Within two days there was a real transformation - the leaves became very bleached and almost cigarette-paper thin, and silvery on the undersides. 

Any thoughts on what is going on? This area of the garden is usually rather wet, and I think we're seeing the effect of acid soil. The undersoil is very compact, but usually waterlogged, and couch grass is a big feature. I'm planning to put down a load of lime, but would appreciate any advice!

11 June 2014

13 April 2014

Cloning dogs!

Clone me! Photo: PA/Channel4
I should have mentioned! I was on BBC Radio Cumbria talking about cloning pooches with Kevin Fernihough. Only 4 days left to listen (I'm on from 9min20sec). The low-down - I can see the utility for understanding biology and perhaps conservation and de-extinction, but if it's to perpetuate your relationship with Rover, forget it. All you can get at best is Rover's identical twin. Spend your money on better things.

23 March 2014

Prepare to meet your maker - Mathematics.

This is my Amazon.co.uk review of Max Tegmark's "Our Mathematical Universe", published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. [Permalink to review]

If Max Tegmark is correct (and I have to say I think he *is*), we inhabit a universe that is just one of several hierarchies of multiverse that exist by virtue of the fact that they are mathematical structures. Not simply "describable" by mathematics, but that they fundamentally *are* maths. It's a conclusion that a lot of people have reacted against, and some of the implications are mind-boggling, but Max outlines his reasoning with wit and clarity in this very enjoyable romp between the physics of the Very Big to the Very Small and back to us humans. What is the meaning of Life? What gives meaning to the Universe? The ultimate answer is us, self-aware substructures within a larger mathematical entity, apparently evolving as the Schroedinger wavefunction through infinite-dimensioned Hilbert space, seeding clones at every quantum decoherence point, generating vast (infinite) numbers of parallel universes that are themselves part of this grander mathematical multiverse.

Max writes in an accessible and engaging style - it is clear that he is enjoying himself in coming up with his ideas (they seem to usually strike him when he's riding a bike (unlike a huge truck in Stockholm when he was a kid, fortunately for the Max in this universe) or walking in a park with one of his colleagues - in some ways these little biographical details add to the charm, and allow parallels to be drawn to the incredible writing of Richard Feynman.

That said, you can tell that Max knows this is an uphill struggle - many of his ideas strike deeply at some of the core notions we have as humans. Could there really be an infinite number of "yous" within this contiguous spacetime, not to mention within an infinite number of parallel spinoffs of this universe, each with the same subjective feeling that they are unique? These are not concepts that Max tosses out to deal with tricky problems - they are a fundamental prediction of certain formulations of physics. I have to say that I have not read a better description of cosmic inflation than Max presents here - I thought I had run the gamut of popular science descriptions, but this book makes several aspects much clearer, and provokes the reader to think on a wider level about the implications, and how we might test them.

The final chapter is a gem - what are the major existential threats facing humanity, and what should we be doing about them? As far as we can tell, we are alone in the Universe. He's a bit pessimistic here, in thinking that other civilisations are unlikely, and I very much hope that he is wrong (or do I?), but even so, there are multiple hazards that we will need to avoid if we are going to fulfil the role that we seem compelled to adopt - WE are what gives the universe meaning, so WE need to protect ourselves, our planet, our science. Whether it's dodging asteroids, or avoiding hostile artificial intelligence take-over, we would do well to plan ahead. Increasing scientific literacy is critical - this will drive both research and the intelligent use of new information as it arises. In the end, this is the only way we can hope to avoid a possible Great Cosmic Filter - if it lies ahead of our current technological state, it could well be the reason why we have not found other alien civilisations yet.

Is this an easy introduction to a complex subject? Is it a sales pitch for a radical reformulation of what we think of as "reality"? Is it Max's musings through the worlds of physics and ethics? It's all of the above and more. In at least some universes it is destined to become a classic, and those are the universes that are most likely to retain intelligent life. Probably.

13 February 2014

No giraffes please, we're Danish.

Now is not a happy time to be a young randy male giraffe in Denmark. Forget all that stuff about clean, tolerant Scandinavia - if you're tall and spotty, you're a marked Marius. Well, yesterday was Darwin Day, but in the spirit of the times, here's a Lamarck Fish you can print out and attach to the bumper of your car.

The ORIGINAL Lamarck Fish!

07 February 2014

How do you like your Permaculture? Purple or Brown?

Permaculture is sort-of my current fad. I do this from time to time - become inordinately interested in a topic for a while, read and pontificate about it, maybe even put some into practice for a bit, then drop it. However, I think gardening in general will stick with me, and applying "permaculture" (at least as I choose to see it) to that end is likely to be a long term thingy.

However, Permaculture means different things to different people, and Paul Wheaton (who is insanely proud of being dubbed "The Duke of Permaculture" by Geoff Lawton "The Crown-Prince of Permaculture") discerns a division. On the one hand he has "Purple Permaculture", which involves hugging trees, attuning oneself to the energies of the universe, seeing spirituality in trees and streams and shit. On the other hand, there is "Brown Permaculture", which is perhaps more earthy (hence the brown) and practical - what works; how can we combine complex systems to reduce waste and effort and optimise beneficial outputs and interactions. Paul sees himself (and he has never formally declared for Geoff) on the brown end of the spectrum. That's where I would put Geoff, and where I would put my own inclinations.

I don't believe in Ley Lines, biorhythms, homeopathy, life forces, pixies or fairies of any kind. Indeed, I think such fantasies are bonkers. However I do recognise a few simple principles:
  1. Our planet was doing very well in terms of biological output before we got here
  2. Life and evolution are pretty amazing at coming up with counter-intuitive solutions or work-arounds to problems that they face
  3. Many biological systems greatly out-produce the base needs of the system (so we can potentially tap into that surplus)
  4. By simple linear thinking we are making serious errors in the maintenance of our biosphere.
At present many of our processes are not harnessing the rather spectacular power of biology to produce yummy stuff without much in the way of inputs. Indeed, we have done this sort of Garden-of-Eden-Departure thing of assuming that in order for plants to grow and flourish, WE have to make them do it. And we fight with nature in order to make that happen. I think there are smarter ways. One of the smartest ways turns out to be one of the easiest ways - we should all grow at least a proportion of the veg we use.

So do it! Plant some spuds or tomatoes or something, and harvest them and eat them! Not only are you benefiting your health and well-being, you're sticking it to Mr Tesco, who only pays farmers a pittance for the produce anyway. Every little helps, as they say.

But keep it brown. Remember where you came from. Hydrothermal vents to seas to trees to here. You're a product of the system you should be trying to protect. Oh, and remember, we *are* still going to go to Mars.