Beacon: mantis shrimp and more…


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Here’s a taste of what I’ve been writing on Beacon so far. It’s been enormously fun so far, and the focus is a bit different from what I post on here. I’ve got lots of other great story ideas coming up for Beacon; I’m looking forward to researching them and sharing what I find with my subscribers. For now, here are a few excerpts from my first few stories to entice those of you who might be on the fence:

Fit for a Queen
In this short creative nonfiction piece, a young queen sets off into the dangerous world alone. Burdened with her people’s future, she has to persevere in the hope that help will arrive in time. 

The young queen had to find shelter soon. Everything depended on that. Stumbling, she scrambled over the rough ground as she looked for a place to hide — a crevice or even just a protective overhang. She spotted a fissure in the rocks ahead and made for it, a crack just wide enough for her to squeeze through. Safe at last, she slowed down, conserving her energy for the task ahead. Continue reading…

Through Alien Eyes
Mantis shrimp, famous for their lightning-quick punch, also have the most advanced eyes we know about and a fundamentally different approach to vision. Get a glimpse of how they see the world.

If we were designed in God’s image, it’s hard to imagine what model inspired the mantis shrimp, but it must have been pretty impressive. Heavily armoured and formidably armed, these marine crustaceans kill their prey — molluscs, crustaceans, and small fish — with a strike that accelerates as fast as a .22 calibre bullet. They look out at the world with a pair of eyes mounted on stalks which they can move independently, tracking an object with one eye while scanning their surroundings with the other. One researcher described the effect as “most uncrustacean-like, suggesting an almost ‘primate-like’ awareness of their surroundings.” Continue reading…

A Grander View
In a world that’s brimming over with life, we often think of ourselves as somehow special. Join me on a journey of exploration through the lives and evolution of the other creatures on Earth. Along the way, we’ll discover that the living world is infused with a richness of marvels, of which we are just a small part.

It all started with agriculture. Or maybe fire. Or was it the first time we used language? The truth is that I don’t know when it started and I won’t pretend to, but at some point we invented the conceit of human exceptionalism and that myth has grown ever since. It’s infiltrated our language and permeates our thoughts, shaping how we see the world. Seduced by our ingenuity, we imagine ourselves as apart from the rest of the world, elevated above it or at least dominant within it. Continue reading…

Dying for sex


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Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to attend to Inspiring Science this week. Rather than putting out a rushed post, I decided to republish this piece which I originally wrote for Accumulating Glitches last year. I hope you like it!

(Photo credit: Michael Barritt & Karen May, via Wikimedia Commons)Some spiders get eaten by their mates, and male salmon famously fight to the death for access to females, but we generally don’t think of reproduction being quite as risky for mammals. We may prance and pose or jockey for attention, and mating might even be quite painful, but it’s usually not lethal. Among mammals, “live to mate another day” seems to be the guiding principle. Exceptions to this rule are found in the dasyurids and didelphids, groups of small carnivorous marsupial species living in Australia and South America, respectively. “These species experience extreme sexual behaviour,” said Dr. Diana Fisher of the University of Queensland. Males and females mate with multiple partners and matings can go on for many hours. Afterwards, the males all die. Continue reading

Words of science: variegated


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Like many other fields, science has its own style of communication full of specific jargon and guided by unwritten rules.  Most of the posts on this blog focus on breaching this barrier to the public’s understanding and appreciation of science.  In this series, I’d like to take another approach by highlighting scientific words which have escaped the confines of jargon to reach a broader appeal because of their sound or their evocative power as metaphors.  Today’s word is variegated. [Previous words of science were petrichoralluvium, nychthemeron, crepuscular, interstitial, and science.]
Continue reading

Update on my Beacon project — goal reached!


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With a couple of days left to go, we’ve already got more than enough backers to launch my Beacon project! A huge “thank you!” to each of you who contributed, whether by joining the project or spreading the word. Many of my backers came via your Facebook posts and the emails you sent out. Thanks for helping get my first crowd-funding experience off to a great start — I couldn’t have done it without you! And if somebody wants to sign up but hasn’t yet, they still can.


We’re getting closer to a malaria vaccine


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Malaria parasite (photo courtesy Wikipedia)Malaria hardly needs an introduction. With over 200 million people infected, it takes the life of an African child every minute. Although we have drugs to help treat the disease, there isn’t an effective vaccine available, partly due to the malaria pathogen’s variability. Now, a research collaboration between labs in the US and Australia has brought a step closer to that goal by figuring out how to produce a vaccine which works against many different strains. Continue reading