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All you ever wanted to know about Harvestman, but were too afraid to ask

Harvestman, Daddy Longlegs, Shepherd Spider, Grandfather Greybeard: all colloquial names for members of the Opiliones order. Yes, they have eight legs, but they’re not actually spiders. In fact, according to Chris Buddle, professor of arthropod ecology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, “Comparing a spider to a harvestmen is like comparing a blue whale to a chimpanzee.”   But how do you tell the difference between a harvestman and a spider? Well, harvestmen don’t have a waist or separate abdomen. Cellar spiders are often mistaken for harvestmen because of their long spindly legs, but they have a definite waist and also make silk. And don’t get confused about Daddy Longlegs either. Chris was surprised to learn that in the UK what we call the Daddy Longlegs is actually a crane fly. If you want to know more about these unfamiliar creatures, you can buy the book by Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha, Glauco Machado and Gonzalo Giribet called Harvestmen: The Biology of Opiliones.  …

A Question Of Faith

  To say religion is a contentious issue may qualify as a serious contender for understatement of the millennium. The Western World in particular has experienced a greater number of religious scandals in recent years, along with a growing and more vocal secular movement. But religion is not a recent phenomenon and, from Aristotle to Aquinas, has always been at the forefront of attempts to explain our existence. It is only relatively recently, with the advent of modern scientific discovery, that these traditional modes of faith have been challenged by a new and empirical worldview. And yet, faith and religion continue to hold a prominent place in the hearts and minds of billions of people across the globe. So just what is it that makes them such attractive concepts, and why are they so prevalent throughout human culture? What’s immediately clear, is that the origins of our obsession with faith are mired deep in evolutionary history. Indeed, it all seems …

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Scientists in fiction: the good, the bad and the poorly represented

Science and scientists are a huge part of our society and, perfectly reasonably, this means that a good number of men and women in white have had starring roles in our fiction. Be it in books, comics, or on the silver screen, there really are a vast array of fictional scientists out there influencing how people perceive science-types and, by extension, the disciplines they devote their lives to. In this post, I discuss why I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the ways scientists have been represented in recent years, and speculate wildly over some of the problems Hollywood et al may be causing. To put it straight out there, my major gripe with science in fiction is what I like to refer to as ‘the polarisation of fictional scientists trend’. By this I essentially mean that, more often than not, a fictional scientist is either the saint-like expert who is ignored as he/she warns of impending disaster or doom (think Dennis …

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All spin and no substance – the story of the neutrino, the little neutral one.

This is the story of the neutrino (Greek letter nu ; ν), a little piece of spinning nothing (i.e. a mass;less particle, but with angular momentum) whose existence was theoretically required by the need to balance certain equations in nuclear physics. How a mass;less thing could possibly have momentum of any sort however, was a paradox which was left unaddressed for the time being, and even today, though we mostly agree that it must have some mass, it is so miniscule (even in particle physics, where things are notoriously tiny) that we have no accurate idea of what that mass might be. It was Wolfgang Pauli who, in 1930, in order to explain how beta;decay could work while conserving mass, momentum, charge and angular momentum, postulated that there must be a new;to;nuclear;physics particle involved in the reaction. Pauli tentatively called this theoretically required particle a ‘neutron.’ However, James Chadwick discovered and named the ‘real’ neutron (i. e. the particle we now know as the neutron) in 1932. Chadwick’s neutron was a …

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Bad Boys…

When we think of science we like to imagine dedicated men and women laboring intensely for one grand and noble aim; the pursuit of knowledge. But unfortunately, the scientific spirit has not always been quite so pure. History shows that there have been many evil empiricists who were willing to abandon all ethical considerations in pursuit of their own twisted aims. So, just who are science’s top 5 bad boys? Let’s take a look… 5) Scientist: Sidney Gottlieb, Experiment: MKULTRA The fact that Gottlieb’s unofficial moniker was ‘Dr Feelgood’ may give you some indiciation about his particular field of scientific misadventure. An American military psychiatrist with a PhD in chemistry, Gottlieb worked with the CIA during the Cold War. Displaying an extraordinary single mindedness, he tended to prefer to solve all problems by simply poisoning the offending party. He was the mastermind behind the plot to place thallium in the soles of Fidel Castro’s shoes. A potent depilatory, the thallium was supposed …

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Book Review: Deceived Wisdom

Deceived Wisdom Author: David Bradley Published: 8 November 2012 Publisher: Elliot and Thompson Summary: Warm and incredibly insightful – a literary gift. Several weeks ago I provided a brief round up of what I considered to be some of the most common scientific misconceptions. But, like all good ideas, it seems that I was beaten to the literary punch by Professor David Bradley, who has recently written an entire book on the subject, entitled ‘Deceived Wisdom: Why What You Thought Was Right Was Wrong’. What is immediately evident from a casual perusal of the contents page is the sheer breadth of topics that Bradley has chosen to cover. Everything from dietary deceptions to computer hacking is placed beneath the cold light of his empirical lens, meaning that every reader is likely to find his or her own topics of personal interest. I was wearing a particularly wry smile whilst reading the chapter on the fallacy of ‘cooling down with a …

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Astrology – part 1

Just the other day a friend asked me about astrology, and whether it had any scientific merit. She said that she’d read all sorts of astounding claims about the validity of astrology, as well as “scientific proofs” of its efficacy. Well, as far as I can tell, it’s all bunkum, although, as we shall see, it does possibly have a certain psychological palliative value, I think. The first thing to note is that astrology was invented a very long time ago, when most people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and was orbited by all the other planets, as well as the sun and the other stars. Needless-to-say, this outdated scheme fit very nicely with humankind’s sense of self-importance, a sense that comes out very clearly in the scriptures of many of the world’s religions -in which the creator of the universe puts human beings in the centre of all things. Anyway, this ancient belief is based on what is known as the terra-centric model of …

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How Darwin predicted the genetic link

Just over a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, explaining how all life had been shaped by natural selection. Before he explained this blind mechanism though, he softened up his readers by showing how we humans had shaped some species through artificial selection. His audience of educated Victorian gentlemen would have been more or less familiar with breeding cabbages, cows and dogs for various characteristics, but Darwin also explained the breeding of fancy pigeons. It seems fanciful to us, but scholars used to believe that different breeds of sheep or cattle had each been domesticated from a separate wild variety, instead of from just one. Darwin decided to study one species in detail to explore this notion, and hit upon fancy pigeons. According to John Ross [pictured] –  an historian of Darwin’s pigeons (www.darwinspigeons.com) and a pigeon fancier himself – it was all down to a chance sighting on a trip to London: …

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