KFS at large: Amsterdam’s creatures great and small

I’ve got a bit of a thing for tardigrades.

So much so that last month I crossed water for a chance to see them in the flesh. My destination? Amsterdam.

Amsterdam’s a pretty good day out for science fans – it has NEMO Science Center, a five-floored fun house of hands-on discovery and nerdy entertainment (including one of the biggest Rube Goldberg machines since that OK Go video), and the Artis Royal Zoo, which boasts its own aquarium and planetarium.

It’s a fine zoo, one of Europe’s oldest, and its open plan means you often see different species just hanging out together, like these guys:

artis horned beasts

But that’s not why I was here. Next door to Artis sits Micropia, an interactive museum dedicated to the tiny creatures that live around us, on us, in us, that we never get to see.

Micropia invites you to play microbiologist for the day, setting up dozens of exhibits about the many different kinds of organisms we spend our lives with, each with its own microscope and slides you can manipulate to see the littl’uns in action.

They even helpfully give you this very satisfying punch card, which lets you stamp off the tiny beasts you see as you make your way around to create your own smorgasbord of microscopic wonder.

I saw water fleas…

micropia waterfleas screen


micropia lichen 2

And of course, the tardigrades…

This one was a bit camera shy.

And if you have a sudden urge to hug the tardigrade, and wrap your arms around its stumpy eight, they’ve installed this monster:

micropia giant tardigrade
This is what it could be, Tardi. We could be together and no one could judge us. If I were 2,000 times smaller…

Less interactive exhibits show the important roles microbes play in our everyday lives – clearing our infections, keeping our bathrooms clean, making our yoghurt, etc.

The diversity of organisms that live alongside us is truly remarkable – and yet it’s all completely invisible to us. What’s also striking is the microbes’ strange beauty – when lots of them get together, they can make patterns that are very pleasing to our human eyes, even if they do make us violently ill on ingestion. For example, take this:

micropia botrytis-cinerea
Credit: Micropia

Isn’t it pretty? Oh, what is it, you ask? Yeah, that’s Botrytis cinerea. The agent for grey mould. Yeah. Not good for humans.

I’m not one to gush or anything, so let’s say that the Micropia experience made the 12-hour coach journey (with ferry ride!) there and back totally worth it. I’d definitely return. If only to give Tardi a hug.


You’re picturing dinosaurs wrong: the facts and fiction of Jurassic Park

Ever since Jurassic Park roared into cinemas in 1993, introducing a generation to the awesome of live action dinosaurs and giving us the most famous toilet death in cinema, dino-nerds have been happily picking apart the movie’s scientific accuracy.

Chiming in to the debate with some scientific rigour, the Natural History Museum last week held a special event – Facts, Fiction and Fossils – for a talk with the experts about what the movie got right, what it got wrong, whether what we know has changed in 23 years, and whether it even matters, followed by a screening of the movie. Double nerd whammy.

It was a treat to go to a talk about dinosaurs in the very place established by the guy who dreamt up their name, Richard Owen. And you know you’re getting into something good when your directions to the theatre contain the instruction: “Take the stairs past the stegosaurus.”

Panelists Paul Barrett, a researcher for the museum’s vertebrates and anthropology paleobiology department, and Greger Larson, professor of evolutionary genomics at the University of Oxford, said that while a lot of the science in Jurassic Park is kosher, the book’s author Michael Crichton and director Steven Spielberg did take some creative liberties.

ian malcolm chest
Typical mathematician (your experience may vary)

Let’s take a look at those, but first, some context.

In the middle of a polymerase chain reaction

Jurassic Park was published in 1990, in the midst of excitement in the scientific community around polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a new genetic technique that allows researchers to amplify sections of DNA strands.

According to legend, Crichton was inspired by an 1985 article, “Dinosaur Capsule”, where (the now controversial) author Charles Pellegrino predicted that the way things were going with PCR, we’d be able to build our own dinosaurs in 30 years’ time.

*does maths, checks watch, takes a look around, sees no dinosaurs*

Ah well, never mind. It must have seemed feasible at the time – just months before “Dinosaur Capsule” appeared, a team had managed to extract strands of DNA from the fossilised muscle of a quagga, a member of the horse family that went extinct in 1883. By comparing the quagga’s DNA with that of its closest living relative, the mountain zebra, the team could determine that the two had a common ancestor that lived three to four million years ago, which was consistent with the fossil evidence.

Understandably, this got a lot of people VERY excited. What, we can look at extinct creatures’ DNA now? What does this MEAN?

alan grant

Oh, hi there Reality. Didn’t see you come in. We know now that DNA really doesn’t have much of a shelf life. After a living thing dies, its long DNA strands begin to break down, eventually becoming too small to carry any meaningful information.

A study from 2012 that examined the bones of the extinct moa bird put DNA’s half-life at a pleasingly precise 521 years. The oldest intact genome we’ve unearthed is a mere 700,000 years old – a good 100 times younger than any surviving dino-DNA would be – and it belonged a horse that had been long buried in Canadian permafrost.

Life may find a way, however. Today, as Larson explained, it’s possible to turn certain genes on and off to get the expressions we desire in an organism, so although we can’t (yet) make a complete dinosaur, some researchers are using the technique to give birds dinosaur-like features, so they can study their development.

The Velociraptor/Deinonychus switcheroo

So what you’re picturing as a Velociraptor, the swift, smart predator that has those killer claws on each foot isn’t your real deal Velociraptor (though props to you if you pictured it with feathers. More on that later). No, the Velos in the movie were based on the much larger Deinonychus, which takes its name from the Greek for “terrible claw”. But Crichton thought Velociraptor sounded better.

Childhood memories lay shattered

The Velociraptor weighs about the same as a collie, Barrett noted.

To his credit though, Crichton very faithfully modelled Jurassic Park’s Velociraptors on Deinonychus, even consulting the species’ discoverer, John Ostrom, extensively about how they should behave in the story.

In an interview quoted in Yale News, Ostrom explains: “Crichton, in an apologetic way, explained that in the novel he decided to use the name Velociraptor, that I had said was the closest relative to the animal that I had found… He said, ‘It’s more dramatic.’ And I said I recognise that most people don’t understand Greek.”

The same article continues: “[Ostrom] described Deinonychus as an aggressive and athletic raptor that slashed and disembowelled its prey with those distinctive sickle-claws… Its long and unusually rigid tail provided stability and balance, like a tightrope walker’s pole, during chases and attacks.”

Sound familiar?

Ruffling feathers

Perhaps the inaccuracy that’s got the most discussion is the dinosaurs’ lack of feathers in the movies. While in 1993, we didn’t have any direct evidence for down-covered dinos (just a hunch), in 1996, scientists in northeast China dug up the first dinosaurs with fossilised feathers. Sinosauropteryx is a close relative of the Compsognathus (the little ones that finished off one of the InGen party in The Lost World), and the branch of the family tree that ultimately gave us birds. They lived about 125 million years ago.


Since 1996, we’ve found about 30 more feathered dinosaurs, mostly in the same area of China. It’s possible that many theropods – a group of dinosaurs that tends to walk on two legs – had feathers, including the Velociraptor. Barrett said that we don’t yet know for sure why dinosaurs sported feathers, but our best guesses are insulation or display.

The studio opted not to integrate this new knowledge into Jurassic Park’s sequels, as it thought the dinosaurs would look scarier without a layer of fluffy but oh-so-stylish plumage.

So… does all this creative licence really matter? Authenticity is overrated, Larson concluded. Ultimately, Jurassic Park is a chase movie that’s served by science, he said. And look – it got a generation wondering about dinosaurs. Some of whom might even be in the lab right now, finding the answers to these paleontological questions. But isn’t pedantry fun sometimes?

Quiz: time to let your geek flag fly

Welcome to KFS’s first monthly quiz!

Show of hands: who secretly loved a test at school? Luckily we still get to enjoy them as grown-ups, only now we call them “quizzes”, and they happen in nice places like pubs and on BBC4. Which means they’re cool now, yay!

Now KFS does special science-themed quizzes – I’ll be posting one of these on the last Thursday of each month. There will be eight questions in varying levels of difficulty from ‘gentle tease’ to ‘dear lord someone’s letting their geek flag fly’.

Some questions will ask for a connection between a series of clues. See if you can guess the connection after each clue, rather than taking a guess after seeing them all, for the authentic Only Connect experience. What the hell, even yell out “next!” to summon the next clue if you want. If you’re into counting, give yourself five points if you get the answer after one clue, three points for two, two points for three, and one if you get it after playing all four.

There are a total of 24 points up for grabs, and answers will be revealed in a later post. Ready? Here goes:

1) Where in the world?

For your first point, what is the location pictured here, and what is its scientific significance?

KFS quiz 1 q1

2) Common people

Now for some not-so-general knowledge. What do these four scientists have in common?

Peter Higgs
George Stephenson
Michael Faraday
Stephen Hawking

Need a clue? Note their nationality (and the fact that they’re all dudes).

3) Animal, vegetable or mineral?

KFS quiz1 q3

One of these images shows part of an animal (for these purposes, any living thing), another part of a vegetable (any living thing that grows out of the ground) and the other is of a mineral (anything else in the world). Which is which? Bonus points if you can tell exactly what’s being pictured.

4) Tweets from history

We’ve unearthed this tweet documenting an important discovery from the 20th century. For your next point, name the tweeter responsible.

KFS quiz1 q4

Name the year for a bonus point. You big show off.

5) What am I making?

Hydrated Silica
PVM/MA Copolymer

These are the first five ingredients of a product you probably have in your home. Name that product!

6) Picture round! What’s the connection between these four?

KFS quiz1 q6

(As that map is crazy obscure, here’s a hint – that dot is somewhere in Germany.)

7) NEXT!


What should come next in this sequence of handsome beasts?

8) Music round!

This one’s probably the toughest (but doesn’t that make the win so much sweeter?). The following songs are all getting at a connection. Name it for your last point.

…and that’s it! Don’t forget to check back next week for all the answers. Bon weekend!

Life after the freezer: diary of a time-travelling tardigrade

It emerged this week that a team of cryobiologists in Japan had recovered two tardigrades – aquatic microscopic invertebrates sometimes known as water bears – after they’d spent more than 30 years in the freezer.

These particularly hardy specimens were collected in November 1983 from moss samples in East Antarctica. Since then, they’d been chilling out in storage at a bracing -20C. Tardigrades survive freezing conditions by entering cryobiosis – a state where their metabolism can drop to 0.01% of its normal level.

Last May, they came out of the deep freeze, and were left to thaw. The two surviving individuals, nicknamed Sleeping Beauty (SB)-1 and SB-2, were placed on a culture plate and given some Volvic and algae to munch on.

KFS managed to prise from the tiny hands of SB-1 a daily log of its goings on since the Great Thaw, exclusively reproduced here.

Diary of a time-travelling tardigrade

Day 1: Ooh, my back. How long was I out for? Ok, so I can move one pair of legs, but I distinctly remember having more than that before. Think I’ll just rest for a bit.

Day 5: Discovered two more pairs of legs today. Feeling more like myself. I won’t be moonwalking anytime soon, but give it some time. Now I have some use of my limbs, I can finally book those tickets for Return of the Jedi.

Later that day: (On the phone) What? We’re on episode 7 now? What is “go online”?

Even later that day: So it looks like that little Quualudes bender from 1983 took me out for more than 30 years. We’re on The Force Awakens now. Wait a minute, does this make me The Force?

Day 9: Ok, and I’m on the move. Managed to lift myself up and start crawling again. Don’t know what came over m- ooh, is that food? I might just move towards it…

Day 13: ALGAE?!? I’ve been asleep for 30 years and this is all you have for me? Jonesing for a Pepsi Free.

Day 21: Knocked myself up today. Got three eggs on the go. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, right?

Day 23: Eggs are laid! I just opened something called a Facebook page so I can share pictures of my brood with the world. Apparently the only viable profile pictures are ones you’ve taken of yourself. Here’s my best effort:

tardigrade selfie 1
Hello, handsome. Credit: globaltv.com

I did a bit of snooping and it looks like most of my friends have evaded capture by the white coats. Echinisca’s still kicking in Antarctica and Acutopher’s finally taking that trip to the Marianas Trench, but no one knows where Batillipina went. Rumour is she hitched a ride on the white coats’ Curiosity rover a few years back and we haven’t heard from her since. Hope she’s messing with their data. Life on Mars? Don’t make me laugh. We put an end to that long ago…

sb-3 tardigrade
One of SB-1’s brethren after an algae supper. Scale bar = 100 μm. Credit: ScienceDaily

KFS at large: Is human spaceflight worth the money and risk?

tim peake spacewalk
ESA astronaut Tim Peake steps outside for a walk. Credit: ESA/NASA

After spending most of the day live streaming ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s first spacewalk last Friday, KFS headed to a debate at the Science Museum where a panel asked whether it was all worth it, discussing the question: Human spaceflight: is it worth the money and risk?

After Roger Highfield, the museum’s director of external affairs, introduced the panel, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees kicked off the debate, arguing that the billions invested by ESA in the $100bn ISS would have been better spent on un(hu)manned missions.

The agency should be concentrating on science – particle physics, robotics – rather than spaceflight, he said. Even in the years since ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta mission launched, we’ve made great strides in robotics, which will allow us to achieve so much more in future un(hu)manned missions.

Human spaceflight – given its inherent dangers – is best left to the adventurers with lots of money: the Elon Musks and Richard Bransons, he added.

Branson tries out gravity
The UK’s first ever astronaut Helen Sharman, who most acutely understands the risks involved in space travel, said that humans have a massive advantage over their robot underlings, as we’re capable of making decisions on the fly, decisions that say, might have taken the bounce out of Philae’s nail-biting landing on comet 67P.

Although the price of sending people into space is far, far higher than sending probes, she argued that we’d get far more bang for our buck, as it would currently take a robot a Martian day to do what a human can do in a mere minute. Being able to bring samples back to Earth also pays off in a big way – researchers are still publishing papers based on what we brought back from the Apollo missions more than four decades ago, she said.

Professor Monica Grady, part of the team that brought you Rosetta, briefly brought us down to Earth, saying that space travel should be global mission, and that we must ask whether we’re doing it for the right reasons: are we advancing our understanding of the solar system, or just seeking to plant flags? She agreed that as a risky endeavour, human space travel suits private enterprise.

The ISS’s $100bn pricetag came at the expense of many missions to the solar system, argued Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford. What’s the better story, he asked, Elon Musk making it to Mars, or the Rosetta team’s jubilant reaction to Philae reaction of scientists to the Philae landing? Before you answer, here’s a video (that’s Grady hugging BBC science editor David Shukman).

Ultimately, the actions of the day may have spoken louder than the words exchanged at the debate. Peake’s adventures have been watched keenly by the UK’s youngest science enthusiasts – what could be more inspiring for the next generation of astronauts?

Coming soon to a solar system near you

2015 was an awesome year for getting to know our nearest celestial neighbours. We flew around a rubber duck-shaped comet, were dazzled by Ceres’ white bits and got to properly meet Pluto for the first time, as New Horizons returned some frankly almost pornographic images of the dwarf planet.

So what do we have to look forward to next year? Stick these in your diary:

March 14: ExoMars launch

The first of ESA’s ExoMars missions sets off this spring, its main objective to figure out how life originated in the solar system, and whether there was, or is, life on Mars. We’re sending two vehicles to Mars – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will search for trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, including methane, which indicates biological or geological processes, while the Schiaparelli lander will take atmospheric measurements from the surface.

The mission will also test out technologies for ESA’s future excursions to Mars, including ExoMars 2018, which will bring a rover to the red planet.

The fun begins on October 19, when the TGO enters Mars’ orbit, and lander Schiaparelli touches down and gets to work in Meridiani Planum, a plain near the Martian equator.

July 4: Juno’s nearest approach to Jupiter

After a five-year journey, NASA’s Juno will reach our solar system’s largest planet by summertime. Although we’ve flown by Jupiter no fewer than seven times since Pioneer blazed the trail in 1973, we’re still in the dark about how the titan formed: Is it the product of a massive planetary core that captured most of the material left over after the Sun was born, or did it arise from an unstable region within the nebula?

Jupiter’s secrets have been hidden behind a dense veil of swirling gaseous hell:

time lapse voyager approach jupiter
Hope you brought a windbreaker

Juno, named after the Roman god Jupiter’s wife (and sister – those were the days), will peer behind this veil, determining how the interior of Jupiter is composed, mapping the planet’s atmospheric variations and checking out the poles, to see how its magnetic field affects its atmosphere, over the course of 20 months.

Understanding Jupiter’s life story will give us a better idea about how the rest of the solar system formed.

September 3: OSIRIS-REx launch

In September, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will start its four-year journey to an asteroid called Bennu, a 492m rock in near-Earth orbit that was discovered in 1999. The mission, which completes NASA’s New Frontiers programme (the other two being New Horizons and Juno) will return 60g of asteroid rock back for study – a first for the US.

What’s with the name? Osiris was the ancient Egyptian lord of the underworld, and stands for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security. The ‘REx’ stands for Regolith Extractor. Bennu was named after a bird from the same mythology by a third grader (age 9 to 10) who thought the craft resembled it.

bennu and oriris

We’re interested in Bennu as it’s made from the ingredients of the early solar system – rock and organic material – components that could help us understand the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans. It also has a slim chance of hitting the Earth 100 or so years from now (hence all the underworld business). Bennu’s orbit isn’t as predictable as we’d like due to the Yarkovsky effect, a phenomenon where after the Sun’s energy cooks one side of a celestial body, subsequent radiation of the heat away from the body “pushes” it into a different orbit.

Bennu Yarkovsky effect

OSIRIS-REx will give us better understanding of this effect, knowledge we can use if Bennu does start to wander a bit closer to us.

November 29: Cassini begins “Grand Finale”

Cassini has been one of the hardest working spacecrafts in history. As well as sending us back some stunning images of Saturn, the solar system’s resident show off, Cassini brought our attention to the icy geysers of Enceladus, making the moon a serious candidate for discovering life.

enceladus plumes
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini has gone well beyond its original call of duty. It entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004 after a seven-year journey, its primary mission slated at just four years. It’s now been at work for nearly half a Saturnian year now, and as summer the planet’s northern hemisphere we’re starting to see what was in darkness when we arrived.

As we go into 2016, Cassini is warming up for some orbital gymnastics in its grand finale – a set of deep dive orbits that will see it loop around Saturn 22 times, each time passing between the planet and its ring system.

cassini deep dives
Scream if you want to go faster

These death-defying dives will help us understand more about the planet’s magnetic field and mass of its rings. Cassini will also map Saturn’s gravitational and magnetic fields on its loop-the-loop, revealing how the planet’s composed on the inside.

In 2017, after 20 years of service, Cassini will be crashed into Saturn to avoid any possible contamination of Enceladus and Titan, “the biologically interesting moons”.

From Laika to nematodes: animals in space

Behold! It’s the perfect crossover of animals and space as behind door 23 in the Royal Institution’s Advent calendar this year is this delightful infographic featuring the most well-travelled creatures in the animal kingdom. Click to embiggen.

Animals in space RI infographic thumb
Credit: Anthony Lewis/Royal Institution of Great Britain

And a very merry Christmas from KFS!

Blast off! Tim Peake heads to the International Space Station

It’s not very often when you get to witness history being made minute by minute. But today, the UK watched as its first ESA astronaut blasted off to the International Space Station, with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (honoured as the first person to get married in space).

Tim Peake will spend five months at the ISS as part of Expedition 46, where he’ll conduct assorted experiments in areas including novel materials and fluid dynamics on behalf of ESA, and be a human guinea pig as he notes the effects of space flight on the body.

Though he set off at 11:03 GMT, the excitement of the occasion was palpable even into the evening as KFS headed to the Science Museum for a celebratory evening of space-themed fun and games.

KFS was pleased to meet commander of the last Apollo mission, the Gene Cernan (impersonator), and got a good close up look at a prototype of ESA’s Mars rover, Bridget, due to touch down on the Red Planet with the second ExoMars mission in 2019.

ESA Bridget Mars rover
Give us a twirl, Bridge

It was a good day. Here it is in pictures.

crew prepares to dock with its
Aboard the Soyuz: the crew prepares to dock
Credit: Sergey Volkov ‏@Volkov_ISS
Tim greets NASA astronaut Scott Kelly
Opening the hatch: Tim greets NASA astronaut Scott Kelly
The crew wave goodbye after taking questions from Earth
It’s been a long day: the crew waves goodbye after taking questions from Earth

Astronauts oversleep, too: follow Apollo 17 live!*

December 6 marked the 43rd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last mission that landed men on the Moon.

To mark the occasion, developer Ben Feist has created a site that using actual recordings and visuals from the entire mission, lets you live Apollo 17 in real time, second by second as it played out in 1972, and it’s a real treat.

At Apollo17.org, you get to experience all the minutiae of space travel, including equipment meter reads, the details of onboard experiments, you even hear what crewmembers Eugene “Gene” Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt had for breakfast. The stream is strangely gripping – it’s easy to get roped into all the fluid dynamics in microgravity experiment action.

apollo 17 fluid experiment pie shaped things

You get to know the crew too – Commander Cernan seems serious, and colours inside the lines (well, it figures), while Schmitt’s sense of humour keeps things light. It’s also a reminder that, while they’re achieving crazy feats of exploration, astronauts are only human.

On day three of the mission, something was amiss. As planned, Houston played the crew’s wakeup music (the University of Kansas J-Hawk Fight Song, as you ask – Evans’s alma mater) in an attempt to rouse them at 56 hours and 35 minutes. No response.

A minute later, Houston wishes Apollo 17 a good morning, and again a few minutes later. No response.

Cue the wakeup music again, 10 minutes later. No response.

57 hours, 5 minutes, 2 seconds: “Good morning, Apollo 17. It’s time to rise and shine. Over.”

No response.

Another play of the music half an hour later, and, well, this happened:

apollo 17 oversleep 1

apollo 17 oversleep 2

apollo 17 oversleep 3

apollo 17 oversleep 4

apollo 17 oversleep 5

Their punishment for such a disappearing act? One day annual leave docked. Ouch.

Cernan, Evans and Schmitt, currently* orbiting the Moon, will be landing tomorrow at just before 8pm GMT.

*43 years hence

An afternoon with xkcd’s Randall Munroe

On Monday 7, creator of smart web comic and long-standing nerd favourite xkcd.com Randall Munroe appeared at Space Center Houston to talk about his new book, Thing Explainer.

Using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language, Thing Explainer describes how all kinds of different objects work, from the Large Hadron Collider (Big Tiny Thing Hitter) and the Saturn V rocket (US Space Team’s Up Goer Five) to pens and pencils (Writing Sticks) and the microwave (Food-Heating Radio Box).

The talk was piped into London’s Royal Institution where KFS spent the afternoon, and learnt a new Thing Explainer-friendly way of describing Seattle (city where they make computers where sometimes the screens turn blue), how Munroe may be originator for the design of the BB-8 droid from The Force Awakens, and about Ytterby, a Swedish village that punches way above its (atomic) weight, lending its name to no fewer than four elements.

Munroe talked about the challenges of writing the book, given its strict parameters, though said that speaking with simple words IRL can eliminate the insecurity smart people have when they’re talking to each other, as they’re not worrying about what each other knows, whether they know enough, or about correcting each other.

In such a context, it can be more useful to say that the Earth is round – which, broadly speaking, it is – rather than spherical, as you might be told that actually, as the Earth is a bit squashed at the poles, it could be more accurately described as an oblate spheroid. Which you already knew, but didn’t feel the need to say, and are now worried that the person you’re talking to thinks you’re a dunce. Cue the anxiety.

Bestselling picture book notwithstanding, Munroe says that simple words can be great for explaining the simpler aspects of a subject, but if you really want to learn about something, then it’s worth getting to know all the big words, if only just to Google them.

oblate spheroid google