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?

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?

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

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