Thursday, 28 May 2009

Darwin: the cake

Yes, you read that right. Darwin fans can have their cake, but would you want to eat such a beautiful, and well thought out piece?

This cake was part of a the Bake a Cake for Darwin contest in the Vancouver Evolution Festival, which took place in February. Darwin would have been 200 this year, and rightly deserves a selection of the most thoughtful birthday cakes!

The cake pictured goes far beyond mere aesthetics – it has symbolic value too. The layers represent “the five Kingdoms according to Whittaker” with Monera a probiotic yogurt cake, Protista a green kelp diatom cake, Fungi a polish yeast cake, Plantae a zucchini cake and Animalia a honey cake.

The cake is “shaped as a pyramid embodying the dynamic and complex trophic interactions within ecosystems and also symbolizing to the volcanic Galapagos Islands where Darwin travelled and developed his evolutionary and ecological theories”. Fissures in the layers signify plate tectonics and Darwin’s interest in geography.

The bakers have topped this off with a nest, white chocolate egg and finch (“representing Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection”), a mini SS Beagle and a model of Gus the Giant Tortoise.

More details (and references) can be found at the Science Creative Quarterly.

Image credit: © Vancouver Evolution Festival

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

User testers needed for new Tree of Life website

We are currently in the process of updating the Wellcome Tree of Life website with a new architecture, integrating our previous content.

We now need a few people to help test the new site. This would require an hour or so of your time at a central London location on Thursday or Friday of next week (28 and 29 May 2009). A range of time-slots is available with all currently open.

If you are interested please send an email to publishing [at]

Darwinius: the MISSING LINK!!!(?)

The big story breaking today is a newly discovered fossil, Darwinius masillae (they had to really, given that it is Darwin year), that headlines have proclaimed the ‘missing link’ in evolution that scientists have been searching for.

Darwinius, or 'Ida' as she has affectionately been named by researchers, is a 47 million year old fossil of a creature resembling a lemur. Beautifully preserved, it is possible to make out detail as far as the outline of its fur and even the contents of its last meal, digesting in its stomach! The full details are published in the open access journal PLoS ONE (and a round of applause all round to the researchers for making such an important paper freely available).

The researchers are confident this is a major discovery in evolution research, but there is much debate as to how important it is, and how right it is to publicise this on the back of hyped ‘missing link’ headlines. Nevertheless, it may well provide key insights into a previously blank part of the tree of life and, as Sir David Attenborough excitedly says (with BBC documentary coming soon):

“To anybody who's interested in evolution, and the ultimate demonstration of the truth of evolution – the fact of evolution – this is a key discovery.”

"It is really delightful and exciting and appropriate that 150 years after Darwin first tentatively put forward the proposition that human beings were part of the rest of animal life, that here at last we have the link which connects us directly ... Darwin would have been thrilled."

Image: Darwinius masillae © 2009 Franzen et al

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Darwin 2009 Anniversary Festival

If you’re around, or fancy a visit to, Cambridge in July, the University of Cambridge will be running an entire festival dedicated to Darwin and evolution.

The Darwin 2009 Anniversary Festival
Sunday 5 – Friday 10 July 2009

Celebrating the Darwin bicentenary, the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge, the festival is a mix of "science, society, literature, history, philosophy, theology, art and music arising from the writings, life and times of Charles Darwin presented through talks, discussions, performances, workshops, exhibitions and tours".

There are some wonderful events and stellar guests. Highlights include:
  • Tuesday July 7th 2009 19:30 Sir Terry Pratchett and Professor Jack Cohen discuss their recent book The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch
  • Wednesday July 8th 2009 19:30 Dame AS Byatt, Gillian Beer, Ian McEwan and David Amigoni discuss Darwin in Fiction
  • Friday July 10th 2009 20:00 Recital: Life Laughs Onward - Darwin Poetry and Music with Susan Gritton (soprano), Ian Burnside (piano) and Ruth Padel (poet).
For further details, prices and booking instructions, please visit the website.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Lies, damn lies: Ekman, Darwin and microexpressions

I mentioned Dr Paul Ekman and his research in a post a few weeks ago. There’s an interview with him in the Guardian today, going into a little more detail on his 40+ years studying microexpressions, which has led to calls from the CIA and FBI and now a US TV show based on his research.
Ekman has successfully demonstrated a proposition first suggested by Charles Darwin: that the ways in which we express anger, disgust, contempt, fear, surprise, happiness and sadness are both innate and universal.

The facial muscles triggered by those seven basic emotions are, he has shown, essentially the same, regardless of language and culture, from the US to Japan, Brazil to Papua New Guinea. What is more, expressions of emotion are involuntary; they are almost impossible to suppress or conceal.
The article divulges a little from there, but remains interesting. Ekman’s research is now a US TV drama series starring Tim Roth!

Darwin 200 Photography Competition

Unfortunately not an opportunity to submit your finest beards for review, but a proper photography competition on 'Exploring and Investigating Nature'.

The judges are looking for photographs inspired by this theme. It’s a pretty wide remit, encompassing photos from far off countries to your own back garden, animals, plants, the local park, or museum. Some examples can be seen here.

Launched by The Horniman Museum, the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, the Institute of Biology, and the Wellcome Trust, the competition hopes to inspire the same spirit of curiosity that motivated Darwin throughout his life.
Charles Darwin's career was founded on his childhood fascination with the plants and animals on his own doorstep. This fascination took him around the world and led to an understanding of life that has shaped the modern world.
The winners from each category and a 'Best in Show' will be exhibited at the Horniman Museum in London. Deadline for entries is 11 October 2009 and more details can be found at the competition’s webpage.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Evolution vodcasts from Research Councils UK

Research Councils UK have produced a series of ten minute videos about evolution topics, presented by Jeremy Pritchard from the University of Birmingham. Most include interviews with the researchers involved.

The first considers how Darwin's theories are being used to understand how our society works, shedding light on diverse topics from language to leadership.

Next, what is the impact of human species on other organisms and how much does it matter?

The third looks at directed evolution, exploring how modern molecular biology techniques are enabling scientists to evolve individual genes in the lab to suit a particular task.

Another looks at resistance and the arms race between pathogens constantly adapting to overcome their hosts, and the hosts that change to resist them.

Finally, there's a mop up of questions posed by readers about evolution, including the importance of natural selection on texting and giraffes: