Tuesday, 24 November 2009

New Scientist interviews Darwin

Happy On Origin Day everyone!

If you haven't already seen it, New Scientist is celebrating with an interview with Charles Darwin.

Unfortunately, they have neither travelled through time or cloned Darwin from the blood of mosquitos trapped in amber. However, they have pieced together answers from the excellent Wellcome Trust-funded Darwin Correspondence Project.

Celebrating 150 years of On the Origin of Species

Today marks the 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species.

It brings to an end a year of celebrations of Charles Darwin and his work, which began in February with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

There's been a lot to celebrate and the Wellcome Trust has rolled out and supported a variety of different activities, many of which can be accessed online.

This includes, of course, this very website. If you hadn't already noticed, click on the links above to view the spectacular Tree of Life animation that formed the centrepiece of Sir David Attenborough’s BBC1 documentary. You can then experience it again as an interactive and explore our other educational and scientific resources.

Available elsewhere are the webisodes and minigames from the Routes series, developed in partnership with Channel 4 to engage young people in genetics and bioethics. This includes the ‘Sneeze’ minigame, which demonstrates how sneezing can spread colds and flu. It has been played over 14 million times.

The Trust’s free experiment kits for schools, the Great Plant Hunt and Survival Rivals, are also still available. This aims to provide a free Darwin-inspired experiment to every child in the country and has given out 23 000 Great Plant Hunt and 8700 Survival Rivals kits so far.

This year also saw the Trust provide £10 million to help build the Natural History Museum’s new Darwin Centre. Opened in September, the Centre houses millions of insect and plant specimens and offers members of the public a glimpse into the working lives of 200 scientists, demonstrating how discovering and collecting new species can help understand climate change and diseases like malaria.

For further details of the Wellcome Trust’s Darwin200 activities see www.wellcome.ac.uk/darwin200

Friday, 20 November 2009

The forgotten Wallace, Darwin photography and other exhibitions

A few Wellcome Trust-supported exhibitions that may be of interest to Tree of Life blog readers.

The first, for a change, does not focus on Charles Darwin. A R Wallace – The Forgotten Evolutionist is part of a project to research and promote the contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace to the theories of Natural Selection and Evolution.

At the first public reading of the Wallace and Darwin papers on Natural Selection on 1 July 1858 the two men were given equal status and recognition. However, whilst Darwin is celebrated, Wallace has faded from the popular history of scientific thought.

Working with Dr George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum, Fred Langford Edwards has explored many university and public collections of natural history, and made two extended research visits to the Amazon Basin and the Maly Archipelago. The resulting work explores the life, ideas, and surviving collections of Wallace, and the physical hardships he endured during his travels.

The exhibition is on at the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology and open until 8 February 2010.

Second is the Darwin200 Photographic Exhibition at the fabulous Horniman Museum in south London. The exhibition showcases the winners of a photography competition launched earlier this year.

It's also worth keeping an eye out for more details of the Horniman's forthcoming Evolution 2010 project, which "will tell the story of life on earth - how it evolved from simple one-cell organisms 4,000 million years ago to the huge variety of life-forms we see today. It will look at the critical importance of biodiversity to us all and the effects mankind could have on its future".

And if you're in Dublin, check out the Evolvaphone "the one and only booth that generates a musical composition from your identity in accordance with the laws of natural selection". Evolvaphone goes live at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin from Friday 27th November. Check the website for related events celebrating the big 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species next week.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

In the Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Evolution

In a special guest post, artist Franziska Schenk explains the inspiration for her exhibition ‘In the Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Evolution’, which opened at the BIAD School of Art in Birmingham this week.

My solo exhibition ‘was specifically developed to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.

It responds to a seminal quote from the book where Darwin acknowledges that “to suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree”. Subsequently, the eye has been a contentious focus in evolutionary theory.

Twenty years on Darwin applied the same line of reasoning to eyespot development – notably drawing comparisons between evolutionary and artistic processes. In the ‘The Descent of Man’ he states “that these ornaments should have formed through the selection of many successive variations, not one of which was originally intended, … seems as incredible, as that one of Raphael’s Madonnas should have been formed by the selection of chance daubs of paint …” Of course Darwin then continues to, once again, reinforce his argument for natural selection.

With this in mind, and after careful consideration, I eventually pinpointed a rare and enigmatic moth (Erebus obscura) as inspiration – the moths outstanding, distinguishing feature being its astonishingly realistic eyespots. Mirroring the process of evolution I have employed innovative reproduction techniques to create successively modified versions – simultaneously magnifying, yet focusing in on, the subject. In an attempt to mimic the ephemeral quality of the colour, I have adapted and adopted novel bio-inspired iridescent nanoparticles. Depending on the light and viewing angle, an apparently dull brown moth transforms into a glitteringly iridescent beauty – before our very eyes.

Franziska Schenk is artist in residence at the Schools of Bioscience and Physics, University of Birmingham.

She will be giving a presentation about the exhibition at a special event at the BIAD School of Art on 24 November to coincide with the 150th anniversary.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

From the International Conference on Evolution and Society

Academic speakers from over 30 countries gathered in Alexandria, Egypt, this week for an International Conference on Evolution and Society, debating cutting edge research in evolutionary science, and the social and cultural impact of Darwinism and evolution globally.

There's been a little coverage here and there on the web. The Guardian's Riazat Butt has written an excellent series of articles on the newspaper's Comment is Free website. Nadia El-Awady, Cairo-based science journalist and President of the World Federation of Science Journalists, has penned an insightful blog post. There was also a fair bit of coverage on Twitter.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Darwin at the movies

No, not just Creation, but Jurassic Park, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, er, Alien.

A curious selection of films, but all part of Darwin, Evolution and the Movies, a film festival celebrating Darwin200 year. The films are on at the Lexi and the Rio and Shortwave cinemas in London between 20-28 November.

Several short films will precede the main features, including some funded by the Wellcome Trust: Darwin originals, Evolving Words and the Tree of Life among them.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Good news everyone! Evolution set for UK primary schools

Some positive news this week: the UK government is set to approve the teaching of evolution in the primary school curriculum for the first time.

According to the Guardian, UK Minister for Schools Diana Johnson confirmed in a letter to the British Humanist Association (BHA) that evolution would be included in the final draft of the new primary curriculum. Pupils will start with simple concepts of change, adaptation and natural selection illustrated by the evolution of fish to amphibians to mammals, for example.

It's certainly much needed following the depressing results of the British Council's survey a few weeks ago, which found that 60 per cent of adults in Great Britain thought creationism and intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution.

The BHA has been coordinating a campaign to get evolution on the curriculum. Its Head of Education, Andrew Copley, wrote an interesting piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site, applauding attempts to engage children with the concept at an earlier age.

"Evolution is arguably the most important concept underlying the life sciences, providing children with an understanding of it at the earliest possible age will surely help lay the foundations for a surer scientific understanding later on."

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Darwin's Inheritance at Wellcome Collection

Just a quick reminder that Wellcome Collection's Darwin Inheritance event is on tomorrow afternoon.

Event starts at 3pm. No need to book, but turn up a bit early to guarantee your place.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Communicating Darwin’s Ideas

Posted on behalf of Derek Bell

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in the international symposium on Darwin's ideas and teaching. Communicating Darwin’s Ideas: Richness and Opportunity was held at the National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) in York. This unique event was jointly organised by the British Council, the Natural History Museum (NHM), NSLC and the Wellcome Trust (WT) as part of the Darwin celebrations programme.

Participants in the symposium came from over 20 countries as far apart as Brazil and China, South Africa and Canada, and Slovenia and Morocco. This geographical diversity was matched only by the range of professional and cultural backgrounds of those attending: scientists, teachers, science communicators university lecturers and policymakers.

The challenging programme of presentations and workshops put together by the symposium directors, Jeremy Airey (NSLC) and Honor Gay (NHM) with the support of Amy Sanders (WT), covered the science and history as well as the cultural and religious debates that surround the phenomena that are Darwin and evolution.

Driving to York for the symposium – where I was to deliver the final address – I was not sure whether the programme would work. Attempting to pull together such a wide range of perspectives was somewhat of a risk but then I guess I hadn’t allowed for the enormous pulling power of Darwin as a person and his theory of evolution by natural selection. By the time I was driving home I wondered why I had had any doubts in the first place.

In short, we had a week of stories, ideas, people and science.

The stories were of many types relating to the people, ideas and the science that surround the history, understanding and acceptance of evolution. The key point was that in trying to communicate Darwin’s ideas we need to provide an overall picture of the concepts involved. Darwin himself talked of On the Origin of Species as ‘one long argument’ emphasising the need to look at the whole picture rather than just picking off individual bits of evidence.

Ideas abounded during the week, from reclaiming science as culture to recreating Lake Malawi in a jam jar as a model of ecological niche development. Discussion, however, was never far from the central idea that in essence the concept of evolution is ‘simple’ but extremely subtle, providing great explanatory power or, as one participant put it, a “global approach to life sciences”.

People were important to Darwin. Delegates agreed that if Darwin had been alive today he would have been using email and Facebook to share and debate his ideas with his extensive social network drawn from all over the world. The debates, both scientific and cultural that began during Darwin’s time and have continued ever since, have involved a variety of fascinating characters of all faiths and none. All this underlined the feeling that Darwin and his ideas can be made accessible to everyone.

In the end, however, it is Darwin’s science that is at the heart of everything: the fascination, awe, wonder and controversy. During the week we were reminded of the importance of the traditional disciplines of biology such as taxonomy and systematics, as well as being entranced by the latest hi-tech analyses of genomics. More fundamentally, as one of the delegates said,

“Science does not have all the answers. It progresses by building on previous knowledge, is a process of gradually improving our understanding and scientists are human.”

The challenge is how do we now improve the ways in which we communicate Darwin’s ideas. The richness and opportunity are almost unlimited as are the means of communication. Whatever the context, informal or formal, in which we work this Symposium provided a us all with a wealth of material around which we can use the ideas, the people and the science of Darwin to develop powerful explanatory stories which can help us all to better understand this amazing world in which we live.

Derek Bell is Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust.