Monthly Archives: June 2014

From Chester to Copenhagen


It is 6.30am on Sunday morning but I’m wide awake and can hear the hotel in which we are staying stirring into life.  Time to reflect on what has been a long and busy week, rather than the start of a long and relaxing summer holiday as some assume academics enjoy.  That’s a myth: summers for many of us are at least as busy as the main teaching part of the year, though that’s not to say we don’t teach in the summer – I have final year project students to advise, and for students who did not pass first time round there’s still re-sit exams and assignments to be undertaken.

Of course I’m not complaining and the busyness is part of the fun of my job, which includes opportunities to travel, as I’ve previously described on this blog.  Before any travelling this week, however, Monday was taken up listening to my PhD student Kat Harrold give a seminar about the progress of her research on pollinator mapping and habitat modelling in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area.  This was followed by an hour’s grilling from the supervisory team and an independent colleague, as we drilled down into the research and suggested ways in which Kat could improve on the already excellent work that she’s doing.  All of this is a formal part of our PhD programme and Kat aquitted herself very well indeed.

Tuesday was the start of the travelling, and was spent in Chester helping with filming for an episode of a new four-part BBC2 series provisionally called Plant Odyssey, fronted by Carol Klein, Gardener’s World presenter and Honorary Fellow of the University. The series is being produced by Oxford Scientific Films and will be broadcast in the spring.  In the following scene we were making a rose perfume based on an ancient Roman recipe from the writings of Pliny the Elder.


Now, I know very little about how to make perfume, but I do know a bit about flower scents and how they attract pollinators, so my role was to act as both a foil for Carol’s scent experiment and to add some science to the mix.  This is not the first filming I’ve done with Carol, having also helped out with her Science in the Garden special edition of Gardener’s World a few years ago.  While looking for that last link I discovered that all three episodes of Bees, Butterflies and Blooms is also available on YouTube, which is great to see as the BBC didn’t repeat the series or produce a DVD.  I was involved in the making of episode 2, which helped to kick-start the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant labelling campaign.  Television work is fun and brings science, and the scientists who do it, to a much wider audience.

Wednesday I prepared my talk for Friday’s lecture in Copenhagen (more of which later) and Thursday involved attending the University of Northampton’s annual postgraduate research conference.  This is a highlight of the year for me as it’s an opportunity to see the breadth of postgraduate research going on across the university, something that would be impossible in a larger and more research intensive institution.  I was only able to attend the first session, but that alone covered research on the research process itself; feminist cyborg literature; the legality of the World Bank’s scrutiny panel; pollinator conservation (Kat Harrold again); and the experiences of families with children who have difficulties communicating.  Questions from the audience tended to be broad and non-specialist, and all the better for that: often it’s the straightforward, naive questions which test specialist knowledge.

The rest of Thursday Karin and I packed and then travelled up to Birmingham International for an early evening flight to Denmark.  I’d been invited by my colleague Bo Dalsgaard to present a research seminar at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.  Coming from a small and very diverse department, it was great to visit such a large and specialised group of researchers, though over lunch the Center’s Director Carsten Rahbek told me that a common complaint from his staff was: “Why can’t we employ more people doing what I’m going?”  Everything’s relative I suppose.


The title of my talk was “Pattern and process in pollination at large geographic scales”, which gave an overview of some of the research I’ve published over the last decade or so, framed around the following questions:

Quite a number of people in the Center were out doing field work or were otherwise engaged so I spoke to a modest-sized audience of some 30 people: certainly not the smallest audience I’ve ever presented to – that was three people, including the two who had invited me to give the talk!

The lecture seemed to be well received and there were some stimulating questions afterwards, though also a couple of challenging ones about statistical analysis.  One of these I couldn’t answer until afterwards because I’d forgotten the details of the methods we’d used (note to self: re-read old papers before you present their findings).  In answering the other I agreed with the questioner that the data could now be analysed in a more sophisticated way (future task, if I ever get the time).  If Kat’s reading this, I hope she takes satisfaction in not being the only person to be asked difficult questions about their research this week!

Afterwards I chatted with Bo and Carsten about the limitations of the current and paleo-climate data sets we’ve been using in some studies, which are indeed very limited.  But there are only two options.  Do we work with data sets that are flawed, whilst acknowledging that any conclusions are tentative?  Or wait until better data become available, which could be a decade in the future?  My choice is definitely to go with the former, otherwise we’d never publish anything because there are always limitations to data used in studies of ecology and biodiversity. Personal and public honesty about such limitations, and ideas as to how they can be overcome in the future, are surely preferable to stalling research.

Later that afternoon I discussed science with two of Bo’s collaborators, Pietro Maruyama a Brazilian PhD student whom I’d met last November, and Peter, a Danish undergraduate.  Both are doing excellent work on that most charismatic group of pollinators, the hummingbirds.

Friday evening I was exhausted, and Karin and I opted for dinner in the hotel restaurant and an early night, as Saturday was to be spent exploring Copenhagen. It’s a great city for wandering around, with fascinating architecture and unexpected additions to buildings, such as bronze dragons:


And parks with statues of artists and writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen:


After a roundabout wander, via a gallery selling African tribal art (which we couldn’t afford) and a small lunch (which we could only just afford – Copenhagen’s an expensive city!) we eventually ended up at the University’s Botanical Garden, which has a superb living collection of cacti and succulents, orchids and other epiphytes, and alpine plants.


It beautifully illustrates the huge morphological diversity encompassed within the 352,000 or so species of flowering plants, one of the many reasons why I love visiting botanical gardens: I always see something new.  This included two species of bumblebees (Bombus) which I’m sure don’t occur in Britain.  I’ll have to look them up when I get back:  from Chester to Copenhagen and, tomorrow, back to Northampton.




My Hooper Moment

Jeff on the beach

Despite the clunkiness of some of the special effects, Jaws is a great movie that influenced a whole generation of organismal biologists into becoming marine ecologists, or at least terrestrial ecologists with a toe in the water.  The movie contains some iconic characters and wonderful lines.  One of my favourite scenes* is the exchange between Hooper, the shark expert, and Mayor Larry Vaughn, the head-in-the-sand local politician:


Hooper:  What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine.  It’s really a miracle of evolution.  All this machine does is swim.  And eat.  And make little sharks.  That’s all.  [Gestures to advertising sign on which a huge shark fin has been drawn]  Now why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign. Those proportions are correct….

Mayor Vaughn:  Love to prove that wouldn’t you? Get your name into the National Geographic[Walks away, smiling dismissively]

Hooper:  [pause, then slightly maniacally] ….hahahaha….hahahahaha….


Well today I got my Hooper Moment, my name in the National Geographic following an interview about pollination biology with James Owen, one of their writers.  It’s the online version, not the printed magazine, but I’m counting it anyway.  It’s a nice piece and, for once, doesn’t dwell on honey bees, or even bees at all.

In 1975 I was 10 years old and was accompanied to the cinema to see Jaws by my late parents.  Neither were impressed:  my mother watched the whole movie with her hands over her face and my father opined that it “was not as good as King Kong in the 1930s”.  Nonetheless, I’d like to think that they’d have been proud of my Hooper Moment.

[Thanks to Mark for capturing a moment on the North East coast, some years ago]


*With apologies for the crappy music and dumb repeat-edits – scroll forward to 2:25.


Rational explanations


It has been a week for rational explanations, for assessing evidence in a logical way, a subject on which I have posted in the past and which goes to the heart of the scientific endeavour.

There was a lot of media attention about a study published in PNAS that claimed to show that hurricanes with female names (Katrina, Sandy, etc.) cause more damage than those with male names, because (to quote the abstract of the study) “hurricane names lead to gender-based expectations about severity and this, in turn, guides respondents’ preparedness to take protective action”.  In other words, people take feminine words less seriously than masculine words.  Is that true?  Are people really that socially attuned to gender-specific language?  Turns out that the original study may have made too many assumptions with regards to data and the statistical model they used, according to a re-analysis by Bob O’Hara and GrrlScientist on the Guardian science pages.  However in a further twist, a re-analysis of the re-analysis by Florian Hartig on the Theoretical Ecology blog found some (although very, very weak) support for a gender effect.  Florian makes an interesting point, however, that “the authors would have probably found it much more challenging to place this study in [a top science journal such as] PNAS if they would have done a more careful and conservative statistical analysis”.  In other words, science is certainly not immune to the effects of hyperbole and controversial findings.

Speaking of “hyperbole and controversial findings”, Richard Dawkins made headlines by apparently suggesting that reading fairy tales to children is not in their best interest: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?” Not surprisingly there was a big backlash against Dawkins who clarified his views on Twitter (!) and claimed they had been taken out of context. Perhaps so, but he has a track record of increasingly controversial views that he surely knows will raise his profile.  But then he’s an author with books to sell, who long ago gave up being a practising scientist by not publishing any peer-reviewed papers in science journals for over 30 years.  Dawkins’ role at Oxford was as Professor for Public Understanding of Science and unfortunately he gives the impression that scientists are all about rational thought and logical arguments in every facet of their lives. Which we’re not, I can assure you: I possess a whole raft of personal, irrational idiosyncrasies, including sending a little prayer to the Gods of Science every time I submit a new manuscript to a journal.  Which they often ignore, the f**kers.

There was also an odd quote from Dawkins in relation to the logic of fairy tales, that there is “a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable”.  Nope, it’s not statistically improbable – it’s biologically impossible!  “Statistically too improbable” suggests that it could happen, given enough time.  Not sure that this helps with public understanding of science….

Something which is statistically improbable, but which does happen occasionally, is finding new fossils which make us rethink our understanding of the biodiversity of species interactions.  Such a find was published recently in the journal Biology Letters:  a 47 million year old fossil bird of a previously undescribed group that provides the earliest evidence of flower feeding, and possibly pollination by a birds.  The evidence in this case is the presence of pollen grains preserved in the gut area of the fossil, which could also represent flower eating (a range of birds do this, for example bullfinches) rather than nectar feeding and legitimate pollination.  Nonetheless it’s a stunning find and links nicely with a February post of mine.

Another new discovery this week, for me at least, was that (contrary to rumours, errr, started by me….) Dr Georges Aad does indeed exist.  Apologies to him, though it was fun while it lasted.

Finally to the intriguing photos that grace the start and end of this post.  I took these from the garden a couple of evenings ago. It shows a plane apparently flying into a dark tunnel that stretches out ahead of it (click on the images for a better view).  We watched the plane for several minutes and the “tunnel” appeared to be moving ahead of the plane as it travelled across the sky.  Karin had a plausible explanation, that what we were seeing was the shadow of the contrail because of its position relative to the low angle of the setting sun.  This was confirmed by a web site showing other examples of this phenomenon, which apparently is not uncommon, though judging from the comments on the site, some people prefer US government covert chemical spraying as a rational explanation.  Evidence and data will always be open to interpretation.