Join the Poo Crew as they guide you through time in this craptastic and pissarific children's book that tells you about the many amazing uses for poo and wee!
After relocating to Germany, I was initially intrigued, then amused, by The Shelf that is built into many German toilets. This shelf is designed so Germans can carefully inspect their fæces before flushing. What are they looking for? I wondered.
Let's face it, most people -- children and quite a few adults, too -- are fascinated by excrement, which probably explains why many languages around the world have a plethora of synonyms to describe it. Even though the products of our bowels and bladder probably are the first objects outside of our bodies to capture our attention, most people know surprisingly little about the many uses that poop and pee have found throughout history. But Richard and Mary Platt fill this gap with their craptastic and pissarific children's book, Don't Flush: Lifting the Lid on the Science of Poo and Wee [Kingfisher – An imprint of Macmillan Children's Books, 2012; Guardian Bookshop; Amazon UK].
The title suggests that this book is only concerned with the science of poo and wee but in fact, there's at least as much history and culture to be found in its pages as science. For example, 900 years ago, goose poo was the secret ingredient that Viking swordsmiths added to manufacture their finest blades, probably because it included elements that strengthened the metal. But poo has found many other surprising uses as well, including tanning leather, casting large metal bells, manufacturing bricks and even as medicines. Perhaps the only obvious use for poo is fertiliser.
Urine contains ammonia, so it was valuable too: in ancient Rome, wee was collected from public toilets and used to wash and dye clothing. Later, during the American Civil War, Southern Belles in the state of Alabama were asked to save their "chamber lye" (urine) so the Confederates could use it to make nitre (saltpetre) after they'd run short of gunpowder. But wee had some less deadly uses too. Throughout the ages, healers and doctors typically examined wee to judge a patient's health (which they still do to this day) and in fact, the specially-made uroscopy flask became a symbol of the medical profession.
The light-hearted but informative writing style is complemented by the delightful full-colour cartoons by illustrator John Kelly. The Poo Crew guides you, the reader, through the many historical uses for poo and wee. But underneath the toilet humour, this appealing book contains a serious message: poo and wee were precious materials because they were so versatile and useful. Packed with facts, even adults will learn something new about the many imaginative uses for poo and wee. Of course, this left me wondering how people discovered these many uses for excrement.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society's Young People's Book Prize, this oversized hardcover is a perfectly disgusting book: children of all ages will love it!
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..
GrrlScientist is an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist and freelance science writer who writes about the interface between evolution, ethology and ecology, especially in birds. As a judge who helped select the 2013 Royal Society Young People's Book Prize shortlist, she also has a deep passion for good books, especially good science books, which she reviews with some regularity. You can follow Grrlscientist's work on her other blog, Maniraptora, and also on facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest and of course, twitter: @GrrlScientistGrrlScientist
Celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the climbing of Everest have a strong science and technology theme. It's important not to forget the small or everyday things too, because in this environment even the simplest technology – like a razor – can be crucial
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost
For the want of the shoe the horse was lost
For the want of the horse the rider was lost
For the want of the rider the message was lost
For the want of the message the battle was lost
For the want of the battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail [Trad.]
The focus of the Everest 60th Anniversary celebrations this year seems to be on the science, medicine and technology of the climb – there is a special exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society, and an excellent new biography of the expedition's physiologist, Griff Pugh.
The importance of some technology is obvious. I've written about oxygen and respiration systems before, but tents, food rations, boots and ropes were all argued over and tested by the organisers and team members of the 1953 expedition. Reading through the archives in the Royal Geographical Society (that is, the letters, reports, minutes of meetings and so on) what is immediately obvious is the attention to detail necessary to design and choose appropriate technology.
During the planning stage the members of the team were asked to fill in forms commenting on the equipment and food rations. Many of these show how fine and individual such choices were; the armchair reader (ie me) might not appreciate why anyone would strongly prefer "elastic and buttons" to just "elastic" on a jacket wrist cuff, but to these mountaineers it was clearly very significant to climbing comfort and therefore the success of an expedition. The vast number of equipment-related decisions that had to be made about such specifications is obvious if you turn to the back of The Ascent of Everest, written by the expedition's leader John Hunt. There's a list of over 100 firms and organisations who have donated goods to the expedition, from Agfa film, to Jaeger gloves, to WH Smith's stationery.The problem with beards
Shortly after the expedition returned to the UK the organising secretary, Ghurkha officer Charles Wylie, began to write "thank you" letters to these firms. In August he wrote to Rolls Razor Ltd to thank them for the donation of a Viceroy Dry Shaver. This could seem like a very trivial piece of kit, but it is not, because, as Wylie explains
One of the problems of oxygen apparatus for use in high altitude climbing is the difficulty of providing a satisfactory mask. This Expedition used half masks, ie masks covering the lower part of the face only. To obtain an air tight fit with a half mask, the face must be shaven … it is a great tribute to this shaver that it proved satisfactory even on the South col (25,850ft) where the first assault party used it before their final climb.
This first assault party – consisting of oxygen expert and physicist Tom Bourdillon and doctor Charles Evans – were using a closed-circuit (rebreather-type) oxygen system, co-designed by Bourdillon (with help from his dad Robert Benedict Bourdillon). Although favoured by the scientific advisers to the team because of their efficiency, in practice closed-circuit sets were not as reliable as the open-circuit kit, and in the lead-up to 1953 there had not been enough time to solve some of the problems these newly designed systems faced in extreme conditions. Bourdillon and Evans experienced technical difficulties and were unable to reach the summit.
The successful second assault party of Tenzing and Hilary used open circuit oxygen sets instead, and for these a perfect mask fit is not so important. But although the razor wasn't crucial for the second team, it was for the first, and they still mattered: if they'd suffered a disaster because their masks didn't fit, or failed to prepare the way for Tenzing and Hilary, the outcome of 1953 might have been quite different.
It is relatively rare to see typically "masculine" bodily features described as a problem or a limitation on expeditions. Obviously, not all men have significant facial hair, and not all women are hair-free, but the problem of shaving and mask fitting would probably have been reduced if the team had been all-female. It was pretty common to see menstruation listed as one reason (of many) why women can't or shouldn't engage in endurance sports like mountaineering, so it makes an interesting change here to see a climber admitting that beard-growing could also be a challenge!
Was it a major challenge though? Was the razor crucial? Probably not – but one point of the traditional rhyme about the nail is to highlight the value of hindsight; it is not until after the kingdom is lost that you discover the root cause was one lost horseshoe nail. Plenty of expeditions have failed, and lives have been lost, in part because a valve broke, or because a tent blew away due to a lack of tent pegs, or a mask didn't fit properly. The lesson seems to be that if you're planning an Everest expedition, it's a good idea to "sweat the small stuff".
Want more? For an absolutely fantastic video on the technology of 1953 see this BBC & Royal Geographical Society piece on Innovation Everest.
This is the second of three blog posts celebrating the successful summiting of Everest 60 years ago. For more on Everest, and the science of exploration, tweet @hps_vanessaVanessa Heggie
In this month's roundup we report new recommendations on handling nanofibres and nanotubes, the creation of superhuman ears, and a movie made from individual moleculesHandle with care
Concerns about the safety of carbon nanotubes and nanofibres have led to new recommendations on maximum exposure levels from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Recent animal studies have suggested that these "large aspect ratio" (long and thin) nanostructures could pose a respiratory hazard.
NIOSH concedes that it is not known whether such adverse effects occur in humans. However, its experts believe that the studies are of sufficient concern to make a variety of recommendations for ensuring health and safety in the workplace. In particular they say that employers should take measures to control the level of exposure, educate employees about safe handling and implement health surveillance and medical screening to help identify any early-stage lung diseases.At the movies
The world's smallest movie – verified by the Guinness Book of Records – has been filmed by IBM scientists. Using a scanning tunnelling microscope, carbon monoxide molecules were arranged on a copper surface into a 45 by 25 nanometre picture of a boy playing with a single molecule. Each molecule was then moved frame by frame for 242 frames to make the cartoon.
See how the film was made here.
The technology doesn't just test the limits of film making. Researchers at IBM are also using scanning tunnelling microscopy to probe the limits of magnetic data storage. They have found that only 12 atoms are needed to store data, where a million atoms are used in current technologies. That opens up the possibility of a much higher density data storage devices.
"You could carry around not just two movies on your iPhone … but every movie every produced," says Andreas Heinrich, principal investigator at IBM.Would you eat nanofoods?
Nanotechnology can improve our diet, reducing fat and salt intake, increasing the delivery of nutrients, and keeping food fresh. But will nanofood catch on? Or will it be met in the UK with the same distrust as GM foods? Read up on the debates surrounding nanotech in food on our new nanotech microsite.Bend me shape me
Researchers have made efficient, ultrathin flexible solar cells from stacks of atomically thin materials, raising the prospect that solar cells could be incorporated into clothing or window shades. The solar cells were created from atomically thin layers of metal dichalcogenides – optically active materials that can absorb light – sandwiched between conducting layers of graphene. Adding gold nanoparticles further increased light absorption.
The scientists who carried out the work say layering "two-dimensional crystals" like theirs into novel three-dimensional structures offers an exciting new research direction for nanotechnology.Bionic ear
Superhuman hearing could soon be available to everyone – not just superheroes. Researchers from Princeton have made ears that capture sounds over a frequency range much broader than that perceived by human ears. They used a three-dimensional printing technique using three different inks, one containing the structural component of the bionic ear (a polymer solution), the second containing the biological component (biological cells) and the third containing the electronic conducting component (silver nanoparticles). The technology, which seamlessly interweaves biological components and sensitive electronic devices into a single bionic structure, could have a range of applications in regenerative medicine.Neat and tidy nanotech
Researchers have used a high-tech "comb and conditioner" to create the orderly arrays of nanowires needed for the next generation of integrated circuits. The scientists from Harvard University wanted to tidy up nanowires, which are sometimes found in a mess when they are first grown. They attached one end of the minuscule wires to a sticky surface and dragged them across a less sticky surface (the comb) and a lubricating layer (the conditioner) to maximise untangling. Read the full paper and the accompanying opinion piece (subscription required).Cleaning up water
A cheap new filtration device that kills bacteria and removes arsenic from water could transform the lives of people who would otherwise not have access to clean drinking water. The technology is a composite of silver nanoparticles, which have antimicrobial properties, combined with metal hydroxides and chitosan (a component of crab shells), which can bind dangerous heavy metal ions. The scientists from India who developed the device claim that it can deliver clean drinking water to a family at a cost of $2.50 per year.Ros Daw
The unprecedented analysis shows that many animals, birds, insects, fish and plants are in trouble
• UK wildlife winners and losers - in pictures
An unprecedented stocktake of UK wildlife has revealed that most species are struggling and that one in three have halved in number in the past half century. The unique report, based on scientific analysis of tens of millions of observations from volunteers, shows that from woodland to farmland and from freshwater streams to the sea, many animals, birds, insects, fish and plants are in trouble.
The causes include the intensification of farming, with the consequent loss of meadows, hedgerows and ponds and increased pesticide use, as well as building development, overfishing and climate change. Three in every five of the 3,148 species analysed for the report have declined in the last 50 years and one in 10 are at risk of extinction.
But the report also reveals a few bright spots, such as the reduced water pollution that has allowed otters to return to every county in the UK, and the numerous new ponds created by restored gravel pits.
"This groundbreaking report is a stark warning – but it is also a sign of hope," said Sir David Attenborough. "We should all be proud of the beauty we find on our own doorstep; from bluebells carpeting woodland floors and delicately patterned fritillary butterflies, to the graceful basking shark and the majestic golden eagle soaring over the Scottish mountains. Our species are in trouble, with many declining at a worrying rate, but we have a network of passionate conservation groups supported by millions of people who love wildlife."
The State of Nature report was compiled by 25 conservation groups including the Wildlife Trusts, the Mammal Society, Buglife and the Marine Conservation Society. "This report shows we can do things – it gives the conservation examples – but we need to do a huge amount more," said Dr Mark Eaton, a scientist at the RSPB and one of the lead authors of the report. "We need a root-and-branch rethink of how we integrate conservation with how we live and run our businesses." He paid tribute to the army of tens of thousands of conservation volunteers: "They have played a massive role in making this report far more comprehensive than anything done before and knowledge is the most essential tool that conservationists have."
While 31% of species have lost half their population, only 20% have doubled. Invertebrates such as moths, butterflies and beetles have been particularly affected. Eaton highlights the plight of the spectacular garden tiger moth, numbers of which have fallen by 95%. "This is a big, beautiful moth that was quite common once," he said.
On farmland, which covers 75% of the UK, birds fell by half and butterflies by a third since 1970. Eaton said conservation successes, like the cirl bunting in Devon which was down to its last 100 pairs in the 1980s and are now at around 1,000 pairs, were often very limited in scale, where funding can be targeted. "Skylarks have plummeted in the same way, but as they live all over the country it is hard to tackle. We can't wave a magic wand over the entire countryside," he said.
Cities and towns are important areas because many people only experience wildlife there, according to the report. "Avoiding the loss of sports fields and gardens is very important if we want to have wildlife in our cities," said Eaton. "It is about connectivity, so bats, hedgehogs and so on can move around. If you isolate areas you will greatly impoverish urban areas."
Grassland and heaths, traditionally rich with species like reptiles and orchids, have seen two in three species decline and were already at a low point decades ago, with 97% of lowland meadow having vanished between the 1930s and 1980s. The nation's uplands, home to eagles, mountain hares and rare lichens, have suffered from intensive grazing and burning regimes, and 14 mosses and liverworts have become extinct already. Woodlands have increased, but mainly due to conifer plantations, which do not support much native wildlife.
Coastal birds, such as overwintering geese, are increasing due to lower persecution, but many coastal species of insect and plant that rely on dunes, shingle and saltmarsh are declining as large areas have been developed, as are harbour seals, especially in Scotland. Out at sea, UK fish stocks have improved recently, the report found, though across the EU, 75% continue to be overfished.
In freshwater habitats, Atlantic salmon and water voles have declined but bitterns and otters have benefited from efforts to clean up rivers and recreate lost habitats. Restored gravel pits have been important new wetland habitats, although vast swaths of fen and marsh were drained in previous centuries.
Eaton said the value of wildlife was not just the pleasure it brings: "We know wildlife provides clean air, clean water, stops erosion, pollinates crops and more." He said it was not known how much more could be lost before these "ecosystem services" are drastically affected. Eaton added that the report only covered those species for which data existed, just 5% of the estimated 59,000 species that inhabit the UK, leaving huge gaps in knowledge.
"Wildlife will inevitably change, especially with climate change, but what we want is a landscape that is rich in wildlife, even if they are different things to those in the past," he said.Damian Carrington
Sponsored feature: Malaria deaths are falling, but with insecticide resistance and market forces to consider, will this success continue?
According to the World Health Organisation, there were 210m cases of malaria in 2010, with an estimated 660,000 deaths, mainly among children in Africa. Yet rates of malaria transmission are falling with the use of bed nets – Long Lasting Insecticide Treated Nets (LLINs) in particular are proving key to preventing the spread of malaria.
However, distribution of these nets remains insufficient for financial and practical reasons. In addition, evidence of the growing resistance of mosquitoes to the insecticide in these nets means the level of protection may be at risk. So what else can be done?
These issues were the focus of a forum on mosquito nets held at the Guardian earlier this month in association with Malaria Consortium. The forum attracted participants from NGOs, net manufacturers, researchers, donors, academics and the public sector to discuss how nets could continue to play a significant role in preventing malaria deaths.
The event started with presentations from four expert panellists, who examined different aspects of malaria research. First, professor Janet Hemingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, discussed mosquitoes' growing resistance to the insecticides used on LLINs. Currently, she said, there is clearly an increased resistance to pyrethroids – the insecticide used on bed nets and sometimes for household spraying – and this resistance has been growing over the past decade or so. The extent of this resistance remains unclear, with very little usable data on the subject. "But we can say that pyrethroid resistance is evident in certain entomological indicators – mosquitoes are living longer after exposure to pyrethroid-treated nets and they can reproduce and bite. There are early indicators that problems are coming." Hemingway added that research needs to be done to ensure nets that are effective without insecticide come on the market.
Putting funds to work
Next, Dr Richmond Ato Selby, regional co-ordinator of USAid's NetWorks project for Malaria Consortium, discussed how to get the highest number of people sleeping under LLINs using the available funds.
In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Selby pointed out, many millions of nets have been distributed, although he said that in Nigeria, for instance, many more millions would be needed for any subsequent mass distribution campaign. In Uganda, 70% of households had a net in 2010.
But, he asked, what next? Referring to a consensus statement issued by the Roll Back Malaria Vector Control Working Group, Selby said that although mass net-distribution campaigns are best for rapid scale-up of coverage, they aren't enough to sustain continuous high coverage of LLINs in communities. But these three-yearly campaigns – nets are expected to be effective for no more than three years – were, he said, "laborious, difficult and a huge challenge". He added that complementary distribution strategies – including distribution through antenatal and immunisation clinics, or through schools, community structures and the commercial sector – are needed as part of a country's overall national distribution strategy. "We need to make sure this is part of the strategy in every country in which we work," he said.
Selby also compared the relative strengths of two popular mosquito net distribution systems: "push" and "pull". He suggested the push system, in which households get nets when they use other services, such as antenatal and immunisation clinics and schools, can lead to an over-supply of nets if used alone. The alternative pull system is simpler, said Selby: a family decides a net is needed, and therefore requests one through a set community structure or goes out to buy one. But as nets wear out after three years, Selby said it was important to develop longer-lasting nets; until then, families should be encouraged to take better care of their nets. Given that the gap is increasing between the number of nets needed and the money donors have available to fund them, something has to be done, he said.
The next presentation was from Karen Bulsara, a private sector development consultant with a focus on social marketing and behaviour change communication. Bulsara began by examining mosquito net sale and distribution models, setting out the way that net production worked prior to the 1990s, when the nets were produced and sold by small cottage industries. Now, however, there are 10 LLIN manufacturers relying on major donors such as The Global Fund for 90% of their sales.
Bulsara considered the different parts of the commercial sector – from manufacturer, to packager, to distributor, to retailers – and looked at where subsidies might help to strengthen provision. She explained how market-based approaches – such as reducing taxes and tariffs, seed funding for net importers, and price subsidies for the consumer – had been tried out before. Although the initiatives were generally halted after mass distribution had taken place, leaving the private sector disgruntled, Bulsara said there are now plans to revisit these approaches.
She said another way the private sector could become more involved in the sale and distribution of mosquito nets was through product innovation and development. Bulsara had recently visited Cambodia, which she said offered a good example. "There is high net usage – over 90% – mostly through the private sector. But they are untreated products," she said. A similar approach could be adapted for treated nets, suggested Bulsara. "This could be done without international aid. Consumers want choice."
Finally Dr Jo Lines, reader in vector biology and malaria control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, considered what the future of malaria prevention might involve.
First, he looked at "net culture". In Timbuktu in Mali, for instance, 90% of the population are sleeping under nets, he said, as they already have a net culture. "Treated nets are among the most powerful interventions we have against malaria," he said. In Gambia, the seasonal peak in child mortality at the end of the rainy season was completely nullified after a mass net distribution. "Over the past 10 years, especially in the past five, treated nets have saved a million lives," he said.
Lines also highlighted the fact that the effectiveness of nets is not uniform across different countries. Although 80% of people who have a net sleep under it, some types of net function better and last longer in one country than in another. For example, a net that was right for Uganda might work less well in Liberia, he said.
The product life span of a mosquito net was also discussed by Lines. He pointed out that if they lasted twice as long as they usually do at present, just giving them out through antenatal clinics or child immunisation would be enough to maintain 80-90% coverage.
"In the long run, we need to intercept mosquitoes," he said. Untreated nets still offer some protection, he added, so "if the nets are intact they still have substantial public health value".
The forum then broke up into smaller groups, where participants discussed in more detail the issues that had been raised. One group focused on the status of insecticide resistance in Africa, together with the implications of this resistance and how to combat it. Participants stressed that operational research is currently insufficient, and 25 years' wait for the trial and evaluation of new methods of control was far too long.
Another group looked at the advantages and disadvantages of different distribution strategies, such as health clinics versus mass distributions. The consensus was that multiple channels of distribution were needed.
The role of the commercial sector and the evolution of markets for nets was also examined by one group. Participants stressed the need for nets to be made more affordable for the customer, and for the private sector to get more involved in development. Given that nets have developed into a relatively high-tech product, official quality assurance was also discussed. However, participants strongly disagreed about what exactly constitutes the private sector and what its proper sphere of responsibility should be.
So what should the next steps be for those involved in any aspect of malaria prevention? Suggestions put forward during the forum ranged from strengthening nets and encouraging innovation, to simply "working effectively". Certainly, there are many things that could – and should – be done, all of which have a role to play in malaria prevention. But possibly the most important factor was stressed by Selby: "We need to act as a community."Key points
• Malaria is the biggest threat to the health of children under five years and pregnant women in Africa.
• Sleeping under a mosquito net is one of the most effective ways of preventing malaria.
• When used regularly, mosquito nets can prevent around half of malaria cases and reduce child deaths by almost a fifth.
• Mosquitoes' growing resistance to net insecticides is causing concern.
• The commercial sector could play a greater role in the distribution and sale of mosquito nets.On the panel
Jo Confino Executive editor, The Guardian
Dr Jo Lines Reader in vector biology and malaria control, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Prof Janet Hemingway Director, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
Karen Bulsara Consultant
Dr Ato Selby NetWorks co-ordinator, Malaria Consortium
Forum report commissioned by Seven Plus and controlled by the Guardian. Discussion hosted to a brief agreed with Malaria Consortium. Funded by Malaria Consortium. Contact Julian Rose on 020-3353 4142 (firstname.lastname@example.org). For information on roundtables visit: guardian.co.uk/sponsored-contentSue George
In 1995, government inspectors spent months on Bodmin moor in Cornwall looking for evidence of a 'beast' roaming wild there. They found nothing. Yet every year there are 2,000 similarly spurious big-cat sightings in Britain. What's going on?
The setting was unimprovable. Across the fields, Maiden Castle, a turretted fortress of living rock, clawed at the sky. Beyond it was the village of Wolf's Castle – Casblaidd – distinguished as one of only 20 places in which Owain Glyndwr was born (he died in quite a few as well), and said to be the spot where the last wolf in Wales was killed. Below us a tangled willow carr smothered the valley.
"This gap in the hedge here: that could be where it came through. Then it came down the bank, sauntered across the road and disappeared into the scrub."
I peered into the woods on the other side of the lane. The trees were hooded with ivy. Their mossy trunks sprawled over the ground, or leant on each other, dark-cowled, like drunken friars. Beneath them was an impenetrable thicket of brambles and ferns.
"You wouldn't see him in there, would you?"
"You have no doubt about what it was?"
Michael Disney looked around and shrugged. "It's not an issue for me. I saw what I saw and that's that. People can either believe it or not. I'm not trying to convince anyone."
He had heard the stories, seen pictures in the local paper of the prints found at Princes Gate, a few miles to the other side of Haverfordwest, and had not believed a word of it.
"If I'd been dreaming or thinking about them at the time, it might have been another matter. But it was the last thing on my mind. I was just driving along – and one crosses the road. He was probably about 3ft high and 6ft long. I would say bigger than a medium-sized dog, but definitely not a dog. He was powerful-looking, with a black, glossy, shiny coat, incredibly muscular, like a horse's shoulders."
Michael Disney, former policeman, county council officer, had, to his own astonishment, become one of roughly 2,000 people who see a big cat in the wild in Britain every year.
By the time Michael saw the beast, now known as the Pembrokeshire Panther, there had, according to Wales on Sunday, been 10 "confirmed sightings". Some of those who claimed to have seen it were farmers or farm workers, familiar with the county's less exotic wildlife. Among them were the farmer and – independently – his wife, whose land bordered the lane in which we stood. All described it, as Michael had done, as huge, jet-black and glossy, with a long tail, definitely a cat. One person claimed to have seen it with a lamb in its mouth. It was blamed for the grisly carcasses of sheep and calves found in remote corners of the farms.
But it was only when the former policeman reported it that the beast began to be taken seriously. Three weeks later, when five people saw it at Rudbaxton, the police sent out an armed response unit.
I became certain that Michael is an honest, reliable, unexcitable man who has no interest in publicity – in fact he seemed embarrassed by it. I am certain that, in common with other people who claim to have spotted the Beast, he faithfully described what he saw. I am equally certain that the Pembrokeshire Panther does not exist.
There is scarcely a self-respecting borough in Britain which does not now possess a Beast. Even the London suburbs claim to be infested with big cats: there is a Beast of Barnet, a Beast of Cricklewood, a Crystal Palace Puma and a Sydenham Panther. There have been occasional reports of mysterious British cats throughout history, but over the past few years the sightings have boomed. In her book Mystery Big Cats, Merrily Harpur finds that "cat-flaps", as she calls them, are occurring at the rate of 2,000 to 4,000 a year.
Harpur notes that around three-quarters of all the cats reported are black, and they are commonly described as glossy and muscular. She also makes the fascinating observation that while the most likely candidate is a melanistic leopard (the leopard is the species in which the black form, though rare, occurs most often) she has not been able to find a single account of an ordinary, spotted leopard seen in the wild in Britain.
Some species of large cat are among the shyest and most cunning of all wild animals, but they are creatures of regular habits. They have territories, dens in which cubs are raised, spraying points and scratching posts. They scatter prints, dung and hairs wherever they go: the first are immediately recognisable, the provenance of the second and third can be confirmed by DNA testing.
The 2008 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition was won by a photograph of one of the world's most elusive animals – the snow leopard – taken in one of the world's least accessible places: the Ladakhi Himalayas, 13,000ft above sea level. The photograph did not just document the existence of the leopard: after 13 months of experiments, and hundreds of less satisfactory pictures of his quarry, Steve Winter, through a cunning arrangement of camera traps and lights, eventually produced a perfectly composed portrait. "I knew the animal would come," he reported. His equipment "was just waiting for the actor to walk on stage and break the beam".
Yet, despite camera traps deployed in likely places throughout Britain, despite the best efforts of hundreds of enthusiasts armed with long lenses and thermal imaging equipment, we have yet to see a single unequivocal image captured in this country. Of the photographs and fragments of footage I have seen, around half are evidently domestic cats. Roughly a quarter are cardboard cut-outs, cuddly toys, the result of crude Photoshopping or – as the surrounding vegetation reveals – pictures taken in the tropics. The remainder are so distant and indistinct that they could be anything: dogs, deer, foxes, bin liners, yetis on all fours.
Nor have the tireless efforts to catch or kill these animals yielded anything more convincing. The hundreds of traps set for big cats in Britain have caught only two large predators. One, in 1980, was a tame puma, which had been released by a man about to be sent to prison. The other was a cryptozoologist called Pete Bailey, who had spent 15 years hunting the Beast of Exmoor, entered one of his traps to change the bait and accidentally tripped the mechanism. He was stuck there for two nights, eating the raw meat he had set for the cat, before he was rescued. We hunt the Beast, but the Beast is us.
That is about the extent of it: no photos, no captures, no dung, no corpses (except a couple of skulls, which turned out to have gone feral after they had escaped from a leopardskin rug and a wall trophy), not even a verifiable footprint. The Beasts of Britain have evaded police helicopters and armed response teams (it beats logging car crime), a five-week hunt by the Royal Marines, a succession of big cat experts and bounty hunters and the mass deployment of tracking, attracting and sensing technologies.
In 1995 the government sent investigators to Bodmin moor in Cornwall, where the evidence for big cats was said to be strongest. They spent six months in the field. There is something of the 19th-century royal commission about this investigation. The report contains photos of a strapping fellow with a large moustache and a measuring pole, demonstrating the heights of the natural features on which the creatures were photographed. The text reads in places like the final chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is thorough, exhaustive, and devastating to those who argued that, while other reputed big cats might not exist, the Beast of Bodmin was real.
They examined the famous video sequence, broadcast widely on television, which shows a cat leaping cleanly over a drystone wall. It looks impressive, until you see the man from the ministry standing beside the wall with his pole, and realise that the barrier is knee-high. A monstrous cat sitting on a gatepost shrinks, when the pole arrives, from a yard at the shoulder to a foot. In one case, where the Beast was filmed crossing a field, the investigators brought a black domestic cat to the scene, set it down in the same spot and photographed it from where the video had been taken. The moggie looks slightly bigger than the monster.
The investigators compared a chilling nocturnal close-up of the Beast with a picture of a real black leopard, and spotted an obvious but hitherto-unnoticed problem. The panther in the cage, like all big cats, has round pupils, while the creature in the photograph has vertical slits, a feature confined to smaller species, such as the domestic cat.
They examined plaster casts of footprints taken from the moor. Two were made by a domestic cat; one by a dog. They attended the corpses of sheep that local people insisted had been ripped apart by the Beast. That they had been ripped apart was indisputable; but the villains were crows, badgers, foxes or dogs, and in most cases they had struck after the sheep had died of other causes. The scientists conceded that it was impossible to prove that a big cat did not exist but found no hard evidence to support the story.
I would go a step further: if a breeding population of these animals existed, hard evidence would be abundant and commonplace. Its absence shows that there is no such population. With the possible exception of the very occasional fugitive, the beasts reported by so many sober, upright, reputable people are imaginary.
None of this has made any difference, either to the volume of sightings or to the breathless credulity with which they are reported in the papers. My favourite story, from the Daily Mail, was headlined: "Is this the Beast of Exmoor? Body of mystery animal washes up on beach". It reported that "great fangs jutted from its huge jaw, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Then there was the carcass. Up to 5ft long, powerful chest, and what could be the remains of a tail." The paper interviewed a local police sergeant, who made the cryptic observation that "it almost definitely looks like it could be a Beast of Exmoor". Only at the bottom of the page did the report reveal that it was a putrefying seal.
Beast fever has doubtless been heightened by these stories, but many of those who claim to have seen big cats in Britain also maintain that they had never heard of them before their own encounter. While a few are hoaxers, most report their sightings in good faith. In many cases an animal has been seen by a group of people, all of whom give similar accounts. So what is going on? Why, over the past three decades, have reports of big cats in Britain risen from a few dozen a year to thousands?
There is no discussion of this phenomenon in the scientific literature: I cannot find a single journal article on big-cat sightings. None of the psychologists I have contacted have been able to direct me to anyone studying it. But in his book Paranormality, the psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman tells us this: "Many people think that human observation and memory work like a video recorder or film camera. Nothing could be further from the truth … At any one moment, your eyes and brain only have the processing power to look at a very small part of your surroundings."
The brain, he says, scans the scene like a torch searching a darkened room. It fills in the gaps, to construct what appears to be a complete image from partial information. We then treat this image as if it were as concrete and definitive as a photograph in an album. If we focus on a cat and not on its surroundings, perhaps the process of singling out the beast magnifies it and shrinks the setting.
I wonder, too, whether there might be a kind of template in our minds in the form of a big cat. As these were once our ancestors' foremost predators, we have a powerful evolutionary interest in recognising them before the conscious mind can process and interpret the image. Perhaps anything that vaguely fits the template triggers the big cat alarm. But none of this explains why big-cat sightings appear to have become more common in recent years.
Certain paranormal phenomena afflict every society, and they appear to reflect our desires; desires of which we may not always be fully conscious. In Victorian Britain, large numbers of people believed that they were communicating with the dead. Walk around any graveyard of that era and you will read a tragic story of premature loss: ours was a nation in perpetual mourning. The notion that the dead could return in this life must have been almost as comforting as the belief that we would be reunited with them in the afterlife.
As the space race between the US and the Soviet Union gripped the world's imagination, sightings of UFOs and aliens, little known in previous eras, multiplied. This was a period in which we entertained great hopes for the transformative potential of technology. It was also an epoch in which the world was shrinking. The age of terrestrial exploration and encounters with peoples unknown to us was ending; planet Earth was perhaps a less exciting place than it had been. Aliens and their craft filled a gap, while promising that we too would achieve the mastery of technology we ascribed to extraterrestrials. Today, perhaps because our belief in technological deliverance has declined, we hear less about UFOs.
Could it be that illusory big cats also answer an unmet need? As our lives have become tamer and more predictable, as the abundance and diversity of nature has declined, could these imaginary creatures have brought us something we miss?
Perhaps the beasts many people now believe are lurking in the dark corners of the land inject into our lives a thrill that can otherwise be delivered only by artificial means. Perhaps they reawaken vestigial evolutionary memories of conflict and survival, memories that must incorporate encounters – possibly the most challenging encounters our ancestors faced – with large predatory cats. They hint at an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead. Our desires stare back at us, yellow-eyed and snarling, from the thickets of the mind.
This is an edited extract from George Monbiot's Feral, published on 30 May by Allen Lane.George Monbiot
Leading authority on the chemistry of liquid crystals whose work led to the development of the ubiquitous LCD
The public gauges scientists by how their research affects everyday lives. The legacy of Professor George Gray, the world's leading authority on the chemistry of liquid crystals, could be measured by the quality of televisions, mobile phones and MP3 players and, at a deeper level, how we communicate with each other, whether through Twitter, Facebook or Skype. George, who has died aged 86, invented stable liquid crystal materials and in doing so unlocked the development of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) as everyday consumer items.
He was born in Denny, Scotland, to John, a pharmacist, scientist and botanist, and his wife, Jessie. After graduating with a degree in chemistry from the University of Glasgow in 1946, he moved to University College Hull, an outpost of the University of London, to take up the post of assistant lecturer. With the guidance of Sir Brynmor Jones he studied for his PhD in the new topic of liquid crystals. After graduation he spent the next decade laying down the rules on the design and preparation of liquid crystals formed by organic compounds, culminating with the publication, in 1962, of his book Molecular Structure and the Properties of Liquid Crystals, the first English text on the subject.
By the mid-1960s, George found it difficult to find support for his work on liquid crystals. With provision from the Medical Research Council and Reckitt and Sons (now Reckitt-Benckiser, a Hull-based consumer goods company), he moved his research into the closely related study of the chemistry of the cell walls of bacteria.
Towards the end of the 1960s, there were worries that the licensing of colour cathode ray tubes for TVs was costing the country more money than it took to develop Concorde. John Stonehouse, who was minister for technology and postmaster general, encouraged the scientists at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment at Malvern to develop new technologies to replace such devices. Liquid crystals were already in the mind of senior scientist Cyril Hilsum as a leading candidate for exploration in displays, and potential exploitation, if only he could obtain suitable and stable materials.
At a scientific meeting Cyril met George, and subsequently the University of Hull, as it had become in 1954, was awarded a research contract by the Ministry of Defence to investigate "substances exhibiting liquid-crystalline states at room temperatures". George appointed two researchers, Ken Harrison and John Nash, and within two years they had success – not by designing favourable structures into molecules, but by leaving parts out, and so the stable cyanobiphenyls were born. They became the workhorses in the development of modern flat panel displays and inspired the creation of an international industry, such that now there are more liquid crystal displays in the world than there are people.
After the invention of cyanobiphenyls, more developments followed, including materials for colour-change thermometer strips, large screen LCD TVs and the eyepieces of digital cameras. In addition to technological developments, George made many fundamental contributions on the true nature of matter, including discoveries of new liquid crystal phases and their properties. His original research was published in more than 300 scientific papers and patents, and several textbooks.
George spent nearly his entire career in science at Hull, moving to work for Merck Chemicals at Poole in 1990. His research at Hull brought recognition to the university in the Queen's award for technological achievement in 1979, the first award of its type to a university, and, in 2005, a Historical Chemical Landmark was awarded to the university by the Royal Society of Chemistry to commemorate more than 50 years of liquid crystal research.
George won many awards for his research, including the Kyoto prize in 1995, and he became a fellow of the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Irish Academy of Sciences. He was appointed CBE in 1991. Apart from his many honorary doctorates and medals for research, George was proud to have a train, which regularly ran from Hull to London, named after him.
George was once asked what advice he had for young scientists. He replied: "Science is a difficult field that demands great effort and dedication, but if you are willing to make the effort, there is much to gain."
He married Marjorie Canavan in 1953 and they were a warm, fun-loving couple. Marjorie died two weeks before George. Their daughters Veronica and Caroline survive them. Another daughter, Elizabeth, predeceased them.
• George William Gray, chemist, born 4 September 1926; died 12 May 2013John GoodbyPeter Raynes
A comic yet scientifically accurate "Where's Wally"-style examination of how the human body factory works.
Everyone is curious to learn how their body works, but understanding the details can often be a daunting task. But a new children's book rises up to meet this challenge, and it does so admirably: Human Body Factory by Dan Green [Kingfisher – An imprint of Macmillan Children's Books, 2012; Guardian Bookshop; Amazon UK; Amazon US]
The author compares the human body to a factory filled with different departments (organ systems), each employing hundreds (thousands?) of workers busy with their own special tasks. Although this book does present anatomy, it focuses primarily on physiology -- the function -- of the human body, making it into an excellent companion volume to the book, Build the Human Body by Richard Walker, which focuses mainly on the body's structure. (Read my review.)
Detailed full-colour cartoons make this charming book into the "Where's Wally?" of the human body; where you'll discover amusing details such as the workers in dinghies mixing gastric juices in the stomach with a giant whisk, park rangers on the skin keeping things clean amongst glades of gently swaying hairs and sweat-gland sprinklers, or the worker hurrying to patch up a leaky blood vessel whilst a vampire lurks nearby, holding out an empty pitcher. As you explore the many "departments" that are essential to keep you functioning, you will learn interesting facts to share with your friends, such as what makes pee yellow-coloured, the number of bacteria residing in the average human mouth, and what is the body's largest organ.
Having taught anatomy & physiology in several universities, I was impressed by the accuracy and depth of scientific detail in this book. Despite being targeted to children, this charming book reminds me of Margaret Matt's and Joe Ziemian's excellent "Human Anatomy Coloring Book" that is often a recommended learning supplement for university biology and premed students.
This oversized hardcover is 48 pages long, and includes a glossary and index. A large full-colour poster summarising the material presented in the book is attached to the inside back cover. Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society's Young People's Book Prize, this book will provide hours of education and entertainment for children and adults alike! Highly recommended!
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..
GrrlScientist is an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist and freelance science writer who writes about the interface between evolution, ethology and ecology, especially in birds. As a judge who helped select the 2013 Royal Society Young People's Book Prize shortlist, she also has a deep passion for good books, especially good science books, which she reviews with some regularity. You can follow Grrlscientist's work on her other blog, Maniraptora, and also on facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest and of course, twitter: @GrrlScientistGrrlScientist
The climate sceptic's interpretation of my study as final endorsement of his position means we can move on
It isn't often, as a climate scientist, that you find your research being enthusiastically endorsed by climate sceptic Matt Ridley in the Times. We published a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday giving a new best estimate of 1.3C for the warming expected due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the time when carbon dioxide levels reach double what they were before the industrial revolution (known as Transient Climate Response, or TCR).
Ridley is excited about this, because he feels it means that until his teenage children reach retirement age, they won't have to worry about global warming. And he is worried that government policies are misguided because they place their faith in climate models, like one of the Met Office models that puts the warming instead at 2.5C, almost twice our estimate.
But no one places their faith in any single climate model, and no one has done so for 20 years. Climate scienitsts are all well aware the Met's model (HadGEM2) is at the top end of the current range. The Met Office's advice to government is based on the range of results from current climate models, not just their own.
The relevant comparison is not with the 2.5C response of one model, but with the average of climate models used by the UN's climate science panel in its upcoming major report, which is 1.8C. Now 1.3C is 30% less than 1.8C, but this is hardly a game changer: at face value, our new findings mean that the changes we had previously expected between now and 2050 might take until 2065 to materialise instead. Then again, they might not: 1.8C is within our range of uncertainty; and natural variability will affect what happens in the 2050s anyway.
Despite this, our study seems to be being enthusiastically cited by Ridley and climate sceptics the world over as final endorsement of their position. If this means their position is that the most likely response is 30% lower than the average of our current models, then perhaps the debate on global temperature is indeed over: 30% is well within the range of uncertainty anyway. But that doesn't mean all debate about climate is over.
Is Ridley right that there is no actual evidence of harm as long as droughts, floods and storms are within historic variability? Try explaining to a casino bouncer that it doesn't matter you are using loaded dice because a triple-six is within historic variability – but that is a different story.
Where Ridley may well be right is that if you are confident that citizens of 2065 will be rich enough and smart enough to cope with whatever we bequeath to them; or if you really don't care about unborn generations anyway (what have unborn generations ever done for me?); or if, like Bjorn Lomborg, you discount future damages to give very little weight to anything that happens after 2065; or if you firmly believe that the "second coming" will occur before 2065 anyway – then there probably isn't much point in trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. These are perfectly coherent ethical positions: they don't happen to be positions that I subscribe to, but if that is what Ridley thinks, so be it.
It is almost inevitable that a debate as acrimonious as this could only end with a firm declaration of victory on all sides. This appears to be what we are seeing. If this means we can move on from a sterile debate about the global response to much more interesting questions about regional impacts, the rights of different generations, and, most interesting of all, what to do about it, that's great. Ridley, welcome to the real climate debate.Myles Allen
Learn more about tornados, what causes them and why the one that struck Moore was so powerfulWhat is a tornado?
Tornados form under "supercell storms", which are very active cumulonimbus thunderstorm clouds. Beneath supercells, air rises rapidly through the atmosphere, and through a shearing process begins to rotate and form a tornado vortex.How powerful was the Oklahoma tornado?
Tornadoes are measured on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale from zero (weak) to five (very strong). The UK Met Office said the tornado that struck Moore city in Oklahoma on Monday was EF5. The power of tornadoes is often estimated after the event by assessing the devastation left behind.How large was the tornado?
The width of the spinning air column varied from 100 metres to around two miles (3km).How common are big tornadoes?
Moore has been struck by major tornadoes at least four times in the past 15 years, in 1999, 2003, 2010, and on Monday. The 1999 storm featured the strongest winds ever recorded, at 317mph.Why are tornadoes common in the region?
The stretch of land through Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas is known as Tornado Alley for a reason. Here, the environment is perfect for spawning supercells and tornadoes. They form when cool and dry air that blows over the Rocky Mountains meets warm and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.Why was this tornado so dangerous?
The tornado was one of the most powerful ever seen, but other factors combined to make it so devastating. It touched the ground for 45 minutes, which is long for a tornado, and did so in an urban area, when schools and offices were filled.Are tornadoes getting stronger with climate change?
"Tornadoes are too small-scale for current climate models to simulate, so it is not possible to say very much about how strength and occurrence might alter under climate change. But climate change means warmer temperatures and more moisture and that is providing more energy for the types of storms that produce tornadoes in a warmer climate," says Suzanne Gray at Reading University.Does the UK get tornadoes?
About 30 to 40 tornadoes strike Britain each year, but they are far weaker and shorter-lived than those in the US. They cause little or no damage. A rare exception was the tornado that hit Birmingham in 2005, which damaged trees, houses and cars, and injured 19 people.
Vaccine will prevent a disease that causes severe birth defects and miscarriages in livestock
A new vaccine is being made available to prevent a disease which causes severe birth defects and miscarriages in livestock, it was announced today.
Schmallenberg virus, which emerged in the Netherlands and Germany in 2011 and has been seen in cattle and sheep in the UK since early 2012, has been identified on more than 1,700 farms across the country.
Adult animals infected during pregnancies in the autumn by virus-carrying midges, thought to have blown across the Channel, have given birth to deformed or stillborn lambs and calves.
UK farmers are the first in the European Union to have access to a vaccine against Schmallenberg, which will be available for vaccinating livestock this summer before most animals become pregnant again.
The Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) has licensed veterinary pharmaceutical company MSD Animal Health to provide the "Bovolis SBV" vaccine.
VMD chief executive, Pete Borriello, said: "This is the culmination of intensive activity on the part of MSD Animal Health and the VMD to make a safe and effective vaccine available to tackle Schmallenberg.
"Without in any way compromising the scientific rigour of our assessment process, we accelerated our assessment so that a vaccine will be available this summer."
This means it will be possible to vaccinate sheep and cattle before most of them become pregnant. This is important as it is during pregnancy when exposure to the virus can cause damage to the foetus."
The government's deputy chief veterinary officer, Alick Simmons, said: "The vaccine will give extra assurance against this disease on top of the natural immunity we expect sheep and cattle to develop after initial exposure."