Blood and Bones: Learning from the dinosaurs

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Dinosaur Museum by Andrew & Becky Livesey. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dinosaurs are often relegated to museums and kids’ t-shirts, but they are far more significant for us today than their comic-book versions might suggest. The next featured speaker in our series from the Faraday summer course is Mary Higby Schweitzer, a molecular palaeontologist from North Carolina State University. Schweitzer started out in education, studying speech therapy and qualifying as a high school science teacher, but began a second career when she went back to university as a PhD student in palaeontology. Since then, she has found herself asking questions that others have often ignored. What happens if you look for organic molecules inside dinosaur bones? What structures are preserved? What can we learn from them? Continue reading

Dinosaurs in your garden: An interview with Lizzie Coyle

Archaeopteryx_fossil
Archaeopteryx fossil By James L. Amos (National Geographic Society) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you have the chance to explore science and religion when you were younger? A safe place to explore new ideas and questions between subject boundaries? Today we hear (transcript below) from someone who works to create and encourage such a space – introducing Lizzie Coyle and her travelling bag of fossils. Continue reading

Curiosity: The search for life on other planets

© Carter Roberts, NASA
© Carter Roberts, NASA

Being chosen to pick the name for a major piece of space exploration must be one of the coolest things that could ever happen to a kid. This is what happened to Continue reading

The Motivations of Scientists: Harvey McMahon

Start them young! © Horton Web Design, HortonGroup.com
Start them young! © Horton Web Design, HortonGroup.com

People are attracted to science for a variety of reasons. These might include fascination, the satisfaction of meeting a challenge or the privilege of discovery, as well as more mundane factors such as the opportunity to work with your hands or have a very varied schedule. Inspiring and supportive family or teachers also play a large part in developing our curiosity about the natural world.

Harvey McMahon, a neurobiologist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, is interested in how things work. Of course he wants to understand disease processes, but when I interviewed him he explained that “when you operate at the level of molecules you need to focus on smaller details most of the time”. There is also pride in good craftsmanship. At a day-to-day level, biology is often Continue reading

For the love of wisdom of natural things

Photo by John Bryant
Galapagos tortoise, © John Bryant

One of the people who set Charles Darwin along the road to evolutionary theory was not a scientist, but the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Nicholas Lawson. When Darwin and the Beagle crew landed on Charles Island, Lawson invited him to dinner. As they talked, Lawson mentioned that the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos chain was named varied noticeably between islands. In fact, said Lawson, if any tortoise was brought to him, he could identify which island it came from.

It turns out that the tortoise-naming party trick was not exclusively Lawson’s. Whether he was just repeating what the locals said, or had actually studied the tortoises personally, the fact remains that the person who set Darwin on the course of studying variation among species on the Galapagos islands was not a scientist.

John Bryant, the author of last week’s guest post, told this story during his lecture at this year’s Faraday Summer course, and I enjoyed it because Continue reading

Beautiful Cells

Chlamydomonas, by Ninghui Shin. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.jpg
Chlamydomonas, by Ninghui Shin. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.jpg

It appears to be a universal experience for a scientist to find their experimental system beautiful. Perhaps this is because the daily discipline of examining anything in detail brings an appreciation of its finer points? Most, I think, simply delight in the beauty of nature. For some, this gives a sense of the transcendent: a sort of natural spirituality.

I’ve written about a number of Christians and their appreciation of beauty in their scientific work, but I also want to feature some others who don’t share those beliefs. Science is open to all comers, and that’s a good thing. Everyone can enjoy exploring the universe. In my browsings online I have found a biologist who has written beautifully on her own research, and I want to share the biology she loves with you*.

Continue reading

Inevitable Humans?

© Ruth Bancewicz

Last weekend, the Faraday Institute ran a course on ‘Science, Religion and Atheism’. The aim was to examine questions of science and religion from both theistic and atheistic positions. The speakers were more than usually candid about their own views, which was both refreshing and a fascinating sociological exercise.  (See the Faraday website for recordings when available).

To continue last week’s theme of biology raising questions that in the past have been left to cosmologists, I will focus on Simon Conway Morris’s presentation at the course. I have already written on biochemical fine-tuning but the related theme of convergence, which is the focus of Conway Morris’s research, is also an important one.

Simon Conway Morris is one of those thinkers who prefer to limit themselves to the most risky fields of investigation. He is genuinely interested in upsetting the applecart of received dogma, and getting closer to the truth. As a PhD student, Conway Morris worked with Harry B. Whittington on the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, and was part of the huge revival of interest in the Cambrian Explosion.

At first the Burgess Shale fossils seemed to point to the randomness of the evolutionary process – a point that Stephen Jay Gould elaborated on in his book ‘Wonderful Life’. It has become something of a convention in the biological world to avoid using teleological language, and Gould famously suggested that if you ‘reran the tape of life’ you would get something completely different. That strikes at the heart of who we are, and the theological consequences are enormous. Is the existence of human beings a happy accident? How could people of faith even consider evolution if the implication is that intelligent beings such as ourselves are an accidental dot on the cosmic landscape, rather than lovingly created by God?

But as Conway Morris proceeded in his career in palaeobiology it seemed to him that evolution had repeatedly navigated towards similar solutions in different contexts. An example of this is the sabre-toothed cat. In North America this deadly cat was a placental mammal, and in South America it was marsupial – sabre-toothed cats evolved at least twice. Other examples include the ‘camera eye’ that has evolved many times independently, and the octopus’s tentacle that bends in a similar manner to a jointed arm.* The conclusion that can be drawn from the vast number of examples of convergent evolution is that there seem to be a limited number of ways of solving the same problem. One could describe these solutions as points towards which evolution navigates. So if you reran the tape of life, the emergence of intelligent beings like us might actually occur every time.

In his seminar Conway Morris took his thesis further, speaking about extraterrestrial intelligence, consciousness, and language. The fact that we can see beyond the limits of our inbuilt sensory systems, and have capabilities way beyond any other animal species has prompted many to ask questions about humanness that sound like religious questions.  I realise that this is a vague theological ending to a largely scientific piece, but Conway Morris is often tentative in his theological conclusions. Hopefully another book is on the way that will take this line of thinking further.

*You can see these and many other examples of evolutionary convergence at mapoflife.org.