The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Museum exterior (Old Ashmolean Building)

The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford holds a spectacular collection of thousands of early scientific instruments, such as the microscope below. The Museum can be visited on afternoons (except Mondays) for those fortunate enough to be in Oxford, but there is an excellent virtual tour, so that people from around the world can explore what the Museum has to offer. There are also many online exhibits and several YouTube videos. Few museums have an online presence this good. Even the shop is online!

Microscope and accessories (photo by Mark Harding)

For more information, see the museum website or the Wikipedia article.

In praise of frogs

I’ve always been interested in frogs, and all the more so recently. This bit of fun is dedicated to (who else?) Miss Piggy:

Why are there so many
Fans of Anurans?
And why do they always hide?
But I must say I share
This batrachian attraction –
The artists, researchers, and me!

Has Wikipedia stabilised?

I have previously blogged about Wikipedia being in trouble. However, revisiting the English Wikipedia statistics page, I see that (at least in purely quantitative terms) the decline of Wikipedia may have halted.

The chart above shows the number of new articles per day on the English Wikipedia. During its first five years, this number grew exponentially, but switched to a linear decline in mid-2007. Recently that decline seems to have halted, with an average of 866 new articles per day over the past two and a half years (see here for examples of recent articles). The statistics on the number of active editors tell a similar story.

Whether Wikipedia’s quality problems have stabilised is another story, of course, but it looks like Wikipedia will not be vanishing any time soon.

Information is Beautiful 2014: Creative Routines

I forgot to cover the 2014 Information is Beautiful Awards on this blog. A particularly nice entry, winning gold in the infographic category, was this fantastic Creative Routines infographic by RJ Andrews of Info We Trust (inspired by the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey).

The image below shows just one entry from the infographic, that of Charles Dickens (midnight is at the top of the circle). Click to see the whole infographic.

Animal Architects by J.L. Gould and C.G. Gould: a book review

Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould

The 2007 book Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould explores structures built by animals – nests, cocoons, spiderwebs, beaver dams, and the like.

The hexagonal tubes of a wasp nest

This is an extremely interesting topic, and so I read this book with great interest. Animal Architects is very readable, and provides good information on spiders and insects – especially social insects like wasps, ants, bees, and termites. There is also an extensive discussion of how birds build nests and bowers.

The mud nest of the American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

I found the discussion of bird nests particularly interesting – especially the way in which construction style was linked to taxonomy (p. 181).

The male Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis) of northern Australia builds and decorates an elaborate bower (which has no practical utility, but exists only to attract females)

The authors are based in Princeton, New Jersey, but there is a surprisingly large number of references to Australian wildlife (about a dozen mentions). Perhaps this reflects the interesting range of birds and insects living in Australia. Well-known animal architects like the beaver help to round out the overall story.

Beavers survive the winter in lodges like this

However, four things annoyed me about this book. First, there are readings for each chapter, but no specific endnotes. Second, there seemed to be considerable speculation, as to the cognitive mechanisms that might be involved, without any actual evidence being cited. Third, there was no reference to simulation studies. In many cases, the only way to tell whether simple programmed rules can generate observed behaviour is to program the rules and try it out. The results can be surprising at times (for example, bacteria can home in on chemical concentration gradients, in spite of not being able to sense the direction of such gradients, and not being able to steer). And fourth, some statements seemed rather debatable. For example, many biologists would disagree with the claim that “the [wasp] builder needs to know where she is in the overall structure under construction, and what needs to be built there” (p. 88) – arguing instead for stigmergy as the key mechanism. There is also the rather odd statement that “human speech has fewer than three dozen consonants” (p. 273). In fact, there are more than this just in Hindi, and far more in the IPA.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.

Animal Architects by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould: 3 stars