Australia Day

Today is Australia Day, marking the 1788 arrival of the First (British) Fleet in Australia. As well as establishing the island continent as a British colony, the First Fleet advanced the scientific study of the region. John White, Surgeon-General to the colony, was a keen amateur botanist and zoologist. His Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (with colour plates added later) included notes on Australian flora and fauna:

Arthur Bowes Smyth, a naval surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn, made similar observations. His journal included 25 drawings, like this one of an emu (the first known drawing of that bird):

Art Forms in Nature: a book review

Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel

I finally got my own copy of the classic Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) by Ernst Haeckel. Yes, the prints are all online, but that isn’t quite the same thing. This collection of 100 prints, first published as a set in 1904, is a true classic.


Is it an art book or a science book? It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s beautiful, and it’s informative. Everyone should cast their eyes over these pictures at some point. These images influenced the Art Nouveau movement, and have also found their way into many books on the relationship between mathematics and science. And they are just fun to peruse.

* * * * *
Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel: 5 stars

And So They Build by Bert Kitchen: a brief book review

And So They Build by Bert Kitchen

And So They Build by Bert Kitchen is a child’s introduction to construction by animals (also the subject of my previous review of a different book).

The story of the tailorbird

Kitchen provides 12 short descriptions of animal architects (mammals, birds, fish, and insects), along with 12 beautiful illustrations.

The harvest mouse

This short book is a good buy for parents of small children. I’m giving it the same rating as goodreads.

And So They Build by Bert Kitchen: 3.5 stars

Not the periodic table

Google recently celebrated the birthday of Dmitri Mendeleev, father of the periodic table. That reminded me of the periodic table above (by “ham549”). No, the elements are not Earth, Air, Water, and Fire.

Some people still seem to think they are, however. Pre-scientific forms of medicine, such as Ayurveda, are still based on the elements being Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. A number of more modern forms of alternative medicine also take this ancient system as a basis. And what about splitting the beer atom?

Book nostalgia: The How and Why Wonder Books

In the years after the USSR launched Sputnik (on 4 October 1957), there was a panic in the USA about what we now call STEM education. Part of the subsequent attempt to “catch up with the Russians” involved some good new educational books. Among these were the 1960s How and Why Wonder Books, which I was brought up on. I still feel nostalgic when I see the covers.

Surprisingly advanced concepts (e.g. nuclear binding energy) were covered, and the books were written extremely well. In hindsight, some of the topics are rather frightening. For example, one of the rockets described was the “Honest John,” a tactical battlefield missile intended to hit targets 50 km away… with a nuclear warhead. Other topics, on the other hand, are almost laughable, like the descriptions of cutting-edge 1960s computers. But most of the content was up-to-date (for its time), and guaranteed to get children interested in science and engineering.

Hats off to the people who planned the series (at the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, apparently), to writers like Donald Barr, and to illustrators like Walter Ferguson. Some of the wonderful illustrations from the books are shown below (from Chemistry and Oceanography). For more about the series, see


World Solar Challenge: ὁ φοῖνιξ

Some time ago there was a fire at Singapore Polytechnic, home of team 28 in the World Solar Challenge. The team’s vehicle was damaged.

It is therefore very encouraging indeed to see their Facebook page referring to a certain mythical bird which is reborn anew out of the flames.

Blogroll: John Muir Laws / Drawing Frogs

Author and nature artist John Muir Laws blogs many interesting things at One interesting recent post explains how to draw a frog step-by-step (the image below shows steps 4 and 17). He has also written about drawing insects, plants, and birds. Anyone interested in nature should take a look!

Laws also helped develop the CNPS Nature Journaling curriculum, which may be of interest to parents of young biologists.

Byzantine Science

I recently read a fun little retold fairytale set in Constantinople, and this piqued my interest in Byzantine science. Byzantine science continued classical Greek learning, and acted as a bridge to Islamic and Western European science.

The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking continuation of the Roman Empire, which continued until 1453, long after the Western Roman Empire fell. Byzantine scholars included, in mathematics and physics, Anthemius of Tralles (c. 474–c. 534), who studied parabolic and elliptical mirrors and helped design the Hagia Sophia church (see above – it is now a mosque).

Byzantine medicine was well advanced, and the Vienna Dioscurides (one page shown above) dates from the period. In military technology, Greek fire (below) stands out. Nobody knows exactly what it was, but it was a kind of ancient napalm that acted as a powerful defence against naval attack by wooden ships (the technology gets a mention in the book and film Timeline, and in the novel Dark Fire).

Visiting Vanuatu

Recently I took my own advice and visited the island nation of Vanuatu. I had a great time! Since the islands are volcanic and surrounded by coral reefs, the beach sand ranges from pure white to basaltic black, with an intermediate grey-brown in some cases, like the beach in my photo above.

Vanuatu has a range of interesting wildlife (though no native land mammals other than bats). Birds of Vanuatu include the Vanuatu kingfisher (Todiramphus farquhari, above), which I did not see. There are 120 other bird species, including visiting seabirds. Butterflies of Vanuatu (of which I saw many) include the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and several subspecies of the Canopus Swallowtail (Papilio fuscus, below).

Underwater, Vanuatu provides wonderful opportunities to see marine life while diving or snorkelling. The Flickr photographs below are by Diane Brook (click images to zoom):


Wellcome Image Awards

Because of a gap in 2013, I had forgotten about the Wellcome Image Awards. This SEM image of a kidney stone by Kevin Mackenzie was one of the winning entries for 2014:

So was this strangely beautiful SEM image of sludge from an industrial farming process by Eberhardt Josué Friedrich Kernahan and Enrique Rodríguez Cañas:

This SEM image of a Purkinje cell by Michael Häusser, Sarah Rieubland, and Arnd Roth was one of this year’s winners:

So was this micro-computed tomography scan of the skull and front legs of a tuatara (a New Zealand reptile) by Sophie Regnault:

And this illustration of pollen grains being released from the anther of a flower by Maurizio De Angelis:

All images used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND). Click images to zoom and/or read more about the pictures. They’re lovely, don’t you think?