This blog is now rarely updated, but remains as an archive of bits and pieces I've collected from around the internet. To see what's caught my eye more recently, find me on twitter.

Thursday 29 September 2011

#141: Trolls - a species profile.

This piece has also been published over on the new science communication site, Scientific Kitty

Troll Hunter is the documentary that exposes the existence of trolls in the Norwegian mountains. I cast a biologist's eye over these elusive giants. (May contain spoilers)

With their 1000-year lifespan, rock eating tendencies, and slight aversion to light, Øvredal’s trolls are the most unlikely of creatures. But it turns out that they do exist, and have just been hiding in the mountains of Norway. So let’s suspend our disbelief and take at look at the biology of these beasts.

Fundamentally, there are two types of troll, which constitute at least two unique species – the mountain and forest dwellers. Where the troll species line is drawn, however, is unclear, with a variety of sub-types of troll within each general group. Trolls are fiercely territorial mammals, living either as lone individuals or in close social groups. They “eat, shit, mate with and devour everything around them.” Mostly rocks.

A major question that arises as we consider the trolls’ existence is their evolution. With an incredibly slow lifecycle and very low reproductive output (lifespan: 1000-1200 years, average offspring produced: 1), adaptation will have been an incredibly slow process. Their life history falls at the extreme “k-selected” end of the spectrum, and their adaptation to environmental and situational changes will have been very slow.  Furthermore, small population sizes (and associated low genetic diversity) caused by very large territories, and a constant vulnerability to basic elements (light), mean that their evolution is almost miraculous. It is likely that they expanded into their current lifestyle and size around the early Cenozoic period, following the demise of the dinosaurs.

The trolls’ greatest asset, that has undoubtedly been a primary reason for their survival despite the evolutionary constraints of their slow life cycles, is their nutritional versatility. That is, “when you eat rocks, it isn’t hard to survive”. Of course above all, the major barrier this fascinating species has had to overcome is their susceptibility to explosion when exposed to light. They therefore have an obligate nocturnal behavioural pattern, and this may in fact have allowed them to exploit night-time resources and avoid conflict with other megafauna during their early evolution.

Being confined to darkness has lead to a strong reliance on a powerful sense of smell, as can be seen by their capacity for sniffing out the scent of people of certain beliefs (although it is as yet unclear whether this penchant for religious folk extends beyond just Christianity – further research is needed). Trolls are not, however, totally blind, and the extra heads grown by certain troll variants reveal the importance of visual communication in social situations. These “protrusions” (for they are not fully functioning heads) primarily play a role in mating rituals and intra-specific conflict, and are likely to have evolved along a similar evolutionary pathway as that of the peacock train and battle cries of red deer stags.

Living underground and deep inside mountains means that trolls are likely to share certain characteristics with burrow dwelling rodents. Living in enclosed environments brings problems of temperature control and oxygen access, and as such they will have specialised respiratory physiology.

One defining feature of the troll life history is likely to be a huge amount of parental investment, both before and after birth. With a gestation period of 10-15 years, the parental investment is huge, and given that most trolls reproduce only once in their lifetime, the expenditure afforded on offspring is large. Parents will defend their offspring with violent determinism, and likely prioritise the life of their child above their own, with young trolls likely only becoming fully self sufficient after a few hundred years. The role that social interactions in communal dens may play in parental care is unclear, although given the species characteristics, cohabiting groups are likely to have a high degree of relatedness and hence altruistic care of offspring is not unlikely.

These trolls present a truly unique case of evolution, and require a great deal of study to see how they managed to overcome the problems of their lifestyle. It is unclear where their closest extant relations are, and whether they are more closely related to the bears or primates, or a monophyletic taxa unto themselves. The benefits of being huge and able to eat almost anything seem to have outweighed the issues they face. It is hard to see how their fragile lifestyle ruled by an inability to deal with vitamin D has allowed them to flourish, but seemingly it has.

On a worrisome note, however, I fear that the trolls face a troubled future. As mentioned above, they will adapt very slowly to large changes in the environment, and as global warming rapidly alters their habitat, it is hard to know if they will be able to amend their behaviour to fit with the new landscape. They’re unlikely to take up sunbathing and bask in the joy of a warmer world. If ever there was a good reason to curb emissions and think about the planet, this is it. Save the trolls, before it’s too late. 

Troll hunter is in cinemas now, and provides a witty, original and entertaining break from the norm. Go check it out. 

Sunday 25 September 2011

#140; New website and some links

First things first - new colour scheme, and layout. This is to match the update to my website. It's now got a couple of pieces of writing (hopefully a few more pieces will be going up in the next couple of weeks), a bit more about me, and a link to a gallery of my graphic design work all in a shiny new layout. Go check it out, amigos.


Want some brain food from around the internets? First up, let your mind be totally confuzzled by this "audiovisual illusion". Amazing how the brain tries to reconcile conflicting info from the eyes and ears:


Next up, a nice complement to my ramblings about mind control, understanding the brain, and harnessing it's power. Researchers have been able to reconstruct an image you're seeing by reading your mind with a working "brain probe". More here.


If you've got a few minutes to spare, there's a fascinating piece focused on an autistic man, Justin Canha, in the New York Times. Particularly good are the links within to the art and images of Justin, and the video content. Great, personal journalism. Read it here.


Finally, go look at this gallery of early internet images. Amazing how it's changed, and how the sites we know today started:

Monday 19 September 2011

#130; Lyre Lyre...

This is incredible. Gets crazy around 1:50


Saturday 17 September 2011

#129; Back off, I'm a scientist

Ever wondered why your fingers wrinkle when wet? It's because your skin absorbs all the water, or something, right? Well, now some science folk say that it's actually to give you better grip in wet conditions. Interesting stuff.


You may have already seen these, but they are beautiful. Dinosaur feathers found in amber. See the slideshow here.


A pretty engaging video about doubt & climate change from the climate reality project. Obviously, it is itself propaganda, just in a different direction, but it's very good:



I'm sure you've heard about the scientists in Italy who are being charged with manslaughter having failed to adequately predict & inform the public about an earthquake in 2009. A bizarre and genuinely concerning series of events, and Nature has summarised the situation very well here




Saturday 10 September 2011

#128; Camouflage

Amazing video about octopuses playing hide & seek. Incredible stuff

VIA the kid should see this

Wednesday 7 September 2011

#126; In search of a super suit

"First you use machines, then you wear machines, and then…?" - John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)
"Where can I get my hands on some sort of bionic strength-enhancing robot suit?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another. For me, at the tender age of 8, I lost an arm wrestle to a girl in the playground. As the back of my trembling hand was forced down to the ground and tears of shame started to blur my vision, my panic-stricken mind turned to the obvious solution to my problem of pre-pubescent scrawniness – bionic enhancement.

It's been 13 tough years since that day, and a super-suit of some sort remains near the top of my list of fantasy acquisitions, alongside a time machine and iHouse. Films like Iron Man have done nothing to dampen my expectations of what a wearable robot suit might do, and I think it's time to sit down and think a bit more seriously about this Super Suit. It seems it's not quite as far off as I feared.

The majority of developing work is driven by military and medical endeavours, and useable, wearable machines designed to enhance human physical capabilities are finally being made: In 2008, Yves “Jetman” Rossy flew across the English Channel wearing a "homemade" jetpack; "exoskeleton" suits claim to increase people's strength by up to 17 times; and some prosthetic legs have now become so advanced that they are considered to give amputees better mobility than human legs themselves could achieve. So where to begin?

To the casual user like myself, flight is undeniably one of the most appealing qualities of a super suit, and there are a few options. The most basic and visceral is the Wingsuit - a jumpsuit with extra material between the legs and under the arms that allows the wearer to glide seamlessly through the air (Video 1 below). One of these will set you back a relatively reasonable £1000, but, if we're being picky, only really offers slightly more control over your long-distance falling – not ideal. Jetman's suit is a step up, consisting of a fixed Buzz Lightyear-style wing and powerful jet pack which fires him through the air, but again requires a parachute landing, a very high take-off point, and lots of fuel (V2). Finally, the "Martin Jetpack" is yet another option, which uses two fans to provide lift and can fly for about half an hour up to a height of 8000 feet. Not too shabby, and a snip at $100,000 a pop (V3).

So, that's flight sorted (ish). Next, it would be nice to be super strong. This seems to be where military funded projects are leading the way. The XOS 2, an exoskeleton suit being developed by Raytheon in the USA, claims to increase a wearer's carrying strength by 17 times, so a soldier carrying a 170kg pack would only have to exert the effort normally required to carry 17kg (V4). And this isn't the only strength enhancer - competition is driving the development of suits across the world, particularly in Japan. For example, the "Agricultural Exoskeleton" is being developed in Tokyo to help ageing farmers work their land, while the "Powerloader" has been designed with factory workers in mind, helping labourers lift heavier objects higher.

Perhaps the brightest prospect is the HAL robot suit, produced by Cyberdine and currently in use in Japan and available for rent for roughly $2000 a month. This is designed as a rehabilitation and mobility aid but has clear applications in a wide range of fields (let your imagine run wild), and with 500 being churned out each year, this is a relatively accessible mass-market product, despite the concerning appellation. So are these suits what I've been waiting for? Will they transform the wearer into a lightning-fast, superstrong being capable of amazing feats? Well, sort of. A quick trip to YouTube (or the bottom of this post) will reveal that we're not quite there yet, while many problems (such as a lightweight, reliable power source) are yet to be fully overcome. The suits are cumbersome, experimental, outrageously expensive, and not really designed for the recreational joy-rider.

Artificial exoskeletons are starting to show great potential for enhancing the quality of life of people with restricted mobility, and this rightly remains the focus of most of the development, but how long will it be before every kid is asking for a flying, weaponized robot suit for Christmas? A little while yet, as these suits will remain out of reach of all but the lottery winners among us for now. In a sense, these advancements are merely the natural development of currently mainstream technologies such as wheelchairs, planes and SCUBA suits. Are they even such a far stretch from a knight’s armour? Technology is outpacing evolution, and impatient humans will use anything we can get our hands on to push the limits of our capacities. We won’t be flying to work and vanquishing our foes with in-built grenade launchers any time soon, but the human urge to reach for the skies means that it might not be too long before you see a man fly like a bird, run like a cheetah, and arm-wrestle like a god.

Don’t believe me? These videos show some of the suits mentioned:
Video 1 - Wingsuits:

Video 2 - Jetman

Video 3 - Martin Jetpack

Video 4 - Raytheon XOS2 Exoskeleton

Video 5 - Cyberdine HAL robot suit

Tuesday 6 September 2011

#125; Google Correlate

Clever new tool from Google. Instead of finding data for a topic, find a topic for data.

You draw a line on a graph, and google tells you what was being searched for at the times you specify.

Also, nice light video from New Scientist about healing yourself with your mind. Reminds me of the placebo video from a while back.