Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Importing live insects into the UK; the saga continues

I still need to get some Musca autumnalis sent over from the States, now also want some Musca vetustissima from Australia and will soon have to start thinking about how I'll get my little Sorbens over from The Gambia, and I still haven't managed to find a shipping company that'll take them. So apologies for the very boring post, but I thought I'd put up a list of shipping companies that will NOT import live insects into the UK, just to save anyone else who might be googling for an import company a lot of time, phonecalls and frustration.

The following companies do not transport insects:

  • DHL

  • UPS

  • JAS International Freight

  • GAC Logistics

  • James Cargo

  • Norman Global Logistics

I'm not quite surre where to go from here - I even tried calling the people who make toffee scorpions to ask who shipped their scorpions, but rather amusingly they wouldn't tell me in case I was a competitor!

Strangely, so far my best leads have come from animal rights campaigning websites posting lists of companies to campaign against because they ship laboratory animals. Umm, thanks guys.

*Update* Ok, I managed to find a pet import comapany that would take them, but they quoted $5,000 for the service which is slightly beyond my budget! If I had that sort of money I'd fly over first class and pick them up myself, possibly smuggling them home in my tousers. I've run out of ideas now, and am trying the Bad Science Forum as a last resort. Suggestions? Anyone? Please?????

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Hating my own people

t's been a while, sorry about that. In my defence I have been very busy, attending a conference, eating icecream, getting told by Lucy Mangan that I don't have to do aerobics with Lou, learning how to make fruitflies bisexual* and acquiring third degree burns whilst trying to make ampoules. But much of the past week has been spent in various libraries in search of literature on M.sorbens.
I've been to the Natural History museum library to see the first description of the little blighter, written in 1830 by a slightly odd German obstetrician called Weidemann who also liked flies and had his friends in the colonies send him things that they found drowning in their drinks. Entomologists in those days were a weird bunch (arguable still are) but he wasn't as odd as this dude. Unfortunately the description is written in German, and in Gothic script to boot, but by a bizarre coincidence my Dad studied Old High German for his Masters. If I was feeling uncharitable I'd suggest that this was the first time this has come in useful for him.
I've also been spending a lot of time in the British Library. I do love going there – it's very rare that I end up in that part of London and it gives me the opportunity to have a sandwich, buy tickets to the London cinematic event of the century and watch the bats swoop down to catch insects off the Barbican pond at dusk. I also love the library itself, full of lovely helpful people who seem utterly delighted to be asked to help find some information on an obscure little fly written a hundred years ago in another language. Having worked in information myself I know this is impossible to fake. However this whole experience has convinced me that what I certainly don't love is the Belgians.
I am ¼ Belgian, spent some of my childhood in Belgium and have always been slightly resentful of the fact – if you say you grew up in France everyone assumes you're elegant, sophisticated and effortlessly chic, but say you grew up Belgium and if people assume anything at all it's that you spent your childhood eating chips and mayonnaise and lived in a city whose emblem is a little boy taking a slash (all of this is of course accurate). But this simmering resentment has been brought to the boil by the recent experience of trying to find a reference to M. sorbens in a report of an expedition to the Belgian Congo, as it then was. Now no colonial nation exactly covered themselves in glory in Africa but the Belgians were probably the biggest bastards of the lot of them. This is a genuine scan of what happened when everyone's favourite boy reporter of uncertain sexuality went to The Congo:

And that sort of attitude applied to the people as well as the animals. It has been estimated that under the 23 year rule of Belgium's King LĂ©opold as many as 10 million of The Congo's original inhabitants were killed, half the population. But now in a spectacular example of poor taste and misplaced priorities I'm going to say that if that wasn't enough to make you angry at the colonial Belgians they were also terrible at organising information.
Between 1933 and 1965 a number of zoological expeditions went into the Albert National Park, caught and squashed anything they thought looked interesting and published a number of reports on what they found. These reports could be written in English, French, Flemish or German, and some are written in all four. They are numbered, but the numbering doesn't correspond to date, taxonomy or any logical sequence I can fathom. There are over 100 of them. No one ever thought to produce an index. And in the fifties for no apparent reason they suddenly decided to start writing about volcanoes instead before switching back to insects. In one of these reports there is a crucial reference to M. sorbens, and the most efficient way I can think of to find it is to read through them all one by one.
Still, at least it looks like I'll be eating a lot of sandwiches in the near future.

Sorbens itself - what all the fuss is about
*genetically engineer them to lack a sense of smell so they can't tell the difference between males and females.

Friday, 6 February 2009

A fun way to waste time

If you have a blog or a website with an RSS feed, you can put the URL into Wordle and it'll generate a fun little word cloud based on how frequently words appear in the last three posts. This is what I got for my blog posts (I was rather pleased that it came out looking like an old style text book cover, and that the largest word was "science", rather than poo or something):

And this is what I got for comments on my blog, possibly a more accurate reflection of my priorities:

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Ada Lovelace day

Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace was the world's first computer programmer. The daughter of the mad, bad and dangerous Lord Byron, her mother attempted to quash any poetic tendencies the young Ada may have had by ensuring that, unusually for a girl, she received a thorough education in mathematics. From the age of 17 she corresponded frequently with the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage on matters of logic and algebra, and he eventually employed her to translate the works of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea on the subject of the Analytical Engine. This she did, adding a volume of notes in which she first recognised the potential of a general purpose computer. Although the Analytical Engine was never built, she wrote a number of programs for it. Not bad for a woman with pretty severe hypothermia by the looks of it.

Women in IT are still frequently overlooked or suffer discrimination, and so in an attempt to draw attention to their contribution the 24th of March has been designated Ada Lovelace day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. So far 1,279 people have signed a pledge to publish a blog post on the 24th about a woman in technology they admire.

I have a blog, and am also of the Feminazical persuasion, so the idea obviously appealed to me and I plan to publish a post on the 24th of March. Like many of my less sensible ideas I decided to do this when drunk having misread the description as being about women in science and technology, and have now realised in the cold light of day that it's just about women in technology. This is annoying as I could have written about a woman in science in my sleep but will now have to do *gasp!* some research.

If anyone else with a blog wants to join in, there's a Facebook event too.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Blurring the boundaries

As you’ve probably noticed by now, depending on your perspective London is either experiencing an Arctic blizzard (born south of Wolverhampton) or a bit of a nip in the air (born north of Wolverhampton). As a kid when I woke up to discover it was snowing I used to think “Wow, sledging, snowballs and a day off school”!As an adult I woke up thinking, “Bugger, I’m bloody freezing and it’ll be a nightmare getting into Rothamsted, and did I mention that I’m bloody freezing?”.

It isn’t just the way snow covers all the ugliness, the litter, dog mess and broken pavements, but the way it blurs boundaries and not just those between the pavement and the road (the lack of a visible curb has sent me sprawling once today already, and I doubt it’ll be the last time).The public transport meltdown has allowed the weekend to weekend to bleed into the week,but more importantly the snow has broken down some of the boundaries between people; everyone’s off work and everyone’s on foot, and willing to share a smile, a “Good morning” or even an impulsive snowball fight with a stranger.I can’t help feeling that Britain is a warmer place in the snow.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Sprog gets it

Why is science important? is an interesting blog that publishes essays by everyone from leading scientists to science students on the theme of why science matters. While one or two of them do make you realise where some of the stereotypes about scientists come from that vast majority are very inspiring. This essay was written by 12 year old Maya Hawes and published on that site.
Some People think that science is not important, that it is only about blowing up things and making potions. Yes that is some of it, but ask yourselves why do they do that? Is it for fun, for excitement or is it for knowledge? Thousands of explanations for thousands of new discoveries. And they are all to improve the human race which keeps on growing and changing with the more things we discover.
One of the main reasons why people study science is to cure people. They research the illnesses and find cures for them. Such as Cancer, some cancer medicines have been found but lots haven’t. When someone gets, for example, lung cancer, we don’t have a cure. We have to experiment on them while they are dying. There is not much else we can do. Someone I know died of lung cancer. They tried to give her a lung transplant, but she died during the operation. Lots of people think science isn’t important. But lots of scientists have saved thousands of lives. Lots of cures haven’t been found but most have.
We also do science to find out about the world around us. Not just the earth’s nature but the universe’s. Scientists have asked questions which we are desperate to find out. Are we alone in the universe? We don’t know unless we find out. That is one of the other reasons why we do science. Because we want to answer unanswered questions. A scientist might not just do science for work. They might do it because they enjoy it. They enjoy seeing people’s lives saved. They enjoy finding out about the universe. Think of all the technology that we have today. iPods, phones, computers, TVs . We wouldn’t have them without science. That is one of the wonders of science. Not many people realise that one small device in their hands could be the technology that someone has been working on for years. Think properly, would you be able to make something so genius? How can they fit so much technology inside something as big as your finger?!
All animals on the earth have evolved from something, including us. Have you ever wondered what we evolved from? We could have been the biggest dinosaur or the smallest plankton. Science can be related to history. The history of the universe, the big bang, how the earth began. Where you are, listening to all of what I’m saying, one million years ago could have been in the middle of a rainforest with dinosaurs surrounding you. So I suppose that this is the end of all I have told you. And I want you to know that science is important. Maybe one of the most important things in the world.
Scientists will always be finding things out, every second. Not just scientists, you will too. And because of that, the human race will always be changing, for better or for worse. I hope you have enjoyed this piece of writing and that you will always remember how science is so important.

What I like so much about this essay is that she doesn't just talk about science as a means to an end, although as she says cures for diseases and new technologies are important, but also realises that awe at the wonder of it all can be a reason to study science in itself.

Good one Maya. Please don't grow up to be an HR manager.