Monday, 12 December 2011

Science, poetry, funding and innovation

Two interesting articles in the Saturday Guardian struck me as worth mentioning. First, poet Ruth Padel, author of Darwin: a Life in Poems, talks about The Science of Poetry, The Poetry of Science:
"Poetry is about feeling, science is about facts. They're nothing to do with each other!" The A-level students in a school I visited last week were passionate on this point. Behind them was Keats, urging them on. "Philosophy," Keats said – meaning science – "would clip an angel's wings." Science was out to dissolve beauty, "Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine – / Unweave a rainbow …" Edgar Allen Poe agreed. Science was a "vulture" that shrivelled wonder. "Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood, / The Elfin from the green grass; and from me. / The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?" 
I think this over-romanticises both poetry and science, which have got on fine for two millennia and today are enriching their dialogue. Michael Symmonds Roberts's collection Corpus came out of a conversation with scientists mapping the genome. Jo Shapcott's collection Of Mutability is expanding poetry's audiences in the medical community.
Padel (who mentions Erasmus Darwin - see my previous post), sums up: "The deepest thing science and poetry share, perhaps, is the way they can tolerate uncertainty. They have a modesty in common: they do not have to say they're right. True, perhaps. Or just truer. "A scientist should be the first to say he doesn't know," a tiger biologist told me when I asked some detail of tiger behaviour. "A scientist goes forward towards truth but never gets there." (Read the full article here.)

This might not seem to be precisely the case if you head over to Philip Ball's article in another section of the newspaper, where he is bemoaning the conservatism of funding bodies:
The kind of idle pastime that might amuse physicists is to imagine drafting Einstein's grant applications in 1905. "I propose to investigate the idea that light travels in little bits," one might say. "I will explore the possibility that time slows down as things speed up," goes another. Imagine what comments these would have elicited from reviewers for the German Science Funding Agency, had such a thing existed. Instead, Einstein just did the work anyway while drawing his wages as a technical expert third-class at the Bern patent office. And that is how he invented quantum physics and relativity. 
The moral seems to be that really innovative ideas don't get funded – that the system is set up to exclude them.
As Ball says: "your proposal has to specify exactly what you are going to achieve. But how can you know the results before you have done the experiments, unless you are aiming to prove the bleeding obvious?" He talks about a new scheme being initiated by the US National Science Foundation to fund "'unusually creative high-risk/high-reward interdisciplinary proposals'. In other words, it is looking for new ideas that might not work, but which would be massive if they do." Read the full article here.

This fund, called CREATIV (not a very creative choice), might want to take some hints from poets about unknowns and uncertainties, perhaps?!  What are your thoughts - whether you are a poet, scientist or scientist-poet!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Milly: Deep sea flashers

Some brilliant research by Sarah Zylinski that came out of the deep sea research cruise in 2010. Strange to think that even in deep, dark, remote regions, animals still need camouflage...

A link to the paper here.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Tom Troscianko, 1953-2011

Professor Troscianko was a unique lecturer and I was fortunate enough to be one of his students.

I was really shocked and sad when I heard that he died on the 16th of November.

I know that his students, his fellow colleagues and most importantly his family will miss him greatly.

Professor Iain Gilchrist has summed up Tom's life and work in his obituary.

When it comes to death, especially the death of such a larger than life personality it is hard to find the words to express feelings. I will always remember his lectures, not only because he always had pictures of him in a bathing suit (?!) but because he was passionate about his work and most of all he was passionate about life.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sir Paul Nurse and Poetry

Photo: Royal Society
There were two great events held here in Bristol last night, one at the University and one at the Bristol Old Vic, and I was hoping against hope that I would find a connection between them to make this blog post flow! And... what do you know? I did. The first was Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Nobel Prize winner, geneticist, president of Rockefeller University New York... all-round very very interesting scientist and excellent talker-about-science! He was giving the Sir Anthony Epstein lecture at the Wills Tower, in the largest, cathedral-like space, which was packed to the rafters... His topic was "Great Ideas in Biology" and he was quick to point out that these weren't THE great ideas in biology but his pick of great ideas... although he felt that most people would agree on 4 out of the 5.

So, what were his great ideas? Well: The Cell, The Gene, Evolution by Natural Selection, Life as Chemistry (and Physics) and the fifth, possibly contentious one, Biology as an Organized System, by which he meant looking at the biological networks and how they are structured, looking at the flow of "information", at the system as an information carrier.

It was all fascinating stuff, some of which I already knew a bit of, but always good to be reminded what a chromosome is, for example... with some great slides and historical perspective! I was then heading to a poetry event, so, I hear you ask, how are the two connected?? Well, it was at Great Idea Number 3, which you would assume centred around one Charles Darwin. But no, in fact Sir Paul wanted to focus on Charles' grandad, Erasmus, who was the first to talk about evolution (Charles later supplied the vast quantities of data to prove it). Not only that, apparently Erasmus - who was a colourful figure, so large that he cut an oval out of his dining table so he might sit rather nearer to his supper, and fathered 14 children - was a poet, at one time "one of the best known poets in England"! And not only that, he wrote much of his scientific reports in blank verse! (See Jenny Uglow on Erasmus Darwin's poetry in The Guardian). The Poetry Foundation gives us his poem, The Botanic Garden, and here is an excerpt:
 “You taught mysterious Bacon to explore
Metallic veins, and part the dross from ore;
With sylvan coal in whirling mills combine
The crystal’d nitre, and the sulphurous mine;
Through wiry nets the black diffusion strain,
And close an airy ocean in a grain.—
Pent in dark chambers of cylindric brass,
Slumbers in grim repose the sooty mass;
Lit by the brilliant spark, from grain to grain
Runs the quick fire along the kindling train;
On the pain’d ear-drum bursts the sudden crash
Starts the red-flame, and death pursues the flash.—
Fear’s feeble hand directs the fiery darts,
And strength and courage yield to chemic arts;
Guilt with pale brow the mimic thunder owns,
And tyrants tremble on their blood-stain’d thrones.

Stirring stuff! Now the poets I went to see after this lecture, Luke Kennard and Tom Philips,  did not deal directly with biology but I feel that Erasmus D would have enjoyed the evening, which moved from a searing critique/love poem about Portishead to a tale of the Murderer being taken for a haircut. I was immensely impressed by the whole event, organised monthly by Word of Mouth -  highly recommended if you are in the vicinity!

So, an evening of poetry, biology and biological poetry, what more could I have wanted?

Friday, 11 November 2011

James:A Nuclear Renaissance

Nuclear has had some what of a bad reputation of late, to such an extent that up until the white paper in 2009 there was to be no British nuclear future. As a man who grew up from the age of 4 saying 'I want to be a nuclear physicist' this was very worrying. However, now the tides have turned as realisation has come that, for whatever reason you chose, energy generation can not last on fossil fuels alone and we want power not just when the wind blows and the sun shines. So sorry folks but we need nuclear. Now I personally was very proud to be part of the launch of the new Nuclear Research Centre which will be mainly hosted by Bristol and Oxford universities supported by industry. This is, as the Minister of State Charles Hendry put it is 'the begin of a nuclear renaissance'. Which was highlighted by the demographic in the room as 'networking' began over sandwiches and tea. Britain has been out of the nuclear game too long, so there was a generation gap between those heading and steering the centre and us new guys looking to do the 'on the ground' research. It was alluded to during one of the opening speeches that this is a long term set of goals being created so they aren't for those setting the questions but more the eager minds of the new nuclear research generation coming through. Although I may look to be coming from a rather one eyed perspective I think this is a great thing and the first of many steps in the right direction which I hope to be a part of. Another key aspect that will set the NRC apart is that the research will be split into three main areas; first advanced research into generation 4 fission reactors and generation 1 fusion, secondly applied research looking to make the most of the energy produced and finally and possibly most importantly 'Nuclear Futures' a group dedicated to the social and environmental issues. So this will see working together as one not just the physicists, chemists, engineers but also those from the social sciences. I believe this is a good thing, and Tuesday could turn out to be a momentous occasion, not only for the country but also for Bristol University going forward to be the leader in yet another field.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Milly: Prepare for the invasion

The undead invade Bristol for the annual zombie walk.
Image: web
Know what to do if zombies attack? Got a plan? I had previously decided that I would break into the Army base on Whiteladies Road and steal a tank but thinking about it, I have a sneaky suspicion that Army bases are locked, with big locks. A fascination with zombie attacks might be disconcerting for some, but seriously, who doesn't get a bit excited about the prospect of giving up all the boring day to day activities for a life of evading the undead, holing up in a creepy lean-to with only beans, spam and warm beer to sustain you? Don't worry though, with so many films, articles, books and even a lecture series at The Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies available, you can't really go wrong. If you require pointers on how to blend into a gaggle of undead, take part in the annual Bristol zombie walk. Failing that, training is available in the form of a city-wide zombie chase game, 2.8 hours later, allowing us all to get that vital survival experience (possibly the best evening of my life). I did recently realise though, if there are swathes of rotting zombies to run away from most likely many have failed, but then they probably didn't read the guides. You may laugh at the extent of my preparatory measures safe in the knowledge that zombie-creating viruses don't exist but, I hear, the people are tinkering. Apparently there is an alarming increase in the number of amateur scientists trying their hand at genetic modification in the kitchen. With such a wealth of information available online, it may just be a matter of time until someone makes a terrible blunder, or perhaps the product of a crazy horror film enthusiast leads to the genesis of a deadly virus that reanimates the dead. If not, sounds like an excellent start to a zombie film. I've got my shotgun polished and my fingers crossed...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Learn more about public engagement opportunities

(Posted on behalf of Ed Drewitt, School of Earth Sciences)

Hi everyone,

With many of the departments in the University involved with public engagement, there will be various opportunities for you as staff or postgrads to get more involved both with these and other volunteer experiences. Being involved with the outreach work is a great chance for you to increase your confidence with delivering to various different audiences (from 5 year olds to 14 year olds) and to help provide you with the experience to confidently include public engagement activities in your future research bids.

 On Tuesday 1st November we welcome Nicholas Garrick (Director of Lighting Up Learning) and Claire Dimond (STEM- see below) who will give 4 workshops throughout the day (it'll be the same workshop repeated) which will give additional advice and skills relating to delivering high quality and effective workshops in schools. These will be held in the Wills Memorial Building.

 It is a chance to learn about where schools are at, changes in the school system since we were at school (even if it was a few years ago) and tips on good practice when doing activities and workshops. Timings and rooms are as follows:
School of Earth Sciences, Wills Memorial Building  
9am - 10am G25
12pm - 1pm G27
1.15pm - 2.15pm OCC (Old Council Chamber) -on the corridor above G25 and opposite the student common room
 2.30pm - 3.30pm OCC (Old Council Chamber) -on the corridor above G25 and opposite the student common room 

To help deliver workshops we also encourage you to sign up as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Ambassador: We recommend you do this before the 1st November so you can show document to Claire Dimond on the day. As part of your commitment with being involved with schools and families, we ask that you join up as a STEM Ambassador. STEM Ambassadors are people from industry and universities who visit schools to give talks or workshops relating to STEM subjects. Alongside the workshops we offer you'll get regular newsletters about other things you can do in schools locally.

You'll get CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checked for free and be covered under insurance for any school visits. For more information and to sign up as a STEM Ambassador click here.

Looking forward to see you next week.
 Best wishes

 See our new website and why not like us on our Facebook page

Thursday, 13 October 2011

James: Bananas!

It looks like now I am not the only one to see radiation in light of bananas. As I did in my fact or science fiction blog here back in May the BBC have chosen to look at radiation figures as a measure of bananas:

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

James: Conference time

Conferences, I am somewhat of the mind that they are little jolly half holidays given to those who spend their life in the pursuit of knowledge, filled with free food and free wine.

This is the new world in to which I enter, meeting many from different places even different countries all drawn by a uniting overarching research area. Yet the thing that struck me immediately on talking to others, of which I am not immune, is a queer sense that they are only interested in their own work and if your does not agree or compliment theirs then you may as well be talking about a cute kitten you saw the previous week for the amount they take in. Still there is a great air of respect around for all those presenting and again I see the transcendence from undergraduate, where you are either right or wrong as decided by your lecturer, to a level playing field where your views are seen with equal weight to someone 40 years your senior.

From a personal point of view yes it was an all expensive paid trip with glorious food laid on and plenty of free drink, for how else could you entice all the best minds for a particular field to one place at the same time. The up shot is what this then achieves, you have all gone for the free stuff but you leave with new friends and new ideas which in turn fuels more research to be presented at the next conference and the cycle continues. It is rather a way to keep everyone on the same page, sharing findings in order to save others from dead-ends and inspire new avenues of research.

So to be some what more concise: yes, I and others attend conferences with a mind for good free food and to show off our latest research yet harbouring the knowledge that you will walk away with new ideas and contacts to help you make the next step in your work.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Synchotron-inspired short story competition!

Here's a contest after my own heart... and perhaps a few of yours, those of you who harbour secret desires to make it all up! Diamond Light Source, the UK's national synchotron particle accelerator, is attempting a little bit of a PR boost by inviting writers to write short stories (max 3000 words) and flash fiction (max 300 words) somehow inspired by it: the Light Reading competition has cash prizes too! Here's more:

The rules are simple: we’re inviting you to submit a story of up to 3,000 words inspired by Diamond – the facility, the science and the people. There’s also a Flash Fiction prize for stories under 300 words. Stories can be in any genre and there is no minimum word limit. Diamond will shortlist the best of these stories, which will then be judged by an expert panel. The top three writers will receive a cash prize, and these, along with those highly commended by the judges, will be published in an anthology of short stories. Entries must be submitted via this website. The deadline is Wednesday 30 November 2011. 

Good luck to all!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Julio: Student Experience: Or Why Study Mathematics at the University of Bristol?

My intention in this post is to comment and present some of my experiences and my own visions of the Department of Mathematics of the University of Bristol.

When I arrived at the Department of Mathematics here in Bristol for the first time, I was very well received by the staff and especially by my supervisors Jon Keating and Nina Snaith, they present me the department and gave me a warm welcome.

The math department in Bristol definitely is worldwide
known, and with leaders in various areas of research. For example in my case, I work with number theory and the department have researchers at the highest level in number theory and related areas. I'm lucky to be part of the number theory and quantum chaos groups here in Bristol.

But the areas of research here in the department of Bristol not only restrict to the number theory and if you take a look on the website about research groups in the department you may notice that there is research in several areas of mathematics such that Pure mathematics (such as research in analysis, partial differential equations, dynamical systems, algebra and others), Applied Mathematics (random matrix theory, quantum chaos, statistical mechanics, quantum information and others) and Statistics (Applied Probability, Monte Carlo, behavioural biology and others)
. So research in mathematics at the University of Bristol is vivid and very varied.

The courses offered are varied and change each year ranging from undergraduate level units up to advanced graduate courses. The Postgraduate courses and the department of mathematics is part of the TCC along with other universities (University of Bath, Imperial College, University of Oxford and the University of Warwick) which offer advanced courses in specific mathematical subjects. I can say that these courses are very useful for the mathematical training of anyone involved in any area of ​​mathematics.

I am enjoying my course and have been learning many new things every day. The Mathematics Department is very well structured with good rooms, seminar rooms, teaching rooms, computer lab rooms and many excellent lecturers. The professors here are very friendly and always ready to help. Studying in Bristol has been a priceless experience for me and I'm sure it will enormously contribute to my career as a mathematician and to my personal life.

The University of Bristol is very well located in the city of Bristol and this is amazing, since everything is quite close to the University.
Bristol is a very nice city, probably one of the best places invUK. It's got all the good things the big city has, and yet it is a calm and safe place and is close from London. The city has good train and coach stations and even an airport where you can not catch only direct flights to other cities in the UK, but also to many other cities.

I highly recommend to my friends in Brazil to apply and come to study here, I guarantee you will be a unique experience and very rewarding academically, professionally and personally.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 9

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 8

"Here you are" said Alan, all blasé, as he passed me something he had picked out of the trawl net. It looked like a dead hand on the end of a stick and smelt like one too; I didn't have a clue what I was looking at. The more learned scientists told me it was a stalked crinoid, a sea lilly, part of the Phylum Echinodermata, so related to starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. As I looked closer I realised that it was much more attractive than a decomposing fist, with many intricate feathery arms that I imagined would actually look quite nice when underwater.

Having a gander at the feeding arms of the crinoid, note the long
stalk in the background, these can be 1 metre long! Image: Zan
Close up of the main body of the crinoid
showing the stem leading to the calyx
and then the feeding arms at the end.
Image: Zan

Another species of deep-sea stalked crinoid called Moulin Rouge
(Proisocrinus ruberrimus) photographed on the sea floor. Pretty sexy, for a crinoid.
Image: National History Museum

These fascinating creatures look like plants (hence the name 'sea lily') but have the features of animals such as a basic gut, a simple nervous system and a fully functional circulatory system that transports nutrients, gases and waste products around the body. The many feathery arms found near the mouth (and also unfortunately the anus) are used to filter out small particles in the water where it is trapped in sticky secreted mucus and pushed into the mouth.

They are sometimes referred to as 'living fossils' as they seem to remain relatively unchanged morphologically since their radiation during the Paleozoic Era (about 550-250 million years ago).

A fossil stalked crinoid,
looks a lot like the modern version.
Image: web
Shallow water crinoids are often free-swimming, and crinoids with long stalks, such as the one from our trawl, are usually found at depth, anchored to the ocean floor (ours was found at about 4500m). I say anchored...but scientists recently observed sea lilies up-rooting and crawling along the sediment, seems there is yet more to be discovered about these strange animals....

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Guardian on Art + Science

Although "When Two Tribes Meet" is to me a rather divisive title, compared to the Royal Society's insistence that we are all One Culture, there's a nice piece in the Guardian today about artists and scientists working together:
Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and inventor. True, Brian Cox was in that band before he gave it all up for the Large Hadron Collider. But in general, art and science seem to eye each other uncomprehendingly. Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust has long tried to make artists and scientists work fruitfully together by funding collaborations. Can the divide ever be breached? I talked to four scientists and four artists who have worked together to find out.

... read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 8

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 1
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 2
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 3
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 4
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 5
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 6
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 7

Coming back to my post about pressure (pt 6), how are deep sea animals adapted to survive at depth?

As there are all sorts of animals currently inhabiting the deep, I'll concentrate on fish. Fish are the best anyway. Slightly biased.

Well the problem is, fish don't just have to cope with the crushing pressure (up to 800x greater than at the surface) but the deep is also very dark (beyond 1000m there is negligible surface light) and cold (2°C) making things such as moving around, finding food and reproducing much more challenging. Let's have a look at a few fish and see how they do it. Enter handsome fellow number one, the anglerfish.

Whipnose anglerfish, about the size of a football.
Note the long lure with the tiny esca on the end, capable of bioluminescing.
Image: Dianne Bray
A selection of anglers.
Image: Dr Theodore W. Pietsch and Christopher P. Kenaley

There are 11 families of deep sea anglerfish, some only containing one species, such as the lonely prickly seadevilCentrophryne spinulosa (Centrophrynidae family) others have many more such as the footballfishHimantolophidae with 19 species. They are a surprisingly diverse group of ugly fish. As you can see from the pictures above, these animals don't look particularly athletic. If you were to design an animal for a race underwater I doubt 'round' would be the shape you would go for. Nevertheless, these are very successful bathypelagic (1000 - 4000m) animals, but why? Anglerfish are sit and wait predators and with the aid of their bioluminescent lure, can draw in prey such as fish and cephalopods (squid etc) within gobbling distance. The bioluminescent light, which can be controlled producing flashes or sustained glowing is the product of many bioluminescent bacteria that colonise the lure (or esca). They don't even need to feed particularly often since they expend such little energy, evident when you touch one of these animals. Their bodies are both flabby and bony (an attractive combination) suggesting they do very little excercise. Lazy little anglerfish. Not only are they lazy but seriously greedy. An expandable stomach allows anglerfish to munch down prey twice their size. A human man could fulfil his daily allowance of calories with 850g of meat, less than the weight of a mature trout! Seriously rubbish in comparison. 

Sea devil (Melanocetus niger), about the size of a
golf ball, look at that mouth! Image: Milly Sharkey

A female angler with the tiny parasitic male attached.
Image: Dr Theodore W. Pietsch. University of Washington
One problem that could arise, being a voracious predator in the dark munching on anything that moves, is that you might accidentally eat your mate. Finding a mate in the dark expanse of the deep sea is likely to be a very rare event. Some anglers have evolved a bizarre strategy whereby the male does not develop fully, is unable to feed properly and has enhanced olfactory senses (smell). This spurs the male on to quickly find a female before he starves, detecting the pheromones she expels into the water. When they do meet, the male bites the female, releasing enzymes that break down the skin between them, causing the two to fuse. The lucky male is now parasitic and no longer requires digestive organs, brain or his own heart (I told you they were lazy), obtaining everything he needs from the female. In return, he provides her with sperm from his last remaining organ, his gonads, a perfect relationship some may say. Bit clingy, plus he's a bit screwed...sorry I'll stop now.

More later, I need to locate pre-trawl pudding.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Lots of Sci-Lit

Sci-Lit is like Sci-Art, but dealing with words... and here are two wonderful illustrations of what this could mean. First, biologist Rachel Rodman's fantastic article in LabLit entitled "Text as Genome: The New Literary Geneticists". What is she talking about? Well, nothing less than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. Here's a taster:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in this sense a genetically modified organism, derived from the ancestral Pride and Prejudice by the introduction of new (genetic) material taken from the unrelated "monster" genre. A small-scale comparison of the two texts supports this idea: all Grahame-Smith's modifications have parallels with genomic modifications performed (or harnessed) by laboratory scientists. Here, I examine six classes (Insertions, Duplications, Insertions with Duplication, Replacements, Over-expression, and Gain-of Function Mutations) of these modifications, and draw parallels with biological examples.
Intrigued? I was... read the full article here. Biologists, what do you think of her argument?

And the other thing I'd like to draw your attention to is the UK Royal Society's first Festival of Literature and the Arts, One Culture, being held in London, 1-2 October 2011 Here's the introduction to the event by Professor Uta Frith FRS:
This year we are celebrating the anniversary of the foundation of the library and collections of the Royal Society. It all started small, with a single book, and a tiny one at that. Diplomat, natural philosopher and founder member of the Royal Society, Kenelm Digby donated this gift and thereby inspired others to do likewise. In this way he initiated what has now grown into a national treasure. What could be more fitting for a celebration than a festival for literature, arts and science! Its apt name ‘One Culture’ confronts the famous C.P. Snow lecture “Two Cultures” (1959), which pointed out that modern society suffered from a lack of communication between sciences and humanities, and reminds us that the separation of science from other cultural achievements is both artificial and unnecessary.
Looking at this wonderfully colourful programme, it is clear that science is represented in literature far more than is commonly assumed, and we are delighted to feature a number of contemporary authors who can speak to this fact. It is time also to do away with another artificial separation, the idea that different aspects of science, literature and arts, appeal to different age groups. The festival features family events, theatrical performances, discussions, and talks in the wild abandon you should expect of  ‘One culture’. We are extremely proud that superstars of science and literature have agreed to contribute to the experience and that mathematicians, astronomers and biologists will be present alongside historians of science, science writers, poets and novelists, many of whom are household names in the sciences as well as in the creative arts.
This sounds like exactly my kind of event - I'm particularly excited about the Fiction lab event hosted by scientist and novelist Jenny Rohn, (who happens to be the founder of LabLit, which published Rachel's article above!) swiftly followed by Michael Frayn talking about his quantum physics play, Copenhagen. More information about the festival can be found here and on Twitter under the hashtag #oneculture

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 7

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 1
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 2
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 3
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 4
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 5
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 6

Always dark on the night shift... Image: web
Prepare to commence trawl two. When you have been on a night shift from 4pm to 4am and a trawl is due to hit the deck at 2am, chances are your body clock is going to be a tad confused. Last time I nearly fell asleep in my fish dissection, started writing backwards and couldn’t retain a two digit number in my head for more than 1millisecond. Not doing that again. New tactic! Since I had allocated rest time before the trawl... I decided to stay awake for 28 hours before the trawl, have a sleep then be all fresh and ready for action once the slimy catch was brought aboard. Problem with that is staying awake for 28 hours with absolutely nothing to do tends to send you a bit West. I became inaudible, talking at extremely low baritone frequencies if you can even call it talking, more like incoherent blatherings. The day shift tolerated me well. The rewards were great however, and this time, we were super fish team extraordinaire (well, we functioned without any breakdowns anyhow).

Much like last time, the trawl net was opened (noticeably more rotund this time, a good sign) and catch was spilled into a large bucket ready for inspection. Unfortunately on the last trawl we managed to scoop up a large amount of clinker (burnt coal from steam ships of the past) which made sorting through the cucumbers and delicately removing gelatinous fish nigh impossible. This time, we had little ocean floor debris so I zealously sunk my arms into the cold, slippery assortment of fish, cucumbers and crustaceans and pulled out a big, heavy object. “Oh wow, an exciting find" I thought to myself. “Doesn’t feel like a cucumber, maybe it is a big leathery fish, woohoo!" It was a shoe, a big, woman’s boot. I then proceeded to dig out two bottles and a rock. Thankfully Alan and Juliette were being slightly more sensible and actually searching for fish shaped objects and so commenced a slithery extraction of rattails, smooth-heads, some unfortunate midwater fish and a huge cusk-eel.

Is it a fish?! Is it a holothuriuan?! No. It's a bloody shoe.

Histiobranchus sp., a deep sea eel. Image: Zan 
Cusk-eel! Image: Zan 
 Lovely cusk-eel (Ophidiid). Image: Nina

We had fewer fish this time round, but they were all in really great condition, great for samples we thought, but then memories of hours in the dark surfaced in my brain and I realised that watching 3 horror films to try and stay awake was, perhaps, a terrible idea. Juliette and I managed to put aside a few minutes whilst our fish eyes were on ice to explore the trawl and the sorting process in the wet lab. It looked how I would imagine a backstreet fishmongers from a sci-fi film to look. All manner of strange beasts being weighed and measured and samples for DNA analysis being taken left right and centre. The fish were amazing. There was one fish, aptly named ‘Jellyface’ by Zan, which had a large rounded nose, a small mouth and two, what looked like sensory pits, next to the eyes. The skin on the head felt very bizarre, much like a stubbly beard. The cusk-eel felt even stranger, as you ran your fingers across its skin you felt a crackling sensation which could be due to tiny bubbles under the skin forming as the fish is brought up from depth, decompressing the air within its cells. 

'Jellyface'. Image: Zan

Juliette having a good rummage around in the cucumbers. Image: Nina
Not the most attractive of creatures.
According to one scientist this cucumber is "cute", "look at it's little hat!" she said. I later discovered this 'little hat' is in fact a parasitic anemone. The deep sea is a very strange place! Image: Nina

I had been challenged by one of my supervisors to kiss a benthic fish. Now, he may well have been joking, but I considered this something I should take very seriously and so I sought out the loveliest of all the fish in the catch, the cusk-eel and planted my lips firmly upon its slimy....mouthparts. Picture taken. Job done.

I think the picture says it all. Image: Nina

So why is all of this necessary? Larking about aside, we are taking samples for serious and important science and all possible information is always gathered from these trawls, to make the most of each catch. Stay tuned for
 an explanation of the science behind the sampling, most likely in the form of an interview with Juliette McGregor (she doesn't know this yet). Roll on the final trawl. Fingers crossed my supervisor doesn’t up the stakes, kissing a benthic fish is one thing, but kissing a sea cucumber, well that's a whole different level of gross.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 6

Deep sea Marmite from 7000m
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 1
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 7

Life on board a research ship can, at times, be rather boring. It is imperative that, to stave off derangement, you make your own fun preferably without damaging yourself or others. We have had a few ideas, after a particularly uneventful evening of mud measuring: 1) Deep sea fish top trumps 2) a horror film featuring a radioactive or chemical spill creating GIANT holuthorians, I'd quite like to call it 'Horrorthurian', not a catchy title and 3) sending weird objects to the ocean floor to see what happens to them.

During my last research cruise Alan very kindly allowed me to place a jar of marmite atop his lander and send it down into the Peru-Chile trench (7000-8000m). Sealed with a plastic top, the marmite was put under an enormous amount of pressure and subsequently its consistency was altered rather dramatically. The top layer became runny like water and at the bottom, set like concrete. I had a great deal of fun digging around in my marmite jar for hours trying to stir it all up whilst an American scientist looked on, grimacing every once in a while when he caught a whiff of its beefy goodness.

So, what does happen to things when they go down the the bottom of the ocean? Well, have a look at this polystyrene cup I put down to 4800m strapped to the lander below. Unfortunately for me, Alan, at 5am, thought it would be really funny if he put it into the bag he had been storing his bait in, before sending it down into the abyss. The reason my cup is now the size of a thimble (and strangely distorted) is due to the effect pressure has on air. Inside the polystyrene lies little air pockets that get compressed with depth, as the pressure increases. The cup is, of course, now also impregnated with mackerel juice, thank you Alan.

My polystyrene cup (left) looking rather distorted and how it looked
 before compression (right)

A previous effort...much better!
Getting slightly more creative....OCUPTOPUS!
Rather boring 'science' bit:

Pressure is measured in pascals (Pa) which corresponds to one newton per square meter (imagine one newton force as the force of the Earth's gravity on an apple). 100kPa (100,000 Pa) is typical air pressure at the surface of the Earth. With every 10m that the cup descends, another 100kPa of pressure is added, constantly squeezing the air into a smaller area until it reaches a point where most of the air is squeezed out of the cup entirely. I've been asked by an alarming number of people whether I will be doing any deep sea diving on this trip. Unfortunately, much like the cup, the air in my lungs would be squeezed out and although this can be rectified by using pressurised air (as with SCUBA diving) to fill up my lungs again, after about 60m the oxygen in the air at high partial pressure would start to poison me, forming reactive species, damaging my cells. Commercial divers are able to reach depths of 100m using gas mixtures with snazzy names like 'hydreliox' (helium, hydrogen and oxygen) or 'neox' (neon and oxygen) which have reduced levels of oxygen and are therefore less likely to cause damage. I say less because there is still the risk of inert gas bubbles forming in the blood or tissues of a diver as they ascend from depth, 'the bends'. It has also been pointed out to me that in carrying enough air for such a trip, I would be squashed like a ripe pear.

At 100m there is 1100kPa of pressure. The deepest living fish ever recorded were at 7.7km (Alan Jamieson, again) where pressure is about 77,500kPa! So how do they survive at these depths under extreme pressure?

I shall explain all in a future post...there is a trawl afoot.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 5

Alan with his lander 'Dave', about to be deployed
over the back of the ship. Image: Nina
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 1
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 2
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 3
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 4
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 6
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 7

Things have been relatively quiet over the last few days. No riots here, just high base levels of madness, but then you have to be slightly weird to want to go on a research ship for half of your summer. A few of us have put our heads together and have come up with some ideas for thwarting the violence. We propose the development of a porridge cannon firing hot, sloppy, honey saturated oats. "You would have to counter it with milk and sugar" said one scientist, "they wouldn't expect that". I'm not here to comment on the riots, nor should I make light of the situation but it is very odd reading the updates from sea, it all feels very unreal.

"What exciting thing have you discovered today?!" I imagine my supervisor will be thinking. Well Julian, personally absolutely nothing. I got up, went to the gym then ate a giant plate of shepherds pie and cabbage for breakfast. Proper scientists however have been discovering some really amazing stuff.

Alan Jamieson from Oceanlab, Aberdeen, has sent his lander 'Dave' to the sea floor to photograph the mud (mud again), haha only joking, to photograph the animals! Sorry mud scientists but I've had quite enough of your mud for the time being, especially when there are ugly fish to be photographed!

An Ophidiid, Bassozetus sp., a cusk-eel. Image: Alan Jamieson
An abyssal grenadier (Coryphaenoides armatus) looking rather sad. It must be hard being a deep sea fish.
Image: Alan Jamieson

Nine abyssal grenadiers at the bait. Image: Alan Jamieson
The lander is essentially a large aluminium frame with a number of cameras attached to it, a giant flash and a weight with bait attached to it (more stinking mackerel). It gets sent to the bottom and (hopefully) paparazzis all of the beasties who come to dine at Alan's table. Whilst it may seem relatively easy to chuck a piece of kit over the side to sink to the bottom of the ocean, getting it back is a complicated process. And actually there is no 'chucking' involved, but careful winching and manoeuvring to ensure the lander doesn't get destroyed by the ship's propeller.

To get Dave back (and all of the photos) an acoustic signal is sent from the ship into the water where it travels down to Dave and triggers the release of it's (his?) weights via the movement of mechanical arms. Dave then floats up to the surface powered by the buoyancy of the glass floats attached, where he is collected by the ship! Phew. How on earth this signal manages to travel from the boat all the way to the bottom of the ocean, intact, is beyond me. Mysterious wizardry.

Trawl on Saturday morning, really hope we catch this fella, Bassozetus compressus, the abyssal assfish. Excellent.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 4

Milly: Ugly Fish pt 1
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 2
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 3
Milly: Ugly Fish pt 5
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 6
Milly: Ugly Fish Pt 7

Juliette and I digging about in the catch
UGLY FISH! Finally, we have a trawl! Never have I seen so many bizarre looking animals (presuming things that freakish are allowed to be classified as animals) in one place before. Once the catch was hauled on board at about 8am, safely away from the stern that was flying in the air due to the brilliantly timed bad weather, Juliette and I got the first look in (we needed to get fish into the dark asap). That lasted a matter of minutes as a riot from the sidelines began to brew. Reluctantly we brought the catch into the hangar and the feeding frenzy commenced. All scientists descended, franticly digging around in the clinker (burnt coal from back when we had steam ships) pulling out sea cucumbers the size of, well, cucumbers which, in my opinion, fell into three categories. They either looked like bloated sausages, huge purple tongues or like something from the ‘extreme’ section of Anne Summers.

Quickly trying to whisk the fish away before they get exposed
to too much light
A fangtooth, wouldn't call this fish ugly to its face
A bizzarre collection of sea cucumbers.

Scientists went into warp drive, taxonomists started identifying the hundreds of deep sea creatures, geneticists took samples from everything that and one girl Zan after weighing and measuring the fish was even examining their stomach contents. Wonderful, organised chaos.

Sorting through the cucumbers

Looks like a rather disturbing picnic spread.

One of the many crustaceans
that came up with the trawl

Selection of grenadiers

An assortment of slickheads

So in the midst of all of the excitement what were Juliette and I doing? Oh, that’s right, we were barricaded in a blacked out lab with only dim red light to guide us and each other (plus a bag of fish) for company. Since we were under time constraints to get the eyes out of the fish as soon as physically possible I grabbed the first fish out of the bag (an extraordinarily disgusting place to put your hand into, I might add) whacked it on the scales and began the first dissection. Glancing over at Juliette I was slightly worried she might have had a melt down. After the weeks of careful planning and packing, she was finally about to begin the first sample collection, in the dark, likely to take about 12 hours and her legs and arms had frozen in place. Thankfully, the roll of the ship prevented any stationary activity and team fish were off.

With every hesitant poke around in the fish bag, came more gelatinous, benthic beasties. 

About 10 hours later, sleep deprived (after switching from the night shift), stinking of fish, cross eyed and suffering from tunnel vision, Juliette and I emerged triumphant. All fish processed, retinal tissue dissected and placed carefully into various fixes to preserve cells or RNA/DNA.

Apparently there will be another trawl on Friday. God help us.

Thanks Nina and Zan for the pictures!
Success! Sleep deprivation and a very wet arse.