Thursday, 24 May 2012

Biology and the Humanities – Workshop at the University of Reading

Calling all biologists... from the British Society for Science and Literature:

 ‘Cultivating Common Ground: Biology & the Humanities’

 What do biologists know and think of the humanities? And what do they make of those humanities scholars – literary critics and historians – who have made biology their area of study? University of Reading staff in the biological sciences and the humanities are currently seeking practising biologists to participate in an AHRC-funded workshop which will address these and other questions. The workshop will consist of short presentations by humanities scholars whose research focuses on biology, followed by discussion and analysis of these and other topics. The workshop will be lead by Nick Battey, a plant biologist with a long-standing interest in the value of humanities research to biology, and there will be presentations by John Holmes (Darwinian evolution in poetry), Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (pre-conceptions in biomedical research), David Stack (understanding Victorian science) and Fran├žoise Le Saux (medieval ideas about magic and the natural world). The workshop will take place on Wednesday 18 July 2012 at the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus between 0930 and 1700. Refreshments, including lunch, will be provided, as will reasonable travel expenses.

Please see for further information. To register for a place, please contact Rachel Crossland:

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Evo Devo Artist

There's a fascinating interview over on the blog of US literary 'zine Tin House with Anna Lindeman, who has a BS in Biology from Yale and an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:

AL: My work integrates animation, music, and performance to tell stories about evolutionary and developmental (Evo Devo) biology. I consider myself an Evo Devo artist.
My performance Theory of Flight begins as a biology lecture with scientist Alida Kear describing the developmental mechanisms of wing growth. The lecture goes quickly awry, though, when Alida reveals a feather she has grown on her own arm through the successful co-option of avian genes. It becomes clear that Alida’s interest in biological flight is rooted not only in scientific investigation, but also in a deeply personal quest for flight. The episodes of biology lecture, featuring increasingly extreme experiments, are punctuated by dream-like interludes that combine music performed by a singing bird spirit and a look into a cellular world animated with simple materials—yarn becomes DNA, lace and buttons become proteins.
Evo Devo stories appear throughout Theory of Flight. The lecture delves into the genetic mechanisms of feather development, evolutionary theories of flight, and ultimately, investigations into regenerative limbs and transgenics.
I like the way Anna talks about her work. She says:
I never felt inhibited by the facts that science provides us with; to me they are the richest treasure trove of source material. Beauty, absurdity, poignancy, whimsy—all of the sensations I hope to craft as an artist have already had some masterful manifestation in nature, and science is a profound way of understanding these manifestations. 
 Very inspiring! Read the whole interview here.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Milly: Polarization Paradise 2

Enjoying myself on my latest research cruise off
the coast of the UK. Photo: Zan Boyle.
Lizard Island, a tiny island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, famous for its abundance of bison lizards and known amongst scientists as a prime spot for marine science. The tranquil, aquamarine waters surrounding the island come as a welcome change from the turbid, brown, worm infested Atlantic I spent so long staring at during my last trip. My mud sieving days are over, instead, I'll be collecting animals from the reef and testing their polarization vision. "Do you make them wear sunglasses?". Sometimes I regret talking about science with my friends. No sunglasses, but plenty of polaroid and LCD screens.

Cats love to be breaded. Photo: web.

Sick of your office judging you for spending your lunch break perusing All you need to do is tweak your computer screen and you can hide your cat compulsions from the world. If you were to remove the front layer of an LCD screen, it would appear blank, but those loaf wearing cats are still there, all you need is a piece of polaroid to bring them back. LCD screens work by emitting polarized light at different angles. By putting a piece of polaroid in front of this system, changes in polarization angle alters the amount of light the viewer can see. The polaroid works by blocking light polarized at one angle (appearing black) and transmitting it at a perpendicular angle (appearing white). To the people working in my lab, I looked like very stange, sitting at a blank screen with sunglasses on...but little did they know,

So, if we want to test the ability of animals to see polarized light, what better than to use an LCD screen that allows us to create any image we want, and show it as a polarization signal. We will be testing cuttlefish, animals with a fascinating visual system, lacking colour vision entirely but possessing an extremely sensitive polarization visual system. Using LCD screens, a member of our lab, Dr Shelby Temple has discovered that cuttlefish can distinguish surprisingly low differences in polarization angle, far better than what we thought possible but how they are able to do this remains a mystery.

A cuttlefish showing off it's polarization pattern visible
here in a false colour image. Photo: Shashar et al., 1996.
You might be wondering what benefit detecting different angles of polarized light gives an animal living on the reef. Cuttlefish, like mantis shrimps, are able to signal by polarizing the light reflecting off their bodies. Scientists think that this could allow them to signal covertly to other members of their species without alerting prey or predators nearby, pretty nifty. To do this, mantis shrimps have an exoskeleton with special optical properties due to its structure. Cuttlefish however have a mechanism that allows them to control the polarization patterns they produce. Specialised pigment cells, iridophores, under control of the neural system are able to undergo ultrastructural changes in seconds, producing a changing polarization signal all over the body. All of this on top of changing colour and iridescence. The cuttlefish is an underwater disco.

So in in a nutshell, one of our projects will involve using LCD screens to display polarized stimuli to marine animals in tanks, and judging their responses to get a further insight into the mysterious world of polarization vision! More later...