Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Why We Need Vitamin C

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Most of us will have heard of vitamin C. It’s in oranges and tablets that taste like oranges right? But what is it? And what’s it got to do with orangutans, the Royal Navy and rose hips?

Well, I’m glad you asked; grab a coffee and come on in…

Cycling on the Auckland Harbour Bridge

Friday, March 7th, 2008

support getacross

I’ve been bellyaching for years now about how silly it is that there is no way to cycle from Auckland’s North Shore to the city centre. I discovered yesterday and encourage everyone to take a moment to visit and register your support for the idea.

The bicycle is the most energy-efficient machine ever made. You give it a drop of oil each month and all you have to do is eat some food to power it. Bicycles take up far less room on the road and can travel almost half as fast as a car on the open road and it often faster than cars in city traffic. Cycling is also far better for your health than sitting in a car.

The next time you are able to observe a traffic queue at lights try to imagine all the cars gone and the occupants standing on the road exactly where they are. You’ll see that cars are a cumbersome and grossly inefficient way of getting around within a city.

The downside of riding a bicycle in a city built for cars is that you act like a human pollution filter (especially if you are puffing a bit) and it is horrendously easy to get yourself killed.

I’d like to see our cities redesigned to favour walkers and cyclists and have car traffic relegated to motorways and as second-rate citizens within cities themselves. Cars are still useful and are probably here to stay but we need to recognise that there are better ways of getting around our cities and that one of the things holding this back is the fact that our infrastructure is often designed exclusively for motor vehicles without regard to walkers or cyclists.

Everything is going to be alllllll right

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

I live and work from home which means I don’t get out as often as is probably healthy. A lot of my view of the world is formed by the news I read and sometimes I find myself getting a little pessimistic.

I came across the following statistics last week while reading Freakonomics (thoroughly recommended) which helped put things into perspective. If you think humanity is going to hell in a handbasket I hope these figures help you as much as they did me:

HOMICIDES [not incl. wars] per 100,000 people
En N+B Sc G+S It
13th and 14th c. 23.0 47.0 na 37.0 56.0
15th c. na 45.0 46.0 16.0 73.0
16th c. 7.0 25.0 21.0 11.0 47.0
17th c. 5.0 7.5 18.0 7.0 32.0
18th c. 1.5 5.5 1.9 7.5 10.5
19th c. 1.7 1.6 1.1 2.8 12.6
1900-1949 0.8 1.5 0.7 1.7 3.2
1950-1994 0.9 0.9 0.9 1.0 1.5

*En = England, N+B = Netherlands and Belgium, Sc = Scandinavia, G+S = Germany and Swizerland, It = Italy

(Source: Manuel Eisner, “Violence and the Rise of Modern Society” Criminology in Cambridge, October 2003, pp 3-7)

EOL is live!

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I’ve just received the following email announcing that the Encyclopedia Of Life has finally gone live with the first 30,000 pages:

The new Encyclopedia of Life portal has gone live with more than one million species pages!
In celebration of this big event, our first EOL newsletter is available at:

You can see the new pages at We also invite you to take the survey at the site so you can help us improve.

Unfortunately I’ve been unable to get on it due to the sheer volume of people who must be hitting it right now.

The EOL aims to catalogue the 1.8 million known species and is an open collaboration that’s expected to take 10 years or so. Take a look at EO Wilson’s talk that started it all off:

Happy Darwin Day!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008


On this day 199 years ago Charles Darwin was born. Famous for his contributions to the discovery of the mechanisms of evolution by way of natural selection he is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of scientific enquiry.

The implications of his discoveries have caused turmoil among the egocentric of the world and the fallout continues to this day. Charles Darwin himself was extremely reluctant to publish his discovery because of the contention it would cause in a world dominated by young earth creationism – a view he held for many years against all evidence.

In my opinion, evolution is the most mind-blowing natural process ever discovered. It’s life changing in more ways than one and if you don’t have a full understanding of it I encourage you to take some time out today to learn more – you’ll never look at a blade of grass or a drop of water the same again.

If you listen to podcasts check out the excellent introductory series by Dr Zachary Moore called Evolution 101, otherwise take a look through the introduction to evolution resource at Berkeley.

Poecilopachys Australasiae

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Poecilopachys australasiae

Poecilopachys australasiae

I stumbled across the most bizarre-looking spider today up at our bit of land on the Kaipara Harbour. It’s a Poecilopachys Australasiae and, as the name suggests, it’s a visitor from Australia. It was guarding an enclosed web that had a spindle-shaped egg sac suspended in the middle of it. I wonder what natural selection process caused it to develop these strange features?

The Monarch Butterfly Dilemma

Sunday, January 27th, 2008


This year I’m growing swan plants in an effort to attract Monarch Butterfly caterpillars. There’s a problem though: the butterflies have managed to find my plants well before they are mature enough to support the voracious eating habits of just one (let alone a dozen) hungry caterpillars. I discovered a single, minute caterpillar along with about four tiny eggs and was faced with the dilemma of having to ‘abort’ the eggs and murder the caterpillar in an attempt to let the plants grow so as to be able to support more of them in the future.

It got me thinking about the environment we humans live in. We live on a ball suspended in space and our resources are limited. Aided by our dominance of our environment we are now multiplying too fast and have consumption habits that our planet can’t sustain.

Lots of species have gone the way of the dinosaur. Some through catastrophe, some through predation and others have gone extinct because they got too far ahead in the race and plundered the resources they relied on. Are we the next species in line for extinction for the crime of being too smart for our own good? Or are we going to start to control our urges to breed and consume everything in sight?

If you live in a village somewhere in Africa and you know you can only grow enough food to support 100 people is it unethical for a family to have a family of 10 children when your village already has 130 people in it? Will the same thing happen on this planet? Will having large families become unethical in the future?

We only have ourselves watching over us. No one is going to make the decision for us. It’s probably something we should be talking about.

And the fate of the eggs and the itty bitty caterpillar? I had a brief moment of silence and squashed the lot of them. Perhaps the next batch will thank me for it.

Genes and Memes in a Nutshell

Thursday, January 10th, 2008


Living things are made of lots of cells and cells have DNA in them. DNA are long, double strands of molecules made from just four different kinds of molecule that provide a kind of a blueprint for the organism it belongs to. A gene is one of many small regions of DNA that is able to be read (or be ‘expressed’) and contain specific instructions on how to build living structures. If DNA were a blueprint, genes would be the details like “the door handle goes here” or “use concrete for the floor”.

When living things reproduce they are really just making duplicates of themselves. Asexual reproduction means making a direct copy of the DNA and sexual reproduction means mixing up two sets of DNA to come up with a slightly different version. Sexual reproduction has been very successful because each time you mix up the blueprints to make a new organism you have a chance at making a slightly better version than the original which can then go on to make more copies of itself when it reproduces. If, in the mixing process, one of the genes gets changed a tiny bit to say “make the legs bigger” and the creature is born into a world where bigger legs are an advantage the chances are that it’s going to have more offspring than others.


Matagouri and Moas

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Sal and I have recently returned from our ten-day tour of the South Island and while we were travelling around I got to thinking about the Matagouri that’s so prevalent there.

Matagouri is a shrub that’s endemic to New Zealand and it’s fairly common on the river plains of the South Island. It’s got big thorns protecting small leaves and they are generally not taller than head-high. Before humans arrived in New Zealand there were no land mammals other than a native bat.

What piqued my interest so much about the Matagouri is that, evolutionarily speaking, it’s wasting its time growing these big spikes and if evolutionary theory is correct there should be some purpose for this. The spikes are about 5cm long which makes them fairly ineffective against normal-sized birds but would be perfect for warding off cattle and sheep-sized herbivorous animals. The thing is, we know that there were none of these types of animals in New Zealand for long enough for the Matagouri to have evolved a defence against grazing.

Or do we?

There is a large, flightless, plant-eating bird native to New Zealand that’s now extinct called the Moa. They are thought to have gone extinct around 500 years ago but we have plenty of skeletal remains. Perhaps the Moa and the Matagouri evolved together and this relationship accounts for the defensive spines on the Matagouri?

This hypothesis fits well with the fact that most Moa remains are found in the same regions that Matagouri flourish and there don’t seem to be any other likely candidates that would account for the Matagouri’s wasteful spines.

I wonder whether we’d be able to find a living species with no obvious reason for particular features and predict a co-evolved but now extinct species? If we’d never been aware of the Moa would someone have looked at the Matagouri and predicted that there must have also been a large, leaf-eating animal that grazed on it for a sufficient period of time?

If anyone reading this knows more about Matagouri, Moas and other potential reason for the Matagouri’s large spines I’d be interested to hear from you. Also, if anyone can think of any other living species that appears to have unexplainable wasteful features please let me know.

Carl Sagan Memorial

Thursday, December 20th, 2007


Carl Sagan died eleven years ago today. His enthusiasm for the universe and everything in it was contagious and he is responsible for the sense of awe I and many, many others feel when we look up at the stars at night.

Our brains are not capable of comprehending the true vastness of space but Carl managed to help us expand our comprehension to the point of vertigo and, with it, and closer understanding of our true standing within the universe.

My thoughts are with his family and I, like many others, wish he was still here.