Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Aquarium: The Perfect Plaice for Learning about Marine Conservation

If you're looking for an awe-inspiring, science-based activity for a rainy weekend, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting a local aquarium. We love rock-pooling in the warmer seasons, so when we can't go to the beach to find sea creatures we instead visit the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. This is a conservation charity that aims to raise awareness of the oceans, teach people about underwater sustainability, and drive marine conservation through engagement, and there are similar projects all over the UK/world.

I can't recommend this activity enough. While museums can be stressful experiences to navigate with boisterous young children, I actually find aquariums to be the opposite in nature. This may partly be because watching fish in aquariums has been found to lower people's stress responses and improve their mood, or there may be other reasons behind it.. If you have any ideas, let minnow ;)

Visitor interaction at the National Marine Aquarium is high, with many varied activities to take part in, which are included in the entry fee. Although the entry price might seem costly at first, it covers a full year of visits, so if you visit more than once in a year it actually works out fairly cheap. You just need to attach photos of all the attendees to the receipt to be able to take advantage of this offer. It's a bit of effort but worth it in the long-run - mullet over and I think you'll agree...

The National Marine Aquarium has a simple engagement tool for children, which (from a science communicator perspective) I thought was really good. On the way in you collect a small card that pictures different sea creatures, e.g. a shark, a sea star, then as you make your way around the aquarium you collect the a stamp of each picture. My girls loved doing this as it gave their busy little hands something active to do, rather than only looking at the sights around them.

They were also really excited to see a Velvet Swimming Crab, as we saw one in the wild while rock-pooling last summer. I love watching my children's minds develop into making these links between past and present experiences, and asking questions about them: the basic foundation required for any scientist.

Watching scientists at work
Soon after we arrived at the aquarium a member of staff saw my daughters marvelling at the starfish and came over with a preserved one to show them. It was really interesting to be able to feel the sea star's bony skin, and added a great level engagement to the experience for my children. They were full of interest and questions.

Exploring a sea star up close with a member of staff

Obligatory sea star selfie
Did you know? Starfish are now called sea stars. Marine scientists decided that sea star is a more appropirate name for the echinoderm, since it is not actually a fish. As a space-obssessed family we love the new name of course!

'Look mummy, these sea stars are cuddling!'

The National Marine Aquarium is home to the deepest tank in the UK, a 550,000 litre exhibit called the Atlantic Ocean:

This photo is of Snorkel the Sea Turtle. He has now sadly passed away (and is sleeping with the fishes... Sorry).

Turtley awesome
We also saw lots of different kinds of jellyfish:

I could have stared at this incredible sight for hours

Drifting with the water...

As an added experience-enricher, we listened to Poco Drom's ethereal Jellyfish Lullabubble song when we got home (be warned: it's catchy and will also make you sleepy!):

So many fish exhibits to trawl through...

Did you know? All species of flatfish are born upright, like any normal fish. As they grow older they flatten out, sliding their eyes around their heads. Officially fishy business!

Flatfish in the ocean exhibit


This face means: there's a shark behind me isn't there...!
There were also some really cool octopi, but none of my photos of them came out clear enough to post. Looks like we'll have to go back for another visit soon then! No squidding.

I hope you've enjoyed this blog post. I've tried to fillet with as much useful information as possible, but please do post any points I've missed in the comments.

Disclaimer: Apologies for all the fishy jokes in this post. The writer admits to being gillty of making bad puns.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Happy New Year! Have you 'mist' me?

I know, I have a pun problem..

Sorry for being absent for so long, and belated Happy New Year! The thing with having kids is, they get all kinds of bugs from their little friends, and then they pass them on us when we're run down - and what parent isn't perpetually run down? - so first my 5 year old was ill with a bug over Christmas, then my 3 year old got it, and then just when we thought we were safe it struck me down over New Year. Right before I have a paper due for my MSc, of course (it's on the MMR vaccine, for those who are interested). I'm studying alongside the editorial work I do for JUNO magazine and the Eco Kids Planet articles I write.. So basically, does anyone else feel like scientists really need to move forward with that cloning technology?!

Btw if you haven't checked out Eco Kids Planet magazine yet, I recommend it. I've just reviewed it for the next issue of JUNO magazine, as well as science mag Whizz Pop Bang! which I really wish had been around when I was a kid. I'd have loved it.

The only good thing about being ill is all the reading I did over new year. I finished I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, which blew me away, and made me rethink how critical I am of the British schooling system at times. In fact I even wrote a review:

'Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human' - Malala Yousafzai

This quote is from the book I Am Malala, which tells the incredible true story about a young girl whose drive for learning can't be stopped even by the Taliban, who shoot Malala 3 times because of her outspokenness about girls being entitled to their education. 

Malala and her family face many ordeals, the kind that fill us readers with terror, yet they have an amazing spirit and unflinching principles. The humanity that seems so often to be missing from the world is found in this book, and the family's unlikely tale is riveting from start to finish. I found myself somewhat ashamed of my lack of knowledge of the Swat District that Malala calls home, indeed of Pakistan in general... All too often the West forgets the less developed world and is educated about such regions only by war... Yet these are of course also places filled with stories of love and laughter, of children's quarrels and family traditions, even if there may be terrorists around the corner.

Malala says she wrote this book to promote The Malala Fund cause to raise money to ensure equal education of boys and girls around the world, but I think it does so much more than that. Above all this book shows us the power and strength of love and integrity in the face of the worst kind of horror, that unbridled hatred and violence of fellow man. I am an atheist and this book is steeped in Muslim faith, yet I respect it all the same. Humanity comes first. I cannot wait for my own daughters to read this book - and indeed I believe we would all benefit from reading it.

Malala would paint calculus and chemical formulae on her hands with henna
Then I started reading Major Chris Hadfield's book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, which is also inspiring, but in a different way. It's basically an autobiography about his life, about how Chris became an astronaut and how he juggled family alongside pilot training etc.. He is a very talented man and we're fans of his album Space Sessions too, which he actually recorded in space! Check out his cover of Space Oddity if you haven't already heard it, filmed on the International Space Station.

I have a backlog of posts I want to write, about new findings in microbes. stargazing, various hikes we've been on this winter,  a trip to the Marine Aquarium, a slight obsession with the TV program Sherlock... But for now I will leave you with some photos from December..

Fingle Bridge in Dartmoor

Happy little hiking elf
Full moon over the River Taw on a beautiful winter evening
For a few days in December it suddenly became very misty (now you understand the pun!), which made for some frightening car journeys and also some excellent photography stints. Does this photo remind you of The Dead Marshes in LotR too?

What are these webs upto? I haven't the foggiest
Spot the Zion
When you're ill over New Year which means you can't taste the traditional New Year pie and you have a tonne of work to do as soon as you're better as well, the best way to cheer yourself up is to dress as 100% stardust, am I right?? A splash of Bowie never hurts either! Check ignition, carry on....

100% poorly = 100% space

Friday, 25 November 2016

A Complete Guide to Spelunking! Cave Exploring With Children

noun: the hobby or practice of exploring caves

Spot the stalactites!
When you first enter a cave, your eyes take a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, the strangely still air, the glistening rocks around you, and the ethereal silence of life underground. 
If you're looking for a fun, stimulating activity for a cold rainy day, I highly recommend cave exploring. We went to Kents Cavern, an incredible prehistoric cave system in Torquay, Devon that is also an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). Kents Cavern is the oldest known human settlement in Britain - in 2011 archaeologists found a 41,000 year old piece of human jaw here, the oldest fragment of modern human bone ever discovered in Northwestern Europe.
Impressive prehistoric cave system
Visiting a cave system is a great way to learn about history, evolution, cave people, the Pleistocene period, archaeology, geology, the Stone Age - to name just a few things! In this cave scientists found the earliest anatomically modern human fossil discovered in northwestern Europe - from 44,200–41,500 years BP, and a whole load of Cave Bear bones. Isn't it strange to think that 10-foot-long Cave Bears once dwelled on these lands, over 24,000 years ago? Thankfully for our ancestors, they had mostly vegetarian diets.
The cave is of course full of stalactites, tapering structures made of calcium salts which hang down like icicles from the roof of the cave, and stalagmites, which grow in a similar way but upwards from the cave floor. Both are formed by dripping water, and they sometimes meet in the middle! We actually saw a pair that is going to meet one day, but it was protected by a glass enclosure so I didn't get a good photograph of it. You can just about make it out here:
A stalactite and stalagmite due to meet
Due to the wild and rugged nature of this vast underground cave, visitors are only allowed inside with an official tour guide. I found her to be excellent in conveying the history of the cave and answering our questions, but I will add that the tour took about an hour to complete and was on ground that was not particularly even-footed for small feet - especially in the low light. I had to carry my 2 year old for most of it, although my 5 year old managed fine, but there was also a lot of complicated information for young children, and none of the tour was tailored to them particularly. They were very patient, and managed to keep themselves from climbing the surrounding rocks (which wasn't allowed), but other children might not be.

At the end of this particular tour the guide turned the artificial lights out so we could experience the full pitch black of the cave, and, just for fun, they played loud bear noises around the cave in the dark. Needless to say, my youngest daughter was somewhat frightened by this! As I said: not really for young children. So, if you plan to take young children on a cave tour, it's worth asking about what it involves beforehand, as there is no way to opt out once you're deep underground. 
However, the tour and overall cave experience were exceptional, and I'm glad I took the children along. We will certainly being going again when they're older! Here is a photograph I took of a demonstration by the tour guide, of a source of light used by prehistoric people. It involved use of a scallop shell:
Scallop shell, illuminated by artificial light
In paleolithic times, cave-dwellers used to soak moss in animal fat, and stick it to a scallop shell to make a lamp. The tour demonstration used paraffin wax instead of animal fat. It was impressive and surprising to see just how much light the shell provided in the otherwise-pitch black cave:
Light from the shell-moss concoction
Apparently this invention could burn for almost an hour, providing light to set up a fire in the cave. I'm often amazed by the innovative solutions our ancestors came up with for their every day needs, since it's so easy now to take those skills for granted - with the flick of a light switch. My daughters were also impressed by this demo in particular. They had fun 'going on a bear hunt' and exploring the strange underground formations:

'Mummy, what's this blob doing?'
They also enjoyed sifting for gems (which they got to take home), brass rubbing pictures of trilobites and fossils, and the other themed activities in the children's area. In fact, if you have young children, I'd suggest going to Kents Cavern just for the lovely cafe and children's area for a day out!
Sifting for gems in one of the many sand boxes
There are numerous paleolithic sites around the UK and across the US that are open to the public and offer guided tours. Cave exploring is a great year-round, family-friendly activity, and if you go on a rainy day like we did you might get to see water dripping inside the cave, which is pretty cool!

If you have additional needs then check beforehand to see what the tour will be like, whether you can use a pushchair in the cave, as well as to confirm opening times and prices, and to check whether they have child-centred activities above-ground. It's not necessarily a cheap expedition for the whole family, but certainly makes for an educational and exciting one on a cold rainy day. The cave will be cool inside but not as cold as outdoor weather: Kents Cavern tends to stay a comfortable 14 degrees even in winter and summer.

You can also pair it with many themed activities, which in our household means making art (mostly cave drawings and paintings), and of course reading books! Our favorite cave exploring book is Stone Age Boy by Satoshi Kitamura, which is about a boy who gets transported back in time and lives with prehistoric people for a short while. It has wonderful explanations and illustrations of life in the Stone Age, although it may be too technical for young readers in places:

Inside Stone Age Boy
Stone Age, Bone Age by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom is similarly themed but less technical, with a nice simple rhyme scheme for young children and additional notes for older readers:

Inside Stone Age, Bone Age

We also like Ug by Raymond Briggs and Julia Donaldson's Cave Baby, and of course for older readers there is Stig of the Dump, which I reread several times as a young child. Check out this resource guide for more themed book and activity suggestions.

Of course, for older children, caving (exploring wild, non-commercial caves) is a real option, but I still recommend taking along with a guide for safety purposes. If you need something wilder for older children who can handle rough outdoor weather, now is the best time to go fossil hunting: all you need to know is in this guide.

Happy exploring!

Light from the outside world!
Obligatory cave-selfie

Incredible scenery

Model cave family

Monday, 24 October 2016

A Complete Guide To Fossil Hunting: Where, When, How, & With Children

One of the many large ammonites at Lyme Regis beach

Image source: BBC

Two years ago an amateur fossil hunter named Alan Saxon was strolling along Black Ven, a cliff on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, when he stumbled across a five-foot ichthyosaur fossil embedded in a horizontal slab of rock. Ichthyosaurs, literally 'fish-lizards', were actually not fish at all, but dolphin-like reptiles that swam in the Mesozoic ocean at the same time as the dinosaurs. Experts were immediately called in, and excavation of the nearly-complete fossil began, taking eight hours of careful, dedicated work. Time was of the essence, as a storm that was due to hit the beach which would likely have buried the 200-million-year-old remains.

Ichthyosaur reconstruction, source
It might sound like the opening scene of a Hollywood blockbuster, but globally such treasures are frequently unearthed. For example, archaeologists discovered the largest-ever dinosaur footprint in the Gobi Desert this year (it's over a metre long, by the way), and amateur fossil hunters do sometimes stumble across new pieces of history. For example, plumber Steve Etches has unearthed over 2,000 specimens over three decades of hobby hunting, and one of Britain's most famous finds was discovered in December 2000, when former solicitor David Sole found a Scelidosaurus skeleton preserved in limestone. The Scelidosaurus, literally 'leg-lizard' (are you sensing a theme here?) was a land-dwelling dinosaur, and is one of the species that many children - including mine - are very familiar with!

My two and four year old children get excited about dinosaurs the way only young children can, which makes fossil hunting a fun activity for the whole family. Collecting and identifying fossils also helps them to learn about history, evolution, and think about the fact that dinosaurs are extinct (all big concepts for young minds). They also love collecting rocks, and my firstborn has her own rock collection.. Anyway, I believe the dinosaur fascination goes something like this:

Seems accurate, no?

Nautiluses feeding on bait, image source
What do I usually find when I'm out fossil hunting? Here in the UK, the most abundant fossils on our beaches are ammonites: marine mollusc animals that lived in the seas between 65-240 million years ago. They became extinct along with the dinosaurs, so much of what we know about them now comes from studying their living relative, the nautilus (pictured).

There are now six living species of nautiluses (try saying that out loud without snickering!) and thanks to abundant fossil records we know that nautiloids have not evolved much during the last 500 million years. Their shells are clearly well adapted, as well as beautiful, and easily preserved in cliff faces and rock. Nautiluses may actually be in danger from overfishing, but no protection exists for them at present.

Black Ven, found along the Jurassic Coast
Where to Find Fossils
The most famous fossil beaches in England are on The Jurassic Coast in East Devon and Dorset, the Isle of Wight and the east Coast of Yorkshire. Since I live in Devon, I tend to frequent The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site as it's fairly near by. If you're able to get there, Charmouth on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is ideal for first-timer fossil hunters, as the beach is abundant with ammonites and belemnites that are around 190 million years old - you just need keen eyes and a bit of patience to find them. Jurassic squid and dinosaur bones can also be found, although a guided walk is the best way to learn to identify them, at least initially.

Generally the best places to fossil hunt are coastal, but if you can't get to the sea easily there are other excellent geological sites worth exploring: check out this guide by the UK Fossils Network to find an area that is near you - or for somewhere to take a fossil finding holiday!

When to Go
You might expect fossil hunting to be the perfect summer activity, and certainly there are treasures to be found year round, but the best time to go hunting is actually between November and April. This is because rough weather and winter storms help to expose previously hidden fossils,

Be mindful of the tide when you're out there, though: Charmouth for example becomes inaccessible when the tide is fully in. Lyme Regis is a good place to go at any time, and is also my favourite location to take children since it's near toilets and food sources, whereas Charmouth is a hilly walk from both. It's always good to read up on any wild location before going out there with children, in my experience.

What You'll Need

  • As usual, my advice is that any expedition requires a guidebook! I've used a few different rock identification guides over the years, and my recommendation is the Dorling Kindersley Handbook of Fossils by David Ward, as it's a very comprehensive guide with nice big photographs to help with identifying finds in the field
  • Sturdy footwear, e.g. wellies or hiking boots
  • Waterproofs and warm clothes
  • Something to carry fossils in, e.g. a bumbag or backpack
  • A camera, for fossils you can't remove and in case you find something exceptional!
  • A small chisel or geological hammer
  • Safety glasses
  • A notepad of tidal times, if you need them

  • A chisel can be useful for getting a better look at small fossils
    As well as keeping an eye on incoming tides, never remove fossils from cliffs or climb cliff faces, as there is always a danger of rocks falling. It's also good etiquette to leave big fossils for other people to enjoy, as this sign kindly asks:

    Fossil hunting instructions are often stated on site
    Fossil Books for Children
    I try not to go on any expedition with my children without taking along relevant books for them. Books help to develop interests and understanding, enrich learning experiences, and what more can I say, they're books! (I love books.) At the moment our favourites to take fossil hunting are The Fossil Girl by Catherine Brighton, and Stone Girl Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt. Both of these books are about Mary Anning, one of the world's best-known fossil hunters, but each book gives a slightly different version of her life, which is why they're current favourites: the discrepancies lead to questions about what the true story is. What we do know for definite is that Mary was born and raised in Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast, where she found and excavated a complete fossilised ichthyosaur skeleton as a child, in 1810/11. She also went from living in poverty to becoming a renowned expert geologist, and is a fascinating person to learn about.

    Reading about Mary Anning and her fossils
    So, that's all you need to know to go fossil hunting, and I hope you've enjoyed this mammoth(!) free guide. Doesn't archaeology rock? Stay safe while out exploring, and get in touch with your finds! Here are some of mine.. No dinosaurs yet, but I'll keep looking...

    Friday, 2 September 2016

    'We Are Made of Starstuff': Planet-Gazing is Part of Who We Are (Featuring Planets Mars and Saturn)

    What strikes me most when I look through the telescope is that I'm looking at objects that are so far away that their light has taken years to reach our planet. It takes light 4 years to reach the Earth from Sirius, a nearby star, while light from the Eagle Nebula takes 7,000 years to reach the Earth. For all I know, what I'm looking at may no longer exist in the form I can see, or may not exist at all. When we look up we are looking into the past.

    So last week I traipsed out to the countryside after dark with my telescope to see the rare Venus-Jupiter alignment that may have been the origin of the Star of Bethlehem, and which won't occur again until 2065. Unfortunately I was thwarted by a combination of light pollution and sparse cloud cover low in the sky which meant that seeing just above the horizon was impossible. But as the sky darkened, three very bright objects appeared low in the western sky, and they were so bright that they were clearly visible to the naked eye even through sparse cloud cover, which had cleared by the time I found a spot to set the telescope up in.

    The first bright object I set the telescope on was in fact the planet Mars, which is a minimum of 54.6 million kilometers from the Earth, It looked like it was emitting an eerie orange glow, and had grey patches decorating its face. It wasn't the red hue I expected based on what I know of Mars, as it looked a lot like this:

    Image source
    With craters, dark regions, polar ice caps and clouds, Mars is an incredible sight. The red rust colour comes from the very fine dust that contains iron oxides.

    I should have spent longer gazing at Mars but I was excited by the excellent visibility and jumped straight to Saturn, from which there was no going back. The distance to Saturn from the Earth is constantly changing as both planets travel through space, but at their closest points they are approximately 1.2 billion kilometers apart. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest planet in the solar system. Galileo Galilei saw Saturn's rings in 1610, but it wasn't until a few decades later that astronomer Christiaan Huygens proposed that Saturn had a thin, flat ring. In fact, Saturn has many rings made of billions of particles of ice and rock, some as small as a grain of sand and others as large as a building. The rings are believed to be debris left over from asteroids, comets, and/or shattered moons.

    Even a very blurry view of Saturn is easy to identify because of its trademark rings, but I had to use two special lenses to see them in detail, which was a lot of work because as soon as the lenses were fitted to the telescope the planet had moved out of sight, creating a steady dance between ringed planet and determined astronomer. It was worth it though:

    I gazed at Saturn for so long that a farmer turned up with his son to see what I was up to.. Apparently someone had reported strange goings-on near his farm! He was baffled to find that I was looking through what was clearly a large telescope on a tripod, and although I acted fast to show him Saturn it was already out of sight by the time he'd walked over, and it would have taken some time to remove the lenses get it in range of the telescope again. In any case, the farmer was delighted with my excitement about the night sky, and left with a cheerful insistence that I return to this spot again to stargaze as often as I like. Something he said has stayed in my thoughts since then, though - he told me: 'I must admit, I come out here to check the sheep at night sometimes, but I never look up' (gesturing to the sky).

    When I get a clear view of the night sky, my neck ends up hurting from craning it up for so long. It's always worth it. In fact, I've often wondered whether part of the reason we went from using four limbs to travel to two might be because we were so intent on looking up. Certainly our ancestors, who lived outdoors and didn't have the present visibility barrier of light pollution, spent much time gazing at, mapping, and pondering the night sky. They knew that some objects were stars and others were not because of the constellations they devised - they could see that the planets has varied paths across the sky. They knew this without aid of telescopes, just through continuous observation with the naked eye.

    We may have forgotten this, but it's where our days get their name from:

    Sunday is named after the Sun,
    Monday is named after the moon,
    Tuesday is the god Týr's day (known as Tīw in Old English),
    Wednesday is the god Odin's day (known in Old English as Wōden - so, Wōden's day),
    Thursday is the god Thor's day,
    Friday is the goddess Freyja's day,
    and Saturday is the god Saturn's day.

    The planets, stars and constellations once played a significant role in our lives. For most of our history we looked up to the stars to gaze at the distant past, and even to try to see the future. I see the telescope I have access to as an immense privilege, and I actually believe that being able to see planets should be a human right. We are part of the cosmos. If we stop looking up, we stop seeing who we are and our small role in this immense universe. We also forget how incredibly fortunate we are to be here; how lucky, how random, how insignificant and special it all is at the same time. As Carl Sagan said, 'we are made of starstuff'.

    I believe that everyone should be able to see what I see, and that's mostly why I write these blog posts. The universe is as much as part of who we are as this blue planet is. To view it and ask questions about it is not just for those of us with telescopes: much is visible with ordinary binoculars, if you know where to look. (For tips on how to start, see my short post on stargazing). There is always much to be gained from looking up.

    To catch Mars and Saturn right now, follow the basic rules and look for the following rough alignment. It changes shape over time of course, which is why a night sky guide is so useful.

    From Collins 2016 Guide to the Night Sky
    As these amateur pictures show, Saturn, Mars and Antares will be visible through September and into October. Take a compass and look south west. They will be very bright, likely the brightest objects in the sky, bar a few random stars. On a clear night and with a keen eye you should be able to tell that they are not like the stars around them. Look for the triangular-shaped alignment, which changes over time but is still noticeably triangular. Good luck!

    I'm going to head out soon for more Saturn-gazing, and to get a better look at Mars with the lenses, and to take a look at Antares, a supergiant star and the fifteenth brightest star in the sky that is often referred to as 'the heart of the scorpion' because it's found in the constellation Scorpius.

    As for how far into the distance I've ever seen, remember when I spotted The Ring Nebula? It's 2,300 light years away. That will never fail to amaze me.

    How far into the past have you seen?