An obituary to Leonard Nimoy


Being a Trekkie for as long as I can remember, Friday’s news of the passing of Leonard Nimoy certainly saddened me. Even though I have moved on and haven’t really followed Star Trek since the original airing of Deep Space Nine back in the late nineties, it had a profound impact on my life, including my decision to go into science.

Nimoy’s most famous role, Mr. Spock, probably was the most iconic of the original, if not all, Enterprise crew. His impact on modern science can be seen as profound, since you’ll have a hard time, especially in physics and astrophysics, finding any scientist who isn’t a fan of the show. And the claim that Star Trek, especially Mr. Spock’s logical and analytical mind, his ability to ignore emotion when trying to understand and solve a problem, has had a major impact in scientists’ career choices, I dare say, is not a rare one. It is no surprise that even a space shuttle was named after the famous starship.

While most technological references fall into the field of physics and other future technology, the show has always took a stance for both humanity and the environment. Values, that even in Mr. Spock’s logical mind were important to uphold.

While Mr. Spock is only a fictional character, Leonard Nimoy made him what he was, giving him life and on the other side letting Spock influence his own personality. Therefore I think it is fair to say that the impact Mr Spock and Star Trek had on modern science is not in a small part Nimoy’s personal achievement. He certainly influenced my life and my decision to become a scientist, and for that I am very grateful.

Leonard Nimoy died on February 27th in Los Angeles, California at the age of 83.


Jesko Zimmermann, zimmerjr[at]

Photo credit

Christmas wish list

640px-Jonathan_G_Meath_portrays_Santa_ClausFor our last post before the Christmas break we decided to collect people’s scientific Christmas wish lists from the department. We got a diversity of answers ranging from the realistic to the fantastical.

Thomas Guillerme wants a super computer “that runs everything instantly, like if you have to run a loooooooong MCMC, it spits out the results instantly.”

Natalie Cooper says “I’d like an automatic marking machine that could grade coursework and exams for me while I eat mince pies and drink tea. Failing that I’d like some friendly elves who would grade them for me while I sleep. And yes, as you may have guessed, I do have a stack on marking on my desk!”

Darren O’Connor asks for “Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42 binoculars. Their optic wizardry and quick fire focus make them unbeatable in the field.”

Aoibheann Gaughran says “what I would like is the gift of great mathematical/statistical comprehension (a little chip implant in my brain would be great!).  Can I have two?  Id also like the gift of speed-reading.  Combined, they would mean I could quickly read all of the relevant literature, formulate a decent hypothesis to test and analyse the results with confidence.”

David Kelly is looking for “A twenty-first century view of new vertebrate species from the ICZN, to avoid the collection of voucher specimens. Even with full genome phylogenies, high-definition photography and 3D printers, the collection (i.e. deliberate killing) of type specimens remains an inescapable part of the description of new species.”

Sean Kelly is expecting big things, “An unlimited funding stream would be handy… I’d love some tiny electronic devices that can provide super accurate geographical positioning data and take high resolution video footage, as well as being able to remotely transmit all this data via satellite. I could then attach these wee devices to the beaks of birds and just wait for the mountains of data on the birds movement ecology and migration patterns, diet and feeding ecology, competitive interactions, etc, etc, to just roll in. Simples. If they’re out of stock, I’ll take a machine that sequences a bird’s full genome from a single feather.”

Kevin Healy is pragmatic, he wants “a permanent job in science that pays at least the average industrial wage”.

Adam Kane wants some new tech “I’d love an air wing of drones to spy on wildlife all from the comfort of my office.”

Deirdre McClean is looking for “an automated counter microscope that could continuously count protist and bacterial cells to make my lab life easier so I could focus on the fun parts of experiments.

Pitch in with what you’d like to get to make your research that bit easier or more enjoyable.

Author: ecoevoblog

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Creationism in Science Fiction: Artistic freedom or anti-science?


In the late 90s and early 2000s science fiction fans such as myself had a bit of a hard time. As happy as I was when the last few years brought, amongst others, the amazingly crafted science fiction spectacles Battlestar Galactica (2004) and the long anticipated Alien prequel Prometheus (2012), the more disappointed I became when I realised that both events based their storylines heavily on creationism.

Now one might argue that these are works of art and therefore subject to artistic freedom, and generally I do agree. But then again, that wouldn’t be much of a blog post. So let me describe why this is not only such a disappointment, but also cause for a bit of a tummy ache.

First of all, science fiction is not an art form as such but rather a movement within different artistic disciplines. Lots of disciplines use elements from science fiction. It appears in classic literature such as the works of Jules Verne, and the myriad of other authors following his footsteps, and on the silver screen with the most prominent works being Star Trek and Star Wars. More recently (and not surprisingly) science fiction is prominent in computer games and even in music, especially within electronic music with the best example surely being the robot outfits of French house legends, Daft Punk.

Within all these different art forms there must be a common ground, something that can give such different expressions as sound, word or interaction a common name. So what unites all these art forms under the science fiction umbrella? The most straightforward term that we might could come up with is ‘future’, but that would be too simple. Remember that Star Wars took place ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far away’, but no one would refute that it is one of the defining works of science fiction. I think that the most important element in science fiction is exploration: take the now, look at our social, scientific and technological achievements and make a step forward. Imagine what could happen, imagine a Utopia, a Dystopia, or a world not so different from our own. It can take place on different worlds or on our own home planet. The defining element is that it is a fictional continuation of our current knowledge, exploring whatever implications the creator of the work wants to explore.

And there lies my problem with Creationism. In order to explore the future consequences of our current state-of-art, we must get the state-of-art right. Among the science fiction fans I know it is usually accepted that the general premise in science fiction is theoretically possible, given the knowledge at the time. Of course not everything has to be realistic: the Force in Star Wars adds a mystical element, and that is completely acceptable since it is defined as mystical within the original movies. However, when Prometheus takes an intelligent design approach, it sets an anti-science premise, and builds a future from it, giving the impression that intelligent design is a scientifically valid theory. Battlestar Galactica goes even one step further, bringing God directly into play as the creator. While one could consider this as an example of the previously mentioned mystical element, albeit in a somewhat convoluted way, the story of the show managed to completely mix up mysticism and hard science in a way that is nearly impossible to disentangle, especially for the viewers who do not have a background in science. (It is beyond this blog to summarise the story of a four seasons show, so for the readers interested in more detail I recommend the following essay by Brad Templeton.)

Using creationism or intelligent design as a creator of works of science fiction has two consequences: it disappoints those fans, such as myself, that have a background in science and it gives those fans who do not have a scientific background a false impression of realism associated with creationism, spreading anti-science further.

Of course this is a personal opinion, but I stand to it when I say that creating a work of science fiction should always take the science on which it is based seriously, whether that be promoting a technological future or warning about its perils.

Author: Jesko Zimmerman, zimmerjr[at]

Image Source: Wikicommons

Gould Mine


The career of Stephen Jay Gould eludes easy definition because of his prolific output in so many areas. Michael Shermer characterises him as a historian of science and scientific historian, popular scientist and scientific populariser.

The popular science writings of Stephen Jay Gould (20 of his 22 books and hundreds of articles) are responsible for making me want to study macroevolution. He said of his popular essays that they were intended “for professionals and lay readers alike”. We have already covered some aspects of science communication, like how to do it and which kind of scientists should engage in it. Gould wrote 479 academic papers during his career, so any thought of public outreach damaging one’s science certainly didn’t apply to him.

Let’s have a closer look at his academic legacy. Gould is well known for his theory of punctuated equilibrium co-written with Niles Eldredge. This fuelled the debate around ideas such as species selection and the mechanisms explaining macroevolutionary patterns.

Despite this being the work for which he is best remembered it represents a tiny fraction of his output. He actually published only 15 papers with this theory as a main topic, which represents only 3% of his academic work! As a comparison, he published more papers (17) on baseball!

His primary field was invertebrate palaeontology (he was the curator of Harvard’s Invertebrate palaeontology collections from 1973 to his death in 2002) but again, even his main focus in this area (on Cerion snails) represents only on one quarter of his work. Shermer describes him as being “no single-minded fossil digger or armchair theorizer.”

Actually, nearly one fifth of his massive scientific output is primarily focused on the history of science. Again, as Shermer says, he was a “Historian of Science and Scientific historian”.

So Gould should not be only remembered for his proposal of punctuated equilibrium. Gould published 169 papers in 23 last years of last century, which gives him an average number of publications in the history of science of 7.34 per year. To put it in the historical context of the field, the only names that have been more productive are Aristotle, Kant, Goethe and Newton.

It’s rare to see a scientist who divided opinion so much, hagiographies have been written about him but he’s also loathed. Look at these for contrasting views:

“In the field of evolutionary biology at large, Gould’s reputation is mud.”

“Steve is extremely bright, inventive. He thoroughly understands paleontology; he thoroughly understands evolutionary biology.”

I’ll leave it to the reader to find out where they stand on Gould for there is a lot of controversy to consume. I prefer to remember him through his essays on Natural History than through his few papers about punctuated equilibrium, better illustrating the “measure of a man” (that’s Shermer’s pun). His life illustrates how interdisciplinary studies exponentially increase scientific productivity: “Gould has used the history of science to reinforce his evolutionary theory (and vice versa)” writes Shermer. And that applies as much to punctuated equilibrium as to baseball!

Authors: Thomas Guillerme (guillert[at], @TGuillerme) and Adam Kane (kanead[at],@P1zPalu)

Image Source: Wikicommons