Rory Wilson and the Magnetic Penguins

The Wellcome Trust has just posted my science writing prize entry (with minor edits, including a couple added typos). Here’s the unedited original:

It’s early May. Along with 15 other Oxford biology students, I am in a seminar as part of a course on ecology and conservation. The room is dark and hot, and the last of the afternoon sunlight streams through a narrow gap in the curtains. But all eyes are fixed on Rory Wilson, a professor visiting from Swansea University. “After we’d made the magnets small enough to fit in their bums,” he explains, “the difficult part was figuring out how powerful to make them.” Continue reading

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How I escaped from the humanities and rediscovered science

A few days ago Kevin Zelnio, a science writer and Webmaster at Deep Sea News, wrote an incredible blog post about his non-traditional path to science. He tagged the post #IAmScience, which quickly spread through the sciencey part of the Twitterverse as others used it to hashtag short stories about their own unconventional routes to science.

Many of these stories can be found here. Mine is a tale of having an early interest in science, lapsing into the humanities, and rediscovering biology after being put off it in high school. Continue reading

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Bird feeder microdrama

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Waboba balls and skipping stones

This video, via Ben Goldacre’s secondary blog, is pretty great.

 

Holy Waboba! from Tadd Truscott on Vimeo.

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Why can’t we see under water? And how come penguins can?

One of my most indelible early memories is of participating in a near-drowning incident when I was 8 years old. This was in a lake, near the shore, in water less than three feet deep. A life jacket somehow ensnared my legs, suspending them near the surface and trapping my head under water. Before losing consciousness I saw spidery patterns of light rippling over the sand a few inches from my face, an image that lodged itself with vivid permanence in the inner recesses of my brain.

Or so I have always thought. Last night at a family dinner my dad disputed the accuracy of this visual memory. The human eye is incapable of focusing properly under water, he said, because the refractive index of water is so different from that of air. This led to a prolonged argument, my position fueled by better wine than science: eyes must be able to see under water because a) I remember doing so, and b) what about pearl divers?, and c) what about amphibious creatures like seals and otters? Continue reading

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How to ruin your brain

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh. It’s the fourth quarter of a football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns – a 60-year old rivalry, renowned for close-fought, lavishly violent matches. This one has been particularly gruesome. Two Browns players have left the game after suffering concussions. Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ star quarterback, was carted off the field in the second quarter after having his left leg caught awkwardly beneath him in a tackle. It looked like a broken ankle. But, to everyone’s surprise, Roethlisberger returned to the game after half-time: leg bandaged, limping visibly, obviously in enormous pain. This level of toughness endears a player to the fans.

Now, with six minutes left in the game, the Browns have the ball. They are down 7-3, but have driven into Pittsburgh territory. Colt McCoy, Cleveland’s quarterback, drops back to pass, but pressure from a Pittsburgh defender forces him to run towards the left sideline. He tosses the ball to his running back – a short, easy completion – and an instant later James Harrison, the Steelers’ 260-pound linebacker, flattens McCoy with a vicious, crushing helmet-to-helmet hit that leaves McCoy writhing on the ground to the appreciative roar of 65,000 fans. Continue reading

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The NPA on homelessness: purposefully deceptive, or just stupid?

It’s elections day in Vancouver.  Go and read the party platform for the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) – a centre-right party – and you’ll find a graph on page 15. It’s part of a section on homelessness in Vancouver, and purports to show that it has increased since 2008 under the watch of the current mayor, Gregor Robertson. It is, as we’ll see, a very bad graph.

NPA Homelessness chart

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