BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for August 2009

The greatest fossil hunter ever known

Tom Feilden | 05:58 UK time, Saturday, 29 August 2009

She sells sea shells on the sea shore.
The shells she sells are sea shells I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea shore,
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.

anning-smaller.jpgNot every working class girl collecting weird looking stones on the beach at Lyme Regis to sell to rich Victorian tourists could expect to inspire their very own tongue-twister, but then Mary Anning was no ordinary girl.

In 1811, at the age of just 12, she discovered the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton - a dinosaur looking something like a dolphin, only bigger - emerging from the Blue Lias cliffs to the east of Lyme.

It was the start of an impressive career. Described by the Natural History Museum as simply the greatest fossil hunter ever known, Mary's haul from the beaches of Dorset included thousands of fossilised dinosaurs. Besides the ichthyosaur, she was the first to discover the plesiosaur and even turned up the odd a pterodactyl.

But although her finds attracted the attention of scientists and collectors from all over the world, she never gained the public recognition her discoveries merited.

The sexual - and class - mores of the time dictated that it was her rich patrons who won all the plaudits and, incredibly for such an important figure, very little has ever been written about her life and achievements.

ichthyosaur skeleton The American journalist and academic Shelley Emling was determined to put the record straight and the result is the first comprehensive biography of Mary Anning's extraordinary life, entitled The Fossil Hunter.

By coincidence, the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier, stumbled across the Philpot Museum - which houses many of Mary Anning's finds - while on holiday in Lyme Regis.

Her latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, is a fictionalised account of Mary's life built around her friendship with a wealthy Victorian patron - and benefactor of the museum - Elisabeth Philpot.

Books, it seems, are like buses. You wait nearly 200 years for one to come along and then two turn up together.

Could mechanical trees save the world?

Tom Feilden | 08:07 UK time, Thursday, 27 August 2009

"Artificial trees" along the motorway

If you thought geo-engineering was the stuff of science fiction - all giant sun shades in space - think again.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has produced a report focusing on practical geo-engineering solutions that are either available now, or soon will be.

The report lays out a 100-year road map to "de-carbonise" the global economy and the vision includes forests of artificial trees built along motorways, shiny silver roofs that reflect sunlight, and algal bio-reactors running up the sides of buildings.

Some climate scientists say we may only have a few decades left to avoid dangerous climate change, but geo-engineering - the idea of redressing the balance of the atmosphere by blocking the suns rays, or siphoning off harmful greenhouse gases, could buy us more time.

Artificial trees do pretty much the same job as real trees, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, but up to a thousand times more efficiently.

The Institution's Dr Tim Fox claims a single artificial tree could remove as much as ten tonnes of carbon a day, and just 100 000 units would be enough to capture the UK's entire transport emissions.

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"After decades of failed mitigation, geo-engineering may give us those extra few years to transition to a low carbon world and prevent any one of the future climate change scenarios we all fear".

Algae unitsBut perhaps the most eye-catching proposal in the report would be to incorporate algal photo bioreactors in the built environment.

At its most basic that means tubes of vivid green algae running up the sides of buildings, although in time the bioreactors could be incorporated into the fabric of the buildings themselves.

Like trees, algae use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide from the air into plant matter using photosynthesis, with the added benefit that the bio-char produced could be siphoned off and used as an organic fertiliser.

The Institution's report is unlikely to be the last word on geo-engineering. Next week the Royal Society will publish a much broader study that reviews all the options - including the most outlandish, science fiction ideas like sun shades in space - and focussing on the ethical and political problems posed by tampering with the planet's climate systems.

Watch this space.

A helping home for bees

Tom Feilden | 10:49 UK time, Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Beehaus in actionAs first sight the Beehaus looks more like a giant cool box on legs than anything you might associate with nature. And despite the fact that it comes in a variety of garish colours this is definitely the new black when in comes to contemporary beekeeping.

Designed by Omlet - the company that brought us the "eglu" chicken house - this is beekeeping in its most minimalist, functional form. As the brochure boasts, "making honey with a Beehaus is as simple as 1,2,3".

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If that all sounds a little...architectural, it's meant to: the emphasis here is very much on design - even the name, Beehaus, pays tribute to the modernist 20th century Bauhaus movement.

The idea is to encourage a new generation of young, eco-conscious, urban apiarists. The kind of people who already spend a lot of green pounds, probably on organic honey, but who view beekeeping as something rather quaint and old-fashioned. The sort of thing that elderly - and a little eccentric - relatives might get up to at the bottom of country cottage gardens.

But the plight of Britain's bees is now so serious that the Beehaus has won the endorsement of the Government's conservation watchdog, Natural England.

The agency's chief scientist, Tom Tew, wants to raise an army of hobby beekeepers and to encourage gardeners to grow the kind of plants and flowers that will sustain wild bee populations.

"It's a fantastic way of getting people engaged, and getting them closer to nature. It helps them understand the wonder and beauty of nature, but it also helps them understand the huge value that species like the honeybee bring to humans."

But the idea of hundreds of novice beekeepers suddenly starting up their own colonies has raised concerns amongst more experienced apiarists. Although they're keen to see more people get involved the British Beekeepers Association is warning that bees, rather like puppies, are not just for Christmas.

If you want to keep bees, the BBKA's Dr Ivor Davis says, get in contact with a local club or association and find out more about it before taking the plunge.

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