Tag Archives: strange science

Bees in Devon

It’s getting on for a year now since Friends of the Earth launched its campaign, the Bee Cause, aimed at supporting bees in this country and elsewhere.  At around the same time two scientific studies were published looking at the effects of the neonicotinoid insecticides on honeybees and bumblebees under field conditions.  These studies were widely discussed and lead to a sustained crusade to get these insecticides banned;  a parliamentary enquiry also began.  I won’t dwell on this as I have summarised the story elsewhere.

At about the same time, I started talking to beekeepers about their experience and this turned in to a mini survey of the state of bees in Devon.  I was  interested to find out whether, as Friends of the Earth claimed, there was a catastrophic decline in bee numbers.    I learnt so much and it was fascinating to visit different beekeepers and to hear their different stories and different approaches in looking after these complex creatures.   I was also able to meet one of the leading scientists in the field, James Cresswell from Exeter University, who helped me appreciate the differences between honeybees and bumblebees.

I wrote an article for Devon Life Magazine about my travels and this has finally come out more than six months later:

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Biofuels from algae?

Oil will run out sooner or later so we need to consider alternative non-petroleum based fuels for our cars and lorries.  We also need to reduce existing consumption of petroleum-based fuels so that carbon emissions are diminished and potentially damaging effects of climate change are attenuated.     There are many ways to approach these problems but one attractive way is to make biofuels from algae; in principle these are carbon-neutral fuels.  This idea has attracted quite a bit of interest but the usual bottleneck is making enough algae.  There are many players in the field including Craig Venter and ExxonMobil.  One man in South West England, James Morris, however, has some ideas about increasing production of algae that may get round the bottleneck.  He has a prototype apparatus up and running and I visited him at Plymouth Marine Labs.  You can read the full story from Devon Life Magazine here.

The science of cider making

Cider still has an unworthy reputation in the UK, mainly because of the insipid mass-produced drinks masquerading under the name. Traditional farmhouse cider is quite a different drink and there has been a recent resurgence in production of farmhouse cider by a dedicated band of artisan producers.  James Crowden’s book, Ciderland gives an excellent account of the present state (http://www.james-crowden.co.uk/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&page=shop.product_details&flypage=shop.flypage&product_id=34&Itemid=27&vmcchk=1&Itemid=27). 

Down in Devon, where I live, cider is the drink associated with the county.  There are several artisan producers and there is even one surviving all-cider bar in Newton Abbot, Ye Olde Cider Bar. 

There are also some lovely songs celebrating Devon’s enthusiasm for cider.  One such song, “Devonshire Cream and Cider” by Theodore Curzon and Wilfrid Sanderson contains a chorus with the following words:

Oi be nigh on ninety seven

Born and bred in dear old Dev’n

And folks may be as old as Oi in other parts of England

But when its time to rest, why lay me down beside her

And let me sleep in the dear loved land of Devonshire Cream and Cider

 

If you want to listen to the whole song, here is a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zToWL1m8yO0

Here is another song extolling the virtues and the longevity-promoting properties of cider drinking:

I were brought up on cider

And I be a hundred and two

But still that be ‘nuthin when you come to think

Me father and mother be still in the pink

And they were brought up on cider

Of the rare old Tavistock brew

And me Granfer drinks quarts

For he’s one of the sports

That were brought up on cider too

Cider making is superficially simple.  All you need is good juice from cider apples which you leave to ferment under suitable conditions and six months later you have cider.  But actually it’s a bit more complex; there may be two separate fermentations going on and an understanding of the science behind the processes helps in producing a good uniform product.

I was interested in understanding the science of cider making so, about 10 months ago, we visited one of the local artisan cider makers at Heron Valley near Kingsbridge (http://www.heronvalley.co.uk/).   It was a lovely visit; we were warmly welcomed by the Heron Valley boss, Natasha Bradley and came away more knowledgeable and with a few bottles of cider too! 

The visit is described in an article in the October edition of Devon Life Magazine (https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/published-stuff/devon-life-magazine/) and there is a rather different description on the LabLit web site (http://www.lablit.com/article/648).

Spreading the message of science

A month or so ago I met the UCL neuroscientist, Beau Lotto, in the Tangerine Tree Café in Totnes.   Despite working in London he lives part of the week  in Devon and we had a fascinating and wide ranging conversation about his activities.  He has made waves in Devon with his work with children at Blackawton Primary School.  A group of 8-10 year old children worked under his tutelage to produce an original study of how bees forage for food.  The children also wrote a paper that was published in Biology Letters.    This extraordinary study is nicely described on Ed Yong’s blog (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/12/21/eight-year-old-children-publish-bee-study-in-royal-society-journal/) and it has changed the way the children are taught science in the school.  Following this, groups of children from several schools around the UK were brought together in the Science Museum in London to plan and do experiments and then return to their schools with the new ideas.

I would recommend you look at the Lotto Lab web site (http://www.lottolab.org/index.asp/) to get a feel for the breadth of Beau Lotto’s activities.  These include another project at the Science Museum.  Here he and Dave Strudwick, the former head of Blackawton School, have set up a “Living Lab” which is designed to draw in Science Museum visitors and get them to do experiments. 

Overall Beau Lotto’s work is designed to show people that science is fun, science is like playing a game and science is all around us.

You can read more in my interview with Beau Lotto in the May edition of Devon life Magazine (https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/published-stuff/devon-life-magazine/).

Steam Power

The young boy, perhaps 8 years old, stands in the garden.   He watches the embankment twenty feet above him at the end of the garden, and waits.  Here comes another.  Noise, belching smoke, fire.  Sometimes they shed burning coals that set alight the dry grass on the embankment.  If he waves, the driver may wave back, the people in the coaches too.  The engines carry ornate insignia and names he can still remember.  It was like seeing old friends when “Canadian Pacific”, “Holland-Afrika Line” , “Crewkerne” or “Ottery St Mary” thundered by.  Sometimes the whole train was named and the “Pines Express” promised an exotic coastal vision of Bournemouth for northern travellers.

I am still fascinated by steam trains and fortunate to live near two preserved steam railways.  The journeys from Totnes up the Dart Valley and from Paignton along the coast to Kingswear are wonderful for observing nature but also evoke a bygone era.  It is difficult for us to appreciate nowadays the liberating effect of the coming of the railways 150 years ago.  People became freer to travel, produce could be sent further afield and lives were irreversibly changed.   

Few realise that we owe the invention of steam power to Thomas Newcomen, from Dartmouth.   The steam power he invented lead to the development of the railways.  His story is told in my latest “Strange Science” article for Devon Life Magazine (https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/published-stuff/devon-life-magazine/).

The science and the art of bread making

As part of my crusade to spread understanding of science more widely, I have an article in the latest edition of Devon Life Magazine on the  science and the art of bread making.  The article features an artisan baker, Emma Parkin, based near Exeter (her web address is http://www.emmasbread.co.uk/).  We had a very pleasant time meeting Emma at her stall in Exeter Farmers Market and at her bakery at Shillingford Abbot.  The article can be read on the Devon Life page on this site.