Skip to main content


Why is an insect like a leased aircraft?

Lewis Carroll famously came up with the nonsense riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ - which was never intended to have a meaningful answer. But for some reason a piece of science news I read in Physics World inspired the question in the title of this post: why is an insect like a leased aircraft? The leased aircraft in question was one that British Airways borrowed from Aer Lingus. The plane was then repainted in BA colours for the duration. But part of the deal involved repainting the aircraft in the Irish airline’s livery and generally putting it back with the configuration Aer Lingus required before returning it. When the engineers finished, they fixed a little plaque to the instrument panel in the cockpit reading ‘FLY GREEN SIDE UP.’ The science story that made this come to mind was the answer to a long-term puzzle: why do insects seem to be so attracted to lights at night? I had heard the suggestion that they used the Moon to help with navigation - but the study shows t
Recent posts

When is 99% less than 99%?

Asking when 99% is less than 99% sounds like a riddle - but it's not. I recently heard a Sky Mobile radio advert in which they claimed 99% UK coverage. In the 'small print' words at the end, they said this meant they covered 99% of the population. I don't know about you, but unless I'd heard that proviso, I would have assumed that 99% coverage meant you could connect to their service in 99% of UK locations - I expected the figure to be based on area of coverage, rather than population. It might seem like this is splitting hairs, but it really isn't. Let's just imagine an unlikely version of the UK where 99% of the population lived in London (this is, after all, what most advertising people think). Having 99% coverage by Sky's definition would mean that you could only use your mobile phone in 0.65% of the country. The whole point of a mobile is to be able to use in on the move, not just at your home location. Of course, the real UK is not like my imagined

The surprising views of Fred Hoyle

The late Fred Hoyle was one of my favourite scientists. He did impressive work on astrophysics, wrote imaginative science fiction and was an excellent science communicator, famously devising the term 'Big Bang' in a radio broadcast when he was throwing doubts on the theory. In the late 1940s, Hoyle, along with colleagues Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold at Cambridge came up with the steady state theory as an alternative to the Big Bang. One of the driving reasons behind this was that they felt that the Big Bang theory was too uncomfortably close to alignment with theological creation, and Hoyle was a staunch atheist. When I was growing up, with Hoyle as one of my heroes (a fellow northerner, if from the wrong side of the east/west border), I was sad that steady state was disproved. Hoyle never gave up on it, modifying it to match observation (just as, to be fair, Big Bang had to be modified to match observation), but it dropped out of fashion as Big Bang made an easier match to th

Book and talk news

A couple of upcoming talk dates, plus a sneak peak of books in the production process: I've talks coming up on 17 February and 16 March, while my next book is out in July. Both talks are on Interstellar Tours : Saturday 17 February is at 10.45am at the Festival of Tomorrow in Swindon. It's part of the family day (free entrance) 10am to 5pm - my talk (£3) is on at 10.45 in the Egg Lecture theatre. You can book tickets here (click the 'Free' get tickets and then add on my talk), and find out more about the Festival here . Saturday 16 March is at the Royal Institution in London. You can find out more and book tickets (£7/£10/£16) here . I've two books in the pipeline. Due to be published in July 2024 is a book in Icon's compact Hot Science series. Called Weather Science it looks at all aspects of the weather and how meteorology has moved from folklore to leading edge computing and satellite technology. More details closer to the release date. The other I'll b

Death by Dandruff - Nicholas Sercombe (and Arthur Conan Doyle) ***

This is one of the weirdest books I have ever come across. Strictly speaking it's a short story, but packaged as a thin Ladybird-like hardback. It's number 16 in a series that began with A Balls-up in Bohemia . The weird and wonderful idea behind it is that we see Watson's original text, before it was heavily edited for publication - in this case becoming the story The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk , which after publication in the Strand magazine was incorporated into The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes . If you are a Holmes fan, as I am, it's inevitable that you open it alongside the original. After some minor deviations in the opening paragraph (such as changing the previous owner of Watson's new medical practice from Mr Farquhar in the original to the strangely spelled Dr. Farquar in the new version) it starts to bring in Nicholas Sercombe's novel ideas of what might have been edited out at the Strand, from the fact that Watson's wife Mary was actua

May contain nut (kernels)

I quite often find myself reading food labelling, particularly if it's handy over the breakfast table. It's partly because I'm interested in what's in what I eat - but also because I had fun on a BBC TV show pointing out that it's perfectly possible, because of the mad way it's calculated, for food labelling to say that a product contains over 100% of a substance. (See the bottom of the post for my food labelling video.) The other day, I was perusing the back of a packet of little amaretti cakes (not the hard biscuits) we'd been given and noticed an ingredient that stirred some vague memory: these little Italian cakes were 34% apricot kernels. Somewhere in the depths of my mind I associated these with cyanide - something no one really wants to discover in their coffee-accompanying treat. I took a look online and discovered that while apricot kernels do not contain cyanide, they do contain 'the plant toxin amygdalin, which converts to cyanide after eatin

Looking forward to 2024

Those of you who berate me when my reviews are mostly not science or science fiction books, the Christmas present reading pile is nearly done - expect more of a usual mix next week. I don't believe in making New Year's resolutions - they just set you up for failure. But I hope, like me, you are, on the whole, looking forward to 2024. The world is going through a difficult period - of that there's no doubt. And politically, we've got elections in over half the democratic segment of the world - so there could be interesting times. But I do think a negative outlook can be self-fulfilling, and optimism is the best way to make the most of life. I'm certainly looking forward to some excellent new popular science books in 2024. As it happens the first one I'll be reviewing next week is from 2022 (but the paperback, which I'm reviewing, is out in February). I know there are some excellent books on the way, including a far reaching title from last year's Royal So