Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Best Science Books of 2014

The math of soul mates, the psychology of nothing, the physics of faith, and more illuminating insights on the universe and our place in it.

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo. Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

That unanswerable question of where we came from is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — one of the finest essayists writing today and the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — explores from various angles in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound).

At the intersection of science and philosophy, the essays in the book explore the possible existence of multiple universes, multiple space-time continuums, more than three dimensions. Lightman writes:

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.
Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion.

In one of the most beautiful essays in the book, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman explores that intersection of perspectives in making sense of life:

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [scientists who argue] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

The secret of fast runners: symmetry

Scientists can predict the best sprinters among elite runners just by looking at their knees.

To be a swift runner you need strong muscles, a powerful heart, determination and — symmetrical knees? That’s what scientists learned when they studied some of the world’s top sprinters.

Science has shown that animals and people with more symmetrical bodies tend to be stronger and healthier than those who are a bit lopsided. But this is the first time researchers have been able to predict who will be the fastest runners just by measuring their knees.

“Among the very best sprinters in the world, knee symmetry predicts who’s going to be the best of the best,” says Robert Trivers of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J. As an evolutionary biologist, he studies how organisms have adapted over generations to their environments.

His team published its new findings online November 17 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Trivers knew symmetrical knees could aid runners. In an earlier study, he showed that children who at age 8 had more symmetrical knees developed into the fastest runners by the time they were 22. Now he wanted to know why symmetry made such a difference in top athletes.

To find out, he brought a team of researchers to the island nation of Jamaica in the Caribbean. They measured the knees, ankles, and feet of 73 elite sprinters at the MVP Track and Field Club in Kingston. Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was among the athletes studied. She won Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter (328-foot) sprint in both 2008 and 2012.
The researchers then took the same measurements from 116 local non-runners who were about the same ages and sizes as the elite athletes.

“Elite sprinters had more symmetrical knees than normal people,” Trivers says. “Their ankles were also slightly more symmetrical.” But their feet were not special. “It seems the feet are completely irrelevant,” he concludes.

Exam pressure is driving more teens to eating disorders and self-harm

Child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron hits out.

Growing numbers of teenagers are suffering from eating disorders and self-harm due to the pressure of exams, leading child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron has said.

In an address to the Girls’ School Association in London, she said she was astonished at the attitude of some parents who were worried that treating disorders might interfere or interrupt exam preparation.

“Parents are often very concerned and shocked at how any treatment may impact on their child’s continued preparation for exams,” she added. “For instance, you may tell them that their child may not be able to do her GCSEs at present.”

Parents’ attitudes can cause “incredible damage” to their child, she said.

Professor Byron said that self-harm amongst boys was also increasing, and that even the children of “aspirational middle class parents” were vulnerable.

“It is absolutely heart-breaking and it is increasing,” she added.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Mobile phones in the classroom: teachers share their tips

From multimedia to geocaching, the possibilities for using mobiles to engage learners are endless. Teachers tell Emma Drury how and why they are using the devices in school.

Jo Debens, geography teacher, Priory School, Portsmouth

The geography department at my school has been leading the use of mobile device in learning. Throughout last year the mobile@priory charter was created and led by head of department David Rogers and co-constructed by students to enable them to use mobile devices in learning. This was trialled through the geography department and found great success with students becoming more actively engaged with their learning.

Some of the examples of where we use mobile devices range from simply taking photos and videos to share in class or recording homework, to creating revision podcasts or animations. The point often is student choice, encouraging independent learning and allowing students to choose what approach will suit them. We have found that encouraging mobile device use has enabled our students to access resources that we cannot provide otherwise. For example, students access the internet for research (such as the internet or our department blogs/Facebook support page).

On fieldwork, students can record images, video, sound, take notes, use GPS technology and mapping software to record information essential to their coursework. In school we have used mobiles to record work, for example the students used chalk around school to leave messages or symbols regarding social spaces and guerilla messages and then used mobiles to take images or record video or sound interviews of them discussing their work which could then be shared with the class. The focus is on the learning, the discussion on what they gained from the activity not on the device.

One activity sees students investigating secret places in school - they have to find a space, and find evidence or clues about that space to share with others. Many use their mobiles to record sound or image clues to share. We also introduced a geocaching project where students hid Olympic themed geocaches at Box Hill and used mobile devices with GPS to use the website and online research before hiding their geocaches and then seeing them go live and have real people from the public able to find their work.

The benefit for us as teachers is the personalisation, and the freedom for students to access resources. Often the lower ability children find mobile devices enable them to interact more freely and use tools to learn. We find that it encourages student voices and increases engagement.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Today’s 13-year-olds are not as bad as we’re led to believe

In 1982 I was toying with the idea of a career in teaching. That year a controversial film, Made in Britain, starring Tim Roth was released and I almost didn’t become a teacher. The film’s central character, Trevor was a dysfunctional, violent, foul-mouthed youth – everything society hates and fears. My natural fear was how would I, as a young teacher, cope with a classroom full of such kids? Of course the film is fictional. It portrayed the 1980s accurately – but did it portray Britain’s youth accurately?

With the way some of the media represents young people, you may be forgiven for thinking that Roth’s character is alive and well and infesting our streets and schools. Different newspapers have their favourite terms for teenagers: the
Daily Mail likes “yobs”, while the Daily Express goes with “feral kids”.

Changing preoccupations of Year 9s
 But a new longitudinal study of 13 to 14-year-olds has painted a very different picture of the youth of today. They are drinking and smoking less and bullying is on the decrease – despite the inexorable rise of social media making bullying much easier than it was 30 years ago.

The media has briefly picked up on some of these elements, such as the decline in drinking and smoking and
bullying. But they have also focused on how the youth of today communicate less with each other one-to-one and prefer computer games to actual contact with their peers. This cherry-picks the data to fit a stereotype of the lone child, shut off from society playing violent games – a potential outcast from society.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Best Children's Books of 2014

Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.
“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

“It is an error,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien seven decades earlier in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing for children, “to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” Indeed, books that bewitch young hearts and tickle young minds aren’t “children’s books” but simply great books — hearts that beat in the chest of another, even if that chest is slightly smaller.

This is certainly the case with the most intelligent and imaginative “children’s” and picture-books published this year. (Because the best children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, perennial delight, step into the time machine and revisit previous selections for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere!

Bubbles are scientific?

That was the question I had when I first realized there was a Bubbles show at Science World at TELUS World of Science. Then, after watching the show and learning more about bubbles leading up to doing my own first Bubbles show performance, I learned that there is actually a lot of science and math involved. Even more, there’s a special chemistry and geometry when it comes to making bubbles.

What's bubble chemistry?
Well, bubbles are more than just a soap solution filled with air. Bubbles are actually made from a bubble film that looks like a sandwich with soap on the outsides and water on the inside. The soap works to reduce the surface tension of water so that the water can stretch. This means that bubble film is elastic and stretches out and snaps back to its original shape.
Why are bubbles round?
This is where the math comes in. Forming a bubble takes energy and bubbles want to form a shape that is the least stretched out. This shape must have the least amount of surface area for its size. The shape that results is a sphere. This is why bubbles are round when they are floating through the air around us!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Daily tips to help teachers stay happy and healthy during the week

As the week drags on in school, it can be hard to keep your head above water. Professor Gail Kinman explains what small things teachers can do every day to maintain their mind, body and soul.
As well their duty of care for students, teachers also need to look after themselves.
Professor Gail Kinman, a chartered psychologist and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, shares three tips a day for the five days of the working week on things that you can do to de-stress and promote a healthy mind, body and soul.

We challenge you to do one or all of these three things every day this week and tell us how they work for you by tweeting us via @GuardianTeach. 


It’s a universally acknowledged truth that no one likes Mondays, so you need to begin your day calmly.
  • Try relaxing for two minutes before your students arrive in the morning. Visualise the day ahead going as well as possible because this is good for the soul.
  • At the first break of the day step out of auto-pilot and clear your mind by eating a piece of fruit mindfully. Focus on the experience of eating without multi-tasking or your mind wandering.
  • After work or during lunch go for a walk on your own. Focus on what you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel. Don’t use the time to make plans or dwell on problems. 


Tuesday is a good day to pay attention to the early signs that you are becoming stressed.
  • Think about how the week is going and watch for things that are starting to worry you. This will help you spot your trigger points and take remedial action.
  • Half way through the day, why not reduce muscle tension? Tense your shoulders without straining, then relax while breathing deeply. Feel the stress fading away.
Tuesday should be a day for forgiveness. Most of us store up many negative emotions that could be released by forgiving ourselves and others. 


You’re bang in the middle of the week and making sure you feel refreshed is important; sleep is vital.
  • Avoid the enemies of sleep. Keep a regular sleep schedule, have a relaxing bedtime routine, eat healthily and get regular exercise.
  • Try the three-minute breathing space during lunchtime. Sit comfortably and focus on your breath. Your mind will wander, gently bring it back.
  • You could also take a five-minute lunchtime vacation. Picture yourself in the most relaxing place you can imagine. You will feel more refreshed on your return. 


The best medicine for a happy Thursday is laughter; have a giggle with colleagues or listen to your favourite comedy show.
  • Laughing has wide-ranging benefits, improving cardiovascular health and helping you connect with others so start the day with a chuckle.
  • Challenge negative self-talk. Work on reducing the “should/shouldn’t/must” statements to reduce stress and increase confidence.
  • Identify a buffer zone. Respite from work demands is essential for health and performance. What can you do after work to help you recover? 

Learning a language – 10 things you need to know

Thinking about learning a foreign language? From ignoring your age to avoiding the F-word, our multilingual experts share their tips.
1. Make realistic, specific goals

You have decided to learn another language. Now what? On our recent live chat our panellists first piece of advice was to ask yourself: what do you want to achieve and by when? Donavan Whyte, vice president of enterprise and education at Rosetta Stone, says: “Language learning is best when broken down into manageable goals that are achievable over a few months. This is far more motivating and realistic.”

You might be feeling wildly optimistic when you start but aiming to be fluent is not necessarily the best idea. Phil McGowan, director at Verbmaps, recommends making these goals tangible and specific: “Why not set yourself a target of being able to read a newspaper article in the target language without having to look up any words in the dictionary?”

2. Remind yourself why you are learning

It might sound obvious, but recognising exactly why you want to learn a language is really important. Alex Rawlings, a language teacher now learning his 13th language, says: “Motivation is usually the first thing to go, especially among students who are teaching themselves.” To keep the momentum going he suggests writing down 10 reasons you are learning a language and sticking it to the front of the file you are using: “I turn to these in times of self-doubt.”

3. Focus on exactly what you want to learn

Often the discussion around how to learn a language slides into a debate about so-called traditional v tech approaches. For Aaron Ralby, director of Linguisticator, this debate misses the point: “The question is not so much about online v offline or app v book. Rather it should be how can we assemble the necessary elements of language for a particular objective, present them in a user-friendly way, and provide a means for students to understand those elements.”

When signing up to a particular method or approach, think about the substance behind the style or technology. “Ultimately,” he says, “the learning takes place inside you rather that outside, regardless of whether it’s a computer or book or a teacher in front of you.”

4. Read for pleasure

For many of our panellists, reading was not only great for making progress, but one of the most rewarding aspects of the learning experience. Alex Rawlings explains that reading for pleasure “exposes you to all sorts of vocabulary that you won’t find in day-to-day life, and normalises otherwise baffling and complicated grammatical structures. The first book you ever finish in a foreign languages is a monumental achievement that you’ll remember for a long time.”

Monday, 17 November 2014

Your vocabulary aged 40 depends on how much you read as a teenager

Reading for pleasure as a child has been powerfully linked in research to the development of vocabulary and maths skills up to the age of 16. But does reading still have a part to play in the breadth of our adult vocabulary? Does it matter what kind of books you read, or is it just the amount of reading that counts?

Our study of a representative sample of more than 9,400 British people born in 1970 looked at how vocabularies developed between the ages of 16 and 42. The test involved asking people to pair words from one list with words of a similar meaning from another list. For example, they were asked to find other words meaning “hirsute”, “grotesque” or “cerebral”.

The good news is that learning doesn’t stop at the end of the school years – whether they read regularly or not. In fact, our study members demonstrated large gains in vocabulary between the ages of 16 and 42. At age 16, their average vocabulary test score was 55%. By age 42, study members scored an average of 63% on the same test.

Another piece of good news is that reports of the death of reading seem to have been exaggerated. More than a quarter, or 26%, of respondents said that they read books in their spare time on a daily basis, with a further 33% saying that they read for pleasure at least once a month. This left a minority of 41% who said that they read in their leisure time only every few months or less often.

University influences reading choices

People varied widely in the types of books they liked to read – and this was linked to their level of educational attainment. We were struck by the differences in literary tastes between graduates of the elite Russell Group of UK universities and other universities. When asked which kinds of books they usually liked to read, 43% of graduates of Russell Group universities included classic fiction such as Jane Eyre or Bleak House, compared to 29% of graduates of other universities and 11% of people with no qualifications.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Teachers launch weather balloons, and a passion for science

A weather-balloon kit helped two teachers inspire their students with custom experiments.


Making science, technology, engineering and math into hands-on endeavors can spark interest in these fields and cement concepts learned in the classroom. As science coordinator and a physics teacher at Harrisonburg (Va.) High School, Andy Jackson* was looking for a good, complex hands-on project for sophomores and juniors in the school’s Governor’s STEM Academy. Jackson and the so-director of the STEM academy, Myron Blosser*, came across a hands-on project in May when they visited the National Science Teachers Association STEM Forum and Expo in New Orleans, La.

They ran across a company that offers high altitude weather balloon kits. Made by Stratostar, the kits come with boxes to hold a payload of experiments. Transmitters will send data from the experiments and information about the balloon’s location back to the ground. Jackson and Blosser purchased a package, and two other teachers in the science department, Christina Welsh and Kasey Hovermale headed up the project with their students.

After more than seven weeks of preparation, their students launched their first balloon flight last week. It lofted a 2.7 kilogram (6 pound) payload to 25,908 meters (85,000 feet) and carried it 78 miles west of their launch site. The project gave the students a chance to decide what experiments to send, and to place the cameras and sensors in the payload themselves. The data will be used to design and carry out future flight experiments based on the temperature, sound and humidity data they obtained.

“When we saw this weather balloon idea, we thought ‘This is it,’” Jackson says. “We needed something that would integrate different disciplines. This tied in atmospheric science, chemistry and engineering.”

What they do…

These weather balloons — between 0.7 and 2.4 meters (2.5 to 8 feet) in diameter — work on a fairly simple principle. The balloon is attached to a small payload (less than 5.4 kilograms), filled with helium and released. In short order, it rises into near space, an altitude of between 19,812 and 99,974 meters. As the balloon rises, the atmospheric pressure falls. This causes the helium in the balloon to expand. When the balloon gets high enough, the expanding gas makes it pop. The science payload now falls back to Earth, aided by a small parachute. Meanwhile, the sensors send data on the payload’s location back to the ground, so that teachers can send out search parties to pick it up.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Spiders disguise themselves as ants to hide and hunt their prey

All spiders are predators, but most of them are small and have rudimentary defences against larger animals that in turn prey on them. Spiders have thus evolved a range of predatory behaviours that, at the same time, allow them to evade the threat of predation. Some of the most effective strategies involve deceiving ants.

More than 300 species of spiders are known to mimic the outward appearance of ants, a phenomenon called myrmecomorphy. Aggressively territorial, ants are typically avoided by several predators, thus making them the perfect creatures to impersonate. Most ant-mimicking spiders have a “false waist” and are covered with reflective hairs to simulate the shiny, three-segmented bodies of ants. They have coloured patches around their eyes to make their simple eyes look more like an ant’s compound eyes.

The spiders also behave like ants by waving their front pair of legs near their heads like antennae, and adopting an erratic zig-zag pattern of movement that is more like ants than spiders.

There are two reasons why a spider would want to mimic an ant: to eat them, and to avoid being eaten by them.

Imitation as a form of battery

The first reason, “aggressive ant-mimicry”, is a rare but intriguing phenomenon – and it is employed by spiders to deceive their prey. Ants make for dangerous prey – they have strong jaws, poisonous stings, and chemical defences – and, acting collectively, can launch strong attacks. Aggressive ant-mimicking spiders thus prefer to attack their victims while they are alone. And after killing the ant the spider also has to ensure that other ants do not attack it while it carries the corpse to its nest.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Raindrops break the speed limit

Tiny drops fall faster than expected, and scientists don't know why.

Some of those tiny raindrops that keep falling on your head may be outlaws, of a sort. They have been caught breaking the speed limit.
A falling object reaches what’s known as its terminal velocity when friction — the slowing force of air — cancels the downward pull of gravity. That means the drop stops speeding up and keeps falling at a steady rate. This should be the top speed at which a droplet can move. Yet scientists have observed raindrops plummeting faster than their terminal velocity.

Michael Larsen is an atmospheric physicist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Bigger raindrops have a faster maximum speed than smaller ones. That’s why meteorologists often use terminal velocity to estimate the size of raindrops, he says. These estimates help determine how much rain a storm deposits over an area. So the existence of fast-fallers suggests that rainfall estimates could be distorted, Larsen told Science News.

“If you’re going to understand rain, you need to make guesses,” he says. However, he adds, “If our guesses are wrong as to how fast these drops are falling, that could ultimately affect a whole bunch of other work.”

The puzzle

A raindrop's size grows inside a cloud. A drop’s one-way ride begins when it becomes heavy enough that gravity pulls it toward the ground. But air friction slows it down. Eventually, these upward and downward forces cancel out, and the drop should maintain a constant speed: its terminal velocity. (Velocity is a measurement of how fast and in which direction an object moves.) Every object falling through the atmosphere, from skydivers to hailstones, has a terminal velocity.

How to make teaching great

An article we wrote last week for The Conversation on Seven “great” teaching methods not backed up by evidence prompted a large amount of comment and discussion. One of the main questions has been, ok so what does make for great teaching? It was this question that our recent evidence review for the Sutton Trust set out to address, alongside how teachers can improve their teaching and so bring about better learning for their students.

Defining effective teaching is not straightforward. But it must surely be something like: “effective teaching is that which leads to high achievement by students in terms of valued outcomes”. Many current ways of assessing children, particularly those used in high-stakes exams or in existing research studies, do not fully reflect the range of important outcomes that a child’s education is trying to achieve.

Identifying good teaching is also a challenge because observing children and teachers provides very limited estimates of how much students actually learn from different practices. Whether studies are based on classroom observation, student surveys or scrutinising students' work, their predictive power is usually not very high. Even in high-quality research studies, it’s difficult to show clear results.

In practice this means that if we use classroom observation to identify teachers as “above” or “below” average in terms of their impact on student learning, we would get it right about 60% of the time, compared with the 50% chance we would get it right by just tossing a coin. Better than chance, but not much!

Six good practices

The research we reviewed suggests there are six common components that are signatures of good-quality teaching:

Content knowledge This is when teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject that they teach and can communicate content effectively to their students. We found strong evidence for the impact of this on student outcomes.

Quality of instruction This includes teachers being skilled in effective questioning and use of assessment. Good teachers also deploy techniques such as reviewing previous learning and giving adequate time for children to practice and so embed skills securely. They also progressively introduce new skills and knowledge, a process known as “scaffolding”. Again, there is strong evidence of the impact of this on learning.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Seven ‘great’ teaching methods not backed up by evidence

What makes “great teaching”? It’s a complicated question, made more difficult by trying to measure how teachers make decisions in the classroom and what impact those decisions have on what pupils learn.

In a new report for the Sutton Trust, we have tried to set out how great teaching leads to great learning. Our overall aim is to see whether setting out a framework of indicators that focus teachers’ effort on things which are important can help their pupils learn even better.

Some things we are pretty sure about. Effective teachers have good knowledge about what they teach and know how best to communicate this to their students. They have a high level of skill in questioning pupils and assessing what they know and can do. They have high expectations and set a climate which promotes challenge and values success. Most of our report looks at effective classroom practices and how we can measure these.

What doesn’t work

We also think it is useful to look at what hasn’t been shown to work, even if this may seem a rather negative way to focus on improvement. Many ineffective teaching practices seem to be quite popular, even though most evidence is anecdotal and selective.

By stopping doing things that are either ineffective or inefficient, it should allow more time to focus on things that will make more of a difference. Here are seven common teaching practices that are not backed up by evidence.

No evidence for (1): Using praise lavishly

Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. Other research argues that praise which is meant to be encouraging and protective of low-attaining students can actually convey a message of the teacher’s low expectations. What is important is praise which is valued by the learner.

From electric ink to aromapoetry – the physical book is not dead, it’s about to be reborn

"Analogue” and “digital” are the two polar opposites of our modern world. The word “analogue” has become our catch-all term for what we see as slow, one-way and limited in functional possibilities; while “digital” is our synonym for the dynamic, interactive and fluid.

Analogue is old; digital new. Paper has always been the epitome of the analogue: a physical medium which can receive, present and preserve information but otherwise remains static and fixed.

It’s our entrenched understanding of these polarities that are to blame for the well-worn idea that the physical book is dying. This is simply not the case – “analogue” technologies such as ink and paper are now being developed in ways that can and in all likelihood will revolutionise the material, printed book.

Sketching circuits

Conductive inks such as those produced by the British firm Bare Conductive mean that pen and ink can be used to make circuits – and a piece of paper could feasibly become a circuit board, much like that in a computer but infinitely more flexible and versatile.

This particular company makes a touch board which allows users to create a keyboard using pen, paper and conductive ink. And Tom Metcalfe and Michael Shorter at the University of Dundee have used similar materials to create a pair of paper headphones.

Artists in particular are using conductive inks to create artworks which offer new forms of interactivity. In his Lagoglyphic Sound System, the Brazilian-American artist Eduardo Kac showed how conductive ink could be used for silk-screen printing. As the viewer touches different parts of Kac’s print, different musical sounds are heard.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Fish just wanna have fun

New evidence suggests fish — like dogs, horses and people — are capable of play.
If your teacher catches you goofing around in class, she might tell you to quit acting like a monkey. Or tell you to stop horsing around. But it would probably surprise you to hear her say: "Stop acting like a fish." Yet a new study suggests the comparison might be apt.

Most people recognize play when they see monkeys, horses, dogs or people doing it. But fish?

"It's an animal we don't expect to play," says Gordon Burghardt. He is a scientist who studies animal behavior at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

His team now has evidence suggesting that a type of small fish called cichlids (SIK-lids) clearly play. These scientists are not the first to witness fish at play. But the behavior they saw — and recorded for hours on video — seems new. The researchers published their findings online September 30 in Ethology.

Aquatic movies

The scientists started videotaping the fish after herpetologist James Murphy saw a male cichlid behaving strangely in one of his home aquariums. These small fish had been born in captivity. Their parents or grandparents, however, had been brought over from Lake Tanganyika in Zambia, a country in south-central Africa.

Murphy works at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. There, he studies amphibians and reptiles. But at home, he keeps pet fish.

Murphy had removed a male cichlid from an aquarium in which it had been attacking other cichlids. The bully shared his new home with other small species of fish. But he didn’t attack them.

School should be a safe, nurturing place – not a daily nightmare

The stigma of being the poor child in class is far worse today than it was when I was at school 40 years ago. And instead of diminishing inequality, Cameron seeks to increase it.

You never forget them. The children who were marked apart. In our class at primary school, they were called “Bugsy”, all three of them. The children who turned up bedraggled, a bit whiffy and wearing only a rough approximation of school uniform. You’d hear the bolder, more domineering children talking about them. “So-and-so smells.” “So-and-so wears gutties [plimsolls] instead of shoes.” “So-and-so’s Bugsy.”

With some encouragement from their neat, scrubbed peers, these remorseless critics would tease and bully the Bugsy kids. Even if you didn’t take part in the taunting yourself, even if it horrified you, you stayed out of it – not actively contributing to the misery of these pariah children, but safely beyond the exclusion zone that they lived in all the same.

Vivienne Westwood, in her autobiography, remembers such a child in her own class at primary school. “He smelt and his blond hair was so dirty, poor little Edward, that I thought, you know, I would rescue him. So I decided I would do this by announcing he was my boyfriend. (We were six.) He was horrified. I can see him now, pink beneath the grime: the worst day of his life. Everyone laughed at him. And me.”

That’s exactly what it was like. However sorry you felt for those kids, you couldn’t show it. Voluntarily associating yourself with such misfortune was seen as far more foolish than having it imposed upon you by adults. You never heard from them what it was like, being that distinctive sort of outsider, because you never spoke to them. Those children were despised and feared, as if their poverty was infectious.

But this week, more than 40 years on, I finally did hear, first-hand, from children who have to turn up at school under such stress, every day. In a new report, Through Young Eyes [click to download pdf], children in this situation were interviewed by the Children’s Commission on Poverty.

“If your shirt, like mine, has got tags with a different name … they automatically know that it’s handed down from someone else,” said one child. The report says that some state-funded secondary schools have uniforms costing as much as £500. These are schools, surely, that use uniform policy as a way of keeping out the riff-raff.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A cane that can ‘see’

A nifty device clipped onto a blind person’s cane can detect objects in a person’s path,to help navigate trip hazards.

Safely navigating from point A to point B can be a particularly difficult challenge for people who are blind. Even when sweeping a long cane back and forth across their path as they’re walking, blind people easily can miss objects that might trigger a tumble. Now, a young inventor has designed an electronic device to notify people of such obstacles.

Among the biggest trip hazards for blind people: objects between 50 centimeters (about 20 inches) to 1 meter (about 39 inches) above the floor. Such knee-high to waist-high objects include coffee tables, bed frames and other such furniture with overhanging edges, notes Raghav Ganesh. A 12-year-old from San Jose, Calif., he attends Joaquin Miller Middle School.

To prevent falls, bruises and maybe worse, Raghav decided to add electronic “eyes” to the red-and-white cane that many blind people use. To identify what’s ahead, cane users typically tap the ground and sweep their stick back and forth. But Raghav’s cane lets people sense objects well beyond a walking stick’s reach. A small computer acts as the device’s brain. It processes information gathered by sensors. Then, it relays signals to a small motor on the cane. The motor vibrates as soon as the cane’s electronic eyes detect a potential obstacle.
One sensor scans the path ahead in infrared wavelengths. These are the same wavelengths used by many TV remote controls. The other sensor uses ultrasonic wavelengths, the frequencies of sound that dogs can hear but people cannot.

Each sensor is about half the size of a postage stamp. Together, the cane’s electronic eyes and brain weigh about 200 grams (7 ounces). They fit in a small box about twice the size of a deck of cards. The small motor that vibrates is about the size of a coin and the weight of a similar-sized kitchen magnet. It fits on the cane’s handle, right where the user grips the cane.

The Early Chimp Gets The Fig

At my supermarket, I can buy strawberries in winter and pears in summer. Every fruit is available all year round, and the shelves are always stocked. Thanks to this constant glut, it’s easy to forget what a patchy and fleeting resource fruit can be. Even in a tropical rainforest—a world of supposed abundance—animals might have to walk for miles to find the one tree in every 500 that has ripe fruit on it. That tree might only carry ripe fruit for a few weeks, and any juicy baubles would be rotten or eaten within days.

So fruit-eating animals like chimpanzees need good memories and flexible brains. They need to remember where the best trees are and when they are likely to bear fruit, and they must adjust their behaviour accordingly. Karline Janmaat from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology compares fruit-eating to a game of chess, “in which the pieces do not only change position but also continuously change their state, with intervals that can last months for some yet only hours for others.”

She has also found that wild chimps are masters of this game. They get up earlier in the morning, often before the sun’s first rays, if they plan on eating short-lived fruits like figs. And they build the previous night’s nests in the direction of these trees, so they can get a headstart on any competitors.

“The results are entirely consistent with the idea that the chimps are not simply prisoners of the present, but think about what to do next, and do so a while in advance,” says Carel van Schaik, who was not involved with the study. And by planning their future activities, they can compensate for the fluctuations in their food supply. By applying their considerable brains, they keep their guts full.

Janmaat discovered these abilities by following a group of chimps in the Ivory Coast’s Tai National Park. She would track the animals during the day, mark where they slept at night, and return before the next sunrise to watch them get up. It was a punishing schedule, but it yielded an important observation: sometimes, the chimps descended to the forest floor while it was still dark.