Ceci N’Est Pas Un Oeuf

I know Spring really is here when the Cromer Poultry Great War Re-Enactment Society lays the first egg of the year. This is it. As I don’t know which particular member of the CPGWRS laid this particular egg, I shall view it as a result of collective endeavour and say – well done, Ladies!
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And with the final arrival of Spring, I shall bring these annals to a close. Like the man said – mit der Dummheit kämpfen die Götter selbst vergebens. Or, in other words, un oeuf is un oeuf.

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Medicine and Maths

IMG_8304As you both know, Crox Minor wants to become a surgeon, and some time ago she announced that what she most wanted to do to celebrate her 16th birthday was to go to London and visit the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. So that’s what we did, and we’ve just got back.
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The museum is built on the collection of eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter, a pioneer of the use of scientific methods and careful observation applied to medicine and surgery. For those who wish to know more I’d strongly recommend the biography The Knife Man by Wendy Moore. I bought this in the gift shop and it’s a bodice-ripping read (I’ve reviewed it here.)

IMG_8306Hunter did much more than collect unusual specimens of human pathology (skulls and bones hugely distorted by massive tumours and syphilitic lesions seemed to have been a particular favourite) and other bizarre examples of human freakery: he had a vast collection of comparative material of animals and plants, including fossils – so I was right at home.

Highlights included several film shows featuring operations. Crox Minor’s reaction to the one in which a brain tumour was removed was a hushed ‘best birthday ever!’ She did remark however on the unusually close juxtaposition of the museum gift shop and a case full of pickled foetuses, as if one might take one of the latter home by mistake under the impression one had bought a set of postcards.

IMG_8309IMG_8308On the way between Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Kingsway we came across this peculiar example of urban public art, which looks like a corner of a building frozen in the moment of collapse. Though having just emerged from the Hunterian our immediate thought was that the building had developed an uncomfortable tumour.

Our next stop was the Science Museum where we immediately went upstairs to see the Wellcome Galleries of the History of Medicine. Perhaps we were all medicine’d out by then, as they didn’t seem as impressive as the Hunterian.

Crox Minor’s other love, besides medicine, is maths, so while we were at the Science Museum we enjoyed a visit to the small but perfectly formed maths gallery, with its models of polyhedra, sculptures of the surfaces of three-dimensional equations, demonstrations of topology and a wonderful glass case of Klein bottles.

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Crox Minor among the polyhedra, recently

IMG_8314IMG_8313In the car on the way down to London we got into a discussion of countable and uncountable infinities, you know, like you do, so once at a convenient wayside caff I dialed up Amazon on my iPhone and ordered A Brief History of Infinity by my friend Mr B. C. of Swindon.

Later, on the way out of the Science Museum we of course visited the museum shop where Mr. B. C. of Swindon’s books are prominently on display. (None of mine, though – I suppose they must be at the Natural History Museum next door. We didn’t check, as by then we were cream crackered.) The book we left with was The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz.

On the way home we listened to Crox Minor’s playlist featuring delectable combinations of Alter Bridge, Marina and the Diamonds, Gotye, Globus and Lady Gaga, and before she nodded off, Crox Minor said that if she worked really, really hard at her exams she’d quite like to study medicine at Imperial. So watch out. Professor S. C.

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It Has Not Escaped Our Notice #47

Custom-made Universes, made to order in Cromer. And you thought Cromer was all about crabs.
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The Anonymity of Warfare

My colleague Professor S. C. of London has just alerted us to a short film clip showing how airmen prepared an atomic bomb for use on Nagasaki in 1945, commenting that the full horror of the piece lies in its banality.

It’s apposite that he posts this in the centenary year of the outbreak, not of World War 2, but of the Great War – the first mechanised war, in which killing was made possible remotely and on an industrial scale. In all earlier conflicts one more or less had to see your enemies in person before killing them, during which process you would run significant risk of being killed yourself – horrible, I know, but leaving room for such heroic virtues as valour and bravery.

Mechanised warfare removes all that. The Great War introduced tanks, large-scale aerial bombardment, and most of all the regular use of gigantic howitzers which could dump an explosive shell the mass of a car on an enemy located many miles distant. From this came rocketry, ICBMs and high-altitude bombing, in which one could, while sitting more or less in aseptic comfort and safety, press a button and unleash death on millions of anonymous people a long way away, and then go home for tea as if nothing much had happened. None of this existed before the Great War.

During the Great War, fighting had turned from the adrenaline rush and risk of up-close-and-personal involvement to a kind of banal bureaucratic exercise waged not by knights with swords and shields, riding horses, but functionaries with pens and paper, riding desks. This kind of war, waged without any risk for the aggressor, allows for the disconnect to which S. C. alludes, in which servicemen seem to be going about a normal working day, the consequences of which will be to kill millions. One could say the same for those who order, say, mass genocide. It always amazes me, for example, that civilized, cultured Germans could send millions of people to highly industrial death factories, cataloguing it all in enormous detail, and go home at the end of the day to their families and put their feet up.

In one or other of his critical assessments of Tolkien (either The Road to Middle-earth or J. R. R. Tolkien – Author of the Century) Tom Shippey makes the case that this transition, from old-fashioned and somehow ‘virtuous’ warfare to the banality of industrialized warfare waged at a distance, was an important spur for Tolkien’s own writing.

Tolkien had served as a signals officer on the Western Front and was present at the First Battle of the Somme (full details are given in Tolkien and the Great War, a superb biography by John Garth.) When he was invalided out, he wrote a story called ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ in which the city of the title, though full of valorous elvish knights, eventually succumbs to an enemy consisting of mass-produced, expendable and soulless orcs (whose conversation, when we hear it in The Lord of the Rings, is taken straight from the mouths of Tommies in the trenches), and – perhaps more significantly – fire-breathing, articulated armoured machines (interpreted as ‘dragons’ but quite plainly a gloss for tanks or large artillery-pieces.)

This story formed the germ for The Silmarillion and eventually The Lord of the Rings in which you will note that the aggressor, Sauron, unlike his noble adversaries, is never seen in battle, and is said that he is likely to emerge only when his war is won. Sauron is the Lord of the Rings – important enough to be named in the title but who is always offstage as a character. His lieutenants, the Black Riders, do appear in battle, but are made of nothing – literally, faceless, like the bureaucrats who wage modern wars.

Forget Sassoon and Owen and Brooke – more than any other author, it was Tolkien who grasped the wider implications of the impersonality of mechanised warfare.

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Repair Newie

Cromer is pulling itself together after last December’s storm surge. When the Canes croxorum and I took advantage of the sunshine earlier today to investigate, we found that the beach huts were, in general, assuming a more upright state, though some were more upright than others …
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… and a few of the repairs have a pleasing do-it-yourself quality.IMG_8284
Some of the repairs, though, are altogether more heavy duty and have an eye on protecting this vulnerable coast from further erosion. Even as I write, workmen are laying out enormous plate steel pilings (here they are, with Canis secundus croxorum for scale, in her bright pink hi-viz jacket) on the East Beach  …
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… The pilings are being bashed into a huge trench, currently being dug just in front of the present sea defence.
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The friendly drivers of the heavy plant said that the pilings will have to be in and covered up before the Easter holidays …
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Eventually, the pilings will be the foundations of a more extensive sea defence the construction of which is due to start in November.

A little further along the beach there are two constructions of a more artistic nature: two series of stones heaped up on the worn pilings marking the end of a breakwater.
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I don’t know about you, but to me the larger one …
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looks a lot like one of those giant heads or moai on Rapa Nui (Easter Holiday Island).
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Some moai, recently.

Could this remarkable installation be read as a comment on man-made environmental degradation and the futility of trying to tame the savage encroachment of the sea? Or it simply a Cromer version of a Polynesian statue, not so much regal as warty, with a stream of weedy snot streaming from its nose?

Who can say?

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The Great War Remembered #2

IMG_8278‘Standing Orders, Poussin-en-Corbeille, 1917′ by the Cromer Poultry Great War Re-Enactment Society.

While we’re on the subject of the Great War, I’d recommend the BBC Mini-Series 37 Days to War, which you can view on the BBC iPlayer, but probably only if you are in the UK.

If you can’t, the plot is handily summarised in this useful revision aid sent to me by Mr K. Z. of Finchley.

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The Book Thief of Gravity

I spent most of yesterday afternoon and late evening watching two very different films: The Book Thief, and Gravity. Here, then, are my impressions – be aware that there are spoilers, so, if you don’t want to know what happens, please read the following with your eyes shut.

bookthiefmovieI was taken by Crox Minor to see The Book Thief at our local enormoplex. It’s based on the terrific if rather eccentric novel by Markus Zusak, which was one of my top ten reads of 2013. The action takes place in a small town in Germany between 1938 and 1945, the adoptive home of a small girl called Liesel. Wrenched by the Nazis from her communist parents, Liesel is sent to live with Herr and Frau Hubermann – he, a friendly-yet-cynical sometime house painter who has never quite got round to joining the Nazi party (yes, the irony is right there); she, a foul-mouthed shrew.

Liesel is illiterate but soon learns to read through a small and random selection of books – found, stolen and strayed. The home is filled further by Max, a young Jewish refugee, housed by the Hubermanns to redeem a debt incurred when Max’s father gave his life to save Papa Hubermann in the Great War. Her best friend is her classmate Rudi Steiner, a blond-haired athlete who – to his parents’ chagrin – blacks himself up in homage to his hero Jesse Owens, star of the ’36 Berlin Olympiad.

It’s all there, then: the persecution of Jews, communists and anyone who looks in any way odd; Kristallnacht; the burning of un-Aryan books; the pervading atmosphere of oppression; the stench of fear; of secrets whose revelation would mean death. Given such powerful ingredients, then, the movie is emotionally bland. Perhaps it’s because the story is essentially from a child’s point-of-view; or because it’s hard to write a screenplay from a highly nonlinear book whose narrator is Death. Yes, that’s him – cowl, scythe, salmon mousse. Though here he prefers a plain, dark suit.

Not that the film isn’t beautifully shot: it’s gorgeous, and so is the music, by the ubiquitous John Williams. It’s the acting. Sophie Nélisse (Liesel) could have traded some of her Shirley-Temple looks for more fluidity; Emily Watson is perhaps too nice as the spiky Frau Hubermann. For me, the whole piece is carried by Geoffrey Rush (Herr Hubermann), who conveys more in a shrug or a wink than most actors do in a whole movie.

Oh yes, that, and the dialogue. Now, everyone in the film with a speaking part is German. Some of the German (propaganda songs, political speeches) actually is in German, with subtitles. So why do the actors all speak English with German accents, and always say nein when they mean ‘no’? To be fair, the book does the same thing, and both book and film are constrained to do so by the frequent use (by Frau Hubermann) of hard-to-translate insults; Saukerl, Saumensch and so on. But these are hardly Schadenfreude or Weltanschauung, and the overall effect is a bit ‘Allo ‘Allo.

gravitymovieI’d heard good things about Gravity, but as nobody chez Crox wanted to see it except me, I downloaded it last night on iTunes and watched it in HD on my 24″ computer screen – which, to be fair, is only slightly smaller than Screen 4 at the Cromer Enormoplex where we’d enjoyed The Book Thief

The action of Gravity takes place almost entirely in low-Earth orbit, and in zero gravity. It opens with astronauts contentedly at work fixing things around the Space Shuttle. It’s the first time in space for engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), whose nerves and nausea are genially soothed by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) for whom this routine mission is his last.

But things turn rapidly for the worse when some Russian satellites smash into one another, initiating a chain-reaction in which most of Earth’s satellites are wiped out, sending a rain of space debris whizzing round the planet at 50,000 mph. The lethally hard rain turns the Space Shuttle into so much half-chewed weetabix, marooning Stone and Kowalski in space, and that’s when it gets really exciting.

The technical achievement of this film almost disguises the fact that this is essentially a one-woman show. The only actors we see are Bullock and Clooney, and Clooney for only about half the film. Good-time George walks it, doing what he does best, which is wisecracking gently while oozing a quiet, masculine authority (he’s less than a year older than me, the cur.) It’s Bullock who is the revelation. I’d always had her down as more rom-com fluffy than all-action toughie, but in Gravity she outdoes Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise for thrawn, flinty and pragmatic competence, yet adding an emotional core essential for her character’s development.

The quality of her acting makes the credits, when they roll after a perfectly judged ninety minutes, seem all the more surprising – where we see only two actors (we hear a few more) the technical credits roll, and, having rolled, keep on rolling: stunt performers, CGI artists, motion capturers, matte painters, coypu handlers, animators of every kind, all of whose immense illusioneering contrives to make near-Earth space look and feel absolutely real.

But the best scene is the last, on Earth, and almost effects-free, when Bullock, having splashed down in a remote lake, crawls ashore, floundering in the mud like the first creature ever to have emerged onto land from the primeval ooze. That’s when we feel the weight of the gravity in which we live, and which Bullock has learned to live without, and against which terrific force Bullock rises on tottering limbs, as victorious as a new-born lamb.

Or, maybe, the second-best. Midway through the film there’s a brief moment of peace after Bullock reaches the sanctuary of a spacecraft, and, shedding her space-suit, floats fetally in the circular womb of the airlock, the cabling in the background umbilically placed – recalling, for me, the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in whose mighty company Gravity, as a serious movie about space exploration, assuredly belongs.

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Careful With That Amphioxus, Eugene

Spare a thought for the amphioxus, a humble marine creature which spends its adult life buried in sand, filtering particles of food from seawater using its beautiful and elaborate system of gill slits. amhioxusOn the left is a picture of the front end of one of these creatures. Although it doesn’t have a ‘head’ as such, you can see the tentacle-like cirri surrounding the mouth; the long, narrow slits (protected, in the adult, by an additional layer, the atrium); and, above these, a stiffening rod called the notochord, and, above that, a tubular nerve cord. The last-mentioned features are of particular interest to us, because they are shared with vertebrates, the animal group which includes ourselves. Together with the tunicates, the amphioxus and the vertebrates form the chordates, in which the notochord is a defining feature. Tunicates only have the notochord as larvae. In almost all vertebrates, the notochord is replaced by the bony skeleton of the spine.

The pharynx (that is, the throat region, perforated with slits) is also a chordate feature. In tunicates and the amphioxus, the pharynx is clothed in cilia, used to set up a filter-feeding current – the pharynx as such has no muscles, and is not deformable. Particles of food are trapped on the gill skeleton and transported to the oesophagus on a conveyor-belt of mucus, secreted by glandular tissue in a gutter – the endostyle – that runs along the ventral edge of the pharynx. Although some other relatives of chordates have very similar and possibly homologous arrangements of pharyngeal slits, the endostyle is a typically chordate feature.

Among vertebrates, though, the arrangement is seen only in lampreys, and even then only in the larvae. In adults, the endostyle is rolled up to become the thyroid gland, and the pharyngeal slits swap cilia for the muscles, blood vessels and innervation we associate with gills. This transformation is associated with neural crest, a multipotent embryonic tissue found only in vertebrates, which is deeply involved in the formation of the skin, the dermal skeleton (including much of the skull, head and face), the organs of special sense, bits and pieces of the heart, and other stuff.

The amphioxus shows no sign at all of this embryonic tissue, and indeed looks rather like you’d imagine a fish might, without it: sans head, sans ears, sans eyes, sans skull, sans face, sans almost everything. The notochord and nerve cord run uninterrupted right from the prow to the stern: the name ‘amphioxus’ means ‘pointed at both ends’. (The tunicates, though, might have a smidgeon of neural crest, but tunicates are weird. I won’t discuss them any more here.)

So much for the adult amphioxus –  the larval amphioxus, however, does have muscles associated with the pharynx, and these are examined in a report in the latest issue of the Journal of Morphology by Kinya Yasui of Hiroshima University and colleagues.

The musculature is all a part of the eldritch bizarrerie that is amphioxus juvenilia. Although the adult amphioxus looks neatly symmetrical, with pharyngeal slits arranged in pairs, one on each side, this appearance of regularity is an illusion. The larval amphioxus is highly asymmetrical. The development of the pharynx in the amphioxus is what we trained professional zoologists describe, with typical technical circumlocution, as ‘bonkers’. In any sane world you might expect the pharyngeal slits to develop either all at once, or in orderly left-right pairs. Segmentation in fruit flies, or the formation of somites in vertebrates, follows such patterns. Not so the pharyngeal slits in the amphioxus.

The left-side slits form first – but not on the left. No, they form along the mid-ventral line, whence they move upwards to the … er … right side. Well, mostly. There’s a single, greatly enlarged pharyngeal slit on the left side, which forms a temporary mouth. At this stage, the larva swims freely in the water, although it spends most of its time hovering, ingesting anything its cilia pull in.

Yasui and colleagues show that these asymmetrically placed pharyngeal slits do indeed have muscles, but they serve only to close the slits. With no antagonistic muscles that might serve as slit-openers, re-opening depends on muscular relaxation.

A little later in development, a second series of pharyngeal slits appears, on the right side, above the first row.

And then it gets really barmy.

The pharyngeal slits rotate, as one, so that the first series moves downwards, back across the ventral midline, to become, finally, the left pharyngeal slits, leaving room for the right-side slits to develop in place.

Now, all of this has been known since Kowalevsky1 described it in 1866. Yasui and colleagues’ contribution is the study of the musculature of the larval pharynx, and in particular how, when the animal develops an atrium and metamorphoses into an adult, these muscles are lost. The expression of genes for enzymes called caspases in the deteriorating muscles suggests that they degenerate by apoptosis – programmed cell death – a process widely found in embryonic development. For example, our fingers first appear all stuck together in a paddle-like sheet, our free-fingered hands forming by the programmed death of cells in between each digit.

One is entitled to ask why. Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near does the amphioxus go through such a peculiar rigmarole, with left-side slits developing in the middle, then moving to the right, and then, as if they can’t make up their minds, moving to the left again, leaving room for the right-side slits to develop later on?

It could be that something sinister2 is afoot. Perhaps this developmental program, with left-side slits developing before right-side ones, is a hold-over from some deeply chthonic tendency in the ancestry of chordates.

The closest relatives of chordates are hemichordates, some of which have pharyngeal slits superficially similar to those of the amphioxus, and which are bilaterally symmetrical on the level of gross anatomy. Hemichordates are closely related to the echinoderms –  spiny-skinned creatures such as sea urchins and starfishes. Although modern echinoderms have a pentameral symmetry, this is a secondary modification of a fundamentally bilateral body plan. Some extinct echinoderms, however, have no obvious planes of symmetry, and a few show what look very like pharyngeal gill slits. Here is one, Cothurnocystis, which looks like something H. R. Giger might have dreamed up after a heavy night on the sauce.cothurnocystis You can just make out a row of openings on the right-hand side (as you look at it) of the blobby ‘body’ of this creature. Now, if hemichordates and chordates all have pharyngeal slits, it’s a fair bet that they were present in their common ancestor; and if echinoderms and hemichordates are close cousins, it follows that echinoderms once had pharyngeal slits too, but lost them. Cothurnocystis, as a primitive echinoderm, could be an example of a primitive echinoderm in which pharyngeal slits were still present.

But if so, why just one row of pharyngeal slits? This curious circumstance led palaeontologist Richard Jefferies to wonder whether echinoderms such as Cothurnocystis might have had a bilaterally symmetrical ancestry, but somehow ‘lost’ the right side, leaving just the slits on the left side. Jefferies suggested that all chordates – including vertebrates – went through an echinoderm phase during their evolution. The asymmetry of the amphioxus could be a recapitulation of this lost past, in which a primitively bilaterally symmetrical creature ‘lost’ its right side, leaving the left pharyngeal slits as the only game in town. A ‘new’ set of right-side slits would appear later in evolution, the later-developing right pharyngeal slits in the amphioxus being an echo of this.

It has to be said that Jefferies’ views, articulated in a book3, are generally regarded as too complicated to be credible, and are in any case virtually ruled out of contention by genomics. The echinoderm mesodermal skeleton is a very strange and specialised affair. Analysis of the genome of the purple sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus shows that skeletogenesis is associated with genetic programs of which no trace is found in chordate genomes, which one might expect had chordates been through an echinoderm stage in their ancestry.

In any case, Yasui and colleagues have another, simpler answer: that the asymmetry of the amphioxus is a peculiarity of its lineage in particular, not a preternatural memory of its evolutionary heritage.

It’s a small thing: blink and you’d miss it. The researchers show that as the right pharyngeal slits are forming, high on the right-hand side, as the left-hand slits are moving towards their final destination, these slits are accompanied, briefly, by muscle – just like the left-hand slits. This suggests that the pharyngeal slits, in the amphioxus at least, were primitively biserial, and that the peculiarities of the amphioxus as we see today presumably reflect some constraint on present-day larval life, rather than the preternatural echoes of some distant evolutionary heritage.

My thanks to Professor N. H. of San Diego whose comments have improved this piece. Any remaining errors are (of course) mine.

1. Kowalevsky, A. (1866) Entwicklungsgeschichte des Amphioxus lanceolatus, Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences de St Pétersbourg (7)10, no. 15, pp. 1-19.

2. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

3. Jefferies, R. P. S. (1986) The Ancestry of the Vertebrates, London: British Museum (Natural History).

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Tsundoku III

As it’s National Book week all this week, and yesterday was World Book Day, this lunchtime saw me indulging my tsundoku habit at the Break charity shop in Cromer (well, that’s my excuse.) This is what I bought:
IMG_8270Peoples and Empires by Anthony Pagden is a new one on me. It looks at the history of the imperial concept from antiquity to the present day. What are empires for? Do they have a stabilising effect on the world, keeping it from something worse (as Niall Ferguson says in Empire and Colossus)? Or is it, in general, a Bad Thing?

In any case, I found that slim volume next to a big fat copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which takes a much more naturalistic approach to history. It shows that the fortunes of civilizations are driven not so much by politics as by the disposition of natural resources, climatic zones and even the shapes of continents. I’ve read G, G. & S. before. It’s an expansion of the final chapter of his brilliant book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, my copy of which I read and re-read until it fell to bits; and leads into Collapse, an analysis of the factors which determine the success or failure of civilization, and which in my view is a masterpiece [Thinks - must look out for these in my next fit of tsundokuismus.]

Diamond’s voice will always seem quieter than that of Richard Dawkins, yet I was pleased to discover a copy of Climbing Mount Improbable, a favourite of mine among the oeuvre of that turbulent priest don. His demonstration of how very small, random changes in morphology can produce a form which has every appearance of design is nothing less than a tour-de-force.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing the voice of veteran foreign correspondent Kate Adie on the wireless, so coming across her autobiography The Kindness of Strangers was a pleasure. I look forward to tales of hairsbreadth ‘scapes, of anters vast, and deserts idle, without ever having to leave my sofa.

Turning to the fiction section, I found Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. I have no idea what it’s about, but if it’s anything like as good as The Yiddish Policemens’ Union, which I read last year, I’m in for a treat.

And finally, a play: An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley. I remember being captivated by this more years ago than I care to admit. I might have been still at school. Now I find that Crox Minor is studying it for her GCSE, and enjoying it enormously, so this edition – with notes and assignments for GCSE students – should make a nice surprise for her when she gets back from school later.

And all for less than eight quid.

Happy reading everyone!

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Sits Vac

One or other of you might be interested to know that a well-known weekly professional science magazine beginning with N is seeking a locum evolution and ecology editor to cover paternity leave for a 6-7 month period starting this June.  The full advertisement appears here. If you are interested, please apply through the advert –  don’t post applications here. If you know someone else who might be interested – a colleague, postdoc, loved one, house mate or pet, for instance – please pass them the link. Go on. Do it now. You know you want to.

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