Cromercroxis an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets. His latest book is The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, published by the University of Chicago Press. He enjoys writing, playing rock organ, beachcombing, supporting Norwich City FC, and falling asleep.
DisclaimerThis is a personal weblog. The views and opinions expressed here and in the comments do not necessarily reflect those of the Nature Publishing Group, and should not be read as such.
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Books on GoodreadsFutures from Nature
ratings: 64 (avg rating 3.38)
In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life
ratings: 29 (avg rating 3.72)
The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!
ratings: 32 (avg rating 3.22)
Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome
ratings: 15 (avg rating 3.60)
A Field Guide to Dinosaurs
ratings: 10 (avg rating 4.50)
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Croxulonimbusantisemitism beach beachcombing big boots would have been better than crox books brian clegg by the sea canis croxorum chooks chthonic cromer Cromer East Beach data entry at the OK corral defiant the guinea pig die Labour die dog eldritch erumpent evolution hieronymous bosch i remember when we once had grass jeremiad lobsterpots no coach parties on the ball city! oy veh my poor feet Professor Trellis of North Wales release of calcium from intracellular stores science fiction sea mammal research unit seven transmembrane helix G-protein coupled receptors sex silliness syllabub that ursula andress moment The Accidental Species the beowulf effect the science of middle earth the sigil thinking thinking about thinking tolkien writing you might as well give up now and shop at mr fatbastard z-radiation
Norfolk... is a long way away from anywhere, and if I were you, I shouldn't start from here. By the time you get to the outskirts of Cromer, any distinctions between science, beachcombing, social commentary, writing and animal husbandry have started to blur. When the process is complete, you know you've arrived at the End Of The Pier Show. So, welcome. Find somewhere to park your unicycle. Pull up a
girrafechair. Make yourself comfortable.
The printing history of The Lord of the Rings is reputedly one of the more complex and tangled issues in modern publishing history. Matters aren’t quite so fraught for The Science of Middle-earth, my own contribution to the canon. For those interested, the second edition until now only available as an eBook for Kindle is now available as this handsome paperback, brought to you by ReAnimus Press, the people who published my SF trilogy, The Sigil. I know that some of you, most notably Dr R. W. of Toronto, were keen to see a new paperback edition, so here it is. Order it. Read it. Enjoy.
For those who’d like some background, I started writing about science for the noted fan site TheOneRing.Net, and collected my columns and added a lot more stuff into a paperback published by Cold Spring (not the same as Cold Spring Harbor – Ed.) This edition was licensed by Souvenir Press for the UK market, and also translated into German. But that was some time ago: more recently my agent put out a Kindle version – which was, in effect, a second edition, as I had the chance to correct some mistakes and make a few necessary emendations, notwithstanding inasmuch as which there was no paperback equivalent of that revised electronic edition – until now.
I’m posting this to celebrate the recovery of the second one along on the bottom row, found by me earlier today on Cromer East Beach while Crox Minor and I were walking the dogs.
It’s worth celebration because we don’t discover these very often.
They are all fossils of echinoids (sea urchins) that weather from the chalk cliff above Cromer East Beach. I think they are from the Turonian Stage of the Late Cretaceous, making them around 90 million years old. I’m not confident of identifying them to species, but with a copy in hand of the fifth edition of British Mesozoic Fossils (Plates 68 and 69) I suspect that they are all Echinocorys scutata, except for the fourth and fifth on the bottom row – the smaller, heart-shaped ones – which are probably Micraster sp. If you know better, please say.
Although there might be two or three more of these echinoids hanging around the place, this collection represents a family effort over the past six years. So, as you see, we don’t find them often. I admit our effort has hardly been systematic, and discoveries have tailed off in recent years. This is mainly because the best fossil hunter in the family is Crox Minima, who, in earlier years, combined a keen eye with being much closer to the ground than anyone else. There was one memorable day when, with her help, we discovered two of these in the space of five minutes. Now she is thirteen, much taller, and like most of her friends, spends much of her time in her room chatting to her friends on social media, and rarely comes to the beach.
It all goes to show that even fossils regarded as being common enough to figure in popular fossil-hunting guides are actually rare. The number of living echinoids to be preserved as fossils is a small percentage of those that ever lived. Even then, the number of fossils that survive long enough between having been weathered out of the cliff and ground by the tides into any other featureless pebble without having first being spotted by a passing beachcomber and recognised as a fossil must also be small.
Together, the probability of a creature surviving long enough to be memorialized on someone’s stylish IKEA display unit is so small as to be hardly worth mentioning. It’s amazing we know anything at all about past worlds.
This is a point I make in my Shameless Plug, which, while I’m on the subject, has sold in excess of 4,600 copies in all formats in just under four months, and is heading for a reprint, so thanks to all of you who have been spreading the word. I hear a paperback is planned for the autumn, and an audiobook is in the works.
(We’ve found belemnites, too, but they’re common as muck.)
Mrs Crox has just passed me a story on some unforseen consequences of the present inclement weather.
The full story may be found here.
I love maths. My adoration of maths has, however, been largely unrequited. Having long since abandoned my one-way devotion as hopeless, I have recently been forced into a number of startling episodes of nostalgia, now that Crox Minor (15) is studying hard for her GCSE exams at school. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, her efforts bring back for me those long nights toiling over my homework, with all the attendant agony and impotent frustration.
But that was then. After ploughing through the fetid undergrowth of the Foundation paper (which is largely sums, sums and more sums) Crox Minor has pushed through to the sunlit uplands of the Higher paper, which offers more in the way of conceptual clout.
Now she, too, has fallen in love with maths and the power of number.
Recently, while we were walking together on the beach, she confessed to me her wonderment that a simple ratio such as pi can crop up repeatedly in the natural world. How can something that seems so demonstrably a product of human ingenuity find its expression in nature?
I came hard up against such wonderment when Crox Minor showed me a problem in a GCSE past paper. It went like this:
Prove that the sum of two consecutive integers is equal to the difference between their squares.
It’s amazing to me that the proof of something so staggeringly fundamental is within the grasp of GCSE maths. (I’m also amazed I’d never heard of this.)
It’s really, really easy.
If your integer is n, then the next consecutive integer is n+1. The sum of these is n+n+1 = 2n+1. Put that one aside, and let’s get squaring. The square of n is n2, and the square of n+1 is (n+1)(n+1) = n2+2n+1. The difference between these squares is n2+2n+1-n2 = 2n+1 … which is the same as the sum of the two integers. QED.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but be astonished by this. Take any two consecutive integers, and they add up to the difference between their squares.
It makes me start thinking about integers as concepts, and what it might be that makes them distinctive, and a whole lot of philosophical stuff I really haven’t the ability to articulate. I don’t think, however, that I should feel belittled, intellectually, in my sense of inexpressible awe. After all, such longheads as Whitehead and Russell needed three whole volumes to summarise the basics of the properties of numbers, and I believe (I haven’t read Principia Mathematica myself, you understand) it took them a hundred pages to show that 1+1=2.
As for me, I am just hopelessly lost in the wonder and awe of it.
Americans do love collecting leftovers for their dogs. I took this picture at the highly recommended Ironworks BBQ restaurant in Austin, TX, last month.
Over here we are a little less free and easy about what our dogs consume, as evidenced by this notice, pictured yesterday outside Blickling Hall, a National Trust property near Cromer whose fine secondhand bookshop I like to patronise.
This Sunday last, I ‘outed’ a pseudonymous blogger known as Dr Isis. Given the consequences of that action, I should like to say a few things about the business that I hope will clarify matters.
First, I want to apologise to Dr Isis for naming her; for belittling her in a subsequent tweet; and if this exposure has put her in a vulnerable situation. The context in which I did this is set out below, and may go some way towards explaining what happened.
It might surprise some to learn that I fully support the right of people to write under pseudonyms, if they feel they need to. Pseudonyms allow people the licence to speak more freely than they might, for example, if they thought their employer might be looking over their shoulder. Pseudonyms allow people to adopt a persona that is quite different from the one they adopt in real life, or simply to draw a distinction between one part of their life and another.
On the right you’ll see a disclaimer absolving my employer from any views held here, which are my own. Although not explicit, this disclaimer would also apply to my personal Twitter account. However, this is a case where there has some been some blurring.
It should not be a surprise, however, to learn that I take pseudonymity and anonymity very seriously. This is part of my responsibility as an editor of Nature. Some people write to Nature anonymously and trust us to respect that anonymity. As you may know, if you have submitted material to Nature and had it reviewed, the referees of papers submit their reports under condition of anonymity unless they specifically ask for their identities to be revealed. The reasons for this are similar to those that prompt writers to adopt pseudonyms: if we want referees to speak frankly about competitors or colleagues, these referees should be accorded the privilege of anonymity. In my experience, the most informative reports come from young researchers who might not have obtained tenure. To expect them to write meaningful reports about papers submitted by people who might later be sitting on their tenure committees would be to ask far too much.
As part of my job I am bound to take identities of referees of papers I’ve handled to the grave, and I adhere to this rule as strongly now as I always have during my 26 years of service.
On the other hand, I do not think that pseudonymity or anonymity gives people the licence to say things to or about others that are deliberately hurtful – things that they mightn’t say under their true identities. There have been times when I have asked referees to rewrite reports that contain language that’s likely to seem gratuitously offensive. Even then, I wouldn’t reveal the identities of such referees.
Since 2010, Dr Isis has, in my opinion, waged a campaign of cyberbullying against me. I do not feel it appropriate to rake over the history of this situation, but throughout it I have been subject to unfair personal criticism including the repeated unjust assertion that I am sexist. This is untrue and is an allegation I find deeply distressing. I do not think that anyone deserves to be personally and publicly attacked in this way. As an editor and member of the online community I am absolutely up for a robust debate, but this went far beyond what I feel is acceptable.
In my own case, Dr Isis’ attacks contributed to a deepening of my long-running depression to the extent that I required time off and medical intervention. Through all this, however, I have maintained a degree of silence over this, even though Dr Isis’ true identity has long been known to me.
Last week Nature published an item of correspondence which in my view was at best what John Maddox, the late Editor of Nature, would have described as ‘content-free’, and at worst sexist. Had I been the editor that day, I wouldn’t have published it. I understand that Nature has now recognised that it shouldn’t have been published.
On Sunday, I saw a tweet from Dr Isis in which she suggested that I might have been the editor responsible for that particular item of correspondence (in fact, I only saw it after I’d read that tweet.) Now, I should simply have tweeted a clarification – just to say that no, I was not the editor of that particular piece, that I had had nothing to do with it, and move on.
What I did, however, was regrettable, and in 20-20 hindsight, I wish I hadn’t done it; I ‘outed’ Dr Isis from my personal Twitter account. However, one should understand that I am, contrary to popular belief, a human being. The unjustified insults heaped on me by Dr Isis over years took their toll, and I snapped.
I am sorry that I did so. As a result, I have withdrawn on a personal basis from social media such as Twitter.
Many readers will regard it as a surprise that I am, philosophically at least, a feminist, and support the campaigns of Nature to investigate the abiding issues of women in science and elsewhere. Each month I donate to a charity that supports three small girls respectively in Haiti, Kenya and Sri Lanka, enabling them to go to school, for it is my firm view that the single biggest issue facing the world is the education of women in the developing world. To that extent I am sure that Dr Isis’s views and mine are congruent. What differs, I suspect, are the modes that people of different cultures and traditions regard as acceptable as discourse in the blogosphere. It seems that, more than ever, Brits and Americans remain separated by a common language.
Comments have been turned off.
There’s a story, probably apocryphal, of how Winston Churchill gave a speech to the Free French, ill-advisedly in the tongue of Molière and Balzac. Quand je regarde mon derrière, boomed Britain’s great wartime leader, Je vois qu’il est divisé en deux parts. None of which appears at first sight to have very much to do with the fine and definitely bipartite Creation by the radio presenter, former Nature editor, Man in White and all-round egghead, Adam Rutherford.
As the best books about evolution have probably all been written, says Rutherford, the only option is to write a book of two halves – one on what happened before evolution, and the other on what’s happening now, that is, how evolution is being co-opted by us humans. Like Churchill, he takes the two-halvedness quite literally. Creation is presented as two books, each with its own front cover. You can start reading Creation: The Origin of Life. Or, if you prefer, turn it backwards, flip it upside down and read Creation; The Future of Life. The books are each independent from the other, and are individually quite short, but – just like the two halves of Churchill’s derrière – they meet in the middle, and form a cohesive whole.
Of the two halves, The Origin of Life is the less successful. To be sure, it fizzes with brio, and perhaps strays more towards the breathless this-is-the-sound-of-a-flea-sneezing-magnified-five-million-times style than is really comfortable to one as jaded as I. There is much of the required rehearsal of the structure of nucleic acids and so on – necessarily so. Where it falls down is the discussion of the environment of the earliest days of the Earth – which is no surprise, as this is a fast-moving, deeply complex and contentious field. The classic Miller-Urey experiment is discussed, but I felt that a little more time could have been taken to discuss a few more historical ideas about the origins of life, such as Cairns-Smith’s ideas on the nucleation of molecules on clay minerals, or the seminal early thoughts of the likes of Oparin and Bernal.
The Future of Life is altogether more successful and makes up for any deficiencies in its companion. Rutherford’s overview of the still-very-new field of synthetic biology is masterful. But it’s where he gets into the legal and moral issues surrounding genetic modification that he really gets into his stride, using a philosophical and much more authoritative style that suits him better than the plain reportage elsewhere. True, the tone is far more serious, but is the more effective for all that. From this book you’d never know that, in person, Rutherford is killingly funny (as well as devilishly handsome – why no author photo, hmm?) I look forward to whatever he has up his sleeve next – something longer, deeper, more considered.
Here’s a snap I took this morning in the Vestibule des Girrafes, featuring Emma the until recently pissed-off Siamese Cat, and Heidi the Dog.
Now, normally, I’d invite captions, and you may submit some if you wish. However, to make it easier, I posted the picture on Twitter and Facebook, and was deluged by
a letter from Professor Trellis of North Wales some really wonderful suggestions, reproduced below, all of which gave us all chez Crox several seconds of chortlesome pleasure. I have taken the liberty of reproducing them below.
If I have to speak to you again about chasing my friends there’s going to be trouble!
- Thony Christie
I told you not to eat that cheese.
- Vaughan Stanger
So I know why I’m out here, but what did you do?
- Lucy Ghose Warren
Please don’t tell on me or I’m in the dog house, again.
- Helen Ruhl
Dog, don’t let the humans get you down.
- Hans Sues
CAT: I hate dogs.
DOG: I know.
- Lee Berger
Why are you on the naughty step?
- Miriam Carter
I am an animagus, dog… think about it – have you ever seen me and Cheryl Cole in a room at the same time?
- Geoffrey North
The two of them waited in the corridor for hours while the debate raged. Would it be cat, or would it be dog?
- David Polly
Cat reviews new Gee seating plan with disdain.
- Whilhelm De Neve
I thought you had the backdoor key.
- Bill Parsons
- Caro-Beth Stewart
(CAT to DOG) How could you?
- Charles R. Crumly
Psst, party tonight. Don’t tell me you forgot to buy the gin.
- Lynn Gard Price
They’re coming. Look innocent.
- Patricia Dusenbury
This guy walked into a bar. The other guy ducked.
- Iraj Sarfeh
I don’t know… it’s like we never even really talk anymore…
- Ruth De Neve
Don’t worry, Heidi. Everyone accidentally says “missing link” in front of him some time.
- Brian Clegg
Cheer up, we’ll just reformat it for Science or PNAS.
- Jason Head [this appears to be an in-joke. Ed.]
No, I don’t think he likes you. I don’t like you either.
- Mandy Holloway
Henry’s been in there a long time hasn’t he?
- Jane Morris
So… where do YOU wanna go?
- Richard Sutton
That Gee. Very indigestible.
- Sarah Tanburn