Science and the Movies

A few weeks back I went to see Jurassic World. This isn’t a film review blog, so it wasn’t something I was planning on discussing. But I’ve read and listened to quite a few discussions around the representation of science in the media (for example The Infinite Monkey Cage), and that has ultimately prompted me to write something.

Now, I’m not going to actually assess the science of Jurassic World, or more broadly the Jurassic Park series. There are plenty of others that have done that (e.g. Here and Here and Here but I will say their attempt at a throwaway defence doesn’t work).

Nor will I particularly ‘review’ Jurassic World, although my opinion will inevitably come through.

No, what I want to discuss is the general importance of science in movies. Because there were several ‘killjoy palaeontologists badmouth Jurassic World’ articles, and I don’t think that’s remotely fair.

So, let’s say it right up front. Jurassic World isn’t a bad film because its dinosaurs have no feathers, or because the genetic science underpinning it is wrong, or because it doesn’t understand fossilisation, or because of issues with physics, or chemistry, or any other branch of the sciences. No. It’s a bad film because it’s badly written, badly acted, and badly made.

That may seem mean-spirited, but it’s the crux of my view of science and the movies. If the science in Jurassic World was absolutely flawless, but everything else was the same, it would still be a bad film. If the science was as flawed as it undoubtedly is, but the rest of the film was fun and engaging and held your attention, then it would be a good film regardless.

A great example is the original Jurassic Park. I could easily write a few hundred words on the many flaws of the science, flaws repeated and magnified in Jurassic World, but I still love the film. I don’t expect Star Wars or The Avengers to have great science. I expect them to be big and fun. Which they are. So the science of how the Millennium Falcon flies, or the Hulk grows, doesn’t matter a bit. If Jurassic World was big, dumb, fun, I’d be happy.

Don’t get me wrong, good science in a good film is a pleasure. It enhances the overall experience. Something like The Dish, or Awakenings, or Apollo 13, that is rooted in real science is great to see. But in all three cases, the films have to be good too (and they are). In a good film, the good science enhances, the bad is forgiven.

There is an exception to this though. If you are a film like Gravity, or Sunshine, or Interstellar, and you really make a selling point of being shaped and guided by scientific advice, that you are striving for accuracy, then you are making a rod for your own back. You better get it right, because now we are going to see a film expecting good science. Any failing will, quite rightly, be magnified by the lens you chose to place on it. It’s like making a biographical film and getting substantial chunks of the narrative wrong, all because you think this improves the story (hint: 99% of the time it doesn’t).

Even here the good/bad rule comes into effect though. Sunshine is a good film, so the lesser aspects in the science get forgiven. Gravity is a great experience so you are pulled along (on the big screen that is; the small screen removes that particular shield and instead all the bad stuff comes back into play). But Interstellar’s bad moments bring down the whole movie. So rather than being able to ride it out, the whole thing collapses in on itself (a metaphor particularly appropriate to a film dealing with black holes).

The argument runs that people watch films, know they are films, and therefore it shouldn’t matter of the film is accurate. I would contend that anyone saying that has never worked in the fields of public science communications. For better or worse, films like Jurassic Park and Jurassic World shape the questions palaeontologists and other professionals receive for decades to come. Really, they do. My old colleagues in museums will be fending off Jurassic World related questions from now till their retirement. Even then, in the Home for Old Curators, young visitors will ask about spitting dilophosaurs and grasping pterosaurs.

So what is my conclusion, my advice to Hollywood? Please make good films first and foremost. Don’t make them dated, sexist, cheap, boring, poorly characterised, lacking in good dialogue, and utterly unengaging. That’s the most important thing. But, good science won’t harm your film. And bad science will affect people down the pecking order from you. So, if it’s not too much trouble, have a conversation with an expert along the way too. Don’t make up your mind the day you get the job, be open to creative possibilities. Because your film will only be better for it.

And just so we’re clear, if you are still thinking of seeing Jurassic World and haven’t yet, just leave it there. Go see Jurassic Park again instead.

Posted in About the blog, Birds, Geology, Fossils, Physics, Scientific Terminology, Evolution, Media, Tech stuff, Museums | Leave a comment

“Gullgate” – What really needs culling?

*Sorry, this started as a brief response and expanded into a long read. So if you make it to the end and agree, I’ll appreciate sharing through social media etc.

In defence of gulls

You have probably seen a lot of scare stories in the media recently about the ‘threat’ seagulls pose. To us, babies, to our pets, to our barbecues. This has inevitably led to calls for a cull (because that’s the solution to everything in the eyes of some people).

A seagull where it belongs

A seagull where it belongs

As with all such scares, the problem is that wildlife dares to be wild. It escapes the narrow boundaries we set it, and then becomes ‘a threat’. Seagulls are a prime example. Much of the hysteria now centres on how seagulls ‘are supposed’ to be at the seaside, at the coast, on cliffs. Not in towns and cities. In towns and cities they are a threat to ‘our garden birds’.

I’ve mentioned before my hatred of the term “garden birds”, because it implies there is a set of species that just exist for our gardens. But let’s be clear, any bird in your garden, be it a robin, a blackbird, a red kite, or a black-headed gull, is there because we changed the landscape. We moved food and resources from one place to another. We created, unintentionally, a more suitable habitat for the birds.

An urbanised winter gull

An urbanised winter gull

It’s also worth noting that there is, in fact, no such thing as a ‘seagull’. Look in any proper bird book and you will find numerous gulls. No seagulls. Because they have never been purely birds of the coastline. Many species move inland, especially to breed. As do some coastal waders like Oystercatchers. If, after moving inland, you discover life is a bit easier there, why not stay? No depleted fishing stocks to worry about on a human-made landfill site. Just lots and lots of easily accessible food.

A beautiful gull

A beautiful gull

Food is really the critical factor here. The key component in most of the scare stories involve the presence of food. Attacks come when the birds are trying to take food. But wild birds are naturally cautious and timid, why have they become so bold?

I mentioned this last week in ‘cuter’ context. Birds become tame when we make them associate us with food, not danger. For gulls, at the coast or in towns and cities, we are just moving food banks. Why? Because we are hugely wasteful, dirty, and messy.

Sometimes it’s unintentional, even unconscious. Pass through any major town or city and by late afternoon tiny wastebins are overflowing with discarded food. Plus the aforementioned landfill sites. All that presupposes we even make it to the bin, but lots of our waste just gets tossed on the streets with no real regard for the environment around us. It’s someone else’s problem.

How much worse would it be without gulls, corvids, rats, and other ‘pests’ clearing up after us? Should we not see these animals as a part of an ecosystem we have created? In parts of India, a local name for Kites translates as ‘sanitation worker’, because they appreciate that the birds are actually doing a valuable job.

The cold dead eyes of a killer?

The cold dead eyes of a killer?

There is the law of unintended consequence to our conscious actions too. Tourists at seaside towns love throwing the odd chip to a gull, watching them beg, watching them catch it in the air (and there is a wonderful irony that the same sections of the press now condemning the gulls, are the same that condemned local councils that tried to ban feeding gulls chips). Generations of gulls have been raised seeing this as a regular food source. We created that dependence, but our reaction to this inevitable relationship is to round on the birds, not on ourselves. The birds are not the guilty party.

The fundamental truth of this current wave of gullgate horror stories is exactly the same as we have seen with magpies, red kites, sea eagles, buzzards, foxes, and anything else that certain groups see as an inconvenience. Rather than address the root causes in our own behaviour, we must instead turn on the wildlife that has merely had the audacity to adapt to our dominance of the landscape.

It’s also no coincidence that these stories appear in exactly the same papers, take exactly the same tone, use exactly the same exaggerated untruths (no babies are under threat from gulls), and propose the exact same solutions. It’s because they are ultimately owned and run by the landowners and shooters that want to sanitise the world for their own benefit.

So, to answer my original question, what needs culling?

Our waste culture for starters. Let’s have smaller portion sizes at the chippy, so we don’t end up throwing loads away. Let’s buy less food, and sell less food, and see less food going to landfill. Let’s have wastebins that have sufficient capacity for the waste we produce, and more of them, and greater enforcement of littering laws.

Instead of running scare stories, let’s have more pieces that educate, that explain that we cannot have it both ways. If we feed birds, birds will see us as a source of food.

Instead of turning to death as a first resort in such times, let’s instead turn to life. Let’s vastly expand marine conservation zones and no-catch areas, ensuring fish stocks replenish and gulls can feed at sea. After all, let’s not forget most gull species are actually in decline for all this talk of culls.

If there is a real horror story in here, that’s it. We are actually having “a big conversation” about killing a species that is dying anyway. Let’s cull that for starters.

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Is it me or are birds today getting cheekier?

A weekend in Cumbria made me wonder if ‘garden’ birds are becoming tamer, bolder, and generally more confident around people.

In a café in a nursery, a baby blackbird landed on the balcony next to our table. It wasn’t lost or confused, this wasn’t a new fledgling finding its way. This was a confident little bird that new where the food was. He/she was rewarded with a nibble of cheese scone.

It wasn’t just birds seeking food. In a park in Keswick we were surprised to see a baby song thrush standing right next to the path, staring up at us with it’s big eyes and still-downy head. My first thought was that it was unwell, maybe an early fledge that wasn’t very confident. Maybe it was begging from us? But no, when I bent down it instead became clear that it had found a large snail for itself, and six large humans were not going to see it parted from its prize!

The third and final example came while having breakfast in the sun on Saturday morning. Sitting on my won in the garden where we were staying, I was enjoying my cup of tea and watching chaffinches on the feeders. All of a sudden I felt the sense of a slight change in weight on my outstretched foot. A robin, so often the most confident of birds, had landed on my foot and was staring intently from me to my breakfast. I say my breakfast, it could be that emboldened by his confirmation as Britain’s National Bird this robin felt confident it was his breakfast, or at the very least ‘ours’. I couldn’t deny him a treat, and was not at all shocked that he would come right up onto my knee for a bit of biscuit.

So, what do you think? Are birds becoming steadily tamer? Is this the erosion of the ‘wild line’ between us and them?

Posted in Birds | 6 Comments

A butterfly bonanza

With a few days off work last week, it was great to spend some time around the garden, the river, and the local nature reserve. I’ve mentioned the damselflies already, but I wanted to touch on the butterflies too. All featured here were seen on the same day, Thursday 9th July.

The day started well with a Comma (Polygonia c-album) landing on the table outside and sunning itself for a good five minutes. This is one of my favourite species, and one I have no good pictures of, so I was delighted to have the chance… except of course the moment I stood up to go get a camera, off it went.

The garden is always well-visited by Small White (Pieris rapae) and there are always a few drifting about, either settling on the flower bed and the clover in the lawn (which they are welcome to), or near to my veg beds which I’d rather they left alone! Strangely though, having left all the veg uncovered this year, we’ve nothing like the issues we had with Whites last year. I put this down to a distinct absence of Large White (Pieris brassicae).

Small Tortoiseshell

Small Tortoiseshell

The garden, and the river, have been home to good numbers of two species in particular.

The first is the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). This is a common and widespread butterfly, one you probably see around you most sunny days, right through Spring and Summer.

Small Tortoiseshells, presumably making more Small Tortoiseshells...

Small Tortoiseshells, presumably making more Small Tortoiseshells…

The other we’ve seen plenty of is the Peacock (Inachis io). These are usually one of the first butterflies you see in the year, and by July there are far fewer adults about. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot spot them, you just need to direct your eyes in a different direction.


Peacock caterpillars… a prize for the correct count of individuals…

These are Peacock caterpillars. These are in such a mass as they probably hatched relatively recently and haven’t started moving off yet. In fact you can find evidence of the silken cocoon they hatched from if you search about.

Peacock caterpillar with remains of cocoon

Peacock caterpillar with remains of cocoon

This means we’ll likely see a second wave of adults later in the summer, which will then look for places to hibernate. We often get one or two in the shed.

Since we started to great a shady ‘woodland’ bed in part of the garden, we’ve noticed a rise in Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) around the house. This continues to be the case, though I haven’t been taking pictures this weekend.

Meadow Brown

Meadow Brown

We’re getting close to the end of the list now, and a species showing well in garden and reserve, the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). I’ve been seeing these in huge numbers around the wildflower areas of the university too. They have quite a distinctive slow, flappy flight, and don’t usually fly very high off the ground. Because they are quite meandering, they can be hard to get a good look at.



The final species around at the moment is the Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus). At first glance it can be easy to confuse Ringlets, Speckled Wood, and Meadow Brown. All three look superficially brown with small, dark eye-spots on the wings. But when you get your eye in, the Ringlet has yellow rings around the eye spot that distinguish it. The wing has a white fringe too.

The Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) that was so active earlier in the year has disappeared for now, occupying a life cycle much like the Peacock. Again, we’ll expect a few more later in the year.

So, those are the current butterflies I’m seeing. How about you? What’s in your garden?

I have taken a couple of moth pictures recently too, but my moth ID skills are really lacking and, at the point I write this, I haven’t established what these are. I’m hoping for some help before the post goes live, but if not these may be going up anonymously!

* Edit * Thanks to Gina Allnatt, Butterfly Conservation Yorkshire, and Barry Warrington, the moths have an ID. See captions below.

Moth 1

Mother of Pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis) – Technically a micro-moth

Moth 2

Old Lady (Mormo maura)

Posted in Invertebrates, New Earswick, Phenology | Leave a comment

Vote Hippo!

A week or so back, I posted a review of Derby Museums new nature gallery. Now, I’m delighted to see they are trying to pick a new mascot for the ‘notice nature, feel joy’ gallery.

There are three contenders; The Sun Bear, The Fox, The Pangolin, and The Hippopotamus. They winner will be announced 7th August following a public vote. I’ll be voting hippo, and here’s why you should too.

1. It’s not the easy choice

The other three standing in this election are cute and obviously engaging taxidermy specimens. But the Hippo isn’t taxidermy. It’s actually a fossil, over 100,000 years old, found in a local excavation in the village of Allenton.

The Allenton Hippo on display in the new gallery. Photo courtesy of Derby Museums

The Allenton Hippo on display in the new gallery

Because it isn’t as immediately ‘loveable’ as the others, mascot status will shine a light on it. As a geologist and palaeontologist, a champion of the uglier animal, and a natural contrarian, that makes the hippo a far better choice as mascot.

2. It’s unique

The fox is a lovely piece of taxidermy, the Sun Bear and the Pangolin are pleasant and attractive. They are cute. But examples can be found up and down the country. They are not unique or distinctive. This hippo is just that. Because…

3. It’s local

Yes, as odd as it sounds, this hippo is a Derby native, unlike the Sun Bear or the Pangolin, which lived elsewhere.

While digging a well at The Crown Inn, Allenton in 1895, workers discovered large bones. This turned out to be the hippo.

It has been commemorated locally in road signs and in a sculpture by Michael Dan Archer. Can the others say that?

The sculpture

The sculpture

Welcome to Allenton

Welcome to Allenton

But how did a hippo get to Derby? A circus? A long-lost zoo? That leads us onto…

4. It’s easily the most interesting story

No, this hippo wasn’t introduced, it was a genuine native, living and breeding in Derby long before any humans settled there.

The gravels that the workers were excavating, laid down on the banks of a river, long predate the last glacial period of the ice age. Further excavations have uncovered a range of animals including bear, deer, ox, elephant and rhino.

For a museum, this is gold dust. It allows us to talk about how climate changes naturally, and to contrast that to modern climate change. It allows us to talk about how nature changes, how plants and animals move, go extinct, and evolve. Nature isn’t static, there is no ‘right’ set of animals in an area. The Allenton Hippo shows this.

A fox is a lovely animal, and politically deserves positive attention right now. But foxes are something we know and are familiar with. But a Derby hippo?

To summarise…

Of all the four choices, the hippo is the only one that is local, unique, and a route into talking about fundamental aspects of modern ecology and conservation. If that isn’t worth a vote, what is? So…


Vote for me! Photo courtesy of Derby Museums

Vote for me!


Thanks to Derby Museums and Andrea Hadley-Johnson for letting me do this and providing photos.

Posted in Mammals, Media, Museums | Leave a comment

30 Days Wild – Final Thoughts

30DAYSWILD_ID3 blackIt was ineviatble I’d have a spell in the 30 days where the course of life took me away from the blogging, but it was a real shame that dip came so close to the end.

It was also unfortunate not to do two or three of the things I’d hoped to do, but they are still things I’ll do.

I hope The Wildlife Trusts make this an annual event. I think it’s something that could grow and expand.

Ultimately, we need to be thinking #Wild365 instead, but making that effort for a month, even if it’s just making you think, look, feel, listen, to the nature around you a little bit more, that will embed the notion of the wild world we share in people.

I’ve enjoyed it, I hope people have enjoyed reading what I’ve written. If you only came here for 30 Days Wild, please do stay as I blog all year round!

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Damselflies in New Earswick Nature Reserve

A hot and sunny Thursday prompted a trip to New Earswick Nature Reserve.

I haven’t managed the weekly visits I’d originally intended, but even when I’ve not been posting here I’ve ensured I visit once or twice a month.

This time round the birds were few and far between, but there were plenty of Blue-Tailed Damselflies (Ischnura elegans) that are worth celebrating.

On some, you’ll notice a violet colour to the body (the abdomen). This tells us it’s an immature specimen. This form is called violacea.

Blue-tailed damselfly

Blue-tailed damselfly

SONY DSCSONY DSCThere were also a few Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) around, but they were much harder to get pictures of.

SONY DSCThe lilypads were the scene of much of the damselfly activity, and the flowers were looking pretty spectacular.

SONY DSCWandering mongst them was a rather lost and bewildered young moorhen that kept mis-stepping and sinking into the water. It can swim fine, but seemed unconvinced.



Posted in Birds, Botany, Invertebrates, New Earswick | Leave a comment

A kestrel or a bookworm?

On my way into work I wander up round the back of the university library. It can be a very rewarding walk as there is a little bank covered in wildflowers, and I often see rabbits there.

20150507_160437Earlier this week though I saw a kestrel head overhead and perch on the corner of the building.

20150706_075301Unfortunately I don’t tend to have a camera with me, so it’s just these distant shots with the phone.

I figured when I went up the steps to be level with him, he’d soon take flight. But he actually sat there pretty relaxed, like he was pondering which books to take out.

20150706_075501He did eventually move, but only about 5-10m along the roof.

20150706_075604So, shortly after 30 Days Wild came to an end, yet another reminder to be aware. I need to start taking the compact camera with me just in case!

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30 Days Wild – Days 28-30

Sorry to be wrapping this up with a single post, but for the same reason I didn’t get the posts up, I also didn’t really get chance to do much over the final three days.

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_28Day 28 was mainly spent at home, lamenting the loss of the entire nest of blackbirds. It’s always sad to see, but you have to console yourself that if the pair had two broods and succesfully raised one chick from 6-7, that’s actually pretty good going.

The bullfinches and goldfinches continue to visit the feeders on a daily basis, but there have been very few sightings of chick.

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_29

Day 29 I took another walk round Heslington Lake, where the goslings are growing fast.

Canada Greylag SnowTWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_30Finally, Day 30, and little opportunity to do much as I spent it on a train.

As usual there was train-birding to be done, though mammals were more frequent with Roe Deer, Fox and Hare all spotted, in addition to the usual numbers of rabbits, wood pigeon, magpies, crows, rooks, and buzzards.

Posted in 30 Days Wild, Birds | 2 Comments

30 Days Wild – Day 27 – A rainbow

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_27Not great weather today, but the conditions did produce a beautiful quality of light as the late evening sun from the west hit objects to the East against a grey background.

IMG_0995The rain in the air also meant that great wonder, a rainbow

IMG_0996In fact, later on the rainbow was doubled, with an echo above the main ‘bow.


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