“I can see its tail,” says David Attenborough, perched on a small boat. “It’s coming up… it’s coming up! There! The blue whale!” Ever since I first saw The Life of Mammals, I’ve always remembered Attenborough’s joy at seeing the “largest animal that exists or has ever existed”.
I now know how he felt.
On Monday, off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, my wife and I had the privilege of seeing five blue whales.
Hey hey! I’m back from a wonderful 2.5-week holiday in Sri Lanka. It was tremendous, and the first proper no-writing, no-work break I’ve taken for well over a year. Your normal blogging and tweeting service will now resume, and photos (oh, so many photos) will emerge at some point. But for now, here’s some geekery for you.
This is the full list of what we saw on the holiday. I’ve never been to a country where the wildlife watching opportunities were so thick and easy. The first thing that I saw when I pulled back the curtains on my first morning was a criticially endangered monkey on my balcony. I walked out of a room one afternoon to get some tea and ended up photographing troops of Toque macaques and gray langurs, a mongoose, some water monitors and a giant squirrel. We did a boat trip where a pod of 150 or so spinner dolphins was only the third most exciting thing we saw in an hour (two green turtles mating, and five blue whales).
So, the list. The rules are that they have to be seen in the wild, not in a zoo or nursery, and we had to identify them to the species level (which explains why there are no invertebrates and why the flying fish we saw didn’t make the cut – 65 friggin’ species, are you kidding me?). The asterisks indicate the ones we have photos of.
Reptiles and amphibians
I’m going to be travelling for 2.5 weeks for some much-needed rest and recuperation. There are a few posts scheduled for the next few days and then I’m reposting some of my favourites from last year for a bit. If you’re hankering for your Not Exactly Rocket Science fix, now is as good a time as any to lose yourself in my archives.
A note about comments: as previously stated, the blog operates on a once-only moderation system. Your first comment needs moderation; if you have a previously approved comment, you’re fine. Expect delays in the approval conveyor while I’m away.
(Pic by Norbert Nagel)
I’ve now been to three iterations of ScienceOnline. In the first two, the conference was home to just 250 people. This year, it almost doubled in size to a 450-strong mob. I don’t think I was alone in wondering if the event would keep its small, intimate feel. And I certainly wasn’t alone in realising that it had.
The growth was a smart move. We got a bigger, more comfortable venue. With larger crowds, the sessions had more spark to them (essential when you’re going for the “unconference” style where panellists are there to rouse the floor, not speak to them). And despite all of that, the conference retained the same flavour it always has. It still felt more like a family reunion than an academic gathering. It was a place where old friends could shake hands for the first time. It was a place where people were surrounded by like-minded fellows with mutual passions and could. Just. Cut. Loose. As I wrote last year, “You spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.”
I was trying to work out why ScienceOnline was still ScienceOnline despite being twice the size. “It’s the people, stupid,” was an obvious answer, but I think it goes a bit beyond that. I think it succeeds because Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen have realised that you only really need three things to make a great conference.
One: rig things so that the most passionate people show up. Remember that the first batch of ScienceOnline tickets sold out in less than a minute. Only the people who really, really want to be there will be waiting at the starting line at the right moment. Those people also spend the year thinking about the sessions that they’d like to see, and through the planning wiki, they craft the programme that they want. They talk to each other online, so that little time is wasted on the actual days with small-talk and ice-breakers. You can just skip to the parts about cementing relationships and building connections.
Two: once you’ve summoned your ideal crowd, you arrange everything so that they have nothing to distract them from the business of talking to each other. You give them free powerstrips at the front desk if their laptops are dying. You provide free coffee throughout the day to stimulate weary brains. You have faultless and blisteringly fast wi-fi everywhere. You have constant shuttles from the various venues, so people can just wander into the hotel lobby in a zombie-like fugue (DAMN YOU, scio12 rooster) and somehow end up at the right place. And you ensure that most guests stay in the same place so they can continue their conversations well into the evening.
Three: you equalise everything. This seems to be an emergent property of the above elements: the unconference format, the fact that delegates plan their own programme, the familial feel of the thing. Through all this and more, ScienceOnline takes a rugged career landscape and, with one deft flick of the wrist, shakes it flat. Pulitzer winners rub elbows with recent grads. Noobs sing karaoke with award-winners on backing guitar. New York Times journalists apply temporary squid tattoos to the foreheads of the scientists they write about (Carl, I look forward to seeing the disclosure statement the next time you write about Jon’s work).
It. Was. F**king. Brilliant. We knew it would be.
Thanks to everyone who had a chat with me. You were all uniformly superb.
Long live ScienceOnline. See you all next year.
(After I recover from the total physiological collapse that happens when you spend months at a time writing in silence on a chair, and then spend four days on your feet talking continuously)
It’s been a good and somewhat momentous year. In July, I left my job of seven years to become a fulltime freelancer. Before, the blogging and feature-writing were all leisure-time activities, and they’re now my bread and butter. With just five months in, it’s working out nicely so far and I get to spend a bit more time on the stories I write for this blog. I hope that the quality of the content here is, if anything, improving as a result. Some events of note:
I did other stuff too! Some long-form features…
These are some of my proudest work. They’re where I really get to flex my writing muscles. There are six here, but I’ve actually written ten this year. Four of them will be out in early 2012.
…and lots of news stories and columns
And even a spot of radio…
In which I tell the collected listeners of BBC Radio 4 that they’re sacks of bacteria
As always, I owe a huge amount to the editors who have kicked my pieces into shape, the friends and colleagues who have supported me, and the readers who have deigned to read the messy piles of words that I bash out at my desk. Writing is a lonely and sometimes dispiriting business, and every kind word helps. I’m grateful to all the people I connect with, from all over the world, who make it worthwhile.
And, as has become obligatory but never any less important, my utmost thanks to my wife, Alice, who continues to make it all possible
Folks, the Open Laboratory – a yearly anthology of the best of the science blogging world – is closing for submissions on Monday. If any of you wanted to nominate any of my posts for the anthology, I’d be very grateful. Here’s the submission form, and the full list of posts to jog your memory.
My piece on sushi-digesting genes that hitched a ride from ocean bacteria to Japanese guts has been included in this year’s anthology.
I’m honoured for several reasons. The anthology was edited by the incredible father-and-daughter team of Floyd and Rebecca Skloot, she who wrote one of the best science books of last year. It features writing from some of the best in the business like Carl Zimmer and Deborah Blum. And I’m proud to represent the fine world of science blogging in an anthology that’s traditionally dominated by mainstream publications; this is actually the first time a blog has been included. Represent!
My only regret is that my attempt to sneak “favourite” into an American book was foiled by an eagle-eyed editor.
I’ve just come back from a week in Peru, doing some reporting for a piece I’m writing for Wired UK. I’ll have more on that closer to the point of publication. For the moment, here are some photos of the Peruvian Amazon and nearby mountains, taken from the air.
Here’s a brief note to commemorate the fact that Not Exactly Rocket Science is five years old today! Once again, thanks to my wife, my science writer colleagues and all of you for giving me the motivation and support to carry on writing.
And by coincidence, I’m flying off to Peru for my first field-reporting assignment. More on that later.
(Image from camflam)
Three years ago, I started a thread asking readers to identify themselves, say something about their background, and tell me a bit about why they were reading this blog. These threads have become a bit of a yearly tradition and I find myself increasingly looking forward to them. I spend the whole year telling stories so it’s great to hear everyone else’s for a change, especially given the diversity that typically crops up.
So without further ado, let’s go again.
Tell me who you are, what your background is and what you do. What’s your interest in science and your involvement with it? How did you come to this blog, how long have you been reading, what do you think about it, and how could it be improved?
These questions are a rough guide. I’m working on the basis that what you have to say will be far more interesting than what I think you might say. Say as little or as much as you like, but do say something, even if you’ve never commented before and even if you commented on the previous ones.
(Photo by Marco Bellucci)