Tag Archive: darwin

The stores: climate-controlled, pest-controlled, light-controlled...

On Sunday 19 September, Dani and I were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre II, specifically the entomology stores and even more specifically, the hymenopteran collections. We have our friend David Notton to thank for this treat, as David works as Senior Curator of hymenoptera – that’s social insects, like bees, ants and wasps – and kindly offered to show us his incredible workspace.
Call it luck, serendipity, or fate, but I met David through researching my latest book, which is about astronomy, not insects. My novel Double the Stars, a fictionalized biography of the extraordinary life of astronomer Caroline Herschel, led me to meeting some of Caroline’s descendants, who have proven encouraging and enthusiastic about the book. Cassie, Caroline’s great (great, great) niece, happens to live about 10 minutes’ walk from us, and David is her partner.

David pointing out some hymenopteran samples.

When David and I met, the conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘And what do you do?’
David: ‘I work with ants and bees…’
Me: ‘That’s hymenopterans, right?’
David: [Huge grin] ‘Well done!’
And thus I gave them a copy of Darwin’s Microscope, and subsequently David extended his kind invitation.
David met Dani and me at the reception desk of the Darwin Centre. An excellent picture of this, the newest, 8-story wing of the grand Natural History Museum, can be seen here.…the Darwin Centre is the strange white cube to the left of the grand old Victorian building, within which is ‘The Cocoon’ (more on that later). Some architectural highlights of the DC II are described here.
David took us up to Level 3, behind many locked doors requiring passes, to the entomology floor. A long hallway stretched out with tall glass windows on one side, overlooking the Cocoon. To the right sprawled the office spaces of the entomologists. To the left, another locked door: the Store Room. David swiped his key card, and we walked left. Automatic lights flicked on with the precision of a one-year-old, £78 million new wing. We were greeted by long rows of cool grey cabinets on rollers, which could be pushed back and forth for access: a large part of the 17 million insect specimens housed in the new building.

Darwin's wasp.

Navigating and unlocking cabinets with expert ease, David showed us a ‘sample tray’ to give Dani an idea of what we’re talking about with hymenopterans. I learned that though this does include social insects, they are not all social by any means; David showed us some bees that build individual cells of wax in which to plant their offspring. It’s odd to imagine a bee without a hive!
We saw a tarantula-eating wasp (it was huge, with bright orange wings,) and iridescent bees of brilliant blue and green colours; entomologists still aren’t sure why the bees are so brilliant, as both males and females are iridescent (shaking up the question of sexual selection or favouritism by females). It may have to do with bees being able to see into the infrared spectrum. Apparently, these critters collect bits of pretty things to bring as gifts to the nest, and David cited an example of DDT being carried by some of them! ‘That didn’t last long.’
Of course, I requested the obligatory ‘Darwin Sample,’ which is still, let’s face it, so cool, and David obligingly pulled out a drawer full of teeny, tiny wasps, one of which had pride of place in the middle, with space around it, and a little tag: ‘Conception, Chile. C. Darwin.’ What is likely Darwin’s own handwriting can be glimpsed beneath the typed tag –
it looks like Darwin’s handwriting to me…
Next, David showed us his office area, where he is working on researching some little wasps which look quite a lot like the Darwin specimen. He switched on his microscope and we got to see the little beastie up close.
The icing on the cake was going up to the roof terrace of the DCII for tea and biscuits. Tea and biscuits on the roof of the Natural History Museum! And this was the staff room – these guys get to hang out here every day! I can’t say much more but THANK YOU, David!

Linnean Society Induction

On Thursday 18 March I was inducted as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Signing The Book.

Dani joined me and we listened to an interesting but lengthy talk on siphonophores by Dr. Gill Mapstone. You can see the first slide in Dr. Mapstone’s talk in the background.

Also in the photo is the Linnean Society’s delightful President, Dr. Vaughan Southgate, wearing the historic tricorn hat which must be worn whilst inducting Fellows – he always needs to be reminded to put the hat on, and it always raises a chuckle from those in attendance.

Just out of the photo to my right is the famous portrait of Charles Darwin by John Collier. I wore a butterfly-laden scarf bought specially for the occassion, and afterwards Dani and I enjoyed a very spicy Malaysain dinner in Soho.

Linnean Society - appropriate scarf.

Linnean Society Fellowship

Linnean Society Fellowship certificate

It is a great pleasure to confirm my election as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

I have not yet been inducted, but will be at one of the upcoming meetings of the Society.

Since speaking at the Linnean Society on 5th November 2009, and being heartily welcomed into the delightful social and intellectual atmosphere of the LinSoc’s pre-lecture teas and post-lecture wine receptions, I have done my best to attend other lectures at Burlington House.

The talk on 21st January 2010, on the Scottish Beaver Trials, was not only memorable for the interesting information regarding the Trials, but because my name, among a number of others, was up for election, and most interestingly, I had a delightful chat with a lady whom I was certain I had met before.

I recognized her at the pre-talk tea reception and wanted to speak to her but didn’t have the opportunity, so was delighted when she happened to sit beside me as people settled for the talk.

LinSoc badge.

‘Have we met before? You look so familiar,’ I said, ‘maybe we’ve spoken here before?’

The lady wasn’t sure if we’d met before either, but was very friendly and introduced herself– ‘I’m Janet Browne.’

Oh! The foremost biographer of Charles Darwin. Right.

We decided that either we had met before, quite possibly at the Cambridge Darwin Festival in the summer of 2009, or that I simply recognized her because, well…she’s a very recognizable person when you’ve been studying Darwin!

Then she said she recognized my name in association with my activities at Cambridge! That was indeed a surprise and a pleasure.

As we settled in to hear the talk, she nudged me and pointed up at the original, now restored portrait of Darwin, and the one of Wallace beside him, hanging just on the wall above us.

‘There are our guys,’ she said.

As part of our growing series of literature-and-science events at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, last Thursday evening Dr. John Holmes from the University of Reading gave an excellent talk on his recently published book, ‘Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.

John Holmes - Darwin's Bards

Dr. Holmes speaking in the main Whipple Gallery.

John is a bard of bards– he does not claim to be a poet himself, but he reads the work of his subjects with all the zest and verve of a true Romantic. He is always an enthusiastic and illuminating speaker, and the guests who came to hear his talk were engaged, had questions, and genuinely enjoyed the evening.

A comment from my former supervisor, Dr. Doug Shedd, on John’s book:


In discussion with one of the guests.

“John Holmes’s coverage of the relationship between science and poetry in Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution is remarkably complete. He has a scientist’s grasp of evolutionary theory and a thorough understanding of the controversies the theory has engendered. He also understands the difficulty many have had in finding meaning in an existence framed by Darwinism. Holmes’s investigation of how poetry addresses these problems is unique, and he is correct in thinking that, “poems can even change how we think about Darwinism itself.” Evolutionary science provides many of the details for understanding why the world is the way it is, but we need “Darwin’s Bards” to help us interpret these details, incorporate them into our collective consciousness, and fully understand what it means to live in a Darwinian world.” — Douglas Shedd, Thoresen Professor of Biology, Randolph College

Thanks to Melanie for being our photographer!

Pick this up!

Pick this up!

If you can, please buy a copy of the current issue of Science Magazine (out 2nd Oct)! For one, it’s the ‘Ardi’ issue: groundbreaking. For another, it has poems from the panel at the Cambridge Darwin Festival, including one by myself, one by John Barnie, and one by Ruth Padel– hooray!

On a slightly different note, I thoroughly encourage anyone and everyone to attend this upcoming event at the National Maritime Museum. ‘Dark Matter’ is a fantastic poetry anthology including work from poets and astronomers collaborating to create new writing.

Public talk: Poems of Space10th November, 19:00-20:45, National Maritime Museum Lecture Theatre, £8

Renowned astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell explores the connections between poetry and science and her experience of compiling Dark Matter, an anthology of poems inspired by astronomy. Followed by a discussion with poet Kelley Swain (Darwin’s Microscope) and astronomer/writer Dr Pippa Goldschmidt.


Tickets from the NMM Bookings Office: 020 8312 6608, bookings@nmm.ac.uk

Lovely sci-poetry anthology

Lovely sci-poetry anthology

The excellent website for The Human Genre Project is live! This takes pieces of short writing (poetry, fiction, etc,) and links them to a particular chromosome on the human genome. It is deeply clever; for example, I submitted a poem (‘jargon’) about my father’s heart attack, and Ken linked it to Chromosome 11, on which there is a gene, KCNQ1, which regulates heartbeat.

I love the site’s deceptively simple design, and for you writers out there, contributions are welcome, so have a look. Thanks to Ken MacLeod, writer-in-residence at the Genomics Forum, for such a lovely website.

In other news, to enlighten your day (or to at least brighten up your day?) a friend of mine sent me this clever song. Thanks, Caitlin!

Aberdeen (Part II) – The Reading Bus

I must admit that, as well as being excited, I was a bit apprehensive about the day on the Reading Bus. I just had no idea what to expect. 90 11-year olds? (Not all at once, of course! 3 classes arrived at different times throughout the day and we split each into two groups of about 15 students each.)

The Reading Bus

The Reading Bus

I hadn’t really had a point of reference for an 11 year old for quite some time. I certainly haven’t ‘hung out with’ that many 11-year-olds since was 11. I had nothing to worry about: they were great. Very excited and interested; they came up with some really creative ideas!

Ian McKay with some of his lovely racing pigeons.

Ian McKay with some of his lovely racing pigeons.

After Marie, the Director of the Natural History Centre at the Zoology Museum building (part of the U of Aberdeen campus,) introduced us, the lesson began.

To kick off each ‘session,’ our ‘Pigeon man,’ Ian McKay, president of the Aberdeen Federation of Racing Pigeon Societies, took out three gorgeous and very different-looking pigeons to display for the students. This was to show that Darwin collected and bred pigeons, and was very interested in the variation among the birds.

Then Iain brought out the fourth and ‘star’ pigeon, who was a gift from Her Majesty the Queen. This pigeon famously was entered into Iain’s One Loft pigeon race, against 40 pigeons from his own loft– and the Queen’s pigeon won! 

A very special thing about these pigeons is their ID bracelet on their legs. The Queen’s pigeon had an ‘ER’ to identify the pigeon. Ian showed the students this, and some of the braver children got to stroke the pigeon.

The Queen's Pigeon: 'ER'

The Queen's Pigeon: 'ER'

Moving on from the excitement of the pigeons, I got to go on the Reading Bus with Director Jenny Watson. The Bus, a converted coach, is a very fun space, brightly painted on the outside and with seats and, of course, a lot of books inside. There is also a handy big screen, where we displayed a few of my poems. 

After I talked briefly about how I studied things just like what the children saw in the Zoology Museum, I read the poem, “Shadows in Chalk,” which is also the first poem in the book. 


Shadows in Chalk

            at the White Cliffs of Dover


Silken outlines on a wall with scars and scrapes,

crystallized and hidden places.


Shadows leaning hard against a white cliff face

above a channel, splitting continents.


Silhouettes in sediment, of a hundred thousand years,

sea creatures crushed to dust, soaked with rain and blood.


Shapes unchanging only while the sun remains,

immortalized in chalk, lines we scrape and wipe away.

On the Reading Bus.

On the Reading Bus.


We especially focused on chalk. Since their teachers use chalk every day in the classroom, I wanted the children to think about what chalk actually is and where it came from. Chalk actually is lots and lots of crushed dead sea creatures, technically. In fact, much of it is the picture on my book cover– radiolarians. Then we began to talk about the relationship of chalk and coal, which is a very different thing, but also an ‘everyday’ object (on the barbecue,) and also made of lots of crushed dead things. 


The second poem we looked at was ‘Bones,’ which inevitably raised giggles from some of the boys…well, we carried on…






Bones in the rock

in the ice

in the dirt

in the water.


An island made of bones.


A planet made of bones,

bones of ancestors

fallen   from wars,

            from predators

            from disease,



from never having stood.


Bones sinking

            into mud

            into earth

            into lava

into sea floor,


bones compressed

            to chalk

            to coal


            which we use to heat our bones.


The inspirational sea turtle shell.

The inspirational sea turtle shell.

With ‘Bones,’ I wanted the children to think of chalk and coal, and also of pattern, or how the poem is laid out and what I do with the words and the lines. We passed around a sea turtle skull and shell as well as a chunk of coal, and brought out blackboard tablets and chalk for the children to write their own ideas on. We focused on description and sensory experience– how does it feel? What colours and textures do you see? Does it make you think of anything? 

This got us into metaphor, and there were some really good ones! The skull was ‘like a pair of binoculars looking into the past,’ and the sea turtle shell (the hit) was ‘like a suit of armour,’ ‘like a sledge,’ ‘like a boat,’ ‘like a leaf in autumn.’ 

We had the children transfer all of their great ideas from their chalk tablets onto a sheet of paper which I gave them, outlining some ideas and tips for writing a poem. I hope and am pretty certain the teachers were planning to carry on with the poem-writing back in the classroom! I will post this worksheet separately and teachers (or anyone!) are welcome to use it, though I’d love to know if you do.

Picture for the local paper, though I don't think it made it in...

Picture for the local paper, though I don't think it made it in...

Back in the Natural History Centre, where the fantastic Marie, Sandra, Gillian and Yashka had spent the other half of the time showing students human and ape skeletons, beetle and butterfly collections, and stick insects, among many other cool critters, we presented each class with a Darwin Birthday Cake (made by Gillian’s friend at http://www.heatherscakes.com). Well, that drew applause!

It was a very rewarding day and I only hope everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks again to everyone!

My buddy the leopard gecko.

My buddy the leopard gecko.


I should add that I returned to the Natural History Centre on Friday before my flight home, and got to spend more time enjoying the fantastic critters, both dead and alive, that they have there. The Centre plus the Zoology Museum literally down the hall are a wonderful combination. I was particularly smitten with the Leopard Gecko who was docile and squishy and licked my bracelet. The stick insects were also awesome– the Centre had two very different species; there are apparently hundreds.

'Black Beaut

'Black Beauty'stick insects: not for handling, as they spray noxious fumes when agitated.



Common Stick Insect, which, when agitated, sways and bobs like a twig in the breeze.

Common Stick Insect, which, when agitated, sways and bobs like a twig in the breeze.

Aberdeen-(Part I) Cafe Sci

My first trip to Aberdeen– and the first events on the Darwin’s Microscope book tour agenda– were all excellent. I feel spoilt in a most wonderful way. I must thank Ken Skeldon from the University of Aberdeen for arranging everything, the team at Waterstone’s Cafe Scientifique for the invitation to read, the hospitality, the cake(!) and the lovely book on Old Aberdeen they gave me as a thank-you.

A Darwin Birthday Cake

A Darwin Birthday Cake

Congratulations to Gillian’s friend Heather for making the five excellent ‘Darwin’ birthday cakes! I believe she makes cakes for all occassions at http://www.heatherscakes.com, based out of Edinburgh.

Thank you to Marie, Yashka, Gillian, and Sandra at the University of Aberdeen Natural History Centre, to Jenny from the Reading Bus, and to Iain, the man with the racing pigeons. Also thanks to Sue & Jenny Downes from the University, and thank you to the Aberdeen Geological Society for their invitation to a lovely dinner after an excellent lecture by Lyell Anderson, who is working on Darwin’s geology collection at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Thank you to Kevin Mackenzie, from the U of Aberdeen Microscopy & Imaging Facility, for an absolutely breath-taking crash course on Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM, like the image on DM’s book cover,) and other microscopy. 

Everyone was kind, welcoming, intelligent and wonderfully generous with their time and help. I will be returning to Aberdeen for the Sunday events of the Word Festival and I am looking forward to it immensely!

I arrived in Aberdeen on Wednesday afternoon to be greeted by Ken and Sue, who whisked me on the senic (beachside) route to my lovely little boutique hotel, the Carmelite. It is very chic and has excellent food and service- you may notice that ‘excellent’ is actually the ideal word to describe the entire trip. The breakfasts were massive (far too big, in fact,) and amazing. The first day I had a massive omlette (which I simply could not finish) and the second, eggs balmoral, fluffy scrambled eggs topped with, of course, smoked salmon. Amazing.


In the Hotel Carmelite

In the Hotel Carmelite

Fortunately, I had time to unwind from the flight and prepare for my reading that night at Waterstone’s. I also had time to fret about the suddenly heavy snowfall!


A sudden fall of snow!

A sudden fall of snow!

Ken (Skeldon, from the U of Aberdeen, coordinator for all of the science outreach and education events), told me that he was hoping for about 40 people– that would be a good turnout, especially in the snow, and it was about  how many people attended the last Cafe Sci (which was the first of this season). 

Seventy-two people attended. 72!~ Of course we were all thrilled. I had no idea until afterwards, when the Waterstone’s staff counted & let me know. Fantastique! Thanks to Waterstone’s and their friendly staff for hosting the Cafe Sci. It is a wonderful event and more bookstores should do something of the kind.

I must thank Michael for posting photos of the reading. Amidst all the activity I didn’t get to take any photos with my camera! Please have a look at Michael’s photos.

The evening began with me reading for about 20 minutes from DM. Then there was a nice little break for coffee, drinks, and more Darwin Birthday Cake! Some people bought the book and I was able to sign copies and chat with some very lovely and enthusiastic people.

Then came probably the most interesting part of the evening, where a number of people asked questions and I did my best to answer them, and there was also some discussion among the people gathered there. Many people were curious about integrating creativity and more artistic measures into their science work, which was wonderful to hear. I believe the use of descriptive words is a big part of this– many people complain of ‘dry scientific writing,’ but poets and scientists both have to look very closely at things. ‘Into the Light of Things,’ I believe Wordsworth said. 

Many people also appreciated the accessibility  of the poetry. It is interesting, taking two things which can sometimes be very intimidating (poetry and science,) but putting them together in such a way where both become more accessible or welcoming or interesting. 

The evening was certainly a success. I do hope those who attended enjoyed it as much as I did.

Next: the Reading Bus & Natural History Centre on the 12th,  the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin! Poetry & Pigeons (and more cake)…

Hooray, my book is in my hands!

It's here & tangible!

It's here & tangible!

I am so, so happy.

My only slight wish is that I had more living creatures to celebrate this moment with than my cat (though I do love my cat).

But no worries. Because my books are here! Copies of Darwin’s Microscope, in my hands! They are all glossy and straight and smell freshly of ink and paper…ow, I think I just papercut my nose…

Just kidding. Kind of. I mean first book euphoria! You really must forgive it.

The books are here in time for the first events on my book tour. On the 11th, I head to Aberdeen for their Cafe Scientifique. This is  held at the Waterstone’s in Aberdeen, and we’ll be talking about Darwin, poetry, zoology, and whatever else the tres scientifique guests wish to discuss…This event is open to the public, so maybe I will see you there!

The following day, on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, I’ll be parked in front of the Zoology museum on the Reading Bus. I’ll play host for the day to about 90 schoolchildren in all (ages 11-12,) and we’ll be looking at cool objects from the Zoology Museum, like turtle shells and skulls, a platypus, seashells, beetles, butterflies, and who knows what else!

Book bundles from the printer.

Book bundles from the printer.

I’ll read a few of my poems for them that relate to these objects and then get the students to share some of their poetic ideas with me. I hear there’s going to be a Darwin birthday cake and a release of homing pigeons, one of which used to belong to the Queen!
It’s set to be a great couple of days in Aberdeen. I just hope snow doesn’t change my plans…

Update from the land of networking

Nearly a month has passed since I last posted, and at least my excuses are legit–we moved house, then ran off to Scotland and Wales respectively, with a visit from a friend in between. Somehow I’ve managed to stay in contact with a number of people and plans for the launch of Darwin’s Microscope (coming out in Feb by Flambard Press) are coming together very nicely. While some of the events strike me as fuzzily distant in the future, I know they’ll be upon me next time I look over my shoulder.

One project I’m launching into in the next few months is a two-part paper for the Outreach & Education Committee (OEC) in Cambridge of the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS), describing my personal experiences approaching the public with a history of science-related topic (ie, Darwin). It isn’t meant to be research-y or massively dense; rather something educators might read and take some advice from. This will be a great incentive for me to articulate a lot of what I’ve encountered since the creation of this book, and I think the second part, which I will write after many of the other events (which are to happen in 2009) will be particularly interesting.

The Cambridge Science and Literature Reading Group will be starting up again, and I’m hoping to attend it more fully than last term (which I missed entirely, as I was abroad)! It’s a bit of a trip from London but well worth it. The group posts readings online which members are meant to read before the meeting, and then we meet up and discuss. The selection is always interesting & educational, and the group attracts a variety of experts, from quantum physicists to historians to education experts to writers, so it is a great way to share ideas about literature & science. We also meet in Darwin College; how could I not love that?

Brilliant news for April 2009: my alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, (now Randolph College,) is sponsoring me for a week-long visit in April 2008. I’ll be there the week of the 6th, speaking in classes as well as on an alumnae panel, and doing a book reading & signing. Further details are to be arranged, but it looks like I’ll be covering all aspects of my interests by speaking in Creative Writing, Literature, Biology & Environmental Studies courses. It will be my first trip back to campus since graduating in May 2007–nearly two years. I remember deciding not to return until I was published, and so it is. It will be wonderful to see my friends & professors again.

halls of residence

halls of residence

The book proofs for Darwin’s Microscope arrived about a week ago! It looks great. I’ll make a few changes, but nothing major. It really is wonderful to see the manuscript laid out as it will be in book form–making this whole experience seem much more real, somehow, though the idea of holding the book in hand in Feb still makes me grin, and I find it hard to believe. That said, I feel a great pressure from myself to work on the next book, which has been brewing in the back of my mind for awhile now. In fact, I think I’ll go do that…

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