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What Attenborough Won’t Say

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New season, new David Attenborough amazing and captivating nature 2-documentary TV production for the BBC: “First life“, about going “back in time to the roots of the tree of life, in search of the very first animals” (for plants and bacteria, that’s a very unpopular definition of “first life”).

Among the vast amount of information that is presented to millions in ways that are pleasing to the eye, however, there is a fundamental detail that has gone missing, and I couldn’t find even in the accompanying book: and that is the true story of how we have come to known about the “first life” that is the focus of the documentaries.

Sure, viewers are made aware that it all pivots around Australia, where “First Life” spends a great deal of time in search of the Ediacarans. As Attenborough himself told an Adelaide newspaper a year ago:

Amongst palaeontologists it’s a very famous site, a very important site. That’s why we’re going… because this is a crucial episode in the history of life.

The Flinders Range of South Australia is in fact called “one of the world capitals of Ediacara“. And “First Life” does mention the importance of a local scientist called Reginald “Reg” Sprigg, as the one that discovered the fossils but had a hard time in convincng anybody else of their importance.

Yet there’s much more to that and it’s not difficult to find. And it’s a true-life story dramatic enough to make one wonder why did Attenborough steer away from it.

By the way…Bill Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything” mentions Sprigg’s tribulations too, at pages 320-321: having found definitive evidence about complex organisms from a period “at least a hundred million years” before what was at the time believed to be their starting point in the Cambrian, n 1946 Sprigg “submitted a paper to Nature, but it was turned down“. He then proceeded to “fail to find a favor” with the head of Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science” and to pretty much everybody at the 1948 London’s International Geological Congress.

In Bryson’s telling, things got rosy for Sprigg’s discovery only from 1957 onwards. That’s right, but once again that’s not the whole story either.

The whole story, in fact, starts in 1868 (I have blogged about it here, with thanks to BBC’s In Our Time for the inspiration). The idea that scientists believed nothing larger than bacteria before the “Cambrian explosion” is still being used to nag poor Darwin, of all people the one more at pains in understanding why nobody could find complex lifeforms before the Cambrian geological strata.

If only Darwin had heard about Aspidelia Terranovica!!

The first Ediacaran fossils discovered were the disc-shaped Aspidella terranovica, in 1868.

At least one scientist understood they were fossils, as early as 1872 (note how others had been blinded by…the established consensus!!):

However, since they lay below the “Primordial Strata”, the Cambrian strata that were then thought to contain the very first signs of life, it took four years for anybody to dare propose they could be fossils.

Alas, consensus won the day, and buried the fossils into the forgetfulness of history:

Elkanah Billings’ proposal (see here) was dismissed by his peers […] the one-sided debate soon fell into obscurity.

Six decades on, more pre-Cambrian stuff is found. Guess how it all ends:

In 1933, Georg Gürich discovered specimens in Namibia, but the firm belief that life originated in the Cambrian led to them being assigned to the Cambrian Period, and no link to Aspidella was made.

Thirteen more years pass, and it’s finally time to look at a strong-willed Australian paleontologist, called…Reg Sprigg. Consensus still (barely) wins, although against the first signs of a breakdown:

In 1946, Reg Sprigg noticed “jellyfishes” in the Ediacara Hills of Australia’s Flinders Ranges but these rocks were believed to be Early Cambrian, so while the discovery sparked some interest, little serious attention was garnered.

As already said, Nature proceeded to reject Sprigg’s letter, and Sprigg switched to the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. The partner of Sprigg’s son is his biographer and has some interesting comments about that:

If you look at them now I find it very hard [to think] that anybody could doubt them: they are about the size of the palm of your hand and you can quite clearly see they are circular, they look as you’d expect a jellyfish to look if it had dried out, or some kind of worm or something. But back then, yeah, he wrote a paper and submitted it to Nature, which is one of the most prestigious journals in the world, and they rejected it, they didn’t believe either in what he’d found. And it was about another 10 years before some amateur naturalists went back to Reg’s site and found some more specimens, different ones again, and took them again to the museum. And by then the museum was a little bit more interested and they organised their own expedition and brought back two truckloads of material and from then, the momentum grew.

And here’s how the story ends, and the dogma, with the involvement of an already well-respected scientist called Martin Glaessner and yet more evidence:

It was not until the British discovery of the iconic Charnia in 1957 that the pre-Cambrian was seriously considered as containing life. This frond-shaped fossil was found in England’s Charnwood Forest, and due to the detailed geologic mapping of the British Geological Survey there was no doubt that these fossils sat in Precambrian rocks. Palæontologist Martin Glaessner finally made the connection between this and the earlier finds, and with a combination of improved dating of existing specimens and an injection of vigour into the search, many more instances were recognised.

Needless to say, Nature published Glaessner’s letter. So much for “peer review”.

There we are then, with at least 3 scientists either wholly disregarded or actively isolated by the consensus/dogma crowd, a few rejected scientific papers, and a scientific consensus/dogma winning for decades despite being based on a rather odd idea.

The topic of a new history-based BBC drama, with shamed faces at Macmillan Publishers Ltd? Or the inspiration of a new David Attenborough documentary about how consensus-fixated scientists have been ruining science for centuries?

Sadly, I doubt it.

Written by omnologos

2010/Nov/14 at 20:00:25

Sincerity Reaches Horoscopes

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As mentioned in the BBC’s Radio4’s Friday Night Comedy show The News Quiz on Oct 9, 2009 (25m47s): this text has been published in free newspaper “Metro”‘s horoscope section (Virgo):

You’ve been held back by too many what-if’s and and maybe’s, Virgo. You can’t foretell what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week or next year, so…why waste your time wondering?

Written by omnologos

2009/Oct/11 at 23:30:45

Posted in Humor

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Very Very Nasty UK and Ireland Weather for Monday 10’s Rush Hour

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With cyclone Johanna forecasted as the worst of the 2007-2008 winter for UK and Ireland, I am worried that the proverbial BBC fixation for understatement will leave people unsure on how bad it can really get.


This is what the BBC Weather warnings page has to say: Sunday 9 March EARLY WARNING An intense area of low pressure is forecast cross the UK on Monday. Both wind and rain will be notable with potential for disruption to transport and power supplies. England and Wales look most at risk at the moment, with gusts of wind up to 70mph, locally 80mph for exposed coasts and hills Further updates will appear here.

There is an article “Flood alert amid storm warnings” but despite the warnings affecting millions of people, it’s not the main story and will be surely and easily missed by most.

They have even managed to give more space to the thoughts of LibDem Leader Whoknows Whatsmyname, and to heavy snow affecting the American Midwest…

BBC UK main page 2008 - 03 - 09 16:42GMT


But enough of the BBC: Anybody living in England should prepare for extremely awful conditions, and as far as I know the areas around Birmingham and on the west/south coast can be hit particularly badly.

There are several indicators in that direction. For example the Icelandic Weather office expects the following map for Monday (lines close to each other indicate strong winds; and the minimum at the centre of the L is truly and exceptionally low):

Let’s read it from other “experts” too:

(a) From the Met Office:

Severe weather warning for most of England

Issued at: 1110 Sun 9 Mar
Severe Gales 0001 Mon 10 – 0300 Tue 11
The Met Office continues to expect an intense low pressure system to move east across the UK during Monday, bringing severe gales and potentially damaging gusts across some areas, more particularly the west and south of England and Wales. Southerly winds are expected to strengthen during the early hours of Monday to give severe gales for a time, coinciding with the morning rush hour in some areas. An additional swathe of severe westerly gales will follow through the morning and afternoon, principally affecting southwest England and the south coast of England. Gusts of 60 to 70 mph are likely with the possibility of 80 mph gusts on exposed coasts and hills. Disruption to transport and power supplies is possible and there may be damage to buildings and trees. In addition high waves and flooding may affect coastal areas in the south. This warning is likely to be superseded by FLASH messages.

(b) From

Give me hope Johanna!
Added : Sun 9 March : 15:50GMT

All eyes are now on Storm Johanna which is set to be the most powerful storm system this Winter to hit the UK.

OK, so how’s the system going to develop and what can we expect? First of all, Johanna is going to have two main parts, the first is the warm front with the heavy rain and strong winds which will sweep East overnight tonight and into Monday. The second is the severe gales which will push into the South-west during Monday afternoon.

A thoroughly wet, windy and miserable start to Monday for many areas. Gales or severe gales will sweep across many Central and Southern areas with winds of up to 50mph inland and even higher gusts which could bring down trees and cause structural damage.

Then a slight lull around Midday as the storm passes over the Irish Sea. Into the early afternoon and the wake of Johanna slams into the South-west with winds of up to 90mph, gusts slightly higher.

The worrying side at the moment for the South-west is the storm co-inciding with the high Spring tides. We are aware that many will want to see the worst of the weather along coastal areas in Devon and Cornwall, however the situation is severe enough to cause loss of life for people who don’t understand the effect of these two components.

Waves of up to 45ft can be expected along the North Cornish coast. This, compounded with high tide around 6pm and the Spring tide at this time of year will result in elevated sea levels and possible breaches of sea defences.

We’ll be following Johanna throughout Monday bringing you the latest on the system, we’ll also be heading to Cape Cornwall to bring updates on the system with real-time images and reports.

Let’s hope all these forecasts and warnings will be shown wrong. But with a little more than seven hours to go before it starts, chances that the weather models are incorrect are very slim.

UPDATE: Weather map for 12:00AM Monday (“landfall” in the UK)


Written by omnologos

2008/Mar/09 at 16:54:12

Posted in Travel, UK

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E-Day: Fudge or Fraud?

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There is something supremely odd about the results published on the E-Day website.

The Energy Saving Day (E-Day) has been a UK-based “experiment” running between 6PM GMT on Feb 27 to 6PM GMT on Feb 28, “to show how even small energy saving measures can be made to add up, and potentially play a part in tackling climate change.”

Fact is that nothing has added up, and consumption has been higher than expected all through the day. At 4:21GMT it was showing “current savings” of -4.8% and “total savings” of -1.6%.

That is, the UK was actually “wasting” energy, compared to the predicted values according to National Grid.

At 13:42GMT, “current savings” was -1.6%, and “total savings” -0.8%. No sign of any “total savings of money, energy and carbon associated with E-Day” that were supposed to be “calculated and made available in time of the evening news bulletins“.

On the website it is also displayed a chart of ongoing energy consumption, with a green line for the actual values and a red line for the predicted ones. 

Having followed that on and off for most of the day, I only noticed around 4pm finally, for the first time since the beginning of the E-Day the green curve dipping just a little bit below the red one.

For the rest of the day, the green line was consistently and evidently above the red line: that means, the UK has kept consuming more energy than usual, thereby nullifying the whole point of the E-Day.


Imagine my surprise then checking the site at 6PM today (officially the closing time of the e-day) to see “current savings” of -1.5% and

(a) “total savings” of -0.1%

(b) green and red lines almost exactly superimposed, with the red one slightly higher above the other in two points, and the green one shooting up only at the very end

The above is simply not possible…the only way for savings to go from -0.8% at 1342GMT to -0.1% at 1800GMT would have been for actual consumption to be significantly below the predicted one.

And the graph does not show at all the giant 4:21GMT wastage of 4.8%.

The only explanation is that the E-Day organizers have retroactively moved the “predicted” red line up just enough to show a negligible difference with the actual “consumed” green line.

Fudge or fraud? Let’s see what they report:

E-Day did not succeed in cutting the UK’s electricity demand. The drop in temperature between Wed 27 Feb and Thurs 28 Feb days probably caused this, as a result of more lights and heating being left on than were originally predicted. The National Grid refined their assessments, based on actual weather data, during Thursday afternoon but I am afraid that E-Day did not achieve the scale of public awareness or participation needed to have a measurable effect. I will do my best to learn the relevant lessons for next time. Thank you to everyone who helped me or left something off specially as their contribution to E-Day, and this Leave It Off experiment. Please enjoy E-Day’s solution, video and science sections which all worked well. Warmest regards, Matt

So they admit they have changed the rules on-the-fly. But blaming the temperatures doesn’t appear a smart move. How are they supposed to demonstrate “how even small energy saving measures can be made to add up” if all it takes is a minor “drop in temperature” (if one indeed has happened!) to nullify every effort?

The organizers have said they were hoping for +3% savings. National Grid must have “refined their assessments” by around 2%, and the almost absolute coincidence between the final green and red lines looks very very suspicious.

I am not even sure the UK experienced as a whole a “drop in temperature” (London definitely did not). And how come nobody thought nor said beforehand a thing about possible variations due to temperature changes?

Let’s leave aside the “solution, video and science sections which all worked well” shall we. Is that some kind of a joke?

Obviously a lot of work has gone into organising the E-Day: if it has been an abysmal failure on all fronts (and it has), that should be a major learning point (nobody cares? switch-offs are less important than thought?).

Otherwise, it’s all a touchy-feely web equivalent of snake oil.

Written by omnologos

2008/Feb/28 at 23:39:09