Category Archives: Have Science Will Travel

Galapagos Islands

ADid you figure out the answers to last week’s quiz? They’re all the way at the bottom of this post, but I’m sure you figured out that answer A was the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands were formed more than 8 million years ago, and thanks to ongoing volcanic activity, some of the islands are still growing.

After the islands were formed, species (plants, spores, animals) would occasionally arrive here from the mainland, but because they were now in a completely different ecosystem, they evolved differently – for example, small turtles were able to grow into very big turtles.

1024px-Darwin's_finches_by_GouldWe understand this now, but Darwin had to figure all of that out for himself when he first visited the Galapagos. He did, eventually, but it took him a while to put all the pieces together. One thing he did notice when he visited the islands were the birds.

He recognized that the finches were different between different islands, but at the time Darwin thought that they were different birds. Only after Darwin analysed the animals they collected, upon the Beagle’s return, did he realise that they were all the same bird, with local variations generated on each island.

Darwin’s finches became a famous example of evolution. They’re the finches that The Finch and Pea are (half-)named after, and they’re the finches that my work uses as mascot for certain things (here’s one!). Seriously, I can’t seem to get away from those birds!

The Galapagos are still a place where biologists come to study nature. In fact, there is a research foundation, the Charles Darwin Foundation, based on one of the islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station is at risk of closing and is in desperate need of financial support to stay solvent.

Earlier this year, they launched a project in collaboration with Google, which use Google streetview images to let people explore the Galapagos from home and record any species they view in the images.

First I didn’t find much more than cool plants…


…but then I looked somewhere else and found a blue-footed booby!


Have fun exploring the Galapagos. And as promised, here are the results from last week’s quiz:
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Santa’s scientific sleigh ride

Last week a few colleagues and I took part in TalkScience‘s annual scientific Christmas quiz at the British Library, where twenty-five teams battled it out in six nerdy rounds, testing their knowledge of science in the news,  animal sounds, the chemistry of sex, ancient cures and more. There were questions about Lego scientists,  Matt Taylor’s shirt, cholera, Florence Nightingale, and much more.

There was also a bonus round, which tested how well you knew several scientific locations, and asked you to match them up with the correct latitude and longitude. We did quite well on this one, and it was my favourite question of them all. With permission of the organisers, and with some new images, here is a reproduction of the “Santa’s scientific sleigh ride” question. (And for a hint, remember that the original quiz was held in London, at the British Library.)

Can you help Santa deliver all his presents? Match up the famous scientific locations to their GPS coordinates and fill in the name of the location.

A. Darwin visited in HMS Beagle B. Powerful particle accelerator
C. Life sciences research institute D. Launch site for Apollo missions
E. Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment happened here F. Where Dolly the sheep was cloned
G. Site of the pitch drop experiment H. And back home!
GPS coordinates Image letter Location
1. 52°N: 0°W
2. 46°N: 6°E
3. 37°N: 15°E
4. 27°S: 153°E
5. 28°N: 80°W
6 1°S: 89°W
7. 56°N: 3°W
8. 90°N

You have to be quite specific in your answers – try to get to institute level!

Our team had almost everything correct in this question, which unfortunately didn’t count toward our total score.

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The Vatican Observatory

Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo

Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo

Did you know that the Vatican has a science institute?

When the pope recently announced that he doesn’t see a conflict between evolution, the Big Bang and the teachings of the catholic church, some people reacted with surprise. It’s a lot less surprising when you realize that the Vatican has employed astronomers for centuries.

Dating back to at least the calendar reform of 1582, Vatican astronomers have studied the sky. These days they’ve got the calendar pretty much figured out, but they have enough work on their hands. They hold conferences and summer schools, study nearby galaxies, and – something that might seem surprising for an institute with religious ties – they search for extraterrestial life.

The Vatican Observatory has two locations: One is at the Pope’s summer residence Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, and the other one is at Mount Graham Observatory in Arizona. There is no longer an observatory in Vatican City itself, because Rome’s smog and city lights interfere with the view.


Vatican telescope at Mount Graham Observatory in Arizona

Visiting the observatories is not straightforward. The location at Castel Gandolfo does not have regular tours, and is inaccessible when the pope is using his summer home. The Arizona site can be visited as part of an organised tour, but only on particular days.

Image credits: Castel Gandolfo photo by Wikimedia user Rb85z37, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Mount Graham photo by Wikimedia user GreatInca, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

2014-11-22 13.15.29Last week I found myself in various conference venues in and around Washington DC. With just about an hour to spare before my trip back to the airport, I managed to briefly visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

According to Wikipedia, this is the most-visited museum in North America, and the most-visited natural history museum. It didn’t feel as crowded as some other museums, though. Maybe I got there on a rare quiet Saturday?

The central exhibit of the museum is the African elephant in the foyer. Like all elephants in rooms, it’s quite noticeable and unavoidable. From a floor above, you can learn all about elephants while walking around the balcony that overlooks the central elephant.

2014-11-22 13.06.15

Themed exhibits on the first floor covered life in the ocean, human evolution, and mammals. Topic-wise, the exhibits didn’t differ much from those in other natural history museums I’ve visited, but the displays looked more modern. Continue reading

Museum of the Invisible


There are plenty of museums to visit in Amsterdam. You can see ancient art, contemporary art, objects of everyday life of the past, objects of everyday life in the present. There are museums of funny things, beautiful things, historical things, useful things, but also invisible things.

Yes, Amsterdam has a museum of invisible things! Micropia is a new museum displaying all sorts of microbes. I visited last weekend, and it’s awesome!


Credit: Fleur Amsen

Credit: Fleur Amsen

Credit: Fleur Amsen

Near the entrance of the museum, a large evolutionary tree is projected on the wall, introducing all the microbes and the diversity of microbes. What follows can best be described as a very interactive microbiology lesson, including peeking through microscopes, looking at all the micro organisms in your own body, and seeing fungi grow.

Credit: Fleur Amsen

Credit: Fleur Amsen

You can also watch real scientists at work. The scientists, however, but don’t have multi-coloured flashing lights, and the only zooming in you can do is by stepping closer. So, they cannot really compete with the microbes they are studying.

As with every museum, of course, there is a take home message: microbes are everywhere, there are a lot of them, we cannot live without them. And don’t forget to buy a new toothbrush regularly.