Whither the Narwhal?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As I was driven up to the Sani Pass in the Drakensberg in South Africa recently, an African wildcat leapt from the side of the road and disappeared among the proteas. Since arriving from Europe, feral domestic cats have interbred with indigenous wildcats. The blending is often imperceptible. In time, my guide suggested, no pure […]

All That Glitters

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Geology is a story-telling science, requiring great leaps of poetic imagination,’ writes Hettie Judah in Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones. Stones that come to us hard and cold and unchanging are the product of immense geological heat and upheaval. They provide glimpses into the inhuman abyss of time and are windows onto past epochs. […]

Plastic Purgatory

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It started with a sock. The Polish birdwatcher and journalist Stanisław Lubieński was enjoying the first day of a holiday on an idyllic Baltic beach when he spotted a single white sock lying on the sand, untidily rolled up, with a dirty heel. This one thrown-away item set him off on an obsessive quest. It […]

Through the Tropic of Cumbria

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Ours is a rainforest nation. Up and down the drenched western seaboard of England, Wales and Scotland, ‘temperate rainforest’ once carpeted our hills and valleys. According to Guy Shrubsole, it should – and could – do so again. Temperate rainforest is characterised by extreme wetness and, as a result of this wetness, rich populations of epiphytes, such as mosses, liverworts, lungworts, lichens, ferns and other organisms that grow not in the soil but on the trunks and

In Deep Water

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘For years we thought the oceans were so vast and the inhabitants so infinitely numerous that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them. But now we know that was wrong.’ Sir David Attenborough’s sentiments, expressed in the final episode of Blue Planet II, a 2017 BBC series watched by hundreds of millions […]

Let Them Eat Fermented Protein

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Fragments of pottery excavated in Poland tell us that around seven thousand years ago Neolithic farmers were transforming milk from sheep, cattle and goats into a solid food that could feed them in the winter months. This ingenious survival strategy involved using bacteria from the environment and proteins from the stomachs of the animals to acidify and coagulate liquid

On the Erosion of Species

Posted on by David Gelber

Around Oaxaca in the highlands of Mexico there is a form of maize that reaches six metres in height, with orange, finger-like roots that grow out of the stem and hang in the air, oozing mucus. It seems bizarre, but in the mucus live hundreds of kinds of bacteria that ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen and thereby […]

What Will Survive of Us?

Posted on by David Gelber

‘Once upon a time…’ The opening words of Henry Gee’s new book give notice that what follows will be a story – and a dazzling, beguiling story it is, told at an exhilarating pace. The scale is apparent from the first of a set of mind-boggling timeline graphics: this runs from the birth of the […]

Try Not to Breathe

Posted on by David Gelber

Something changed in around 2012. People started talking about the air. Perhaps they heard their children wheezing, or granny told them she couldn’t climb the stairs, or they were fed up with having constant headaches. China woke up when the city of Beijing had to shut half its factories to make sure its coal-polluted air was safe enough for Olympic athletes to breathe. Two years later the great Sahara dust episode was the alarm call in Britain. After weeks of choking on traffic fumes, Londoners found their cars covered in a fine red dust. The prime minister, David Cameron, said it was fine because the pollution was natural, but nobody believed him and news desks at last started to tease out the biggest public health scandal of the past fifty years. And what a scandal! The scale of this modern plague, we have begun to see, is staggering. We have long known that nearly three million people in poor countries die prematurely each year from

Space Oddities

Posted on by David Gelber

Doctor Dolittle in the Moon may be one of the animal communicator’s less well-known adventures, but it served as childhood inspiration for the science writer Oliver Morton. In The Moon, Morton considers our nearest cosmic neighbour in all its many forms: scientific, historical, cultural, artistic, political. With such an ambitious agenda, a great deal inevitably […]

When Computers Rule the World

Posted on by David Gelber

Few people produce a new book in their hundredth year; fewer still at that age produce a book containing original ideas. But if anyone was going to do it, it surely had to be James Lovelock. He has been having good ideas for at least seventy-five of the past hundred years and is best known […]

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RLF - March