U is for Ununoctium and the Island of Stability

Quick, without looking it up: how many elements are there on the periodic table? If I had asked that question before the first hydrogen bomb exploded in 1952, the answer would have been 98.   In that year, humans succeeded in synthesizing the first element that the crucibles of stars and supernovae hadn't supplied to Earth: Einsteinium. Since …

T is for Tardigrade

Boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew.  They're versatile! No, I'm not talking about taters.  I'm talking about tardigrades: quite possibly the most durable creatures on Earth. They might also be the strangest combination of cute and terrifying anybody has ever seen looking through a microscope. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, evolved 500 million …

S is for Simple Rules

Consider the following: schooling fish, roundabouts, segregation, and human consciousness are all examples of the same fundamental property of the world.  It may seem crazy to suggest that roundabouts may be interesting in some sense, but bear with me. The property in question, and this week's topic, is emergence.  In each case individual entities, by following simple …

R is for Ratzilla

An excerpt from my favourite scene in the 1987 film, the Princess Bride: Westley: Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist. [R.O.U.S. attacks Westley] Westley: Ahhhh!!! Why is that my favourite scene?  Because I laugh every time I watch it.  The R.O.U.S. is just so ridiculous-looking and shows up right after Westley disbelieves its existence. For the devoted …

Q is for Quokka

What's half a metre long, weighs 3-4kg, and has the cutest face you ever did see? Nope, cuter. Even cuter. Yup, there it is!  This, dear readers, is a quokka.  A native of Southwest Australia, this marsupial has recently skyrocketed to fame because of the way its mouth seems to rest in a smile.  A quick …

N is for Naming

Next time you happen to be walking though the Chamela-Cuixmala nature reserve on the West Coast of Mexico, keep your eyes out for this parasitoid wasp: Its scientific name is Heerz lukenatcha.  There is also a related wasp named Heerz tooya.  Who comes up with these things!? Biologists, it turns out. The current official naming system for animals …