A few billion years ago, when life was just a motley collection of single cells, one microbe swallowed another. This happened a lot. But in this case, unlike all the millions of other such engulfments, the big microbe didn’t digest the smaller one. Instead, the two formed a partnership. The swallowed microbe (a bacterium) provided its swallower (an archaeon) with a rich source of energy, allowing both to jointly evolve into something more complex. This alliance revolutionised life on Earth. You can see the results all around you, in your cells, and those of every animal, plant and fungus, all descended from that fateful partnership. That ancient bacterium became our mitochondria – small, battery-like structures that power our existence. (Here’s the longer version of this literally life-changing tale.)
This is a needlessly convoluted way of saying that I’m delighted to have been swallowed by National Geographic, and I hope that it will be start of a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship. If we’ve learned anything from the history of life, it’s that symbiosis is a good strategy.
This blog is still Not Exactly Rocket Science, but it’s now part of a self-styled “science salon” called Phenomena, together with Carl Zimmer’s The Loom, Virginia Hughes’ Only Human, and Brian Switek’s Laelaps. Here’s the new feed for this blog and the combined feed for all four of them.
For readers who join me from earlier editions of Not Exactly Rocket Science, you know the drill. A post about an apocalyptic yet strangely secretive frog fungus awaits you in the next room.
For new visitors, hello!
I’ve been writing about science for around six years, and Not Exactly Rocket Science has always been at the heart of my efforts. It’s my playpen. It’s a place where I can write about the kind of science that fascinates me, by trying to fuse good narrative storytelling, solid rigorous journalism, and a sense of playful, wide-eyed fun. I’ve been lucky enough to win a few awards for it, including a National Academies Science Communication Award in 2010. This is the blog’s fourth host body incarnation.
This is ostensibly a news site. It covers what I like to call the “wow beat”—the wonderful bits of science that we’re learning about every day, which make you raise an eyebrow and go, “Ooooo”. It strongly gravitates towards things that are, or once were, alive: people, other animals, plants, fungi, microbes, and (as you’ll see in the upcoming posts) interesting clashes between all of the above. You’ll find stories starring fossils, brains, genes, and more. Here’s a tasting platter of some favourites:
- 12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad with his research
- How tiny wasps cope with being smaller than amoebas
- A world within a tumour – new study shows just how complex cancer can be
- Gut bacteria in Japanese people borrowed sushi-digesting genes from ocean bacteria
- Man with schizophrenia has out-of-body experience in lab, gains knowledge, controls his psychosis
- Ballistic penises and corkscrew vaginas – the sexual battles of ducks
- Everything you never wanted to know about the mites that eat, crawl, and have sex on your face
If you don’t have a science background at all, great! This blog is for you. Science can be complicated, but it should never been impenetrably so. My goal is to avoid the quagmire of jargon and opacity, without sacrificing the rich, luscious details that make new discoveries interesting. I’m roughly aiming at me, still at school, circa 1994—curious, eager to learn, but ignorant. If you’re the same, pull up a chair.
I write features for magazines like Nature, Wired, and New Scientist, as well as news and columns for the BBC, Nature, and The Scientist. You’ll find pointers to these other pieces here, along with the occasional DVD-style “extras”, where I include bits that never made it into published pieces, or expand on the same ideas at depth.
I also care a lot about science journalism. I care about getting things right, and avoiding the many pitfalls that plague the profession (these posts will give you an idea of where I stand). I’m also keen to celebrate the best that my peers have to offer. You can find such celebrations every Saturday, in the form of my “missing links” compendium of fascinating content from around the web.
I encourage discussion, questions and comments, and moderate with a light touch. If you’re a first-time commenter, your comment will enter a moderation queue. Once you get your first approval, you can comment freely. Criticism is fine and useful – as I said, I want to get things right. Abuse, bigotry, and content-free ranting will go down less well. Have a look at National Geographic’s community rules for more.
Let me tell you some stories.