Black Hole Sun

Yesterday I did something awesome, and I hope you did it too.  There were at least 5-600 people gathered up on Barr Beacon at 8.30am for the Solar Eclipse, and it was one of the most successful astronomy events yet on Barr Beacon.  I want to start by saying what an amazing atmosphere it was, and how happy everyone seemed to be taking part in something so special.  We had an 89% eclipse here in the Midlands, and some spectacularly clear skies and stunning views!  The Walsall Astronomical Society were coordinating the event’s telescopes, and even brought a generator and TV so we could watch the totality (viewable only in the Faroe Islands and in Svalbard) from the Astrosoc van!  Photos are below, but please read on…

So I was stopped in my tracks in the middle of an otherwise wonderful event when someone said to me:

You’d have thought the council would have provided sun watching glasses for everyone – typical!  I can’t get one – they are 20 quid!”

I (politely, I promise) explained that the event was organised by the Walsall Astronomical Society, supported by Countryside Services, and that neither organisation have £12,000 to spend on a two hour event when there are perfectly good ways to enjoy the event for free, not to mention an armada of telescopes for visitors to look through.  I took the member of the public to a telescope they could look through and they seemed to be sated. My colleague had received similar ‘typical council’ complaints.

This sort of thing is really disheartening, and makes me sad, because the event took place because of the selfless giving of hours and hours of volunteer time, generous people allowing total strangers to use their expensive equipment for free, council staff getting up at the crack of dawn to make the event happen JUST BECAUSE WE THINK IT IS IMPORTANT.  You know what?  If that’s ‘Typical Council’ then I’m glad to be a council worker.

Strange that this happened on a week when my good friend Dan from comms2point0 blogged about this very subject.  He’s not wrong.  He talks about the vulnerability and thin-skinned nature we have.  Its true that I must have had 200 compliments and ‘Thank You’s from attendees – so why does this one entitled person stick in my throat so badly?  Perhaps it is because this happens all the time…

The last really large-scale astronomy event in Walsall was in January 2012 when the BBC took over the New Art Gallery to bring a FREE Stargazing Live event to the public of our area, complete with rooftop telescopes, talks, demonstrations and even an inflatable planetarium.  I was part of the team supporting the BBC in their delivery of the event, and I don’t mind telling you that it was a lot of hard work.

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No one could have predicted that 5,000 people would show up at the event. On a school night.  In January.  We (staff and many volunteers) tried our best to make sure that everyone got to see through the telescopes and exhibits, have a go at activities and see the planetarium, but as you can imagine, there was a lot of queueing.

Here’s what I came home to at 3am on 17/1/12 after an 18 hour day trying to promote science and astronomy.  For free.

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Needless to say, I was in tears.  Now, I am not saying that people don’t have a right to complain, and if they had paid for the event and booked I would certainly feel more inclined to sympathise, but this was FREE, people!

I also understand that it is easy for members of the public to see ‘The Council’ as a machine that is fair game for insult – but I simply wish that there was a bit more awareness in the general public that it is front line staff which are trying their best and CARE about the public having access to science, the countryside and green spaces. If people realised that we are Decent Human Beings, perhaps the whining and this unexplained sense of entitlement could be reined in somewhat.

So the next time you hear someone whinge about ‘The Council’, especially in a public forum, please give a thought to exactly who they are insulting, and if the target of their frustration is misplaced.

There Goes My Hero (Watch him as he goes)

Pop science has its place. Where would we be without champions like David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Michio Kaku making science accessible to the general public?  I love that here in the UK we have a long and proud tradition of the production of world-class documentaries, pulling no punches.  These are, by and large, straight-up and un-patronising, treating the British public with a modicum of common sense and intelligence. (I was taught that in scientific writing, especially for the public, one should always credit your audience with intellect – your readers/watchers/listeners are INTELLIGENT but know nothing about the subject.)  In short, we do pop science very well.

I’ve never been one for US science documentaries (has Attenborough spoiled me?), with a few exceptions, not least the fantastic Strange Days on Planet Earth (which you can watch on youtube – my favourite episode is below) and the incredible Casey Anderson who manages to make amazing documentaries for Nat Geo without the usual melodrama, bravado and anthropomorphism of US-style documentaries.  [*I am aware that this is a SWEEPING generalisation and am always happy to hear of US docs that you think might change my mind on this!]

The champion of US science programming (for me, anyway) is the inspirational Carl Sagan, who made the original Cosmos series (Sagan also wrote Contact – made into a film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McCaunaghey – If you haven’t read it – get on that!). WHY they had to, frankly, MANGLE the recent cosmos series remake I have no idea! It is a perfect example of US style-over-substance with the nauseating Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is in my opinion a shockingly poor substitute for Sagan.  (Now I know that Sagan’s are some pretty big boots to fill, but they were touting Michio Kaku for season 2 and I was doing cartwheels in my head, but now devastated to hear that NDT is back for the 2nd season.)  Anyway, I Degrasse… ;-)

SOME science TV educators walk the fine line between hard science (and biology IS a hard science – not Chemistry’s dirty liittle sister) and blatant anthropomorphism – and do it well.  Jeff Corwin and the late, great Steve Irwin for example.  They are clearly well-versed experts in their respective fields of Conservation and Behavioural Zoology, yet possess the ability to disseminate that information to the general public without ‘blinding them with science’, yet also make television that is accessible to the general public who may not be the type to tune into ‘horizon’ or ‘the sky at night’. (You might be surprised to hear that I actually put Professor Brian Cox in this ‘category’ – he’s inarguably an accomplished physicist but there’s something a bit too soft-focus about his Wonders series (even though I LOVE it!) for me.)

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But I was drinking coffee watching Nat Geo Wild this morning: A documentary (I suspect American made but re-voiced over by a British voice – but I may be wrong) called ‘Lioness in Exile’.  It was the biggest pile of Anthropomorphic Pop Ecology (APE TV) that I have seen in a long while (ergo the ranting blog post). Let me quote a few lines for you:

“its as if she understands that her cubs will have to grow up faster than they should”

“this is the harsh life she has chosen.”

“the youngsters are too hungry to show their elder any respect

“the youngsters are a reminder that she has something to fight for”

“zebra stripes are designed to confuse her”

“they are wary but reckless

Now, I’m not going to pick this apart line by line – but let’s just say that in general, it was a wee bit unscientific. Then I started to wonder – is this the demise of good Natural History TV?  Is fecking Springwatch all we have to look forward to? The dumbing down of science programming is really heartbreaking to me.  Are the public getting more stupiderer? Or are broadcasters deliberately deciding to feed us fluffed-up, watered-down coffee table conservation for some other reason? We NEED some new, bright young, hard-science presenters on TV (preferably in knitwear like Casey).  I’m not saying we can’t do behavioural ecology without feeling affection for animal or thinking that they’re cute; Jane Goodall has mad a career out of hard ecology studying animals that she feels a DEEP affection for.  Dear National Geographic, please sort it out.

Yours truly, Angry Mog x

Brace Yourselves (Part 2: The Recipe)

Sorry for the delay – I’m having some kind of full-body sarcoid freak out and now at home on the mend, catching up on work, emails and blogging in my pyjamas – so here, as promised, is the recipe for Pheasant and White Wine Casserole…

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Step 1: Brown your pheasant in a large pan with some butter and olive oil. Chuck in a chopped up packet of smoked bacon (lardons, whatever)…  Put pheasant and bacon in the slow cooker.

Step 2: Sautee some onions in the same pan you did the pheasant in. Deglaze the pan with a large glass of white wine and 1/2 a litre of chicken stock.  Bring up to a simmer.

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Step 3: Chuck wine/onion/stock mix in the slow cooker (or a very low oven in a dish with a lid) with a few sprigs of fresh thyme for 5 hours.

Step 4: Add a punnet of chestnut mushrooms, quartered. Stir. Lid back on for another 2 hours.

Step 5:  Cooker off, allow to cool.

Step 6:  Go through removing all the bones. (I did my cooking during the day, removed the bones when cool and put the whole thing in the fridge overnight to eat it on day 2)

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Step 7:  Heat up the casserole, let it reduce as much as you like.  Right at the end add a splash of double cream, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with new potatoes and green veggies. Watch out for bones as you eat. x

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*I’d like to add a note here – as lojardinier pointed out (thanks!) – it is late in the season for pheasant!  Too late!  after Feb 1, pheasants can only be shot if they are causing a nuisance – I can only hope that this was the case with mine, and will certainly be more vigilant of dates in future. 

Brace Yourselves (Part I)

Okay, turn away if you’re squeamish.  I recently purchased a slow-cooker (in an attempt to save time, effort and money) and it’s fair to say I’m pretty enamoured with it.  So far I’ve made a slow-cooked Two-Bean Sweet Potato Chilli, BBQ Pork Ribs, Beef Shin Stew, and my plan was for something gamey for Sunday dinner tomorrow.  I trotted down to Bilston (this is just outside Wolverhampton so you really have no excuse for not being able to find a butcher that does game – its about as urban as you can get around here!) market this morning in search of rabbit (there’s a brilliant butcher in the indoor market that does locally shot game) but came away, instead with a brace (this is an old word meaning ‘two’ – from the French ‘bra’ meaning ‘arms’ – assuming that means you have one in each arm?) of pheasants.  So, I thought I’d do a blog today on how to prepare them (the butcher loves me as I never have him skin & gut my animals), and then a blog with the recipe for Sunday dinner tomorrow!

I plucked my pheasants first, which you’d normally do when you’re keeping the skin on (you would do this for a young bird – older birds don’t roast that well, and to roast you need to keep the skin on).  I am planning on stewing mine in the slow cooker, and only plucked because I want the feathers for crafting, so you could skip this bit and go straight to skinning.  Off come the feet (including the tendons – these just pull out) and the wings.  Then you need to remove the head and the crop (the crop is where the bird stores all the food he’s been eating before digesting it – it is a bulge above the breast bone – if you look at my bird above, he has a full crop – which you push up and cut off with the head & neck – mine had been eating corn!).  The skin comes off pretty easily – start by loosening the skin around the breast and just pull it off – mine both came off in one piece. Then it should be gutted – making a nick in the bird (as per the photo) and then basically – there’s no delicate way to put this – shove your hand up inside and pull out all the gubbins – do this into a bag and not onto your counter as you don’t want poo everywhere if something bursts.)  A quick wash, quartering and pat dry and your bird is ready for cooking!  Recipe tomorrow!

Foraging Special: Gorse Flower Salt Scrub

In my eternal quest to Detox my life (you’ve seen me ditch my shower curtain and hack my air fresheners), I’ve discovered the really enjoyable art of making body scrubs from coconut oil, and of course I’ve found a way to incorporate a bit of foraging into the process.  One of the few flowers around throughout the year is Gorse (Ulex europea) which makes for perfect winter foraging and (as luck would have it) has a lush coconutty fragrance.  There’s going to be more on gorse shortly, but I thought I’d share the ‘recipe’ for this awesome salt scrub:

What you need:

One 500g jar of coconut oil (tip* – get this from the TOILETRIES aisle in the supermarket where it’s less than half the price of those in the food/oils section!)

1.5 cups (about half of a 750g tub) of table salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or 10-20 drops of the essential oil of your choice)

1 handful of DRIED flowers/herbs of your choice – gorse flowers in this case (tip* with the gorse you only want the petals)

Some jars to put your scrub in, mixing bowl, small saucepan

How to make it:

  1. Empty the jar of coconut oil into the saucepan and melt on the stove on a low heat – you don’t want it to boil, just melt gently.  It will look like vegetable oil.
  2. Allow to cool on the counter for 10 minutes
  3. Mix in the vanilla (this will look a bit like a lava lamp) and flowers
  4. Put the mix in the fridge and stir every 10 minutes until the mixture has got some of its gloopiness back and is turning white again.
  5. Add your salt and mix thoroughly
  6. Pot up into jars and put in the fridge for 30 mins to set
  7. All done!  Use like you would any body scrub – store at room temperature

The Small of the Wild (Part 1)

I had a microscopic adventure this week: a foray into the world of Ascomycetes fungi. Ascos (That’s what the cool kids call them – and I’m down with the kids, as you know!) are a type of small fungi that live on dead wood (or sometimes other fungi) and proliferate by expelling spores into the air (they are known as the ‘Spore Shooters’).

To study them, you really need a hand lens (although there are some large ascos like Scarlet Elf Cup and Witches Butter which are large – Elf Cups will feature in another blog post very soon!).  Delighted that I remembered to pack my hand lens and my camera with macro lens, I managed a few cool pics.  (Not all of these are Ascos, as some are fungi from different groups, and at least one is a slime mould (Which is apparently part fungi / part animal!!!).  It was an enthralling experience looking for organisms on a microscopic level – and of course I digressed into looking at beetles, slugs, snails, etc (below) I had my eyes opened to a completeley new taxonomic group!

Fishing, Aboriginal Style

For thousands of years (at least 9,000 according to archaeologists) humans have been fishing with traps, fashioned from straight rods of hazel and willow.  This style of trap has been found throughout the globe, used by a wide variety of indigenous cultures from Native Americans & First Nations to Vikings and our own British ancestors.

And its not just willow and hazel – this fantastic trap (photos and vine below) are made from bamboo!

I’ve seen a wide variety of fish traps in museum collections.  The photos below are from the British Museum in London, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Peabody Museum, Boston:

Making traditional fish traps has been on my list of things to do for a while now… I started with a simple two-ended crayfish trap (based on the design of standard crayfish traps with a cylinder-shape, cones at both ends and a hatch to remove caught crayfish.  I’m hoping to try it out shortly and will post the results! *You need a licence from the Environment Agency to trap alien crayfish, and a licence from Natural England to trap/survey for native white-clawed crayfish.

More fish trap designs to follow!

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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