And finally …

My very last post for 2014 is a word cloud for Microscopes and Monsters, summarising all of my posts during the year, generated using   The word cloud gives the greatest prominence to those words that appear most frequently in the posts and, unsurprisingly, “algae” is the word that stands out most.   However, I’m quietly pleased to see “see” up there too: the whole point of this blog being to help you look at the world in new ways.

Normal service will resume next year


We photographed everything, remembered nothing …

I saw my first “selfie stick” in 2014, during my visit to the 9/11 Memorial in New York.   Four months later I was in Piazza San Marco in Venice and it seemed that everyone around me was taking photographs almost continuously. I was flicking through my sketchbook earlier today and found this page of sketches that I made over the course of about an hour whilst in Venice. I found a brief, perverse pleasure in drawing other people photographing themselves in front of Venice’s landmarks.

As John Ruskin wrote in Stones of Venice (1851-53) “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him”.   Were he to visit Venice now he would almost certainly decide that the tools have won.

Happy New Year.


2014 in review stats have just sent me an annual report for my blog.   Thanks to all of you (spread around 110 countries!) who have read my posts.   I sometimes tap away at my keyboard wondering whether anyone will read what I write, so I was delighted to see this report.

And best wishes for 2015


Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,200 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The anatomy of angels

Spare a thought during the Christmas festivities, for those bloggers who explore the art-science interface. This is a difficult time of year for us, assaulted on all sides by anatomically-implausible depictions of angels.   I have written previously about how the work of Renaissance artists such as Leonardo di Vinci was based on a deep understanding of human anatomy (see “”I am only teaching you how to see””) yet we find a liberal sprinkling of angels in their works. To be fair, Leonardo, to the best of my knowledge, only depicts angels in two early works (before his anatomical studies), but Titian and Tintoretto are repeat offenders (see “The Geography of Art” and “walking in Tintoretto’s shadow”).

I will, for now, by-pass the theology of angels, except to comment that the Bible never states that angels possess wings.   Angels appear in both the Old and New Testaments as messengers from God, but we get no clues to their appearance. The appearance of angels in art owes as much to descriptions of Seraphim and Cherubim in the Old Testament, particularly the book of Ezekiel.   Though these are very different to the angels we see in western art (and on Christmas cards), they do, at least, possess wings.

My faint memories of zoology lectures reinforced the idea of a basic four-limbed body plan in vertebrates which, in humans, is modified to two arms and two legs. Yet angels have six limbs and, when I started to think about the practicalities of this, my head soon started spinning. Our locomotion relies on the tensions generated as muscles encounter resistance from the bones to which they are attached. Adding two extra limbs to the abdomen of a human body plan requires upwards of a dozen new muscles each, all of which need points of attachment on bones, particularly the scapula (shoulder blade), clavicle (collarbone) and sternum (breastbone).   Bear in mind, too, that a wing would require substantial muscles (as large as or larger than the thigh muscles) and, also, that the arrangement of both bones and muscles in birds is substantially different to that in mammals in order to facilitate flight.   In particular, the pectoralis muscles is enormous, relative to the rest of the body (it’s the source of all that breast meat that your Christmas turkey yielded yesterday lunchtime) and it is also attached to a much larger sternum than the human model.   This allows for a powerful downpull which helps the bird to fly. The upward motion of the wing is facilitated by the supracoracoideus muscles, which pulls on a tendon that loops over the furcular (“wishbone”) and around the scapula and finally attaches to the humerus in the upper part of the wing.

So our anatomically-correct angel needs to have a very highly-modified chest, and two sets of pecs, one set of which would be mightily impressive by the standards of the average fit human.   If you passed an angel in the street, you might think (assuming that you did not notice the wings) that the guy was a body-builder, probably pumped-up on steroids.   He could, quite possibly, be mistaken for a night-club bouncer.   Just don’t try calling him “cherub”.

Happy Christmas.

Hunting for desmids in Upper Teesdale


Cronkley Fell from near Widdybank Farm, December 2014

We had Upper Teesdale to ourselves on Saturday morning, most fellow-walkers having been deterred, perhaps, by the strong westerly winds.   They missed some spectacular lighting as the weak December sun briefly broke through the clouds to light the Pennine fells.   The open fire in the bar of the Langdon Beck Hotel, and the bowl of hot soup, were very welcome when we finally completed our regular 13 kilometre loop.

As ever, my eyes are forever adjusting between the grand panoramic landscapes of Upper Teesdale, and the small scale botanical wonders all around us. Today, my primary interest was the desmids that inhabit the blanket bog and I diverted off the boardwalks that mark the Pennine Way’s course along the Tees to squeeze the brown water from handfuls of Sphagnum moss into my sampling tubes. The peaty-brown water that I collect usually contains a diverse assemblage of desmids, which I’m collecting to form the basis of a new painting.

I wrote about the desmids from Upper Teesdale last year (see “More from Upper Teesdale”) but since then I have upgraded the camera on my microscope and also purchased focus stacking software (see “Now … with added depth of field …”) that makes a repeat visit worthwhile.   Many of the desmids I found were the same as those in my sample from March last year, though there were a couple of strangers and the long moon-shaped cells of Closterium striolatum did not fit neatly into a single field of view.   However, a quick scan of the slide revealed half a dozen abundant species and a few that were represented by just occasional specimens as well as plenty of diatoms, other green algae and protozoans.


Squeezing Sphagnum to collect desmids in Upper Teesdale, December 2014.   The photo doesn’t really capture the reality of the 30 km/hour winds and associated wind-chill.

When I look at desmids, I’m way out of my comfort zone, but there is something about their symmetrical, often intricate outlines that is beguiling and makes me want to continue scanning the slide in search of more.   This particular sampling trip is the first step of the research for a new painting and, like diatoms, the desmids have a beauty that transcends the limits of objective science. That’s my agenda for this painting: to use the microscopic life of Upper Teesdale’s boggy pools as the counterpoint to the rugged, panoramic beauty of the landscape itself.   I could use pictures of desmids from the books I have on my shelves, but I like my pictures to have a direct link with a particular place and time. It is veracity that, perhaps, few will appreciate, but without this the end-product would just be a collection of abstract shapes.


Upper Teesdale desmids. a. Netrium oblongum; b. Micrasterias oscitans (var. mucronata); c Eurastrum didelta; d. Desmidium cf. aptogonum; e. Cosmarium ralfsii.; f. Micrasterias truncata.   Scale bar: 50 micrometres (1/20th of a millimetre).

When Right is not right

My post “What has the European Union ever done for us?” started my own countdown to the next general election by laying out the case for continued UK membership of the EU.   Britain’s relationship with Europe will be one of the key battlegrounds for the next election, without a doubt, with the second being the economy. Every other manifesto promise will be shaped by each party’s response to these two issues. In many ways, I suspect, last week’s news about the continued high level of national debt and the need for continued austerity will shape the day-to-day policies of the next government (whoever that is) rather more than the arguments about Europe.

The impression I have formed over the period since the 2010 election is that many in the public sector and on the Left regard the current austerity as a relatively short-term event to be survived before business as usual can be resumed.   The language of “efficiency” is still invoked to imply that service delivery continues despite smaller budget but my impression is that Government agencies concerned with environmental management are struggling to fulfil their statutory duties, let alone indulge in any strategic thinking.   And the likelihood is that this situation will continue throughout the term of the next government as well.   The Left faces a Faustian choice: raise taxes to fund the public services properly or radically rethink how public services are delivered.   The “efficiency” mantra has a limited shelf life and promising to raise taxes will hand the election to the Right.

Roger Scruton, a philosopher of the Right, argues eloquently against interventionist approaches to managing the environment which equates to this “radical rethink”. The core of his argument is that socialism has unpicked the natural homeostatic mechanisms by which societies manage themselves and, by extension, their environments. That, in itself, is contentious and it is equally possible to argue for the damaging effects of multinational companies. Where I think he is on stronger ground is his argument that it is too easy for companies to externalise their environmental costs, as happens when a water company discharges partially-treated sewage, relying on the natural self-purification capacity of the river to finish the task for them. Downstream river users, in effect, ‘pay the price’ in terms of lost opportunities for fishing or bathing.

At present, this situation is managed by regulation, by the Environment Agency waving the threat of criminal prosecution at the water company if they fail to comply with the conditions of their consents to discharge. Roger Scruton suggests, instead, that such situations could equally well be managed by the existing common law of torts.   He cites examples where this has been used successfully, most relevantly, given my example, the cases fought by the Angler’s Co-operative Association (now Fish Legal). There are, however, a huge number of problems with extending this principle, not least of which is that you need to have property owners who recognise the damage and who can act collectively.   Angling clubs own riparian rights, have a clear incentive and are well organised.   Where does the impetus come from if the stream has no recreational interest to be ‘damaged’ and scores of stakeholders who are not necessarily property owners and who lack the organisation to band together to confront a multinational water company? Environmental regulators may be bureaucratically-heavy but they do have the ability to act in the public interest in a way that few voluntary groups can. ‘Interventionist’, in this situation, may not be ideal, but it is likely to be more effective than the alternatives.

That’s the problem. If you want to justify ‘small government’ you need to demonstrate either that there are alternative mechanisms to delivering the services that are no longer being provided by the state or that we never needed those services in the first place.   Alternative philosophies such as ‘nudge’ theory (see “More about floods …“) have their place but are not a wholesale replacement for the status quo. This leaves both Left and Right in the unenviable position of needing to devise practical approaches to environmental management that can be delivered using substantially smaller budgets than is presently the case. I await the party manifestos with interest.


Scruton, R. (2012). Green Philosophy. Atlantic Books, London.

Achnanthidium subhudsonis invades Britain?


Achnanthidium subhudsonis from the Afon Seiont, North Wales; the three images on the left are raphe valves, the two on the right are rapheless valves. Scale bar: 10 micrometres (1/100th of a millimetre).

I have had a couple of emails in recent months asking for help naming a diatom which, in both cases, after showing the images to colleagues, was identified as Achnanthidium subhudsonis (Hustedt) H. Kobasayi 2006.   This species was originally described by Hustedt from samples collected in tropical Africa but there seem to be a growing number of records in temperate regions, leading some to describe it as an “invasive species”.   I am sceptical of many statements concerning the distribution of diatoms (see “A “red list” of endangered British diatoms?”) but, in this case, I think there might be some justification. This is because the original suggestion that A. subhudsonis is spreading in Europe was based on careful observations over a decade by Michel Coste.   He has the benefit of examining samples from a large number of French rivers regularly over a long period of time, so has a large dataset on which to base his proposal.   His evidence does suggest that A. subhudsonis was quite rare in the early 1990s but subsequently was recorded from more sites and in increasingly large numbers. I am less convinced by some more recent papers that have made similar assertions about A. subhudsonis spreading, as they do not present enough evidence to show that it wasn’t present in the past. One paper, for example, claimed: “The relative abundance of A. subhudsonis reached 20% in the Chiusella and Ticino rivers, highlighting the invasive behaviour of the species”. No it doesn’t: it just means that one in five of an unknown number of diatoms belonged to a species that hasn’t been recorded from this site before.   I go no further at this stage than claiming A. subhudsonis as a “new record” for Britain and leaving open the possibility that it has been here for some time but has been overlooked.

The first record of A. subhudsonis in Europe was made in 1991, a significant date in our story as this was also the year that the volume of the standard diatom identification guide covering the family to which A. subhudsonis belongs was published.   This group includes many small diatoms that are difficult to tell apart and, consequently, there is a risk that some potential records of A. subhudsonis will have been recorded under a different name. Consequently, it is dangerous to infer that A. subhudsonis is now more widespread simply because we do not have strong enough evidence for its absence. Unless we have regular records from the same site over at least 20 years the best we can do is make a map of its present distribution and speculate.

So far, the records we have for the UK are from the River Dart in Devon and the Afon Seiont, in North Wales, but there may be other records lurking out there that we have overlooked.   One interesting feature of these records is that they are more northerly than the previous records, which are mostly from southern and central Europe. The ecology, based on published observations seems vague, but there is a suggestion that it likes low levels of pollution but is often associated with agricultural areas where there may be elevated nitrogen. That means that there are many potential habitats for A. subhudsonis in the UK so it will be interesting to see how many more records are out there, waiting to be discovered.


Coste, M. & Ector, L. (2000). Diatomées invasives exotiques ou rares en France: principales observations effectuées au cours des dernières décennies. Systematic and Geography of Plants 70: 373-400.

Falasco, E. & Bona, F. (2013). Recent findings regarding non-native or poorly known diatom taxa in north-western Italian rivers.   Journal of Limnology 72: 35-51.

Krammer, K. & Lange-Bertalot, H. (1991). Susswasserflora von Mitteleuropa 2: Bacillariophyceae. 4 Teil: Achnanthaceae. Kritische Ergänzungen zu Achnanthes s.l., Navicula s.str., Gomphonema.   Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg.

A winter wonderland in the River Ehen

I have just finished another visualisation of the underwater life of the River Ehen, following up my observations in Food for Thought from the River Ehen.   In that post I commented on the prominent brown biofilms that I saw on rocks which, under the microscope, turned out to be mixtures of the green alga Bulbochaete and diatoms.   I have tried to convey this in my illustration, with the long-stalked Gomphonemas risking through the mat of Bulbochaete filaments (many of which end in long hairs) and, on the left hand side, a colony of Fragilaria tenera cells, loosely attached to the green alga.   Our measurements showed a conspicuous increase in the quantity of algae present on the stream bed compared to our previous visit, though we are still puzzling about why this is the case.


The submerged world of the River Ehen, November 2014 showing diatoms growing on and around Bulbochaete: left: Fragilaria tenera, central foreground, Gomphonema truncatum, left foreground: Gomphonema acuminatum.   The Gomphonema truncatum cells are about 40 micrometres (one fortieth of a millimetre) long.

We do know that many of the stream algae found in the UK are able to grow at low temperatures and so thrive throughout the winter.   One reason why we expect the increased quantity at this time is that the grazers which feed on the algae are less active in cold weather so the ratio between algal biomass that is produced and that which is consumed decreases.   Just how effective grazers can be is illustrated by two photographs taken the following month, one of which shows even more algae present at the same site where the samples on which my picture is based were collected. The other was taken about 100 metres upstream on the same day and shows another stone covered with tiny Simuliidae larvae.   These will, in time, develop into the swarms of blackflies that can plague river users, as the adult females of many species feed on human blood.


Left: a stone from the bed of the River Ehen in December 2014 covered with Simuliidae larvae (scale bar: one centimetre) and, right, the head of a Simuliidae larva (scale bar: half a millimetre).

Of course, the abundance of Simuliidae larvae does throw some doubt on the idea that lack of grazing is primary reason for the abundance of algae.   Yet this is the first time we have seen such an abundance of Simuliidae at this particular site (which has sometimes had the greatest quantity of algae of all the sites on the Ehen that we visit) which means that we are puzzling over variability in time as well as in space.   I suspect that the long hairs on the Bulbochaete, as we know that other species with similar structures use these to secrete enzymes into the water that enable them to release phosphorus from organic molecules. My suspicion is that the wetter conditions of autumn and winter flush more of these molecules from the peaty soils of the Ennerdale catchment into the river and these, coupled with the lower grazing intensity, fuel the burst of growth that we see.


A mass of green algae (predominately Bulbochaete sp) smothering stones on the bed of the River Ehen, December 2014.   The effect of the numerous colourless hairs of the algae is to create a translucent “haze” over the top of the mass of green filaments.

Simuliidae larvae are often described as filter-feeders which attach to the substratum and have mouthparts adapted into “fans” that capture particles as they drift downstream. However, I have seen Simuliidae bent double so that they can feed directly on the benthic algae. Look at the difference in the quantity of algae between stones with and without Simuliidae, which were only about 100 metres apart.

We have been visiting the Ehen regularly now for about two years and it continues to surprise us.   Simuliidae were certainly not here in such obvious quantities at this time last year or the year before.   I suspect that we are dealing here with nothing more sinister than nature’s complex dynamics, and it makes the case, again, for a slower and more patient study of the natural world than is often possible with the present grant-awarding system (see “Slow science and streamcraft”).   Two and a half years into my explorations of the River Ehen and I’m still sometimes surprised by what I am seeing.


My earliest memory of art was a trip on a wet Saturday afternoon to the Imperial War Museum in London when I was no more than six or seven.   One picture made a huge impact on me during that visit: John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, a huge canvas (231 cm x 611 cm) depicting a line of blinded soldiers, each with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front, being led towards a field hospital.   I found the painting absolutely horrifying at the time and it fuelled nightmares for months afterwards.   That I can still remember the visit over forty years later is a testament to the power of the image.


John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919) at the Imperial War Museum’s Truth and Memory exhibition, December 2014.

I went back to the Imperial War Museum a few days ago to visit their Truth and Memory exhibition of art from the Great War and there it was again. I do believe that John Singer Sargent, a society portrait painter before the war, manages to achieve with realism a more visceral effect than modernists such as Nevison and Nash attained, partly because of its scale and perspectival qualities. As in the case of Kiefer (see “The fine art of asking big questions”) Sargent invites you into the horrific world that his picture depicts.

Unfortunately, the painting is not displayed to the best effect in the current show at the Imperial War Museum: the gallery is cluttered with cabinets and busts and the viewer is unable to get an unimpeded view of the whole picture.   But it is still a very moving image.   Close up, there are some surprises: behind the row of soldiers a football match is going on (an allegory of the British “playing the game” whilst the dastardly Germans resort to poisonous gas, maybe?).   Like a lot of the art on display, Gassed was produced after the hostilities, as the country started to come to terms with the horrors of the war free from the censorship that tried to present only positive images of the front whilst hostilities were ongoing.


Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919): a football match continues behind the injured soldiers.

I worry that fine art these days is too easily relegated to a branch of interior decoration; we buy pictures because they will look good on our walls rather than for any deep moral purpose. Gassed is not a picture that anyone would want on their wall. It is a picture to stand before and meditate, a picture that tells us a tale about human condition and one that offers up a moral lesson.   That, in fact, was the primary purpose of what we now call “fine art” until about 400 years ago.   Truth and Memory has few pictures that qualify as “beautiful” or “tasteful” and none that glorify war.   There is nothing, indeed, that you would want to hang on your living room wall. That’s what makes it so worth visiting.

What has the European Union ever done for us?

There is now less than six months to go before the next general election in the UK and I am going to write a few posts over the coming months evaluating the prospects for the environment that emerge from the political debate.   The rise of UKIP means that this is going to be an election like no other that we have experienced in the UK and, inevitably, Europe is going to be high on the agenda. Add in the inevitable concerns about the economy and the health service and the environment will probably slip down the agenda to that part of each party’s manifesto where rhetoric rules over reality.

Except that the focus on Europe and the economy means that the outcome of this election will have enormous implications for the UK’s environment.   First, most of our environmental legislation derives, ultimately, from the European Union (EU) and, second, implementing environmental legislation requires a strong, well-funded regulator.   We go into the next election campaign aware that leaving the EU is a genuine possibility and, consequently, be aware of the implications.   At this stage, of course, we don’t know what “leaving the EU” really means.   The UK could, in theory, leave the EU but remain part of the European Economic Area, members of which voluntarily adopt EU environmental legislation.   Another possibility is that we leave the EU and EEA but retain the framework of environmental law that we have inherited from the EU (because this has been transposed into UK legislation).

My view is that the environment is one of the principal beneficiaries of UK’s membership of the EU. This is partly because this is an area of policy which benefits from a joined-up approach: the state of the North Sea, for example, depends on the individual environmental policies of UK and six other countries which share its coastline, plus Switzerland (in the EEA but not the EU) and Luxembourg, both wholly or partly in the Rhine catchment.   It is also influenced by the Baltic Sea, which is bordered by a further seven countries, all but Russia EU members. The UK’s use of the North Sea requires a level of agreement amongst these countries that the EU facilitates.   This is not the only example: air pollution does not respect national boundaries either, and there are river catchments in Ireland which straddle the north-south border and so benefit from a shared approach to management.

I also believe that the EU provides a better forum for discussing and developing environmental legislation. Domestic politicians have been, rightly, focussed on the economy and health service. I do not believe that the level of protection afforded by the Water Framework Directive, for example, could have been produced by Westminster politicians working in isolation because of the amount of parliamentary time it would have required.   Watching the way that non-scientists such as Nigel Lawson have hijacked and distorted the debate on global warming in the UK also makes me sceptical about whether Westminster, alone, has the ability or integrity to evaluate new environmental legislation objectively.

I use the term “Westminster” very loosely here as the environment is one power that has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.   In practice, all four administrations are implementing the same set of EU Directives which ensures a joined-up approach.  I know, from meetings I have attended, that there is a centrifugal tendency amongst the administrations, reflecting a legitimate desire to adapt environmental policy to the different conditions of each of the UK’s four constituents. The framework of EU policy, however, provides a centripetal counterweight to these tendencies.

My worry is that our country is ill-served by its politicians with respect to environmental policy. We have a largely London-based political class, a large proportion of whom have little scientific training and many of whom have reduced “Europe” to a political football.   Differences in how Scotland and England manage the environment may appear abstract to those based in London (or Edinburgh) or subservient to a wider ideal. However, these issues take on a much larger significance to anyone who lives in the catchment of the River Tweed, for example.   What happens on the north side of the river has implications for what might happen further downstream on the south side.   The same applies to the River Foyle and many other examples around the UK.

We will, I am sure, hear much rhetoric about “global warming” in the run up to the next election. Remember that the biggest danger to the environment may be the hot air produced by the politicians themselves.