In the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes …

There is a long standing tradition that those of us with an interest – professional or amateur – in diatoms gather for a weekend at the end of October to share our enthusiasm.   The tradition includes free time on the Saturday afternoon to collect and examine diatoms which, itself, necessitates a rural location. For some inexplicable reason, this weekend has to coincide with the autumn half-term break so that, just as the privations of Ramadan make the feast of Eid more enjoyable, so sitting in a traffic jam on a motorway en route to this rural location intensifies the pleasure of a weekend looking at and talking about diatoms.

And so it came to pass that the British diatomists gathered at Baskerville Hall Hotel in the Wye Valley, each bringing fresh tales of deadlock on the M6, M5, M4, M25 …   If the name “Baskerville Hall” sounds familiar, then, yes, it is “Baskerville” as in “Hound of the …”.   The legend is that Arthur Conon Doyle was a family friend of the Baskerville family and had the idea for the story on the nearby Hergest Ridge (also the inspiration for an album by Mike Oldfield).   He changed the location to Dartmoor, apparently, to keep the tourists away.   Judging by the rather faded décor of the hotel, that seems to have been a spectacularly successful decision on his part.

I’m not really complaining. British Diatom Meetings are usually located in field study centres with accommodation in draughty dormitories, with lowest common denominator catering and appalling coffee.   This year, at Baskerville Hall, I was able to lie in bed and watch Match of the Day. Twice.   This was necessary because, as a scientist, I believe in replication, so I needed to watch the Sunday morning repeat to make sure that West Ham beating Manchester City was not a dream.


Baskerville Hall Hotel, near Hay-on-Wye, Powys, location of the 2014 British Diatom Meeting.

Thinking about ecology in a location with strong links with Sherlock Holmes was itself instructive. Maria, my co-worker on the studies on the River Ehen, which I have written about here many times (most recently in “Pearl mussels with some unexpected bedfellows…”) gave a talk on our work and it did make me think about the art of deduction in the context of environmental studies. Like Sherlock Holmes, we don’t get involved in problems until someone has realised that there is a problem, which means that we rarely have as much baseline data as we would like. In the case of the River Ehen, we are trying to unpick the reasons for the large quantities of algae that are present in the river, yet our only evidence that the quantities here are greater than they were in the past is the observations of a colleague who visited in the 1980s, though he made no actual measurements at this time. And so it goes on. We have chemical records from nearby locations, for example, though the types of measurements, their detection limits and frequency aren’t ideal for our purposes (nonetheless, we still have a more extensive network of monitoring stations in the UK than in many parts of Europe).   Slowly, as we trawl through the data, patterns emerge but they are rarely as crystal clear as we would like. Our conclusions are always hedged with caveats and there never seems to be enough evidence to unmask a villain with a dramatic flourish in the final paragraph. Were Sherlock Holmes an environmental scientist, I doubt he would ever have felt confident enough to say “elementary, my dear Watson”. Unfortunately.