Mini Stories from Science

Ultrashort stories about how scientists think and what goes on behind the scenes. To receive notification of updates, go to :

133. How Linneaus came to London

Posted on May 25, 2017

May 23rd was Carl Linnaeus’s 320th birthday. When he died in 1778, his effects were put up for sale. Joseph Banks, then head of the Linnean Society, promptly bought his notebooks and specimens on behalf of the society. They were packed on board a ship and on their way to England before the king of Sweden realized that these wonderful historical documents and materials were being lost to his country. He promptly sent a fast navy ship in ...

Read More

132. A great loo story

Posted on May 10, 2017

(If any readers can tell me the origin of this, I would love to know!) Academics, and especially critics, have long been associated with “high” culture. It is only within my lifetime that their attention has increasingly been drawn towards “low” culture, with Clive James and his TV column in the Observer being an obvious example. However, in Victorian times, it seems that there was an academic who took a particular interest in the ...

Read More

131. The rewards of science communication

Posted on May 9, 2017

Long-time readers of these annals may recall that, when I first used the physics of biscuit dunking as a way to show how scientists think about problems. I received the following letter from a 12-year-old schoolboy: The boy's name was Chao Quan. I wrote back to him, answering his questions, and apologizing that I couldn't send any biscuits because I had eaten them all. Now comes the punchline. which still brings a lump to my throat. ...

Read More

130. Marching for science and marching for tax

Saturday, April 22nd saw scientists marching in the streets in over 500 cities around the world. Just the week before, another march took place in Washington; a march to decry Donald Trump's failure to release his tax returns as promised. My op-ed submitted to the Washington Post, comparing the two marches, just missed out, but I still believe its message is valid, important and will continue to be pertinent. So here it is; please feel free to ...

Read More

129. On prosopagnosia and apophenia: recognizing patterns in faces and society

My latest Ockham's Razor talk for Australian ABC Radio National. How some of us can't recognize facial patterns, but how most of us fall for imaginary patterns in the real world, and what we can do about it. Here is the link to the podcast: And here is the original unedited transcript. Enjoy! I’ve known Robyn ...

Read More

128. Penile frostbite: an unexpected hazard of jogging.

Posted on February 13, 2017

The following wonderful letter appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine forty years ago. If the IgNobel Prizes had existed then, it would surely have been a leading candidate for the medicine prize. Who says that scientists don't have a sense of humor?! Penis frostbite reference

Read More

18. The UNscientific method. Part 1.

Posted on February 3, 2017

(Feb 3, 2017) I temporarily removed this early post because it seemed to be attracting spambots. Now re-posting. Enjoy! I am often asked the question “Is there a scientific method?” If the question means “Is there just one method that all scientists accept and use by consensus?” then the answer is clearly NO. As this series has shown, and will continue to show, there are many, many methods that scientists use in their efforts to ...

Read More

127. How can we cooperate? A new lesson from the bees.

The world is rapidly going down the road of competition rather than cooperation. In doing so, as I have shown in previous posts and in my book Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, its citizens face the deadly dilemmas exposed by game theory – in particular, the ongoing circular dilemma that: cooperation brings rewards but if our minds are set on competition, it appears in many situations that we can do better for ...

Read More

126. The ethics of game theory: Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby & Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid

I avoid political commentary on this website , but in the current climate (31st January, 2017) I believe that it is very important for as many of us as possible to look dispassionately at what is happening and  try to understand what is going on below the surface rhetoric. The tool for this is game theory, about which I have written a book Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life.In it, I emphasize the paradoxes that scientists have ...

Read More

125. The Chinese tea ceremony

Posted on January 30, 2017

The Chinese New Year, which began this year on January 28th, is a big deal in Sydney, which has a large and vibrant Chinese community, some of whose families go back to the gold rush days of the 1850s. As part of the celebrations, the Art Gallery of New South Wales hosted a demonstration of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The ceremony predates its better-known Japanese cousin, and goes back to the 9th century. By pure chance, I was in ...

Read More