Sunday, 10 April 2016

Problem solving with slime mould

Yes it's slime time again at our house. There's been a bit of a community craze for everybody's favourite social amoeba round these parts lately. There's a small farm down at the ASCUS Lab if you want to go and play.

Slimey and me have been doing more of the "what are we doing and how are we doing it and haven't we been over this before and where do we want to go now?" activities.



Thing about Physarum polycephalum is, see, that everyone always thinks they ought to make it go round mazes. (Same with rats, kittens*, worms, etc.) The idea being that once an organism has taken a turn round a maze a human can then understand that the organism might have some sort of measurable computational or cognitive powers and/or agency, some sort of overarching self-awareness and all that, something that adds up to a form of memory or ability to do decision-making. Then because everyone always uses mazes for everything they become a sort of standardized activity so that you can measure one performance of maze-solving against another. Do we even like standardized animal tests?  Do they work?  Do we learn stuff? Well, I suppose we can say that they make it possible to measure one performance of maze-solving against another...

Anyway I don't know about you but I can't think of anything more dull than a maze. I'd rather have a normal real-world problem to solve of the kind that we share with other organisms such as will I be able to find my dinner on this riverbank? and how do I get this mud off my whiskers? and how will I complete my life-cycle in the absence of a suitable host? etc.  Furthermore the only times I've negotiated a maze have been under duress and with various family members and I am pretty sure that not one of them is convinced that I have any sort of computational or cognitive powers, agency, ability to do decision-making, overarching self-awareness or anything that could add up to a form of memory.

How about a crossword then? Something appropriately cryptic?


Pathways to Impact
Didn't do so well on the crossword.


But we had more fun with the sudoku:

You put your whole self in: that's what it's all about.









* But you have to hand it to anyone who manages to get funding to study seventy-eight kittens from 3 to 7 weeks of age in an open-field arena. I would very much like to do that too.  I hope it was all of them all at once, for four continuous weeks, bring a tent and a camping stove but it's ok, we have a composting toilet. But if you want to see what these guys actually did with their kittens Wiley have them all hidden behind a paywall and are charging $6 a look or $38 for the bareback ride. Which is how Public Engagement with Science becomes such a furtive and sordid and dimly-lit and sometimes illegal affair.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Loving the lichens

I'm putting on some great workshops with my lichenologist friends Kristine Bogomazova and Frances Stoakley.  We're sharing our favourite ways of getting to know these magnificent tiny crusty symbiotic life forms - a little learning, a lot of looking, some fun with watercolour paint and oil pastels.

If anyone is in Edinburgh this Sunday 3rd April we still have a few places available! We will be in the Patrick Geddes Room at the John Hope Gateway at the Royal Botanic Garden, from 2.00 -3.30pm.. It's suitable for total beginners, artists, scientists - any curious persons and older children.  The workshop is free but please send me a message to book a place if you want to come.