Wednesday, August 13, 2014

London Marvels and Oddities

The World SF Convention takes place in London Thursday to Monday this week. Here are a few things visitors may like to search out while in town.

Thomas Hardy's Tree
A little to the north of St Pancras Station is St Pancras Old Church, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. When the railway was built in the the nineteenth century, it cut through the old cemetery and Thomas Hardy supervised removal of the graves. Hardy's tree, in whose shade he's supposed to have eaten his lunch, still stands, surrounded by a ruff of headstones. You can also find the memorial tomb of Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (famous in her own right for being the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), as well as the graves of Dr John Polidari, who shared the Swiss lakeside villa with Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley when Mary wrote Frankenstein (Polidari wrote a vampire story), and the architect Sir John Soane, which inspired the design of the iconic red telephone box.
SFF connection: Frankenstein, vampires

Sir John Soane's Picture Room
The Soane Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields houses the eighteenth century architect's collection of books and artworks in the townhouse he built and left to the nation.  Three walls of the Picture Room, containing works by Hogarth and Canaletto, are cunningly equipped with hinged panels that slide out to display layers of pictures.
SFF connection: TARDIS

The Irish Giant
Directly across the square from the Soane Museum is the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Hunterian Museum, where you can marvel at examples of surgical procedures, anatomical oddities and the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the 7' 7" tall 'Irish Giant'. Worried that on his death his body would fall into the hands of John Hunter, the eighteenth century surgeon who founded the museum, Byrne left instructions that he should be buried at sea, but Hunter bribed Byrne's wards to seize his prize.
SFF connection: brains in jars, resurrection men
George Frederic Watt's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice
Located in Postman's Park in Little Britain, just north of St Paul's Cathedral, this touching memorial consists of ceramic tablets with brief descriptions of the incidents in which nineteenth century heroes and heroines perished while saving lives.
SFF connection: steampunk tragedy

Darwin's Walking Stick
A whalebone walking stick topped with a skull, once owned by Charles Darwin, is amongst the many oddities and wonders, most related to medical science, collected by Henry Wellcome and displayed in the Wellcome Collection, Euston Road.
SFF connection: a sculpture inspired by J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition is also on display

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Commissioned when the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to South London, these concrete sculptures embody the theory of Sir Richard Owen that dinosaurs really were terrible lizards. Extensively restored, they stand in a landscaped garden.
SFF connection: dinosaurs. Really weird dinosaurs.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Scientists have discovered that myriads of tiny water droplets float in natural tar pits in Trinidad and Tobago, each 'teeming with diverse ecosystems of bacteria and methane-producing organisms'. Tiny world-engines converting hydrocarbons into life; miniature biospheres dispersed through the tarry dark like planets scattered across space. If microbes can thrive there, the scientists suggest, regions where groundwater mixes with methane and ethane ices on Saturn's moon Titan may also be hospitable to life.

The first life on Earth evolved around 3.8 billion years ago, but multicellular life - macroscopic algae, fungi, plants and animals - evolved just 0.8 billion years ago. For three billion years, life on Earth consisted of single-celled prokaryotic microorganisms: bacteria and archaea.  Energy-hungry multicellular eukaryotic organisms were able to evolve and diversify only after one group of bacteria, the cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, developed a form of photosynthesis that produced free oxygen as a waste-product. Even now, prokaryotic microorganisms are still found everywhere in Earth's biosphere, from deep inside the Earth's crust (bacteria discovered near a gold mine 2.8 kilometres underground thrive on sulphur in anaerobic groundwater and hydrogen produced by decay of radioactive elements) to the stratosphere. Sulphur-reducing bacteria form the basis of rich ecosystems around deep sea vents; thermophilic bacteria tint the water of hot springs in Yellowstone Park and elsewhere.

One species entered into symbiosis with early eukaryotic cells and its descendants survive as the mitochondria that produce ATP, the chemical that's the basis of our cells' energy economy. Other species inhabit our skin and guts: the human microbiome accounts for between 1 and 3% of our body mass, outnumbers our cells by 10 to 1, and may contain more than a hundred times the number of genes in our own genome. We're each a bacterial microcosm. Living spaceships patchworked with dozens of ecosystems, carrying trillions of passengers.

While we search for signals from alien civilisations, for charismatic megafauna like us, the first aliens we discover may be weird microorganisms lofted on the plume of a geyser rooted in the world ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa or the polar sea of Saturn's moon Enceladus, thrifty sulphur-reducing extremophiles deep in the Martian crust, or tar-eating microbes in a Titanian hot spring. Or maybe we'll spot the characteristic chemical signature produced by methanogenic bacterai in the atmosphere of an exoplanet around a distant star. And if we do ever find creatures like us and the alien ambassador shakes the hand of the President of Earth, it won't just be a meeting of minds, but an exchange between two ancient and indescribably diverse empires.
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