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We’ve heard it all too many times: animal and plant species are currently going extinct at a rate that is higher than ever before. Climate change, over-pollution, and urban and agricultural encroachment all contribute to the rapid decline of our planet’s biodiversity. So much so, that there is a real danger that even within the next few decades, several major ecosystems worldwide (such as mangrove, alpine, and polar regions) will be seriously disrupted, with major consequences for us humans as well.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to try and curb some of these negative influences. But without knowing better what exactly their consequences are, it is almost like driving in the dark without the headlights on. Is there a way to estimate more accurately what the biodiversity consequences are of, e.g., a two-degree increase in global temperature? It turns out the answer is yes (at least to some extent), thanks to mathematics and computers.

Read the full story on The Naked Scientists…

As part of a workshop at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Wiko), we had the pleasure of being taken on a backstage tour at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Our private and extremely knowledgeable guide Brandon Kilbourne turned out to be a walking encyclopedia on the evolution of mammals, so we were in for a special treat. This 2.5hr tour provided many wonderful insights into amazing adaptations over millions of years of mammalian evolution, with as cherry on the cake some unique dinosaur skeletons to marvel at.

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Le Grammont is a mountain in the Chablais Alps in Western Switzerland situated at the south-east end of Lake Geneva, close to the Swiss-French border where the Rhône River flows into the lake. With a height of 2,172 m (7,126 ft), Le Grammont is not the highest mountain in the Chablais Alps (highest point Dents du Midi 3,257m/10,686 ft), but because of its prominent location right next to Lake Geneva at the lower end of the Rhône valley in the Canton Valais, it is a popular hiking destination that offers wonderful all-round views from the top.

Read the full story on Swiss Vistas

Vienna by Night

Last night I took advantage of a temporary break in the extreme cold weather we’re experiencing this month, and went for a walk along the Ringstrasse in Vienna to take some shots of the various beautiful buildings located along it. This was a bit of a spontaneous experiment, but I’m actually quite pleased with how some shots came out. So here’s a nice impression of Vienna by night. Click any pic for a full-size view.

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In a post just over a year ago, I presented data on earth activity (in particular earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tropical storms). Given all the buzz on the internet about an increased earth activity over the past several years, I was curious to see this for myself, so I downloaded and analyzed some publicly available data. Surprisingly, though, the data showed no such increase at all. In the current post, I present the updated data for up until the end of 2016, which still shows no sign of any unusual behavior. Judge the plots below for yourself…

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The historic city of Graz, in south-eastern Austria, was designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage site in 1999 for having “the best preserved city center of Central Europe”. It combines renaissance, gothic, baroque, and also modern architecture, and has some wonderful natural beauty nearby as well. I recently spent four days exploring this fascinating city and its surroundings, combining culture and nature with a lot of walking.

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Spirals are common in nature. We’ve all admired the beautiful spirals that occur on sea shells, we can find spirals in plants, and even in the arms of galaxies or weather patterns. There are also situations in which spirals aren’t a result of slow growth, but occur spontaneously in biological or chemical systems. A famous example from chemistry is the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction: when several chemicals are mixed together in a petri dish, the resulting solution forms changing spiral patterns. In biology a particular slime mould, called dictyostelium discoideum, gives rise to similar patterns. Spontaneous spiral wave formation in such systems can be reproduced and studied with simple mathematical models known as cellular automata.

Read the full story on Plus magazine

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most profound scientific theories to have ever been developed. However, there were several questions about evolution that Darwin himself could not answer. Not that he wasn’t smart enough (in fact, his intuition often pointed in the right direction), but the answers to those questions required sophisticated mathematical insights that were not developed far enough, or even available yet, in Darwin’s time. One such problem was the evolution of altruism. If evolution by natural selection is all about competition and survival of the fittest, how can altruistic behaviour (which, by definition, lowers the altruist’s fitness and increases the receiver’s fitness) ever evolve?

Read the full story on Plus magazine.

Evolution is still all too often (but wrongly) downplayed as “just a theory” in public discussions. This is partly due to an unfortunate misunderstanding of what a theory means in science, as opposed to its common language meaning. Evolution by natural selection is much more than just a hypothesis, and is as much a valid and well-accepted scientific theory as the theory of gravitation. What Darwin did for biology is on par with what Newton did for physics — and mathematics plays an important role in both theories.

Read the full article in Plus magazine…