Botany: the roots of civilisation

Plants underpin all life, yet botany fails to capture our imagination. Tom Chivers hopes a BBC radio series will change that view A billion years ago, a primitive single-celled organism ended up inside another, slightly less primitive organism, and something strange happened: it didn’t die. Now, a billion years later, the descendants of that hybrid…

Use your illusion: why human vision is a mathematical impossibility

•Note: a few lines of the text in this was first used in my magazine feature on the perception of colour. But don’t worry, this is a very different and much nerdier piece. Nothing you see is real. You can’t believe your lyin’ eyes. “Colour doesn’t exist in the world,” says Dr Beau Lotto, a…

Why science is better than history

We all want to understand how the world works. Or I assume we all do. I certainly do. That’s why we read non-fiction books. Books that explain the world. Books about the life of Charlemagne, about the run-up to the First World War, about relativity or evolution. It’s one of the great joys in life,…

Kew’s ‘codebreaker’ mourns his lily

Carlos Magdalena ‘has done things no one else can do’ but a thief has put at risk his work to save a tiny, rare plant. Tom Chivers reports In a little warm puddle in rural Rwanda, a tiny flower used to grow; a water lily, barely half an inch across. It was discovered in 1985…

Mary Anning, Dorset’s semi-forgotten heroine of science

I’ve got a piece in the science pages today, about the great amateurs of science. I wanted to talk a little more about one of them, the amazing Mary Anning. The cliffs between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, in western Dorset, are made of an extraordinary limestone-and-shale substance, called “Blue Lias”. It was laid down 200…

Is it time to rewrite the laws of physics?

‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so,” said Ford Prefect in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For the past century, mainstream physics has agreed with him. To most of us, it seems obvious that the world is moving steadily forward through time, from a known past, through an active present, into a…

The universe will always keep us in the dark – that’s exciting

From Friday’s Daily Telegraph: Physics is full of what Donald Rumsfeld would call “known unknowns”, the things that we know we need to find, but don’t know exactly what they are. This week we may have come a little closer to working out the nature of one of them: “dark matter”. We are living in…

Knowing about science is not a trivial pursuit

From today’s paper: Why do otherwise intelligent people think scientific pig ignorance is socially acceptable? At parties around this time of year, with some randomly assembled group of family or friends or in-laws or vagrants in a bus station, I’ll play Trivial Pursuit. Without fail, when a “science and nature” question gets asked, someone says,…