Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is about the life of the Prussian explorer and naturalist Humboldt. Yesterday, the book was named winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize.


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Humboldt (1769 – 1859) inspired scientists and writers such as Jules Verne and Charles Darwin. He has more things named after him than anyone who has ever lived, including an ocean current, the Berlin university a six-foot squid and a breed of penguin.

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Bravely, he travelled in the Americas, exploring, climbing and describing natural history. Later, he repeated these holistic feats with horses and carriages from Berlin to east of the Urals.

Wulf’s biography makes clear just how close together science and art were, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It also credits Humboldt for anticipating the destructive influence of humans on the environment.

Sun and Moon

The winning images from this year’s Astronomy Photographer of 2016 have been announced.

Kolbein Svensson photographed an aurora entirely in black and white –


Catalin Beldea (photograph) and Alson Wong (processing) use 12 images to convey the beauty of an eclipse –


Dani Caxete took Man on the Moon, using a telescope, while his friend posed on Pena Munana, in Cadalso de los Vidrios, Spain –


Ainsley Bennett took a picture one early morning when he saw the Moon, Venus, Mars and Jupiter all in close conjunction. The mist added an extra dimension by accentuating the brightness of the crescent moon and Venus, making them look like glowing spheres –


Turning in the Wind

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David Watkinson has made a series of sculptures based on seeds of the many maple species. They rotate gently in the breeze.


Acer rubra has the typical pairs of seeds with opposite wings:



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Fairy Cottage

A Romanian couple have spent two years building an eco-friendly “fairytale castle” in the mountains of Transylvania, using only natural materials.

Razvan and Gabriela Vasile sold their home near the capital Bucharest to build the “castle” in a village 24 miles (40 km) from the city of Sibiu, Casa Mea website reports. Called the “Clay Castle of the Valley of Fairies”, it is made of “100% organic” clay, straw and sand, with all wooden pillars and not a lick of modern paint or varnish. As the couple are singers rather than master builders, they enlisted the help of a professional architect to make their dream come true.

Casa Mea says the building “looks like something out of the Hobbit” rather than a castle in the conventional sense, and the owners hope eventually to open it as a hotel, given its location in the spectacular Carpathian Mountains and proximity to the famous Transfagarasan highway and medieval Sibiu.

Deep-Time Maps

The “Ancient World” as Deep Time Maps have just become available at a new website from Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc. The series of paleogeographic global maps is based on the latest geologic information. Go to

Global Paleogeography and Tectonics in Deep Time
©2016 Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc.


The global maps go back more than 300 million years and show the latest interpretations of plate movement, boundaries and present national outlines. Some of the land masses have familiar shapes but there are mysterious connections that represent a ghost-like world.

Human as Animal

I’ve been reading Jacob Bronowski’s 1956 Science & Human Values, with its essay, The Habit of Truth about Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with a Stoat.


He explains how the painting is a pun about so much that is human: man and animal, a creation of unity. AN Wilson has posted an annotated version of this @MailOnline in 2011:


Bronowski (1908-1974) was a mathematician and anthropologist, best known for his 1973 tv series The Ascent of Man:

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Searching for a truth that human and animals are closely related, Leonardo tests and explores the consequences of the relationship. In the girl and the stoat there is the long brow of the skull, the lucid eyes, the gesture of the hand and the claw, the pale complexion of both, their body language and searching interests.

Natural Music


Most musicologists think that music began within a human culture. Another idea is that our love of music has biological roots, perhaps mimicking the sound of heartbeats in the mother’s womb. Now there is scientific evidence to support a cultural origin, though the biological influences are not entirely discounted.

Deep in the Bolivian Amazon, the Tsimane Tribe make their own kind of music. It has a strong contrast between consonance and dissonance, sounds that have interested musicologists since the culture of ancient Greece.

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JH McDermott et al write in today’s Nature (July 28) that the Tsimane perceive consonance and dissonance differently to westerners. Their harmonies are simple, only played one at a time, while there is an indifference to dissonance. In the west this is used for background texture or to express tension: not so in Bolivia.


This is distinctive cultural variation in music perception. Some observers also say that the new conclusions are confirmed by the observation that the Tsimane prefer laughter to unpleasant gasps.

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