Welcome to GeoVerse!

This is a collection of original poems which began with some about geology, which is why it’s called Geoverse; but there are now poems on all sorts of things – life, the universe, and (almost) everything. Click ‘About the author’ (above) to find out who wrote them . . .
To meet all the poems, most recent first, just keep scrolling down the page (there were over 600 at the last count).
To find a list of poems on a particular subject, use the Index tab (above), or enter a term in the Search box (below right), or click a Topic (on the right).
I  hope you find something you like! Gordon Judge

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Mighty oaks and mini-snowmen

It’s February 2021, and a wintry meteorological condition has raised an interesting question.

I’ve built a mini-snowman ’cos there’s been a bit of snow,
Not quite enough for a full-size one, as connoisseurs will know.
But mighty oaks from acorns come; so what I’d like to know
Is, unlike a full-size snowman, will my mini-snowman grow . . . ?

Image: freepik.com

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A Lagerstätte (‘lahger shtettuh’) is a sedimentary deposit containing fossils with exceptional preservation – sometimes including preserved soft tissues. Where this type of fossilisation occurs rapidly in relatively acidic underwater sediments low in oxygen, the soft parts can be replaced by calcium phosphate, and with a scanning electron microscope this can reveal extraordinarily fine details of the creatures’ cellular structures. This offers advice to marine invertebrates who might not be aware of the fact.

Marine invertebrates, take heed:
Geologists are all agreed.
To be immortal, they advise,
You really need to fossilise,

And do so, with that end in view,
In sediments without O2;
That way, each individual cell
Can phosphatise itself as well.

If you’re unusual, weird or rare,
Choose your location with great care
For, as we’ve learned, it’s so much better
To fossilise in a Lagerstätte.

Image (of Belemnoteuthis antiquus from Christian Malford, UK): University of Bristol

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Taking a stand against Covid

An extract from a certain hospital’s instructions form for Covid-19 self-testing by its staff: Before taking the swab, please wash your hands, set up your test tube with the extraction solution and stand upright in plastic cup.

“Before using the swab in your mouth and your nose
Wash your hands in the way that everyone knows;
And to make sure the test tube’s correctly set up
You have to stand upright in a clean plastic cup.”

Well, I tried really hard to find such a vessel,
But a very large teacup and an oversized pestle
Were simply too small for my one-foot-long feet,
So in utter frustration I admitted defeat.

I just stood on the floor in the usual way
And, as per instructions, I then swabbed away
Up each facial orifice for my Covid check-up –
And all without standing upright in a cup!

Image: infectiousdiseaseadvisor.com

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Our mature Bramley apple tree would like to be enormous, but has been pruned every year to produce fruit instead. I knew the total number it produces each year was quite large, so this year I’ve been counting . . .

Bramley apples on our tree
Fall to the ground occasionally.
How many drop? I’ve often wondered –
I thought it must be several hundred . . .
Not every windfall can be used:
Some are rotten, some are bruised.

Others drop when far too small,
But they’re included in my haul.
From June for several months they fall,
And when they do, I count them all.
Peaking with the great June Drop,
The tree produces quite a crop.

I use a spreadsheet by Excel
To show the rate at which they fell.
From mid-July, the drop-rate slows:
Two dozenish per week, it shows.
Until, at last, there are no more . . .
And here it is, the final score:

Eleven hundred plus, we had
(All the apples, good and bad),
Of which about a third we’ll use
(Once we’ve cut out each bash and bruise)
To nourish friends and family.
So thank you, Bramley apple tree!

See also June drop

Image: Wikimedia

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Aunt Alice (and others)

I don’t know where the first line of this poem came from (and neither does Google), but it turned up when clearing out old playgroup stuff. I thought it could be extended a bit . . .

Aunt Alice lives in a palace,
Uncle Fred resides in a shed,
Granddad Jack inhabits a shack,
While brother Dave hangs out in his cave.

Great-uncle Bill shares a house on a hill
With Great-auntie Kate, who’s always late.
Their son, who’s called Joe, is awfully slow,
But twin brother Noah is very much slower!

My friend Peter’s a ravenous eater,
His sister Pat is seriously fat;
Her cousin Liz is all in a tizz,
’Cos boyfriend Harry refuses to marry.

Next door’s Isabella has just got a fella:
She calls him “my Mike”, and he travels by bike.
Her sister’s called Maggie (she’s terribly saggy),
And upstairs lives Millie, who’s lovely but silly.

Like his grass, gardener Jim is remarkably trim,
But handyman Andy has legs that are bandy.
His artist wife Jess always tries to impress
Her fancy-man, Ben (and she’s at it again . . . )

You wouldn’t like Vicky (she’s very nit-picky);
You’d get on with Pete, though, he’s ever so neat,
Unlike his son Brian, who’s awfully tryin’.
And look out for Dan – he’s a very strange man,

Oh dear! My mate Olly has gone off his trolley,
And poor old Paul is not there at all,
Just like neighbour Sue, who hasn’t a clue.
And then there is Chris, whom no-one would miss . . .

So thank goodness for Ray – he’s still okay!

Image: files.list.co.uk
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Having cancelled all activities since March 2020 so as to comply with national restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus causing Covid-19, our club felt it was time to think about using a virtual-meeting technology, such as Zoom. The Committee decided to meet – using Zoom.

Let’s meet using Zoom, it’s the cool thing to do.
It can’t be that hard – just a mouse-click or two?
I wonder how much it will cost . . . oh, I see,
For the first forty minutes it’s totally free!

We’ll sign up at once for a Zoom Basic Plan,
And schedule a meeting as soon as we can.
The Committee can meet and discuss everything,
With zero exposure to Covid-19.

Well, that’s what we did, but not without hitches
Caused by memory lapses and technical glitches:
A smartphone that wouldn’t display all our faces
And a broadband connection too weak in some places.

So, despite several glimpses of naked male legs,
A Laphroaig* whisky bottle with just a few dregs
And a cuddly toy (who wasn’t invited),
Thanks to Zoom the Committee became reunited.

*Pronounced ‘la-froyg’.

Image: newsweek.com
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Lazy ladybirds

Ladybirds have acquired a reputation that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not in our garden, anyway.

“Ladybirds eat aphids.” So says the RHS1.
Well, ladybirds are hard to find here at my home address;
And what there are, are either blind or ignorant, I guess,
For our broad beans get smothered with black aphids in excess.
What’s going on? Perhaps an aphid diet is a bore
Or maybe they’re full up and just can’t face one aphid more?

I’ve never seen one eating any aphids on our crops.
Perhaps they’re buying them from on-line insect shops?
Or are the ones who visit us the ten percent who feed
On mildew, plants or pollen, and to aphids pay no heed2?
Maybe they’ve changed their diet, or do they hunt at night?
Whatever it might be, they just not helping solve my plight.

The RHS could help us by setting out to train
Our useless British ladybirds in a nation-wide campaign
Where ladybirds will learn how they can spot an aphid pool,
And what nutrition it affords, and how it’s really cool!
So ladybirds of Britain get to know it’s great to munch
And wrap their mandibles around a juicy aphid lunch.

1 The UK’s Royal Horticultural Society
2 According to the Woodland Trust’s ‘Nature’s Calendar’

Image: RSPB
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Now and then

“I am in your past and my present”. So wrote an 11 year-old grandson in his entry to the local Rotary Club’s 500-word story competition in 2020. It made me think . . .

By the time you read my poem, I’ll be firmly in your PAST
But also in my PRESENT. For ‘time’ can never last:
It’s an infinite procession of infinitely small
Moments of existence – so it’s never ‘NOW’ at all.

My PRESENT is a transient NOW: it’s gone before I know it –
It’s landed in a memory stack, with other NOWs below it.
There’s no time like the present (quite literally*), and so
We’re living in the PAST**, for it is all that we can know.

The PAST is just a massive pile of NOWs that passed us by;
But they can be recalled at will from memory, if we try.
(The trouble is, our recalls may be partial and selective,
And memories can get jumbled up and often be defective . . . )

*See No time like the PRESENT and Living in the past.
**Or maybe not . . . see What time is it?.

Image: storytrender.com
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Blue sky thinking

An old piece of weather lore is that a cloudy sky will produce rain unless there is a patch of blue sky large enough to make a sailor a pair of trousers. But I hit a problem . . .

It’s cloudy today; but look, there’s a patch
Of blue sky! So is it enough
To make for a sailor some trousers, I ask?
But finding the answer is tough:

How big is the sailor? How long are his legs?
Are the trousers bell-bottomed or straight?
And how distant, d’you think, is that patch of sky
Of which we’re deciding the fate?

But one awkward matter has now to be raised:
Though our patch has a sapphire-like hue,
It isn’t the colour the Royal Navy wears* –
For that is, of course, navy blue!

2015 redesign

For all of these years, I’ve been wasting my time
On fruitless sartorial sums
Handed down to their gullible, innocent young
By grannies and aunties and mums.

But it passes the time on a hot summer’s day;
And – who knows? – the RN might surprise
With a change to sky blue for their jolly Jack Tars:
Then I’ll tell ’em where to get their supplies.

  • Not now, anyway – the uniform changed in 2015.
Images:mybeautifulthings.com; bbci.co.uk
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Ts and Cs

These days, it seems that television advertisers have to include the terms and conditions of their offer in their ads, but such things are boring and detract from their sales pitch. So they have devised cunning ways of including them that ensure you don’t take too much notice, like using a very small or squashed-up (‘condensed’) font or delivering them verbally very fast (as in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Ruddigore’, where a character sings “This particularly rapid, unintelligible chatter isn’t very often heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter”).

Marketeers must now declare
Their Ts and Cs. Now all is fair
In love and war and advertising!
So adverts aimed at publicising
This and that, and “much, much more”
Must do just that, but may not bore
The customer. So what they do
I’ll now reveal here, just for you!

They babble through their Ts and Cs
At breakneck speed, or try to squeeze
Their text
with fonts so much reduced
Their meanings cannot be deduced.
(You must not hear or read the Ts
Or think about the many Cs
In case you do not concentrate
On why their offer is so great.)

So, on the website, at your ease
See what is in those Ts and Cs,
And if they’re unintelligibly dense
To anyone with common sense,
Then caveat emptor (buyer beware)!
Do not buy it: look elsewhere,
For Ts and Cs as clear as mud
Could hide a product that’s a dud.

Image: Telegraph.co.uk

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After the war is over*

It’s the end of March, 2020 and the world is at ‘war’ against a little string of RNA – the one that is currently causing the disease known as COVID-19. To try to reduce its effect on its National Health Service, the UK government is requiring most people to stay at home for most of the time. That’s creating a pent-up demand for goods and services that are temporarily not available. I wondered what might happen when these restrictions end . . .

What will happen when it’s over, this COVID-19 scare,
When we’re released from lock-down in our houses everywhere?
A spectacle too ghastly to fully comprehend:
A hairy throng will suddenly on hairdressers descend;

On dentists, too, for teeth have not for months been checked;
And physios and doctors, as their patients resurrect.
All restaurants and cinemas, and pubs and theatres too
Will find, lined up outside their doors, a long and hairy queue.

And, as happened after previous World Wars,
Citizens (if healthy) will reclaim the Great Outdoors.
They’ll go out to the shops again, they’ll shake hands as before,
They’ll meet and greet and socialise just like in days of yore.

They’ll evermore be grateful to the country’s NHS,
Who worked throughout the crisis to get us through this mess,
To ambulance crews and firefighters, the army and police force,
Who kept the nation going while this virus ran its course,

And carers, who were hidden from the wider public’s view,
The pickers, packers, drivers who delivered shopping, too,
And those who manned the checkouts in the shops that were still open,
And those I haven’t mentioned – you’re the reason we are copin’.

I don’t mind getting hairy – it won’t affect my health:
Perhaps I’ll buy a trimmer set and cut my hair myself!
I’ll clean my teeth with vigour, as my dentist’s often pleaded,
And wash my hands a lot so that the medics won’t be needed.

We’ll stay away from neighbours, doorstep callers and the like,
We’ll take a bit of exercise (a walk but not a hike),
And bide our time at home until eventually we hear,
Just like we did in war-time, that longed for sound: “All-clear!”

* ‘After the war is over’ is the title of a song written during the First World War and published in 1918.)

Images: countrymusicfamily.com; libdems.org.uk; bbc.co.uk

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Human DNA is a long molecule made from just four different units, known as ‘bases’: guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine (G, C, A and T). DNA has two spiral strands, RNA is similar, but has only one strand and uses uracil (U) instead of thymine. Most viruses, including the coronavirus types that cause seasonal influenza and COVID-19, contain RNA.

Viruses have Us
Instead of thymine’s Ts,
And that is how they’re able
To instigate disease.

It seems coronavirus,
Once in us, can require us
To help its reproduction
And so in sickness mire us.

That’s why COVID-19,
When it burst upon the scene,
Sparked more drastic action
Than we have ever seen.

Now we must keep away
From folk we love, and say
“It isn’t personal, of course –

Image: thoughtco.com
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Happy Birthday, Mark 2

Official advice for limiting the spread of COVID-19, a highly infectious disease resulting from a recently-identified coronavirus, includes washing your hands for long enough to sing two verses of ‘Happy Birthday to You”. Here’s an alternative:

Happy birthday to you!
Coronavirus and flu,
Coughs and sneezes spread diseases,
So mind what you do:

Keep your distance from me;
Wash your hands thoroughly;
Stay at home if you’re able.
It will pass – wait and see . . .

Image: Imperial College, London

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Dem bones, dem bones

A surprising message from within.

A DEXA1 scan has just revealed
What hitherto has been concealed:
A ‘young healthy adult’ I am no more,
So negative is my bones’ T-score2.

My bones, it seems, are not as tough
As I had thought (but strong enough
To prop me up and help contain
My vital organs, like my brain).

One’s bone replacement rate gets less
From thirty onwards, more or less.
Sufficient intake is the key,
Of calcium and vitamin D.

For adult males, the calcium dose
Is 0.7 grams, or close3;
As sixties’ adverts used to say4.

But man can’t live on milk alone,
So oily fish (complete with bone),
Some seeds and nuts and yoghurts, too,
Have calcium that’s good for you.

And so, to briefly summarise:
A balanced diet and exercise
In sunshine helps your bones to thrive
And keep the rest of you alive.

  1. DEXA stands for “dual energy x-ray absorptiometry”
  2. This is the number of standard deviations by which a measured bone density differs from the mean value for ‘young healthy adults’. Negative values numerically greater than 2.5 indicate an osteoporotic bone structure. My spine registered –2.6.
  3. See https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/calcium/
  4. That’s about right: the BBC Good Food website says 200 ml of milk has 240 mg of calcium; so a pint would give you about 686 mg.

Image: livescience.com

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Another birthday . . .

I’ve learned to take more notice of them.

Today is my birthday, a years-on-this-Earth day,
Of which there’s been many before.
A day to be treasured as life gets re-measured.
Who knows if there’ll be many more?

And the number? It’s merely a number, not really
A cause for concern on its own.
I will put it to use as the perfect excuse
To recall all the years I have known.

This birthday’s arrival confirms my survival,
Despite broken bones1 and disease2.
That’s why celebrations with friends and relations
Are occasions that I’ve learned to seize.

  1. See “The ladder”
  2. See “Streptomycin”
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Bolt from the blue

The Skye boat song is about the escape of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to the Isle of Skye after his defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746. This new version tells the tale of another fugitive cargo, osbornite, a mineral carried there by a meteorite from space some 60 million years earlier. Evidence for its arrival on Skye was discovered below a layer of lava in 2017 by geologists from Birkbeck, University of London. They first thought it was a volcanic deposit called ignimbrite, until an electron microscope image revealed it, close to another meteoritic mineral, barringerite.

Speed, bonnie rock, like a bolt from the blue,
Onward, ye meteor, fly!
Ferrying osbornite (barringerite, too)
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Violent your crash on land close to shore,
Bearing your minerals rare.

Many years later, geologists spy
Ejecta, ’neath sediments thick:
“No ignimbrite, that,” excited they cry,
“It’s osbornite: check it out quick!

“Vanadium’s there, niobium too,
Unmelted, for all to see.
Yet Earth has no osbornite, giving a clue
That a meteorite it must be!

“Maybe it triggered the hot lava flow,
That covers its landing site?
More work must be done before we can know
Whether that theory is right . . .”

Image: yabiladi.com
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In a spin

Our planet is bored. Not surprising, really. But it’s looking to the long-term . . .

Round and round the Sun I go, then round and round once more,
Like I’ve been doing all my life. It’s such a crashing bore.
I’ve seen some major changes, though, in (these are estimations)
Four thousand six hundred million celestial rotations1.
My planetary siblings, too, are tethered to the Sun:
We’ve all been in a non-stop spin since solar time began.
Back then, the Sun grabbed loads of dust to make its glowing ball.
We did the best with what was left, which wasn’t much at all.

For the first few hundred million2 gyrations round my star,
My body was a molten blob enclosed in glowing char,
Then bashed about by impactors3 for several millions more
(Which some say may have helped build up my water store).
And then came life: prokaryotes – all anaerobes, until
Cyanobacteria cells acquired a different skill:
They photosynthesised, releasing gas that soon attacked my crust –
You call it oxygen, I think – and my iron got turned to rust.

Imagine that my lifespan is the distance round the Earth4:
What point did Homo sapiens, as a species, have its birth?5
The answer is: two kilometres6 before the present day!
And now you’ve messed your climate up – well, serves you right, I’d say.
At least your climate crisis brings excitement to my turnings.
They make no difference to my life, your floods and droughts and burnings;
Your presence is an interlude, now added to my lists
Of life’s emergings and extinctions, evolution’s cunning twists.

So round and round the Sun I’ll go, until it starts to grow
Into a bright red giant, in eight billion years or so1.
That’s when I’ll die, maybe (though some say maybe not);
Well, either way, I’m going to get uncomfortably hot –
It’s ‘global warming’ to the max! You lot will long have gone,
But here’s a thought that each of us should surely ponder on:
Our atoms will not disappear, but recombine, you see,
And so we’ll both go round and round, for all eternity7 . . .

  1. Roughly . . .
  2. Estimates vary from 300 to 700 million.
  3. Asteroids and comets
  4. About 40,000 km
  5. About 200,000 – 300,000 years ago
  6. Very roughly (200,000 x 40,000)/(4600 x 106 km) . . .
  7. Probably . . .
Images: AAS Nova/NASA; Wikipedia; Universe Today
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If an email goes unanswered, what do you do? Send another one, of course. Here’s what it could say:

I am a desperate email,
Adrift in cyberspace.
I’m searching for my sister,
Who’s lost without a trace.

I know that she was Sent –
(I’ve seen her in that folder).
So check your mobile’s In-box,
Or wherever it might hold her.

And if you find my sister,
(Like you have just found me),
Apologise profusely
And reply ASAP . . .

Image: realestateguysradio.com
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Putting a name to it

Just because something’s got a name doesn’t mean anyone knows what it really is.

If you cannot explain a phenomenon, you can give it an invented name.
It won’t make you any the wiser, but it might bring you popular fame.
A name’s just a shorthand; it’s handy if other folk know what you mean.
(If they don’t, perhaps they’ll pretend to, so they can be part of your scene.)

The ATOM, the ÆTHER1, PHLOGISTON2 are well-known examples from history,
And GRAVITY, used by Sir Isaac for a force whose cause was a mystery.
(Phlogiston’s real nature’s now known, but the others remain unexplained –
Many theories have now been proposed, from the serious to the hare-brained).

Other mysteries acquired their own monikers over the span of the years:
A CALORIC6 fluid, planet VULCAN7; VIS VIVA8; and CANALS9 on Mars;
HUMOURS10 and TERRA AUSTRALIS11; BIG BANG as the source of all stars.

These days we have new ones to fathom: they both have the moniker ‘dark’.
(They’re ‘dark’ in the sense of ‘mysterious’, but what they imply is quite stark:
It seems that we’ve only discovered one twentieth of all basic stuff –
A conclusion for science that’s shocking, surprising and puzzling and tough.)

DARK ENERGY’s effect is like gravity, but it acts in reverse, so they say.
It pushes, not pulls, and accelerates whole galaxies, light-years away.
DARK MATTER, it seems, does the opposite: it’s assumed to be holding in place
All fast-spinning galaxies, preventing them flying apart into space.

Some of these ideas have proved fruitful, and so have been further refined;
But others, less helpful, have been to the dustbin of history consigned.
In the end, though, they’re models in brain-space: to reality they have no claim.
So try to explain all phenomena; but remember – a name’s just a name.

  1. A space-filling medium deemed necessary for the propagation of light.
  2. A substance thought to be contained in all combustible bodies, but is now known to be the oxygen contained in the air. (See also Phlogiston)
  3. Something said to be imparted to an object when it was set in motion; we now know it as momentum.
  4. The imaginary gearing whose motions determined the paths around the Earth of the Moon, Sun and planets.
  5. A set of transparent, rotating Earth-centred spheres in which the known heavenly bodies were thought to be embedded. Also known as ‘crystal spheres’.
  6. A fluid said to be responsible for the phenomena of heat: it flowed from caloric-dense (hot) regions to caloric-poor (cooler) ones.
  7. A small planet thought to orbit the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury.
  8. The name given to the ‘living force’ believed to reside in objects in motion. It’s the quantity we now know as kinetic energy.
  9. The telescopes available to early astronomers seemed to show a pattern of straight lines on the planet Mars, prompting Giovanni Schiaparelli to describe them as ‘canali’ (channels), but the term was mis-translated into English as ‘canals’. Later, American astronomer Percival Lowell promoted the idea that they must have been built by intelligent Martian life.
  10. Four bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) which, it was thought, needed to be balanced for a healthy life.
  11. A continent predicted to exist in the southern hemisphere in order to ‘balance’ the distribution of land on the planet.

Image: BBC (sciencefocus.com)

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A triumph of experiment over dogma.

Heat a metal in air: what you get is the metal in oxidised state –
But this oxide weighs more than the metal! It set off a classic debate:
“A metal contains some Phlogiston1,” declared Stahl2 around 1708,
“And Phlogiston has positive lightness, that is, it has negative weight”.

“Not so,” said the great Joseph Priestly3. “I heated up mercury oxide
And its gas kept alive a small mouse which would otherwise surely have died.”
He told the French chemist, Lavoisier4 who, in 1775,
Said “Out with that rascal Phlogiston: ’twas Oxygen kept mousey alive!”

  1. It was also said to be colourless, odourless and tasteless
  2. Georg Ernst Stahl, 1659–1734: German chemist, physician and philosopher
  3. Joseph Priestly, 1733–1804: English Unitarian minister, political theorist, and physical scientist
  4. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, 1743–1794: French nobleman, philosopher and chemist
Images: Wikipedia (Stahl and Priestly); Johm Carroll University (Lavoisier)

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Stork tork

A local supermarket had a shelf label which described the green, trimmed items above it as “CELERY STORKS”. They were not amused:

We’re not ‘celery storks’ – can’t you tell?
It appears that someone can’t spell.
When we see him, we’ll say:
“Please use a, l, and k
If you want all your celery to sell”.

Image: markon.com

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Unsocial media

You’ll have seen me walking along the street: head down, mobile in hand, regardless of the passing populace. People are very helpful – they move out of my way when they see me coming. Trouble is, other things don’t.

I can’t see where I’m going
And I don’t know where I’ve been
’Cos I’m following social media
As it pops up on my screen.

My mobile phone’s my baby:
I carry it around
So I can check it all the time
And keep it safe and sound.

Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp
Need monitoring the most,
But I’ll log in now to Twitter
And add my latest post . . .

Not looking where I’m going,
I add the vital hash:
“Hashtag nerdy Twitter poems”
And post the tweet off . . . CRASH!!!!

Where did that lamp post come from?
I’d better change my ways
Or else, next time, it could be worse
Than just a bloody graze . . .

Image: mirror.co.uk
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Seeking Santa

Not everyone has embraced modern technology.

It’s time I wrote to Santa! I’m sure he’ll be online
And have his own North-pole website with a Christmassy design.
If I can find his website, I’ll click on “Contact me”
And type in all my Christmas list for free delivery . . .

But Google couldn’t help me. Seems Santa’s not updated
From reindeer post to digital, so now I feel deflated.
Perhaps the old ways are the best, and pen-and-paper’s better?
Now where’s my pen – it’s not too late to send the guy a letter . . .

Image: experiencebedfordshire.co.uk
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Darwin’s worms

The year before he died, after 40 years of studying earthworms, Charles Darwin published his major work1 describing his experiments on their behaviour. It seems that one of them, while being grateful for the publicity after hundreds of millions of years, has a bone to pick:

For many millions of years now, we’ve worked to improve your soil,
Yet no-one’s bothered finding out what goes into our toil.
So thanks, CD, for researching (and writing a book1 to show it)
How it is we bury stuff2 by burrowing below it,

And how we move by bristle power, and what we do at night,
And how we cannot hear a thing but do react to light,
And how we eat and nourish ourselves, and how (CD believes),
We secrete a pancreatic fluid to pre-digest fresh leaves.

The leaves of wild cherry are yummy, but carrot leaves are the real star;
No sage or thyme or mint, please – too herby for us, by far.
We are not vegetarians, or vegan, or such as that:
We’ll eat any meat that we discover (but we mostly enjoy the fat).

CD says worms are intelligent – it’s the way that we pull in the leaves
He drew up a table3 to prove it, and show just what wormkind achieves.
And yet, in the very same book, he says how “low” we are “in the scale4”.
Yet while you humans trash the planet, we earthworms will prevail . . .

1: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habits, 1881. You can read it online here.
2: Such as the fallen outer Druidical stones of Stonehenge
3: On pages 90–91 of the above
4: On pages 24 and 98

Image: www.uclan.ac.uk

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The ladder

A cautionary tale – a sort of sequel to ‘The fall’.

To climb a ladder, it makes sense to take your time. Get ready
By making sure the ground is firm and that your ladder’s steady.
And when you’ve done that, you can climb – but you must do it right
And keep your weight close to the rungs and hold on very tight.
So that was what I did one day to reach a an old flat roof.
(Well, since its stones had come unstuck, it wasn’t weatherproof.)

I noticed that my ladder was wobbling, so I found
A strip of wood to fit between the short leg and the ground.
That made it steady. Up I went to clear the blocked-up gutter
Of lots of rolled-off tarry stones, and leaves and other clutter.
I’d carried up a bucket, so it took no time at all
To fill and carry down again. And no, I didn’t fall!

But then I thought, “How can I stop more stones from rolling free
And causing trouble once again? I know,” I thought, “I’ll see
If I can find a strip of wood to fit, I could attach it
To where the stones roll off the roof which, if one rolled, would catch it.
I looked around for such a strip. I found one just the size,
And took it up the ladder. Then . . . I got a big surprise:

The ladder tilted to the right and I fell to the left.
I landed with a hefty blow that took away my breath.
In A&E, they used their scans to diagnose my plight:
“Five ribs are broken,” they explained, “but they should mend all right.”
(In case you haven’t twigged it, the strip of wood I used
Was what had propped the ladder up – no wonder I was bruised!)

The moral of this story is: to keep your focus clear,
And when a job expands, make sure you do not interfere
With what had kept you safe before; so add, not take away.
Then you’ll survive and, what is more, your ribs will be ok!

Image: hippocleaning.co.uk
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An M&S summer

A 2019 marketing campaign by the well-known UK retailer, M&S (previously Marks and Spencer), trumpeted “THIS IS NOT JUST ANY SUMMER, THIS IS AN M&S SUMMER”. They really should know better than to rely on British weather . . .

So this is “an M&S summer”?
Well, this is all I can say:
If this this is “an M&S summer”,
I hope it will soon go away.

It’s been cold, it’s been wet, it’s been windy
(But at least we haven’t had snow).
It is, in fact “just any summer”,
As your marketing people now know.

Next time, M&S, don’t ignore
The Clerk of the Weather*. This guy
Will have to be fully behind you
For next summer to stay warm and dry.

*My parent’s generation used to talk about this character – invariably male – who was apparently in charge of the world’s meteorology. (These days, he seems to have been replaced by “The Jet Stream”).

See also Clerk of the Weather and Jet Stream.

Image: campaignseries.co.uk
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A lunar complaint

The 16th of July 2019 was the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s launch from Cape Canaveral to land men on the moon. Unfortunately, the Moon had not been briefed on what to expect from NASA’s Apollo programme. What he saw was strange objects periodically crashing onto his surface from 1969 onwards, scorching and blowing up his dusty regolith. Even stranger things emerged from some of them, each shrouded in white with a reflective, bowl-shaped lump on top. He had no idea that these had come from the beautiful blue planet which he has been orbiting these last 4½ billion years, and saw no reason to celebrate. Especially when he discovered what they had left behind . . .

Said the Man in the Moon, “Are you coming back soon
To collect all the junk you rejected?
All those stages and probes (and, maybe, microbes?)
And stuff that I hadn’t expected:

“Bags of urine and poo, a telescope too,
Two golf balls, three buggies, a feather,
Six flags, a shot of the Duke family lot1,
Twelve Hasselblads, dumped here for ever2.

“And you bowl-headed creatures, whose internal features
Are shrouded in shiny white skin,
Pinched some of the dust that covers my crust
And a 3-metre core from within.3

“I dread the hot burn of your rocket’s return:
I don’t want to be a space tip.
Things here don’t erode, wash away or corrode –
Please keep that in mind on your next trip.

“Things were peaceful before you arrived to explore,
As quietly in orbit I’d roam;
But my brain’s been set stirring and a thought keeps recurring:
I wonder where you lot call home?

“When I look out at space, I can see a nice place:
A beautiful dot, white and blue,
So pristine and pure. Too good, to be sure,
To be home to such vandals as you
. . .”

  1. A photo of Apollo 16’s crew member Charlie Duke’s family
  2. ripleys.com, bbc.com and newscientist.com
  3. lpi.usra.edu
Images: Wikipedia (Man in the Moon); Mirror.co.uk (astronaut; NASA (Earthrise photo)
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In solution

How is it that table salt (sodium chloride) disappears when dissolved in water?

Sodium chloride is iconic:
A union of two ions ionic.
Poor chlorine’s an electron short;
But sodium, a generous sort,
Has one electron going spare
And hands it over – what a pair!

Thus, lightly bound, their charge is nil,
And stays that stable way that way until
They find themselves in H2O –
Then their true natures start to show . . .

And that’s because, as you might know,
Each molecule of H2O
Is ‘polar’, with the oxygen
More negative – but then again,
Both hydrogens appear somewhat
More positive about their lot.

That’s how those molecules achieve,
With no net charge, their power to heave
The atoms in ionic salts*
Apart; so, under such assaults,
They have no choice but to become
Quite separate ions, every one.

The water molecules around
These new-formed ions now surround
Each one, and sturdily deter
Recombination as they were:

And that is how the problem’s solved
Of how, when table salt’s dissolved,
However closely you have peered,
Those salty grains have disappeared!

* A salt is the products of reactions between an acid and a base.

Images: enotes.com (water molecule); biology.iupui.edu (dissociated salt molecule)
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On the fate of a Plate

The Phoenix Plate was a relatively small tectonic plate which existed in the mid-Cretaceous but, under pressure from its more massive neighbours, the Scotia Plate to the north-east and the Antarctic Plate to the west and south-east, it was subducted beneath the latter and disappeared just a few million years ago. I felt its efforts to preserve a memorial of itself deserved recognition.

Let’s commemorate the Phoenix Plate,
Which, right through the Cretaceous,
Held its own in the pressure zone
’Twixt neighbours most mendacious.

The Scotia Plate and its Antarctic mate
Each wanted Phoenix gone.
Poor Phoenix knew that this was true
But couldn’t match their brawn –

Its south-east flank had already sank
Beneath the cruel Antarctic.
Though much aggrieved, it now conceived
A really most bizarre trick:

Its subducting crust, it reasoned, must
Sink mantlewards so steep
That a trench is created ’twixt it and the hated
Antarctic – and it would be deep.

And, what is more, the Antarctic’s shore
Would be stretched until, onto the scene
Hot magma bursts through, making islands anew
With a backarc-type basin between.

So Phoenix has gone, but its memory lives on
In the South Shetland Islands (and, too,
The Bransfield Strait), recording the fate
Of the Phoenix Plate, disappeared from view . . .

Image: Wikimedia commons (Breitsprecher & Thorkelson, 2009)

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What time is it?

When am I?

I don’t live in The Future
(I can’t, by definition),
And there’s no time like The Present*:
I’m in a strange position.

I can’t be in The Past –
That’s gone, it is no more.
So what’s this time I’m living in?
I’m really none too sure . .

* See “No time like the present” and “Living in the past”

[Image: medium.com]
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A pivotal goddess

As a granddaughter excitedly informed me, Cardea was the ancient Roman goddess of the hinge (Roman doors being hung on simple pivot hinges).

To a Roman of old, the world was controlled
By gods, male and female, or so we are told
By inscriptions and pictures on wall and mosaic:
Some were all-powerful, others prosaic.
Yet who would have thought that, way out on the fringe
There was one called Cardea, goddess of the hinge!

She wasn’t alone, though: to help her keep guard
Over what could come into the house from the yard
Were Forculus, god of the opening door,
And Limentinus, keeping the threshold secure.
But to my simple mind, there’s none can impinge
On Cardea, goddess of the pivotal hinge!

[Image: conjouredcardea.blogspot.com]
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Nest box

In the same way that you can lead a horse to water, you can fix a nest box to a tree; but you can’t make the birds move in (or make the horse drink).

When I put up a nest box (a birdie ‘des res’
And exactly the size that the BTO says),
One or two birds had a quick peek inside it
But then they flew off, without having tried it.

What’s wrong with my nest box, I’d just like to know:
Is it not posh enough, too high or too low?
Or maybe it isn’t the box, but the site?
An avian friend tweeted, “This is our plight:

We know many nest boxes often get spied on
By closed-circuit cameras, so can’t be relied on
For privacy in our most intimate acts
All day and all night: we could never relax.”

Our family life could be shown on the telly
Without our permission! No – not on your Nelly!
In case you’ve not got it, our message is this:
Don’t pry in our nests, Sir David, Bill, Chris*.”

So maybe I’ll have to adapt the design
Of my off-putting nest box. I’ll nail up a sign
Saying: “Come, nest in here, it’s completely rent-free –
And you can be sure there’s no CCTV!

* Television wildlife presenters: Attenborough, Oddy and Packham.

[Image: nestbox.co.uk]
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The pressure-pulse hypothesis

All terrestrial dinosaur lineages became extinct some 65 or 66 million years ago. Some blame the volcanic eruptions that formed the Deccan traps, others cite the Chicxulub asteroid impact. But could it be that, if the effects of the former had put them under ecological stress, the effects of the latter could then have finished them off – the “pressure-pulse” hypothesis? This unfinished report, filed by a Late Cretaceous correspondent, has just been discovered:

I’m a dinosaur philosopher with a hard-earned PhD
In Palaeogeobioevolution.
I’ve studied dino species in their great diversity
And found a problem needing resolution.

We’ve colonised all niches in air and land and sea,
And modified our body plans to fit.
But no niche could protect us if some great catastrophe
Should happen to this Earth: we’d all be hit!*

This is the Late Cretaceous, and for some time now, the sky
Has had a reddish tinge. The air is hot
And smells of something strange. I cannot help but wonder why –
There’s something going on, I dunno what.

It’s putting heavy pressure on our staid old dino ways.
“Look out for ‘pressure-pulse’”, it’s often said.
Hey, what’s that bright fast-flying thing that looks like it’s ablaze?
Is that the ‘pulse’? If so . . . we’ll soon be . . .

*Except for the lineage leading to birds – but our correspondent couldn’t have known that.

See also Flood basalts

[Image: phys.org]
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The marvellous man-shed

No shed is ever big enough.

Once in the lifetime of every man
The idea comes into his head:
“There’s a thing I must do just as soon as I can:
I must build me a marvellous shed!

“It need not be huge, but just big enough
To store all the things I will need,
Like a lawnmower, spade and chemical stuff
For targeting each pesky weed,

“And a fork and a trowel; and there’ll have to be room
For a hedge trimmer, strimmer, and lots
Of seed trays and buckets, an edger, a broom
And some shelves to store flowerpots.

“The wheelbarrow, too, needs a sheltering place
Where it can be out of the rain;
And the tilling machine needs a safe resting-space
In the dry where it can remain.

“Is there still enough room for my well-used leaf shredder?
And I’ll need to fit in all those stakes . . .
Can I squeeze in, as well, my trusty lawn spreader,
The step-ladder and various rakes?

“Oh dear, I forgot! There’s my fancy Dutch hoe,
Secateurs to prune and dead-head,
Bags of compost and suchlike . . . Help! Where will they go?
I must build me a much bigger shed!”

[Image: gardenoasis.co.uk]
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If you are trying to explain a mystery, you can give a name to what the explanation might be so you can talk about it; but beware of being certain that it actually exists.

Epicycles, crystal spheres, ‘absolute’ time and space,
Impetus, dark matter (holding galaxies in their place),
Dark energy, phlogiston and fundamental particles* –
All these have been proposed as hypothetical articles.

Such words have been invented, throughout mankind’s short history,
By philosophers and scientists when they confront a mystery.
But giving names to mysteries can make them seem so real:
It’s never long before they gain great popular appeal.

The older ones have been replaced (by orbits, relativity,
Oxygen, momentum) with increased objectivity.
But some remain, so when you hear them bandied all about,
Do bear in mind they’re models, and maintain a sceptic’s doubt.

* See “When QUANTUM comes to call
For a fuller version, see Putting a name to it

[Images: Wikimedia]
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An announcement in a local supermarket asked all available shop floor staff to assemble “for a rumble”. (I had to ask a member of staff, but apparently it means ‘to tidy up the stock after the customers have messed it all up’.)

“This store is in a jumble:
Those ill-stacked goods could tumble
And spill our own-brand crumble,
So customers could stumble –
What oaths they then would mumble!
So get out there and rumble.”

[Image: maggienotmargaret.com]
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True blue?

It’s old, blue, expensive and was used in the eyes of the 25th-century BC statue of Ebih-Il, a praying man. But can it do you any good? (There are two ways to pronounce the final vowel of ‘lazuli’: I have used the ‘ee’ version here.)

It’s beautiful and deepest blue;
It looks so good, it can’t be true!
Recorded in antiquity,
Its name is . . . lapis lazuli.

From old Archean rocks it’s mined; examine it, and you will find
That lovely lapis lazuli has metamorphic ancestry.
(It’s lazurite that gives the hue which colours lapis richly blue,
This mineral making up, you see, the bulk of lapis lazuli).

Ultramarine, prepared from lapis,
Was used by master painter chappies:
Van Gogh, Vermeer and Titian, too,
Impressed rich clients with lapis blue.

Some claim, in all sincerity, that wearing lapis lazuli
Brings inner power, relief from pain, and helps you concentrate again.
Your ‘higher mind’ is activated, psychic powers concentrated;
Your inner dreams will come to be, by sporting lapis lazuli . . .

Well, I’m a rational sort of chap
And all that stuff’s a load of rubbish.
I’d rather trust geology
To characterise lapis lazuli!

[Image of Ebih-Il’s eyes: Wikimedia]
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The word ‘grockle’ is a joy. Apparently, it refers, in a somewhat derogatory way, to a tourist, having possibly first appeared as a strip cartoon ‘Danny and his Grockle’ in the Dandy comic. I thought it so good that its use ought to be extended into other parts of speech.

We like to go a’grockling
On a wide and sandy shore;
We grockle on and on, until
We cannot grockle more.

Our grocklet children grockle;
We taught ’em all we know:
The easy way of grockling fast,
And how to grockle slow.

When we grow old and grockly,
If people ask, we’ll say:
“The secret of a happy life?
Go grockling every day!”

[Image: Bournemouth Daily Echo]
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Subordinate clauses

They’re annoyingly incomplete, as a Certain Someone has discovered . . .

I’m getting quite stressed, and the most likely cause is
My granddaughter’s use of subordinate clauses.
“Which I like to do” says the culprit with glee,
“To wind you up, Granddad. As much as can be.”

A subordinate clause makes no sense, we are taught:
It’s less than a sentence, an incomplete thought.
Which is why it’s annoying. (Was that one? Oh dear –
Subordinate clauses are catching, I fear.)

How I long for a sentence (a main clause would do).
I’m tired of subordinate clauses – aren’t you?
Perhaps one day soon, as an act of repentance,
She’ll talk to me using a complete complex sentence.

[Image:  icaltefl.com]
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In my youth

After a recent birthday, my daughter reminded me of something that happened “in your youth”. I thought the expression might benefit from further consideration . . .

Tomorrow, I’ll be older than the age I am today.
Then I shall say, tomorrow, “I was younger yesterday!”
But that is true for every day, you see; so here’s the truth:
It proves conclusively I’ve spent my whole life in my youth!

[Image: http://optimallifeseminars.com]
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Child power

As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles well know, most children come with more energy than their bodies can hold. Here’s a possible solution:

Whoever invented children (not yet identified)
Made their bodies far too small for the energy inside.
The surplus oozes out of them as they run and jump and shout;
They bounce around and tumble over, and things get thrown about . . .

But what if we could harness this extra energy
By fitting them with Smart Clothes that charged a battery?
(Piezoelectric shoes1, worn hour after hour
With triboelectric underclothes2, could generate much power.)

Then, with a mains inverter, you’d plug the battery in,
And sell that stored-up energy to the Grid. It’s win-win-win!
There’s no-emissions, fuel is saved, and climate change is slowed;
And the Grid’s own Feed-In Tariff will pay you what you’re owed.

1. http://www.instructables.com/id/Electricity-Generating-Footwear/
2: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272155901_Nanopatterned_Textile-Based_Wearable_Triboelectric_Nanogenerator

[Image: www.psychologies.co.uk]
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Dear Father Christmas . . .

He’s been driving eight reindeer across the Christmas night sky since 1823, when a poem by Clement C. Moore “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) appeared. Rudolf was added in 1923 in a poem by Robert L May. But time and technology have moved on . . .

Dear Father Christmas, a word in your ear:
It’s time you stopped using those worn-out reindeer.
Old Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
And Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen
Have whizzed round the globe, led by Rudolph’s red nose,
Delivering presents, as every child knows,
Each dark Christmas night for year after year;
But it’s getting too much for them now, Sir, I fear.

I know they don’t use hydrocarbon-based fuel,
And I’m sure that you really don’t mean to be cruel,
But by my calculations, the speed that you need
Is nought point nine seven percent of light’s speed*.
It’s not fair to those animals to fly them so fast:
Retire them, Sir, now. Please make this year their last.
Replace them with a Warp Drive (from Star Trek Online);
Send your reindeer to live their last days on Cloud Nine.

* According to Tom Chivers, in The Telegraph, 20 December 2013

[Image: pngall.com]
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Part of Planet Six

On 15 October 1997, the Cassini orbiter and its Huygens probe left Earth for a 20-year journey to Saturn. Neither of them returned to Earth, of course, but a huge amount of data and some remarkable photographs did.

The craft they called Cassini looked very, very teeny
’Gainst Saturn and its rings, each one aglow,
Collecting lots of data so that, a little later,
It could beam them back to Earth, so far below.

NASA’s little star had travelled very far:
Round Venus, using gravity-assist
(The experience was so nice that it went and did it twice).
Then Earth and Jupiter were on its list.

Then came Saturn’s turn, and we were soon to learn
Of the next phase in Cassini’s grand campaign:
Through Titan’s atmosphere the Huygens probe would disappear
And land upon a pebble-strewn terrain.

Enceladus came next: we just did not expect
Its plumes of icy water, which contains
Methane, hydrogen and salt, CO2 and – who’d have thought –
There’s silica, as microscopic grains1!

There’s so much more to tell about other moons as well,
Some mini-moons, quite titchy little things:
Anthe, Daphnis, Pallene are just three Cassini’s seen,
And ‘Peggy’ being ‘born’ among the rings2.

There she is – the blip on the outer edge of Saturn’s outermost ‘A’ ring!

Then Cassini, all alone, took a photo of its home,
The planet Earth within a ring-gap framed.

But NASA had intended that the journey would be ended
With a final death-plunge at the planet aimed . . .


It’s such a crying shame that, despite its world-wide fame,
Cassini had to end its quest of pics.
But its NASA-planned demise – to crash through Saturn’s skies –
Has made Cassini part of Planet Six3.

1. See https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/2529/
2. It seems that ‘Peggy’ might have fragmented since her first sighting, perhaps after a collision . . .
3. On 15 September, 2017. RIP.

[Images: ingeniumcanda.org/NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI]
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No fly-tipping

“No fly-tipping”, the sign ordered. A problem for Mr W Stickers’ Fly Removal Service.

I’m trundling round the country lanes
In a truck piled high with flies.
The people at the roadside gasp –
They can’t believe their eyes!

The truck says “William Stickers,
No Job Too Great Or Small:
However many flies you’ve got,
Let Bill remove ’em all”.

And business has been good this year,
The weather’s been so sunny
That plagues of flies are everywhere.
And plagues of flies ain’t funny,

I’m doin’ a social service, see:
I ought to be supported!
But no-one wants the end result,
I’m always being thwarted.

Trouble is, the place I’ve used
To dump things hitherto
Has got a “No fly-tipping” sign.
But what else can I do?

I takes away yer pesky flies,
And yet I’m always taunted:
“Bill Stickers will be prosecuted” –
I feel I’m just not wanted.

[Image: environmentjournal.online]
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Motor ways

I wondered why so many cars pass me on the motorways of Britain.

My speedo’s in need of attention.
It seems to be reading too fast:
When it indicates I’m doing 70,
There are dozens of cars hurtling past . . .

So the question is: how can the speedos
On the other cars all be so wrong?
Well, maybe they’re unmarked police cars
Each chasing the other along . . .

The first one is on an emergency,
But the others can’t tell – they’re all thinking:
“He’s over the limit! I’ll nick him,
And check him for drugs and for drinking!”

Or perhaps my speedometer’s right
And all of the others read slow?
Well, I thought of a way I could test it,
To make very sure that I’d know.

So I drove very smoothly at thirty
Towards one of those signs that display
The speed that you’re actually doing;
And it proved that my speedo’s okay.

(Well, it’s 10% fast; but it’s wrong
In the right way – the way that I need,
For it means I’ve a margin of error
As I whizz up the M1 at speed.)

Which means – well, no, surely it can’t be –
That most other speedos read slow,
And everyone sticks to the limit?
Of course they do. Maybe. Dunno . . .

[Image: highwaycode.co.uk]
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Stick and stones may break my bones, but words can be soporific.

A verbose old preacher called Trevor
Gave sermons so wordy and clever
That, once he’d begun,
The ideas would come
And he’d go on for ever and ever . . .

[Image of The sleeping congregation by William Hogarth: victorianweb.org]
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A neighbour had left one of these at her front gate with a notice offering it free of charge to passers-by.

I used to be a courgette,
Quite small and sleekly narrow;
But ’cos I wasn’t picked in time,
I’ve grown into a marrow.

My waistline has increased
As you’ll have surely noted –
Obese, in courgette terms, I s’pose –
So now I feel quite bloated.

Please take me home, there is no charge.
Then cut me into twain,
And stuff and cook me. Then I’ll know
My life was not in vain.

[Image: theecologist.org]
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Edie Acaran

Humans used to think they were what evolution, and the Universe itself, had been aiming at all along. Some still do. It seems that a certain Ediacaran fossil from the late Precambrian (around 550 million years ago) had much the same view of herself . . .

They call me Edie Acaran. Evolution stops with me.
I am the very pinnacle of the evolutionary tree.
Not like my ancient forebears: they thought they were cool cats,
But the best that they came up with were mere microbial mats –
Bacteria just divide their cells, but that is so passé.
But fortunately my ancestors evolved a better way:
I reproduce by stolons. It’s the only way, you know,
To move around the sea-bed on the sediments below.

I have a frond and holdfast, and a stalk to join the two:
A multicellular marvel, the newest of the new!
My holdfast brings me minerals* from the rock it’s stuck me to;
And my frond has so much surface that nutrients permeate through*.
My Universe is water. There’s nothing else, it’s clear.
Whichever way I turn my frond, it’s water, far and near.
Yes, evolution stops here. I am perfect, top to toe.
My body plan’s so complex, there’s nowhere else to go . . .

* Possibly . . .

[Image of Charniodiscus on Australian stamp: Universal Postal Union]
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Agates are like people

That’s how Ian Graham, a local collector, described them, and he should know – he has a house full of them!

Agates are like people:
Each one is quite unique.
You’ll never find a pair the same,
However long you seek.

As agates are bright-banded,
So people’s DNA
Shows banding in its profiles
As a colourful display.

Like people, too, their beauty
Lies deep within a skin
That might look rough, but hides a treat
For those who look within.

[Images: Wikipedia; abc.net.au]
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Life according to Marks

An email from Marks & Spencer on 4 May 2017 said: “Life’s short. Let’s spend it well. Life’s too short for hesitations.” I wanted to argue; but they were right on one point . . .

If life is so short, what’s the best way to spend it?
Has shopping in Marks got a lot to commend it?
Should we take up the company’s kind invitation
To buy all we want, without hesitation?

No. Life isn’t ‘short’. From the time you begin it,
For day after day, you can cram a lot in it.
To spend your last hours in an M&S store
Would be wasting your time, and a terrible bore.

“Don’t wait for a special occasion,” they say,
“To dress up or eat well.” Well, I do, in my way.
And “Life is a special occasion”? Well, yes!
You’re spot on with that one, I’d say, M&S!

[Image: Wikimedia]
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Hic, hic . . .

Next time you’re afflicted with hiccups, try this. It worked for me.

If hiccups afflicts you and you can’t endure it,
Here is a quick way – perhaps– that will cure it:
Just squeeze your thumb hard*. You really should try it:
Your hiccups, you’ll find, will soon go quite quiet!

Such distraction, you see, puts your brain in a spin:
“Give priority to pain” is a trait that’s built-in.
“Stop multi-tasking, make this pain go away,”
Says the brain – and stops hiccupping. Hic, hic . . . hooray!

* Across the width of the nail, for a minute or so.

[Image: readersdigest.co.uk]
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Give it time

The laws formulated by Newton and Einstein imply that things can’t happen all at once. The quantities called ‘mass’ and ‘inertia’ are measures of a thing’s resistance to having its state of rest, or motion, changed. Stuff take time to happen. But supposing it didn’t . . .


Stuff cannot change location
When going from A to E
Without a smooth transition
Through b and c and d.

And we perceive this process:
“Time’s passing,” we declare.
We’re used to something taking
Time to get to here from there.

But if stuff had no inertia
And could miss out bcd,
Than everything would happen

“That cannot be,” says Einstein,
“You’d need an infinite force!
And nothing can go faster
Than the speed of light, of course.”

And life needs time to happen,
Or we’d be born and die
Without the time to say:
“Well, Hello, world. Goodbye”.

It seems we must be patient.
The message of this rhyme
Is this: to live a life at all,
You have to give it time.

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Romantic for some, but not for the trees it grows on.

The other day, I saw a show of parasitic mistletoe.
It sucks the juices from the wood, which does not do it any good.
Birds eat its seeds1, which go right through and stick on to a branch in poo,
Or get spat out (just for the thrill), or maybe wiped off from their bill.

Christmas picking does no good: once mistletoe’s invaded wood,
Its hypocotyls2 get a grip and add haustoria3 at their tip.
The poor host plant is out of luck: those darned haustoria can suck
Its nutrients; and, as you know, they’ll help the mistletoe to grow.

To rid a plant of mistletoe, all affected wood must go.
Or, if you like, it would be fine to harvest it at Christmas-time
And sell it – you can charge a lot. Say, “This is good for you-know-what:
Just hold it up above her head and soon the pair of you’ll be wed!

1. Actually, drupes, because each has a ‘stone’ inside; the actual seed is inside the ‘stone’. But no-one uses ‘drupes’ in ordinary conversation.
2. The part of the stem of an embryo plant beneath the stalks of the seed leaves (cotyledons) and directly above the root.
3. A haustorium is a special organ of parasitic plants, which invades host tissues and serves as the structural and physiological bridge that allows the parasites to withdraw water and nutrients from the conductive systems of living host plants.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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Percy Verance

Sometimes, you just can’t get something to work. But here’s a fellow who might help:

If at first you don’t succeed,
Just send for Percy Verance.
Not once, not twice, but many times
Till he makes his appearance.

And when he does, then you will find
The thing you couldn’t do
Can now be done quite easily
’Cos Percy’s worked for you.

[Images: Davidson College; Tiverton Academy]
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Travelling light

In the 1990s, the Hipparcos satellite enabled scientists to use triangulation techniques to calculate the distance of the Pole Star, Polaris, from Earth. Their answer was 434 light-years (a light-year is a tad under 6 trillion miles). But in 2012, astronomer David Turner analysed the spectrum of its light and concluded that the star was ‘only’ 323 light-years away. Polaris fluctuates in brightness, however, and the Hipparcos team think that Turner might not have taken this adequately into account, using a higher value which would have made the star appear closer. Someone has set out to decide who’s right:

I am a light ray, and I’m well on my way
From Polaris towards your blue planet.
I have used the ‘straight’ lines that space-time defines
On my journey, since first I began it.

When shall I arrive? Well, I’d better contrive
To work out the timings involved:
I’m travelling at c1 on my trajectory –
But one problem still has to be solved.

I need your assistance to find out the distance
From Polaris to Earth: but oh dear!
It seems you’re not sure what it is any more,
And the error’s not  just a light-year.

The problem’s Polaris, for this sort of star is
The sort whose brightness keeps changing.
If you measure it wrong, it’ll not be too long
Till your sums will all need rearranging.

If Dave Turner’s correct, well then I’d expect
To arrive a whole century sooner.
But I trust Hipparcos2 to measure my star, ’cos
It’s been such a great cosmos-tuner:

It’s clocked the positions, with milliarcsec3 precisions
(And motions and parallaxes, too),
Of 60K-score of our galaxy’s store
Of stars (which leaves billions to do!)4

If Hipparcos is right, and the time of my flight
Is four-three-four years, it’ll show
That Dave Turner was wrong (as I guessed all along).
If you doubt it, ask me – I should know!

1 ‘c’ is the usual symbol for the speed of light in a vacuum, which is about 670,616,629 mph.
2 http://sci.esa.int/hipparcos/47357-fact-sheet/
3 A very precise measure of angle: there are 3.6 billion milliarcseconds in just 1 degree!
4 Wikipedia reckons the estimated total number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy to be “between 200 and 400 billion”

[Image: earthsky.org]
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Probing Popo

Volcanic eruptions are notoriously unpredictable. But analysis of thin sections of crystals in lava from Mexico’s Popocatépetl has enabled researchers to probe the subterranean travels of magma as it flows from one chamber to another on its convoluted journey to the vent. It’s too late, though, to be of any help to the early inhabitants of nearby Tetimpa, who migrated to a new settlement further north, leaving remains that were found by archaeologists nearly two millennia later.

Though Popocatépetl looks like a boiling kettle,
With steam escaping from its open spout,
You must be on your mettle, or Popocatépetl
Will do its level best to catch you out.

(Tetimpa’s folk knew well that it wasn’t wise to dwell
When old Popo was about to blow his top:
For they had learned to tell when to stay or run like hell
And sacrifice to Popo their corn crop*.)

Now researchers are learning what keeps old Popo churning:
Using petrographic microscopes, they’ve found
That a greyer crystal section means a rapid, hot injection
Of magma hit a chamber underground;

And each crystal’s grey-scale banding provides some understanding
Of mineral diffusion rates, which show
How long the magma took (you can read it like a book!)
To travel through the labyrinth below.

Of course, diffusion stops when old Popo’s crater pops
And magma hits the cooler outside air–
That’s how you can assess how long (well, more or less)
The magma had remained entombed in there.

Some six and forty years is the answer, it appears*,
Which suggests eruptions here, my source reports,
Will not be quite as bad as what killed Young Pliny’s dad –
A ‘Plinian’ eruption – fame of sorts!

* See papers by Plunkett & Uruñuela, on Tetimpa, and Petroni et al, on timing pre-eruptive magmatic processes

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Intelligent design?

You couldn’t really apply that term to the location of the prostate gland.

Here’s this week’s competition: design a prostate gland
In such a way that there is room to let the thing expand.
The current one works well, initially, at least.
But when the blooming thing gets fat, the prostate is a beast.

I mean, it’s wrapped around a vital piece of plumbing,
So, when it grows, it slows the flow! It really is mind-numbing.
And that’s not all: it pokes into the nearby bladder,
Thereby preventing emptying. It’s not just mad, it’s madder!

It’s in the wrong place, really. Intelligent design?
If so, the guy who planned it should rapidly resign.
No, it was evolution (which has no long-term plan)
That put the prostate where it is and made things tough for Man.

[Image: British Association of Urological Surgeons]
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Sophie’s weigh

‘Sophie’ is the most complete set of Stegosaurus bones at the Natural History Museum. The experts there have used them to estimate what she would have weighed.

Poor Sophie Stegosaurus! In Wyoming, USA,
She might have either starved to death or fallen ill one day.
She died while adolescent, a death quite undeserved,
And yet her bones – well, most of them – were luckily preserved.

They’ve photographed her bones from her tail-spikes to her noddle,
Then stitched them all together in a 3-D computer model.
And why, I hear you ask? Well, in her digital state,
These folk can tweak their algorithms to estimate her weight.

They ‘convex-hulled’ poor Sophie – pulled a ‘skin’ around her, tight,
Then added 21% to get the volume right.
With a crocodilian density, her mass could then be sought:
Some sixteen hundred kilograms, or half what once was thought!

Now here’s an intriguing postscript:
Although, throughout this tale
I’ve called its heroine Sophie,
‘She’ could, in fact, be male . . .

[Image: Natural History Museum, London]
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Mending things

It’s very frustrating . . .

I used to be good at mending things
In the old days when all things were mendable.
When things go wrong now, you can’t take them apart,
You must throw them away – they’re expendable.

It started with valves (the electrical sort):
You had to replace them with new.
And likewise transistors; but it soon became clear
This was not economic to do.

So next a whole circuit board had to be swapped
(Who cared which part was defective?)
Now, sometimes the entire bit of kit must be ditched,
For to mend it is not cost-effective.

You used to be able to see how things worked
By getting inside them to see;
Now modern technology’s hidden the works
That interested people like me.

I used to be good at mending things
In the old days when things were repairable.
So bring me your old stuff that’s ground to a halt.
I will mend it, and life will be bearable!

[Image: willbuckman.com]
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I wouldn’t say no . . .

It’s the sort of thing you might say if offered a tasty treat – unless you really thought about the words you were using.

I wouldn’t say “no” to a custard tart.
(I wouldn’t say “yes” to one either:
To talk to a custard tart would be silly
Or sad, and I reckon I’m neither.)

I wouldn’t say “Boo!” to a goose. (Just as well –
Geese don’t understand English, they say;
And “Boo!” might mean, into Gooseish translated,
Attack – he must not get away!”)

The moral of this, if moral there be,
Is: make sure that you say what you mean.
For that is the best way, I think, to avoid
Consequences you hadn’t foreseen . . .

[Images: Wikimedia]
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Unwanted gifts?

Did the truelove of the writer of the eighteenth-century carol forget what he’d sent her the day before? The unfortunate recipient (whom I thought most likely female) received a total of 376 items over the pre-Christmas period. But, necessity being the mother of invention, she had hatched a cunning plan . . .

On the first day of Christmas, my truelove sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

So I emailed my truelove: “What am I s’posed to do
With a partridge and a pear tree? My love, I thought you knew
I haven’t got a garden to plant the pear tree in;
And that partridge in the hallway is making such a din!”

On the second day of Christmas, my truelove sent to me
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.

He hadn’t read my email! They’re clogging up the hall,
Those partridges and pear trees which I didn’t want at all!
I’ll ring him up . . . he’s out. That leaves me pretty vexed:
I hope he’s not gone shopping – who knows what he’ll buy next?

On the third day of Christmas, my truelove sent to me
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.

Now this is getting silly. Where shall I put them all?
The French hens weren’t too happy when I shoved them in the hall
With three partridges in pear trees, and four doves – I think that’s it . . .
(I had to prune the trees a bit, to make sure they would fit.)

By the seventh day of Christmas, can you guess what I had got?
Despite all my pleas,
Twelve turtle doves,
Fifteen French hens,
Sixteen calling* birds,
Fifteen go-old rings;
Twelve geese a’cackling,
Seven swans a’swimming,
And some partridges in some pear trees.

On the two next days of Christmas, my truelove sent to me
The usual, and some girls:

Sixteen maids a’milking, in a rustic sort of way,
And nine ladies dancing – what is he trying to say?
By now, my house was full, jam-packed to overflowing;
What would he send me next? There was no way of knowing . . .

On next two days of Christmas, my truelove sent to me
The usual, and some blokes:

Twenty lords a’leaping, eleven pipers piping –
The neighbours heard the racket, from behind their curtains peeping,
But soon came out to join the fun, and now the street was humming!
And then – my truelove’s master stroke – came twelve drummers drumming!

I saw a chance to make some cash (my truelove wouldn’t know):
I’d charge them all to watch it – my Festive Christmas Show!

And then I’d sell the pear trees, set free a turtle dove
And a calling bird or two to fly to my truelove.
I’d flog, for Christmas dinners, those geese and fat French hens –
But I’d give the swans back to the Queen, so we could still be friends.
And, finally, I’d auction off each lovely golden ring.
Then I will thank my truelove. What will next Christmas bring!

* Originally, ‘colly’ birds – a regional word describing a black colouring.

[Images: christmas-clipart.com/Pamela Perry/Acclaim Images (pear tree); RSPB (turtle dove); pintrest (French hen); activityvillage.co.uk (calling bird – a blackbird); angelicdiamonds.com (gold ring); freeiconspng.com (goose); freeimages.com (swan, milkmaid and dancer); Evening Standard (leaping lords); Wikimedia (bagpiper); beatit.tv (drummer)]
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Addressing a problem

This is a reply to a friend’s Christmas message, which complained of the difficulties involved with printing out a set of address labels:

I’ve never been able
To print out a label
Without lots of hassle and fighting
With software and stuff;

So I thought “That’s enough,
It’s simpler with old-fashioned writing”.

[Images:bestlifeonline.com; postoffice.co.uk]
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Some turkeys are labelled ‘self-basting’. I wondered how a turkey, in a hot oven, could baste itself. So I asked an expert:

I’m a turkey that’s self-basting. What it means I’ve not a clue,
It’s just a rather clever thing that I have learned to do.
It takes a lot of practice: you lay upon your back,
And flap your wings about like mad! Well, I soon learned the knack.

The farmer never told me why I should be so skilled.
“Don’t do it,” croaked my turkey mates. “He’ll only have you killed,
Then sell you for a premium: ‘Self-basting,’ he will claim.”
I just ignored them, turned away and practised just the same.

“It’s so that, when they roast you in a pan of your own juice,
Your wings (what’s left of them) will flap . . . He’s not listening, it’s no use!
. . . And when they flap, those juices will splash all over you.
We don’t know why they pay for this, we just know that they do.”

Well, now, it’s nearly Christmas and my mates have disappeared.
Here comes the farmer – oh, dear me, will it be just as they feared?
Look – he’s got a label: “Self-basting, easy-roast!”
And there’s a look upon his face that seems to say “You’re toast!

So, when you buy your turkey
I hope you’ll buy ‘self-basting’.
My practice will have been worthwhile
If it’s made me better-tasting.

[Image: momsbudget.com]
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When QUANTUM comes to call

Books that try to explain quantum mechanics seem to end up saying “you can’t expect to understand it”. I fell at the first hurdle, when I tried to find a definition of ‘particle’ that I could picture in my head. One said “Particles are purely mathematical objects”, which didn’t help much, because I couldn’t picture something that was “purely mathematical” as an “object”.

A particle’s a lump of stuff and looks just like a ball
I thought. But now they say that’s not enough when things get really small.
If you keep cutting stuff in two, there comes a time, my friend,
Beyond which ‘particle’ won’t do, where imagery must end.

‘Cathode rays’ were particles, not ‘rays’ as they first thought;
But fired through slits, those articles did not do what they ought!
Such things should, when they hit a screen, have formed two bands of light.
Instead, what patterning was seen? Alternate dark and bright!

And light, they knew, would do the same (it’s how a wave behaves).
Then into the fray de Broglie1 came: “Think particles and waves”.
Said Schrödinger2: “A good idea, but a wavefunction’s superior,
Though it needs some fancy maths, I fear, and some folk think it’s eerier3.

“It’s mathematical, you see: how probable, through space,
That ‘particle’ or wave might be to exist at any place.
What’s more, until you take a look, it might be anywhere4!
It’s in the maths – just read my book5 – but you should not despair:

“Your brain has learned to process things to keep you out of danger
By picture-based imaginings. But QUANTUM things are stranger . . .
Reality’s not what your brain is telling you. Instead
It’s spooky, weird: you’ll try in vain to ‘see’ it in your head.”

Well, that’s what physicists declare. Religions do the same:
They say there is a ‘god’ out there who’s in control, they claim.
And then they leave your poor old brain to picture in your head
This entity which, they explain, you’ll ‘see’ when you are dead . . .

I like my brain. I couldn’t live without it. With each breath
It paints me ‘pictures’ that contrive to help avoid my death.
But now I’m stuck. As you’ll have guessed, when QUANTUM comes to call,
Although my poor brain does its best, it’s really much too small.

1.    The French physicist, Louis-Victor-Pierre-Raymond, 7th Duke of Broglie (1892–1987). Broglie is in Normandy, 60 km south-west of Rouen.
2.    Not in exactly these words, though . . .
3.    Or, as Einstein described an aspect of quantum theory, “spooky”.
4.    According to some interpretations, that is.
5.    Actually, a paper in a physics journal: Schrödinger, E. “An Undulatory Theory of the Mechanics of Atoms and Molecules”, Physical Review, Vol. 8 No. 6, 1049–1070.

See also: Science and religion, Definitions, Causes, Noddle models, Model makers and Assertions

Images: wikimedia commons (sphere); wikipedia (wavefunction); theladykillers.typepad.com (head); Dvaorak.org (tiny brain)
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In the brickpits of Sussex and Surrey

Amateur geologists have found a remarkable array of fossils from quarries used to extract the Weald Clay for brickmaking.

In the brickpits of Sussex and Surrey
Are fossils of life that’s long dead:
There’s an arthropod trackway, teleost1 fish,
Amber, and a Plant Debris Bed;

There are earwigs, weevils and beetles,
Crickets and old termite poo,
Snakeflies and lacewings, clam shrimps and wasps,
Crocodile teeth, and frogs, too!
Egg cases of sharks, a small fish jaw,
Fishy otoliths2, palates and more,
What was almost the world’s first flowering plant3,
Cycads, and molluscs galore.
On this land, in the Lower Cretaceous,
Dinosaurs roamed far and near:
Baryonyx, Iguanodon, Horshamosaurus,
All died and were fossilised here.

From the Weald Clay of Sussex and Surrey
These fossils of life that’s long dead
Have been saved from the heat of the brickmakers’ ovens
And preserved in collections, instead.

1. Ray-finned
2. Ear-stones, which helped the fish to orientate and balance
3. Called
Bevhalstia, but new finds from China might prove to be earlier

Image of Smokejacks quarry: Peter Austen (with permission)
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Gone missing

I bet this has happened to most blokes.

A sock of mine’s gone missing. Where can the rascal be?
If you are out there, somewhere, please come back home to me.
I won’t be cross, I promise; I understand your plight:
You’re trodden underfoot all day, abandoned every night.

Your other half is lonely without you. She’s bereft:
She hasn’t left the wardrobe since the moment that you left.
I’ve emptied drawers and cupboards, I’ve probed the washing machine,
I’ve searched in every single nook and the crannies in between.

Perhaps my sock has passed away and gone to socky heaven;
Or maybe it has hitched a lift to John o’ Groats or Devon.
Perhaps there’s a Society of which my sock’s a member;
Or maybe socks have Socky Games, and my sock’s a contender;

Or else he’s done a runner with a lady sock. If so,
He is a silly sock; but then socks will be socks, you know . . .
Well, I’ve got other things to do and, looking at the clock,
There’s really nothing else to say but “fare thee well, old sock”.

[Image: .adweek.com]
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Look up!

Technology often seems to take over: you often see people in the street, head-down, intent on interacting with a glowing screen, oblivious of life around them.

What is this life if, full of care,
You walk with bowed-down heads and stare
At smartphone screens, all unaware
Of who you’re passing in the street?

You check your emails, Facebook, Twitter,
Fed by a 4G transmitter,
Unaware you nearly hit a
Lamppost as you made that tweet.

Look up, look up! There’s lots to see:
The chap in front of you (it’s me),
The path ahead (just mind that tree . . .),
And all the people you could greet,

The sky, the clouds, the birds and bees,
The buildings, plants – it’s things like these
That make life good and fun. So please
Give yourself a phone-free treat.

You don’t agree. Oh, I can tell –
Life without a phone is hell,”
You think. I’ve done my best; oh well,
Hash-tag “I admit defeat”.

[Image: 2.bp.blogspot.com]
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Assertions are “confident and forceful statements of fact or belief”, says the dictionary. But how can you tell if the confidence is justified? The answer defines a key difference between religion and science (see also ‘Science and religion’).

“Assertions aren’t for testing,”
Religious folk declare.
“Oh yes, they are,” says science, that’s
Precisely why they’re there!”

“Words written long ago,” religious folk protest,
“Came from prophets, and allow no questioning or test.
They say an entity called ‘God’ exists in mystic form,
Which made and rules the universe, and we must all conform.”

“What use are such assertions,” the science people shout,
“You cannot claim that they are right unless you’ve checked them out!
Science’s assertions aren’t meant to be dogmatic:
They’re ‘right’ until they’re proven wrong – you could say they’re pragmatic . . .”

There’s one assertion that is true,
And has been throughout history:
It’s that our brains are not equipped
For understanding mystery.

[Image: myocn.net]
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On Swanage Pier

The sign at the entrance to the Grade II Listed Swanage Pier demanded payment for a particular gait.

“Strolling – 90p” declared the sign on Swanage Pier.
A price I didn’t want to pay, so I stepped up a gear:
I briskly walked straight past the sign. “Oi, can’t you read? It’s clear
Enough,” the pay-booth boomed, “This is a strolling Pier.

“Just look at all those other folk: they’re strolling. Why can’t you?
If you don’t want to stroll, that’s fine, but I won’t let you through.”
I speeded up, ignoring him, and broke into a run.
I reached the pierhead, then turned round and saw he had a gun . . .

Then I woke up. And I resolved that I would, on the whole, in
Swanage do as others do when on the Pier: go strollin’.
(That 90p’s a millionth of what the Pier must raise*
To make the structure strong again, as in its glory days.)

*Over £1m has already been raised but, according to the town’s Daily Echo in June 2016, a further £900,000 is needed to renovate the structure. See the Swanage Pier Trust website.

[Image: Daily Echo]
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Muddled millipede

Muscular coordination doesn’t always come easily.

I am a muddled millipede;
Which leg is next to go?
With a hundred* legs on either side,
It’s really hard to know.

It’s easy for you humans,
I see you’ve got just four:
One to stand on, one to move,
And two don’t touch the floor!

It takes a lot of practice
In leg coordination
So we can run away from prey
And avoid extermination.

I’ve got a long way still to go,
But I’ll get there in the end,
And then I’ll help clear up your garden,
For millipedes are your friend**.

So please be kind to millipedes.
Remember, if you see
A millipede not moving,
It’s muddled, just like me!

* Roughly – most are in pairs. Certainly not a thousand!
** Well, sometimes, anyway. They feed on rotting vegetation, but if it dries out they’ll go for living plant material instead.

[Image (of a giant millipede): vivarium.wiki.com]
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Silicates rule, OK?

Interweb sources seem, by and large, to agree that at least 90% of the Earth’s crust is made of silicates. Starting in a molten magma, silicon  atoms join up with oxygen atoms to create the basic building block of all silicate minerals, the tetrahedral molecule SiO4. On behalf of his brothers, a silicon atom explains:

We’re the kings of our castles: four oxygens surround us,
Each bound by strong covalent bonds  we radiate around us.
Each O is like a turret that is negatively charged –
And that’s the way our empire is easily enlarged:

Our tetrahedral structures can stick themselves to others!
And in the spaces in between reside our cation brothers:
For olivine, magnesium and iron together blend
In relative proportions that on the magma’s mix depend:

(Red spheres represent iron ions, yellow ones magnesium)

That’s where we atoms started – all runny , hot and jumbled;
But as we neared Earth’s surface, into these shapes we tumbled.
We silicates are common, for in diverse array
We make up most of Earth’s thin crust – so silicates rule, OK?

[Images: http://wps.prenhall.com and www.theimage.com]
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June drop

You’d think a fruit tree, like our Bramley apple, would hang on to as much of its crop as possible, but around June each year, it gets brutal.

It is that time of year again
When apples start to drop
From trees that seem determined
To devastate their crop.

Along each branch, within each cluster
Without the slightest sound,
The strongest send the weakest apples
Tumbling to the ground.

It’s wasteful Nature yet again –
Or is it? Maybe not,
For what’s left on the tree are just
The biggest of the lot!

They taste delicious in a crumble,
Or cored and used for baking.
And all those drop-offs? They’ll end up
As compost in the making.

See also Bramleys

[Image: theapplefarm.com]
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Dino dusters

A researcher at the Natural History Museum insisted that folk like him were not ‘just dinosaur dusters’. But dinosaurs do have to be dusted, and as I pondered over who did such important work, this possible answer wafted through the aether (to the tunes of “We are the Ovaltineys” and “The Ovaltineys say Good-bye”). It might explain why you never seem to see them in action . . .

1. We are the Dino Dusters
We are the Dino Dusters, little girls and boys.
If you should see us, please don’t poke us
When you’re near the Diplodocus:
We clean its bones up every day
And don’t make any noise.
The reason that we can’t be seen
While dusting dinos nice and clean
Is ’cos we all drank Ovaltine,
Which shrank* us girls and boys!

2. The Dino Dusters say Good-bye
So we’re not happy Dino Dusters:
We feel sad and blue.
The ads said “Drink your Ovaltine!” –
Who knew what it would do?
But we’ll be here again next Monday
To make things look like new;
And so until we meet again
The Dino Dusters bid you all adieu.

* As far as I know, there is no evidence to support this outrageous assertion.

[Image of theLeague of Ovaltineys’ Official Rule Book: Wikipedia] Sheet music and lyrics can be seen at http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/ovaltineys_music1.htm and http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/ovaltineys_music2.htm
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Granddad freezing

Somehow, a discussion with a grandson got round to this subject

If you freeze a Granddad, you must take especial care
To freeze him very quickly, so he doesn’t lose his hair.
(Some Granddads in the past, I’ve heard, were frozen much too slow:
Their hair fell out as icicles were given time to grow.)

And if you freeze a Granddad, I should warn you from the start,
Make sure you’ve got some sticky tape ’cos his legs might fall apart.
His ears will fall off anyway, and his nose might do so too,
And the rest of him will turn a quite disgusting shade of blue.

But if you freeze a Granddad, you’d best let Granny know,
In case she doesn’t spot the difference (well, you never know . . .).
The trouble is that Granddads don’t stay frozen long and, when their bodies melt,
The house will reek of odours that you’d wish you’d never smelt.

So if you freeze a Granddad, please do it out of doors.
Invite your friends to come and watch, then wait for their applause.
Then they can try it out on other Granddads they have chosen,
And very soon all Granddads will be absolutely frozen.


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Do butterflies ever ponder their origins? I listened in to one:

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter) I’m a butterfly!
I like to look down at the Earth as I flop around the sky,
But what I see is puzzling: I can’t help wondering why
I see no baby butterflies, however hard I try.

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter) What I want to know
Is what are all those squidgy things a-wriggling down below?
All they seem to do is eat, and then they grow and grow!
Where do they all come from, and where do they all go?

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter – there I go again!)
I sometimes wish I could have had a rather bigger brain
So I could work things out while I am sheltering from the rain.
But the answers all elude me, and my thinking’s all in vain.

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter) A thought from out the blue:
If I was never a baby, then from what was it I grew?
Oh, surely not those wriggly things? No! How could that be true?
It really is a puzzle. Oh, how I wish I knew . . .

For the view from both sides, see Metamorphosis.

[Image: pngkey.com]
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The Mekon rides again!

According to a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, the absorption of UV light emitted by Venus peaks in two regions of the spectrum, either side of 320 nm. The presence of sulphur dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere explains the shorter-wavelength peak; but the other ‘usual suspects’ for UV absorption, iron compounds  and nitrogen dioxide, don’t have properties that would make them candidates for the other, longer-wavelength, absorption peak. Chlorine gas would fit the bill if it were present at around one part per million, but it’s not known whether this amount could be generated by the action of sunlight on molecules of hydrogen chloride. So the cause of the second absorber in the atmosphere of Venus remains a mystery. Could it be some form of life?

There’s something in the atmosphere of Venus which is queer,
It soaks up ultraviolet waves: they simply disappear,
Absorbed by who-knows-what in the planet’s upper sky.
Could it be chlorine molecules? Unlikely, and here’s why:

You’d need one part per million, and as far as I can tell
That means a lot of sunlight on a lot of HCl.
I have another theory. In those early Eagle comics,
Dan Dare would often get involved with alien genomics.

The Mekon and the Treens who lived on Venus way back then,
Outsmarted by Dan Dare, kept on coming back again.
I reckon things have got so hot now, on the planet’s surface crust*,
That all these green and evil guys evolved, as all things must.

I bet they have discovered ways to break up HCl
To manufacture hydrogen, and chlorine gas as well.
Sustained by breathing H2 gas, each on a Mekon chair,
They’ve moved their evil empire up into the Venusian air.

But they’ve no use for chlorine, so it just hangs around,
And UV light of certain wavelengths never leave the ground;
And that’s what makes the absorption peak in Venus’s emissions!
(We need Dan Dare to go there now and confirm my suspicions . . .)

* Estimated to be around 460°C.

[Images: Wikipedia (Venus in 1979, viewed in the ultraviolet band); www.dandare.org.uk (Mekon & Dan Dare)]
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There it was, gone! A custard tart, from a box of two in a Waitrose refrigerated display. With my extensive nursery-rhyme education, it was clear to me what had happened, but should I tell the staff, or might they think that I had eaten it?

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day,
And sent them off to Waitrose,
Who put them on display.

The Waitrose tart –
A custard tart,
And not one filled with jam –
Is my favourite tart of all
(It’s just the way I am).

They sold those tarts
From the Queen of Hearts
In boxes, each with two.
But from one box one tart had gone
The culprit? I know who:

The Knave of Hearts,
He stole that tart!
(He’s done such things before:
The King of Hearts sore beat him,
And he vowed he’d steal no more.)

But it can’t be proved
The Knave removed
That pie (and he’d deny it).
Will Waitrose think I stole it?
I think I’ll just keep quiet . . .

[Images: Wikimedia Commons]
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This is a tale of how a great deal of EU activity, aimed at ‘harmonising’ the mains voltage across its member states, ended up changing nothing except the number printed on electrical equipment, from “220” or “240”  to “230”. (It would have been too expensive to change all of Europe’s 220 V electricity supply equipment and all of the UK’s 240 V equivalent). It’s also a cautionary tale about how it’s worth checking the facts before having a good rant.

The UK mains, though nominal,
Was once “240 volt”.
But now it is “230”, so
I’m planning a revolt.

It was th’ accursed EU
That made us Brits conform
To what its bureaucratic club
Thought ought to be the norm.

We want our volts back”, I shall shout
As loud as I am able.
British volts for British folk,
Applied to British cable.

But wait! I’ve read the small print!
“230” means, you see,
Anywhere from two-sixteen*
Right up to two-five-three.

In EU-speak, they’ve ‘harmonised’
That voltage-rating mess
By leaving things just as they were –
A Euro-fudge, I guess.

*Actually, 216.2

[Image: ITV News/PA Wire]
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There’s something wrong with my calendar

The passage of time seems to have speeded up . . .

There’s something wrong with my calendar,
It’s going much too fast.
It says it is my birthday,
But it’s not long since my last.

I reckon it’s those rascals,
The Mechanics of Time. It’s they
Who’ve tinkered with Time’s Arrow
And let it go astray.

They’ve not restored a setting
To what it used to be.
It’s slapdash and it’s sloppy –
Work not done properly.

They need a decent checklist
To note the things they’ve done;
They could then, when they’ve finished,
Restore them one by one.

Their carefree attitude won’t do
In a Universe so vast:
They must reset Time’s passage
So I don’t age so fast.

[Image: clipartsign.com]
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Gravity waves

Way out in space, 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes merged. On September 14 this year, the resulting gravitational waves were detected here on Earth by both of the twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington, USA. It reminded me of my low-tech dealings with gravity at school.

I measured gravity at school
With a stop watch, weight and string.
Four pi squared L over t squared – well,
It seemed a simple thing.

I was unlucky: no black holes,
Far out in space, collided
At just the right time long ago
To influence what I did.

I might have proved that gravity
Was waves, and moves like light.
And I’d be famous: I’d have shown
That Einstein got it right!

Now it’s too late. Two black holes merged
A billion* years ago,
And rippling spacetime got picked up
By the waiting arms of LIGO.

So well done, LIGO people.
Your findings are a hit,
And luck was on your side, not mine.
(I wish I’d had your kit!)

*Actually, about 1.3 billion. Poetic licence, sorry.

[Image: LIGO/Caltech]
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Leap year

2016 is a leap year. I wondered why . . .

The calendar’s got an extra day
This year, ’cos it’s a leap one.
I Googled what the reason was
And found it’s quite a deep one:

The Solar System doesn’t work,
Or so it would appear,
With seven days in every week
And twelve months in each year.

The Earth takes longer than a year*
To travel round the Sun,
And that’s why, every now and then,
The error must be undone.

Julius Caesar did his best –
A simple rule, for sure:
“Add a Leap Day if the year’s
Divisible by four”.

But things were  much more subtle.
As the years got out of sync,
Pope Gregory piped up and said:
“The answer is, I think,

“To keep old Caesar’s bright idea,
But add a bit more to it.
So here, in 1582,
Is Pope Greg’s way to do it:

“Just test the year: if it divides
By a hundred, then it’s not one,
Unless you can divide it by
Four hundred – then you’ve got one!”

* According to NASA’s ‘Earth Fact Sheet’, it currently takes about 365.256 days for the Earth’s axis to return to the same alignment relative to the sun (the ‘tropical’ orbital period). The period ‘seen’ by the  stars (the ‘sidereal’ period) is a teeny tad longer.

[Images: researchmaniacs.com (calendar), redshift-live.com (orbiting Earth)]
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Mary’s mistake

I thought that everyone knew the famous nursery rhyme, but it seems one person didn’t…

Mary had a little dog,
She’d bought him very cheap;
But something wasn’t right at all –
He bleated like a sheep.

She took him to the vet and said,
“My dog is just not right”.
“Leave him with us,” replied the vet,
“We’ll cure him overnight.”

When Mary fetched him from the vet,
She took him for a walk.
But, by the time they got back home
She found the dog could talk!

“Didn’t you read the nursery rhyme
Before you went and bought
A dog? You should have given
The matter much more thought.

“It says you’re s’posed to have a lamb,”
The dog explained. “But  hey,
A lamb’s not house-trained like I am,
So look at things that way.

“I’m not much good at acting,
But I’ve done my level best
To be as lamb-like as I can,
It’s a shame you’re not impressed.”

“I’ve never read it,” Mary said,
“But it’s all right in the end,
For now I’ve got a talking dog –
A very special friend!”

[Image: wideopenpets.com]
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I’m history, probably

Memory, it seems, involves the brain having connected its neurons up in a particular way at a particular time, and somehow being able to recover that set-up at a later time.

I’m living in the past, which means
I’m history, because
I can’t know what I am right now,
But only what I was.

And even that depends upon
My memories and reflections;
And that, in turn relies on how
My brain’s made its connections.

Suppose they’ve all got muddled up?
The picture they’d be showing
Could be a fiction. Trouble is,
There is no way of knowing . . .

[Image: nbcnews.com]
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The snowman’s hat

Our grandchildren’s creation was much appreciated by a visitor.

Did you see our snowman?
We made him for a laugh.
We dressed him in a fleecy hat
And, round his neck, a scarf.

But when we woke this morning,
He looked a proper mess:
His scarf was off, his hat had gone.
Who did it? Can you guess?

We blame the fox: he’s cunning,
But clever, too, and bold.
We think he stole the hat because
His head was feeling cold.

So, neighbours, keep a lookout
For foxes in the snow,
And if you see one in a hat,
Please would you let us know?

[Image: testeach]
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HS2 – the groundwork

Jonathan Gammon is Head of Ground Investigations for HS2, the government-funded company responsible for developing and promoting the UK’s new £42-billion high-speed railway network. The complete line is expected to be open by 2032 or 2033. In January 2016, he talked about the scope and depth of the company’s preparatory work needed before any track is actually laid – ‘de-risking’, he called it.

We’re checking it out, we’ve nearly done
All the planning for the groundwork to set up Phase 1.
Over half goes through tunnels or cuttings, and so
We’ve had to think hard where the spoil’s going to go.
Ninety per cent of it we aim to put back
Elsewhere in the route of the HS2 track.
Occupational Health’s a contractual clause
With good Health and Safety, to comply with our laws.

The HS2 Hybrid Bill’s now being debated
And modifications incorporated:
We’ve redesigned things and we’re doing our best
To take account of the views expressed.
We’ll do what we can, too, to mitigate impacts
On nature reserves, ancient woodlands, newts, bats,
Archaeology, SSSIs and much else beside,
While trying to lessen the North-South divide.

With contracts assigned, it’s now our intent
To seek, in December, the Royal Assent.
But there’s still an enormous amount to be done
To make sure the ground’s fit for the first train to run
In sixteen years’ time (or maybe one more) –
‘De-risking’ the project is what’s at our core.
But this is Phase 1, and we’ve still yet to do
All the Ground Investigations to prepare for Phase 2!

[Image: www.newcivilengineer.com]
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Tim’s tam-tam

Near the end of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, there’s a single, gentle stroke of the tam-tam (a type of gong). It marks the point at which the composer’s despair comes to the fore and the music fades away to its end. The symphony formed the second half of a performance by our local amateur orchestra, whose young percussionist sat quietly at the back through the whole of the first half (Brahms’ Double Concerto) even though he had nothing to play; and after his key contribution in the second half, he remained still. I was impressed by his sensitivity to the mood of the music. I think his name was Tim.

While the orchestra’s playing the Brahms,
The percussionist’s resting his arms.
He has practised his part,
So he knows in his heart
What’s to come will give him no qualms.

Even though he has nothing to do,
He sits the concerto right through;
But he comes to the fore in
Tchaikovsky’s sad scoring,
When a strike of the tam-tam is due.

With the beater in hand, he stands tall
As the crowded and hushed concert hall
Who have waited so long
For the sound of his gong
Hold their communal breath, one and all.

He’s counting the bars, you can tell;
He’ll have just one chance to do well . . .
Now the moment has come
And the job must be done –
There! As clear as a bell!

The band now continues to play;
Reflecting Tchaikovsky’s dismay . . .
But our man remains still
By his tam-tam, until
The music has faded away.

His demeanour was so dignified –
This guy felt the music inside.
Tchaikovsky would’ve said
(If he hadn’t been dead):
“That was cool, man – I’m well satisfied.”

[Image of Tchaikovsky: russianlife.com]
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Skye news

Multiple trackways of long-necked sauropod dinosaurs who walked through a shallow lagoon some 170 million years ago have been found in Middle Jurassic rocks at Cairidh Ghlumaig on the Isle of Skye. This explanatory message from one of the creatures has since emerged:

I’m a sauropod dino frae Skye,
A quadruped, plant-eating guy.
A great long-necked classic frae the Middle Jurassic
Wi’ legs just like tree-trunks, och aye!

My footprints, ye’ll find, are four-toed
And big, just tae carry ma load,
For I’m ten tons in weight with a narrow-gauge gait –
It’s what evolution bestowed.

Ye’ll see, on each front leg, a claw.
D’ye ken what that digit is for?
(Nor do I, but I use it in case I should lose it –
I doot if I’ll ever grow more . . .)

The climate is humid and hot,
So I have tae put up with a lot;
But when the Sun’s high at noon ye cannae beat a lagoon
For coolin’ the feet of a Scot!

[Image Steve Brusatte (from Archaeology News Network)]
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Green Park

The automatic announcements on the London Underground these days are very helpful to travellers. The one at Green Park station made me wonder if it was particularly intended for a Certain Person:

The announcement at Green Park came loud and clear:
For Buckingham Palace, please exit here”.
So I thought: is this Park, so lovely and Green,
The Underground station that’s used by the Queen?

I watched as the passengers got on the train
For a glimpse of Her Majesty – but all in vain.
Disappointed; but maybe I shouldn’t expect One
To travel with me. No, she’ll catch the next one . . .

[Image (yes, it is the Queen!): Daily Mail]
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Testing . . .

Since 1985, I have been part of a long-term health study of (initially) over 10,000 people; thirty years on, only about 6000 are still participating. Every 5 years or so, we get a checkover of our physical and mental health: samples are taken, measurements are made and questions asked . . .

You’re welcome to my blood, height, weight and ecg,
You can take what hair you need (please leave a bit for me!).
You can test my grip strength, finger taps, my walking speed, and more,
How fast my pulse can travel, BP and IQ score.

I do it altruistically in part, but I’ve a hunch
I also like free travel and your slap-up sit-down lunch*.
I’ve used the feedback on my health: my blood pressure’s reduced,
Cholesterol too, and that’s all thanks to the data you produced.

I realise that I’m lucky, that so far I’ve stayed alive
To face the latest testing that your Study can contrive.
I quite enjoy the challenge, it keeps my brainbox agile;
Don’t over-stretch my memory, though – I think it’s getting fragile . . .

* Actually, a sandwich, piece of cake and cup of tea.

[Image: bhf.org.uk]
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The Mullard Space Science Laboratory, an outpost of University College London, is housed in a mansion near Holmbury St Mary in the Surrey hills. From 13 projects submitted to a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, MSSL’s ‘Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer’ (SMILE) mission was chosen for further assessment. It aims to measure how the Sun influences ‘space weather’ and the Earth’s magnetic ‘shield’ and, if preliminary studies are favourable, is currently expected to launch at the end of 2021. Dr Graziella Branduardi-Raymont, UCL’s Professor of Space Astronomy, is joint Principal Investigator of the mission.

At Holmbury St Mary, the atmosphere’s scary –
They dabble in things you can’t see!
To this spooky old place come strange signals from space
That they say could affect you and me . . .

It seems there’s no knowing how the solar wind’s blowing
Or how it might trouble our tech.
Will it cause an aurora, or mess up your aura,
Or leave our poor planet a wreck?

These folk want to know all the answers, and so
They put up ideas and they won
The funding to do a study or two;
But there still remains lots to be done.

They need gear that’s exotic, sort of astro-robotic:
A magnetometer (for the Earth’s field),
X-ray and UV telescopes, so they’ll see
The effect on Earth’s solar wind shield.

Professor Raymont will list what they’ll want
To make such a project worthwhile.
But there is a price; so, to make it sound nice,
They’ve given it a name: it’s called SMILE!

SMILE logo

[Images: blogs.ucl.ac.uk, ESA and the SMILE Proposal document]
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Gastronomic destruction

Have you noticed how ‘good’ restaurants tend to plate up their food these days? It’s either arranged picturesquely on the plate or its ingredients are stacked vertically – sometimes both. Like the meals themselves, each of these two poems seemed to call for a different structure:

1: Edible art

Master chefs are not just cooks,
They’re artists, too; and so
They ‘paint’ their food upon the plate
Like Michaelangelo.

They surely know, these clever folk
Who in their kitchens lurk,
That customers just get stuck in
And desecrate their work?

All the effort, skill and flair
They put into that meal
Is mangled, cut up, squished and mauled.
I wonder how they feel?

I’d like to shower the chef with praise:
“Wow, that looks quite incredible!”
I never do, though. That’s because
Their ‘picture’s’ much too edible.

So when it’s put in front of me
I look at it and say,
“Oh dear, that’s much too good to eat,”
Then eat it anyway.

2: Perpendicular plating

Other chefs do things with food
That make it look seductive,
But how they put it on the plate
Makes me feel destructive.
As a child, I’d pile up towers,
And then I’d knock ’em down;
Now I can do that when I’m in
Posh restaurants in the town.
’Cos now, it’s chefs who build the piles,
With food stacked neat and tall.
I bet they’re proud of it – but pride
Comes right before a fall!

(It has to fall, to get at all
The lovely stuff that’s in it.
A work of art, that I demolish
In less than half a minute.)
It seems to be a current fad,
This perpendicular plating.
Perhaps they do it in the hope
They’ll get a higher rating?
But fashions change. There’ll come a time
They won’t do things like that again;
And Michelin-starred chefs will serve
Their food all laid out flat again.

[Images: cdn.view.co.uk; i.dailymail.co.uk]
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Fossil remains found in 1985 in a brickpit at Rudgwick in Sussex were initially described as those of an iguanodon. Then, after a reassessment by Dr William Blows, they were later attributed to a new dinosaur polacanthid species, Polacanthus rudgwickensis. But, as hinted at in the Postscript to “Old Spiky“, they have now (September 2015) been re-classified by Dr Blows as Horshamosaurus rudgwickensis, recognising the Sussex town in whose museum they now reside. Someone is not happy . . .

They dug me up at Rudgwick some thirty years ago.
Well, exhumation’s one thing, but now this savage blow:
They’ve blooming well re-named me, though I’ve had two names before.
An existential crisis for a Rudgwick dinosaur –
I’m as confused as they are! “An iguanodon” they’d said,
Till Bill Blows put his oar in and turned it on its head:
Polacanthus rudgwickensis, I would say . . . or maybe not . . .”
Well, now he’s made his mind up. I think he’s lost the plot:
Horshamosaurus? Crikey! Perhaps it’s just a phase
He’s going through. At least my rudgwickensis stays . . .

[Image: walkingwith.wikia.com]
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An earworm is a piece of music that you can’t seem to get out of your head. But, if you believe research that was published in 2013, there are ways of dealing with them . . .

How d’you get rid of an earworm?
I’ve got one stuck deep in my head:
It’s there when I rise in the morning,
And it’s there when I get into bed.

It’s gone in much deeper than earwax,
So warm olive oil can’t get through;
An antibiotic won’t touch it,
And surgery just will not do.

MRI, ultrasound and CT
Will fail to pinpoint its position.
(Where earworms hang out is a mystery
To even the greatest physician.)

So, can you get rid of an earworm?
Does anyone know of a way?
Or should I just try to ignore it
Until the thing just fades away?

But then there’ll be room for another
On my endlessly cycling tape!
It’s a chronic condition, earwormery,
Is there any hope of escape?

Oh yes, there is, says a scientist*:
Solve a five-letter anagram, say,
Or read a good novel as brainwork,
Then the earworm will vanish away!

* Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University, in 2013 (Hyman, I. et al: Applied Cognitive Psychology 27: 204–215)

[Image: bbc.co.uk]
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The dam that Jack built

The failure of the 305 ft high Teton dam in 1975 inundated an 80 mile long region of Idaho’s Teton and Snake River valleys, affected over 3500 homes, and killed around 13,000 head of cattle. Perhaps because of early warnings, only eleven people were killed. (It was not, of course, built by ‘Jack’, but by contractors for the US Bureau of Reclamation.)

This is the dam that jack built.

These are the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that jack built.

These are the fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

This is the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

This is the loess which, without doubt,
Soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

This is ‘hydraulic piping’, formed
Within the loess which, without doubt,
Soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

These are the people, driven to shout
As the ‘piping’ got worse, “Look out, look out!
Wet loess is weak and, without doubt,
It’s soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
And weakened the dam that Jack built.”

This is the flood, spilled all about,
That killed the people, driven to shout
As the ‘piping’ got worse, “Look out, look out!
(Wet loess is weak and, without doubt,
Soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite,
Destroying the dam that Jack built.)

[Image: Wikipedia]
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Wot, no cuckoo?

Most years we’ve heard its call, but not this one. The RSPB says its numbers are declining and has put it on its Red List.

It’s too quiet in the forest.
It’s Spring, and nothing’s stirred.
Something’s missing in the forest –
It’s the Spring-announcing bird.

The females are all rascals.
They are scallywags, and rotters.
They lay their eggs in others’ nests
So, when they hatch, they’re squatters.

And then things get quite nasty:
The squatters take possession,
Evicting other eggs and chicks
With Cuculidae aggression.

So this year there’s no cuckoo –
The forest birds are glad!
But, though the cuckoo’s such a thug,
I feel a little sad . . .

[Image of female cuckoo: RSPB]
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Helpful Helena

René Descartes struggled to find something that he could know for certain was real, and not a deception created by his senses. He never married, but he did have a daughter by a maid in the home where he was staying. I’m sure she must have been aware of his mental turmoil, and would have tried to help. From listening to him, she would have got the hang of deep philosophical reasoning, like “I am alive, therefore I am living”. They say that behind every great man there stands a woman, so I wondered whether this lady had anything to do with his most famous thought. (The maid, Helena Jans van der Strom, was actually Dutch, but I reckon she thought in English . . .)

Poor René Descartes
Had got in a stew
Trying to work out
What things must be true.

But his lady friend liked
To help out her great man,
So she wrote down her thoughts:
I think,” she began.

“But now what?” she thought,
“My mind’s in a jam!”
But after a moment
She wrote, “Therefore I am . . .”

(She’d intended to write:
Therefore I am thinking”,
But her quill had run dry
For she’d not put much ink in.)

That last word had still
To be scribed on her pad
When René came in saying,
“I’m going quite mad!”

But when René read
What his mistress had writ,
He jumped in the air, crying
“Yes! That is it!

“Just because I can think,
Therefore I exist!”
And René went out
And got very drunk.

For the background to another Cartesian concept, see “René’s fly”.

[Image of Descartes: Wikimedia Commons]
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Dear M&S

A till printout at our local Marks & Spencer store asked “how was your M&S today?” So I told them.

Dear M&S, I visited your Horsham store today.

I sought a casual jacket, expecting an array
Of jackets I could choose from, pay for, and take away.
But all I found was a 42, on a rail with shirts and such,
Made of linen, which would crease. I didn’t like it much.

Your website shows a range of jackets that you sell;
So why do you not stock them in your shop as well?
For years you’ve been my tailor, but now you’ve let me down.
“How was your M&S today?” Not good, in Horsham town . . .

[Image: M&S]
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The nocturnal fox

Evidence of transient wildlife appears regularly around our garden. We suspect the local fox . . .

A nocturnal fox, passing through,
Keeps leaving us presents of poo
Which we clear up each day.
But I bet he thinks, “Hey,
I’ve discovered a self-cleaning loo!”

[Image: bbc/Jim Feng]
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Levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in my blood were a tad higher than expected. My GP explained why, and prescribed a remedy.

My thyroid’s underactive,
It’s not up to the job:
In layman’s terms, the thing’s behaving
Like a lazy teenage slob.

It ought to make thyroxine,
To keep my body going;
But its attitude to life of late’s
Been much too easy-going.

My poor pea-sized pituitary
(Which has enough to do)
Stepped up the hormone TSH
To get the message through.

But all to no avail, it seems –
My thyroid is a devil,
Ignoring the pituitary’s pleas
To raise its output level.

Well, now the time has come
To outsource my supply
Of thyroxine by taking pills
That keep its levels high.

So take a rest, pituitary,
And thanks for all you’ve done
To stir my lazy teenage slob –
You never could have won.

[Image: Harvard Medical School]
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It’s happened again1 . . .

This month, there is no poem.
My muse has gone astray,
Complaining that no royalties
Ever seem to come her way.

But life is more than money!
And anyway, can’t she see
She gets her board and lodging
Inside my head for free?

I wonder where she’s gone to –
Has she found a better host?
James Muirden2, Richard Stilgoe3,
Pam Ayres4 – or Cyril’s ghost5?

I’m sure she will return,
Like every other time6,
And help to organise my thoughts
And turn them into rhyme.

She will come back, I’m sure of it.
She’ll realise, before long,
The error of her whingeing ways . . .
But what if I am wrong?

1. Actually, it hadn’t. I’d forgotten that she’d come up with the Aberfan poem.
2. Astronomer and author of The rhyming Bible and A rhyming history of Britain among others.
3. Songwriter, broadcaster and founder of the Orpheus Centre.
4. Entertainer and author of many poem collections.
5. Cyril Fletcher, comedian and actor, famous for his ‘Odd Odes’ (1913–2005)
6. See Writer’s block.

[Image: wikimedia.org]
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