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What I write

I write "popular science" articles about marine biology & oceanography, the history of ocean exploration, some ocean technology, and "other stuff" (e.g. zoology, environmental microbiology, Earth science), for outlets such as New Scientist and The Guardian.

I'm the author of Ask an Ocean Explorer, published by Hodder & Stoughton in February 2019, and I was previously a Reporter and Assistant News Editor at New Scientist magazine.

Please see below for a few excerpts, or explore the links to some of my favourites. For research papers I have published as a scientist, please see Publications.


Author of Ask an Ocean Explorer
(published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2019):

Audiobook sample, read by Peter Noble

Available as:
    * Hardback
    * Paperback
    * Large print edition
    * eBook
    * Audiobook


- Nature review:

- Daily Express review:

- Daily Mail review:

- Coast magazine 'Book of the Month', May 2019:

- China Dialogue Top 10 summer reads on China and the environment:

Diarist for Science, not Art: Ten scientists' diaries
(published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2003):

- Nature review

A few favourites

Race to the bottom of the sea - the little known heroes of the 20th-century’s 'inner space race'

Unlike astronauts, the race to the bottom of the ocean happened largely beyond the frenzied competition of cold war superpowers. It was instead driven mostly by private individuals, such as Beebe, Barton and the Piccards. After the record-setting plunge of 1960, deep-diving vehicles became a matter of national capability for science and strategic purposes...

Six decades on from the first dive to the Challenger Deep, the ability of countries to reach anywhere in the deep ocean may be quietly redrawing the geopolitical map. [more]

The Conversation, 23 January 2020

I explored the Antarctic deep seas for Blue Planet II - and it was like going back in time 350 million years

“It has always been our ambition to get inside that white space, and now we are there the space can no longer be blank,” wrote the polar explorer Captain Scott, on crossing the 80th parallel of the Antarctic continent for the first time in 1902. Fast-forward more than a century and the deep ocean floor around Antarctica still offers a “white space”, beyond the reach of scuba divers, only partially mapped in detail by sonar from ships and seldom surveyed by robotic vehicles...[more]
The Independent, 06 November 2017

When politics met science: harmony or hegemony?

Scientists, Winston Churchill once opined, should be on tap but not on top. While that comment might set some teeth on edge, it acknowledges that scientific evidence is one of many considerations in policy and government, and does not necessarily have supremacy over other matters.

But science intersects many, if not all, problems tackled by policy-makers and governments. So how well served is the UK parliament by science in its role of scrutinising proposed legislation? And from my selfish perspective as a scientist, how well served is science by parliament? To find out, I spent a week in Westminster, as part of the Royal Society's annual parliamentary pairing scheme... [more]

New Scientist (Comment), 05 December 2014

Just how little do we know about the ocean floor?

[more] ...Philosophically, when it comes to exploring anywhere on our dynamic world, how and when do we decide that somewhere has "been explored"? Do we declare "mission accomplished" once we've seen a location for the first time? The local woods where I walk my dog look very different in winter compared with summer, with different species flourishing at different times. Should I have considered them "explored" after my first visit in just one season? Exploring our world starts with mapping, but perhaps doesn't really have an end.
Scientific American, 09 October 2014

Five thousand metres under the sea: my journey to another world

[more] ...The motives that spur our further journeys into the deep ocean will define its future. We can go there to learn from it, or to exploit its natural resources for our rapidly expanding population. Or perhaps for once we might achieve a balance between the two. The challenge of the deep ocean is no longer technological; now it is a test of whether our wisdom can match our ingenuity.
The Guardian, 05 July 2013

Litter found in deepsea survey of one of Earth's final unexplored realms

...Human-generated rubbish unfortunately has a long history in the deep ocean. In the age of steamships, for example, vessels dumped the remains of burned coal, known as clinker, from their engine rooms. Clinker changed the nature of the seafloor in well-travelled areas, transforming the seabed from soft sediment in which some forms of marine life can burrow, into cobbled areas suiting other life-forms that can anchor to hard surfaces. The scale of that transformation is such that clinker is now recognised as a seafloor type when we are mapping the deep ocean... [more]
The Guardian, 25 February 2013

Lonely whale's song remains a mystery

A lone whale with a voice unlike any other has been wandering the Pacific for the past 12 years.

Marine biologist Mary Ann Daher of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, US, and her colleagues used signals recorded by the US navy's submarine-tracking hydrophones to trace the movements of whales in the north Pacific.

The partially declassified records show that a lone whale singing at around 52 hertz has cruised the ocean every autumn and winter since 1992. Its calls do not match those of any known species, although they are clearly those of a baleen whale, a group that includes blue, fin and humpback whales.

Blue whales typically call at frequencies between 15 and 20 hertz. They use some higher frequencies, but not 52 hertz, Daher says. Fin whales make pulsed sounds at around 20 hertz, while humpbacks sing at much higher frequencies. The tracks of the lone whale do not match the migration patterns of any other species, either.

Over the years the calls have deepened slightly, perhaps because the whale has aged, but its voice is still recognisable. Daher doubts that the whale belongs to a new species, although no similar call has been found anywhere else... [more]

New Scientist (Daily News), 10 December 2004

[This was the first media coverage of the "52-hertz whale", aka "the loneliest whale", which has since captured popular imagination, from inspiring music to appearing in kids' TV cartoon The Octonauts; I'm therefore proud to claim breaking the story in the press]

Oceanography: All wired up

The ocean floor is being covered with remote-controlled observatories, letting oceanographers keep tabs on the sea without getting wet. Jon Copley investigates.

The ocean floor is an exciting place to visit, but you might not want to live there. Fortunately, those who want to keep an eye on what goes on beneath the waves now have an alternative. Instead of trying to colonize the sea floor, marine scientists are planning networks of unstaffed seafloor observatories across the globe. Connected by fibre-optic cables or linked to satellite buoys, this wet-world-web will let oceanographers make long-term measurements and run experiments in the depths without leaving their desks.

Back in the 1960s it seemed we were on the verge of living under the sea, gadding about in submersibles while pet porpoises fetched the morning papers. To show that people could live underwater, Jacques Cousteau famously developed the Conshelf habitats of basic undersea homes that could accommodate several people at depths of 10 to 100 metres, complete with a garage for a diving saucer. The US Navy SEALAB experiments, which actually used a porpoise to deliver mail from the surface, explored the limits of undersea living further. But the dream of colonizing the continental shelf proved costly and dangerous... [more]

Nature 427: 10-12, 01 January 2004

Proof of life

Countless passers-by have trampled the crime scene. Outlines of bodies lie smeared and jumbled. Witnesses are petrified into silence. Fingerprints have been washed with boiling water and other evidence tampered with almost beyond recognition. It sounds like a case for a fictional detective. But instead it's a headache for geologists pursuing signs of early life in the oldest rocks on Earth.

Two years ago the case appeared clear-cut. The earliest signs of life were chemical fingerprints - telltale carbon signatures - in 3.8 billion-year-old rocks from Greenland, and 3.5 billion-year-old microfossils from Western Australia. That means life emerged no more than half a billion years after the young Earth became habitable. But now the evidence is being challenged. "The whole context of the Earth's early history has, we think, been misunderstood," says Martin Brasier from the University of Oxford, one of the geologists who have re-opened the case... [more]

New Scientist (Cover Feature), 22 February 2003

Making waves

Wrapping submarines in a cloak of tiny waves created by a smart "skin" could help them slip swiftly and silently through the water, say researchers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Fluid flowing past a solid object, such as the hull of a submarine, tends to get twisted into turbulent eddy currents. This turbulence increases drag, so it's harder for the submarine to move through the water. Naval architects wage a constant war against turbulence, designing hulls that are as streamlined as possible. But Yiquing Du of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and George Karniadakis of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, have hit on a way to stop turbulence developing in the first place... [more]

New Scientist (This Week), 03 June 2000


"Master of survival. Can withstand pressures six times greater than those at the bottom of the ocean and endure temperatures ranging from more than 100 °C down to absolute zero. Can shrug off lethal radiation, survive in a vacuum and go without water for more than a century."

It sounds like the résumé of a superhero. But these traits belong to little-known animals less than a millimetre long that probably live on your rooftop... [more]

New Scientist (Feature), 23 October 1999

Secret life of the shrimp

Relativity and quantum mechanics will be remembered as two great milestones of twentieth century science. What keeps me awake at night, however, is wondering what shrimps are doing when I'm not looking at them. This concern may actually have more in common with relativity and quantum mechanics than one might think... [more]
New Scientist (Forum), 01 November 1997

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