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What I write

I write "popular science" articles primarily about marine science, some ocean technology, and "other stuff" (e.g. zoology, environmental microbiology, Earth science).

I was a Reporter and Assistant News Editor at New Scientist magazine, and have published more than 150 articles in magazines and newspapers such as New Scientist, Nature, and The Guardian. I have also produced online diaries from expeditions exploring the deep ocean.

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

The World Beneath The Waves

Just how little do we know about the ocean floor?

The Conversation, Scientific American, & IFLScience, 09 October 2014

[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.

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

The Guardian, 05 July 2013

[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.

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

The Guardian, 25 February 2013

...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]

RRS James Cook Voyage 82:
investigating the world's deepest & strangest undersea volcanic vents

...At these vents, the mineral spires are spectacular: two storeys tall, slender and twisting, looking like solidified columns of the smoke-like fluid roiling out of them. Early in the dive we managed to locate a set of vents that we first saw in April 2010, and which our US colleagues visited in January 2011. Surveying those spires again with our high-definition video cameras should show us how quickly the patterns of life change here.

Once the remotely operated vehicle is at the seabed, our work begins, as does the countdown that governs its return if we are to keep to the schedule for the expedition. As the midnight watch-change approaches, we still have much to do on this dive, and the heat and tension in the shipboard control centre are rising... [more]

TheseAreTheVoyages.net, 19 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]

All at sea

The oceans are full of microorganisms, which are thought to cycle nutrients and mediate climate on a global scale. Despite these environmental consequences, marine microbial biodiversity remains poorly understood. Jon Copley reports.

When it comes to mind-boggling numbers, marine microbiologists can give anyone a run for their money. The oceans are brimming with more than 3 times 1028 bacteria - that's about 100 million times more cells than there are stars in the visible Universe. But the real shock is that we have little idea what most of them are doing... [more]

Nature 415: 572-574, 07 February 2002

Sea level study reveals Atlantis candidate

It sounds a familiar enough yarn - a lone researcher claiming to have pinpointed the lost land of Atlantis famously described by Plato. But this time there is no mention of "supercivilisations", UFOs or magic crystals. Instead, he has turned the clock back on ancient rises in sea level to reveal an island that matches Plato's story... [more]
New Scientist (Daily News), 19 September 2001

Master blaster

Lurking in the oceans are creatures that can create balls of plasma almost as hot as the surface of the Sun, a Dutch researcher has found... [more]
New Scientist (This Week), 14 October 2000

Rival species indulge in sperm warfare

Life under the waves can get pretty crowded when you are a sea squirt vying for space on the rocks. But these sea creatures have a novel weapon - they use their sperm to sabotage the eggs of other kinds of sea squirt. According to a marine biologist in California, this may be the first example of sperm competition between species... [more]
New Scientist (This Week), 25 March 2000

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

Ocean tech

Onwards and downwards

...Here is a quick history of some of the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that have been lost in the service of deep-sea exploration - but also what they had achieved, and how the research in which they were involved has continued. Expeditions have continued in the immediate aftermath of such incidents, using other equipment aboard, and in the longer term, replacement and rebuilt vehicles have achieved scientific successes.

We press on, for reasons including the potential benefits that the ocean holds for our future, from new materials to medicines, and to understand our impact on the future of the ocean. So the motto is "ever onwards and downwards"... [more]

Exploring Our Oceans, 11 May 2014

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

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.

Their approach is to create tiny waves that travel across the surface of the solid object at right angles to the fluid flowing past it. These waves effectively wrap the object in a watery "envelope", so that the water flowing past hits this soft, wet buffer, rather than a hard surface... [more]

New Scientist (This Week), 03 June 2000

"Other stuff"

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

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

Ooze cruise

Silvery trails of slime trace the path of a slow-motion rampage. These are the telltale signs that slugs or snails have somehow found a crack in your defences and invaded your flowerbed, greenhouse or even your home. But while such domestic problems can usually be solved with a few strategically placed slug pellets, the trails pose a sticky conundrum for biologists.

It's not easy being slimy. Making mucus is an exceptionally expensive mode of transport. And to what end? Other animals manage to creep around in a similar fashion without producing a bed of slime. So why do the slugs and snails that live in our gardens and on our seashores ooze mucus? [more]

New Scientist (Feature), 11 March 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

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