Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Notebook entries, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants’ by Ken Thompson Tue, 20 Nov 2018 15:49:51 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin’s botany today. Darwin’s Most Wonderful PlantsWhile working on my next book, I recently had cause to consult Charles Darwin’s The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876). As with all the books Darwin wrote after On the Origin of Species, the apparently obscure subject matter provided him with ample opportunity to build his case for his revolutionary theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Not that I did anything but dip into his plant fertilisation book, you understand: it assumes far more knowledge of botany than I will ever possess.

Darwin theorised, experimented and wrote a great deal on plants. They made ideal research subjects for a man often confined to his home through ill health. And having a wonderful theory by which to work enabled him to ask (and answer) deceptively simple questions nobody had even thought to ask before. To cap it all, having as a best friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the foremost botanists in the world, also gave Darwin someone to bounce his ideas off. Anyone who has read their correspondence will appreciate just how much Hooker selflessly contributed to Darwin’s work.

In this short but entertaining book, plant biologist Ken Thompson visits each of Darwin’s major works on plants. The subject matter includes orchids, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, plant domestication, and plant movement. Without getting too technical, Thompson examines Darwin’s thoughts and findings on each topic, while introducing us to some of the latest thinking.

By end of the book, I had a far better appreciation for Darwin the botanist. Although, ever modest, he no doubt saw himself as little more than a gifted amateur, he really was at the cutting edge of plant research. But, with Charles Darwin, you would hardly expect anything less.

A nice book. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Newsletter No. 15: Semi-immersed Fri, 02 Nov 2018 12:56:36 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) writing & research · milestones · Anthea Bell · island wardens · hillforts · pubs · oak trees · ancient ships · self-improvement · Mark Cocker · Jan Morris · Melissa Harrison Rich Text



I’ve been immersed in research and writing since my last newsletter. Well, semi-immersed, at least. Darwin-related stuff for my next book, mostly. I’d forgotten just how much I enjoy research. Finding stuff out is fun. My approach is uncharacteristically haphazard: I pick a topic that sounds interesting, begin to delve into it, but allow myself to become easily distracted, wandering off on all sorts of diversions. Those of you who’ve read On the Moor will no doubt recognise traces of my research technique in my finished work. Subjects I’ve been delving into lately include foxgloves, pollination, pigeons, and dogs. Oh, and while I was finally getting to the bottom of a dubious anecdote about Darwin, I ended up transcribing a previously unpublished ‘autobiographical fragment’ by his daughter Henrietta. Then, to cap it all, I gave a shambolic, rambling interview about Darwin’s captain aboard HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy.

It’s early days with my Darwin book, and I still haven’t quite found my voice, but I’m sure I’ll get there in the end. In the meantime, to keep my juices flowing, I’ve begun writing regular short pieces about things I’ve seen, or stuff I’ve been thinking. I’m steadfastly refusing to call this a ‘Diary’, and it certainly won’t replace my Writing Journal. So, for want of a better name, I’ve decided to call these short pieces Sidelines: lines that I write on the side, so to speak. I suppose they should rightly have been blog posts, but I’m finding writing stuff without the pressure of intended publication rather liberating. Who knows, perhaps some of my Sidelines might make it out into the wider world some day. It seems a shame to write stuff and not put it out there.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. A milestone in history revitalised
    A charming short video about Rowan Denton, a man whose hobby is refurbishing the mile markers which dot the byways and towpaths around here in Yorkshire.

  2. Anthea Bell, ‘magnificent’ translator of Asterix and Kafka, dies aged 82
    I was saddened to hear of the death of the wonderful translator Anthea Bell. I devoured Asterix books as a child, but it was only as an adult that I began to appreciate just how clever her translations were. They brilliantly adapted the French children’s books for a British (adult) sense-of-humour, incorporating clever puns galore. The fact that she later translated W.G. Sebald was just the icing on the cake, as far as I was concerned.

  3. The Gatekeepers
    A lovely idea for a continuing photo-project. Over the next few years, Alex Ingram plans to re-visit remote UK islands, spending more time with the wardens who have chosen to spend their lives there.

  4. A group of academics has produced an interactive, online map of Britain’s ancient hillforts. (Meanwhile, Ramiro Gómez has produced a far simpler, but strangely compelling map showing all the pubs in Britain and Ireland—and nothing else.)

  5. Hundreds of previously undiscovered ancient oak trees have been found in the English countryside
    This interesting article explains the likely historical reasons why England has more ancient oak trees than rest of Europe combined.

  6. It’s been a wondeful few months for re-discovering old ships. Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour might have been found in US; high-resolution geo-radar has detected a Viking ship in Norway; and the world’s oldest intact shipwreck has been discovered in the Black Sea.

  7. A characteristically thoughtful video by photographer Sean Tucker, about how you should stop comparing your own endeavours unfavourably with those of people much better than you. Instead, you should compare your latest work with your other recent work. The important thing is to keep improving.

Recent Reading:

Our Place
by Mark Cocker
An important book, but a depressing read. For a nation that prides itself on its love of the natural world, we Brits have let things slip in our own backyard. Things are far worse than they seem. Our green and pleasant land is struggling, and we are to blame.
In My Mind’s Eye
by Jan Morris
A gentle book by the veteran writer. It comprises 188 short diary entries, covering all manner of topics, ranging from the former British Empire to getting the car valeted, from model ships to observing passers-by from a local tea shop.
All Among the Barley
by Melissa Harrison
This initially seems to be a simple tale of country folk going about their business in early 1930s East Anglia. There are cart-horses and scythes and hayricks and corncrakes. It all seems very idyllic. But therein lies the assumption challenged by this enjoyable novel.

Apologies for the delay in getting this latest newsletter out there, but, as I say, I’ve been at least semi-immersed in my Darwin book. I’ll try not to take quite so long next time.

As always, I welcome any feedback about this newsletter. It can only improve if I know what people like about it, and what they don’t.

Have a fab November.

Book review: ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin Thu, 01 Nov 2018 11:48:23 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The jottings of a great observer of nature’s minutiae. Notes From Walnut Tree FarmThis is an unusual and rather poignant book. Published posthumously, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm comprises the edited highlights of the notebooks kept by author, conservationist and swimmer Roger Deakin during what turned out to be the last six years of his life. The selected notes have been arranged into calendar months, so that they read like a single year’s thoughts, reflecting the changing seasons. It’s a format which works very well.

Deakin’s notes were clearly never intended for publication in their current form. Perhaps he hoped to use them as starting material for some future book. But his literary executor and editors have done Deakin and us a great service by ensuring the thoughts contained within his notebooks saw the light of day. The Roger Deakin who emerges from these pages is one of those rare beasts: a committed nature lover and environmentalist, with at least one foot planted firmly in the real world. I suspect that he did hug the occasional, unsuspecting tree, but it would be going too far to accuse him of being a tree-hugger.

“Jottings, in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often much truer to what I actually feel or think at a given moment,” Deakin observes. Their spontaneity also means that his jottings record passing thoughts which might not have escaped editorial pruning. Deakin was clearly a lover of the minutiae of life: “You could spend a lifetime studying a hedgerow, or a pond,” he notes, and “Just as popular history has, until recently, tended to focus more on kings and queens, admirals and generals, than on the everyday lives of ordinary people, so natural history has tended to favour the bigger creatures and plants over the smaller ones. Whales, lions, elephants, sharks and anacondas generally command more column inches or television time, while their smaller counterparts in creation are, literally, over-looked.” True to this philosophy, Deakin’s notes contain thoughts and observations of such minutiae as the ant crawling across his desk, and the insects attracted to the light of his window.

I enjoyed Notes From Walnut Tree Farm so much that I made a point of reading Deakin’s other two books, Waterlog and Wildwood: a journey through trees—and very enjoyable they were too. I have since his books several times. All of Deakin’s books are wonderful, but Notes From Walnut Tree Farm remains my favourite.

Book review: ‘Draft No. 4’ by John McPhee Thu, 01 Nov 2018 11:46:19 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Essays on factual writing. Draft No. 4I can’t remember where I heard about this book. In fact, I’d forgotten all about it until I came across an obscure note I’d made about it yonks ago, and thought it sounded worth checking out.

Draft No. 4 comprises a number of pieces by veteran American non-fiction journalist and author John McPhee. The pieces are mainly about the process of writing long-form non-fiction articles (or ‘factual’ articles, as Higgs sometimes, more sensibly, refers to them). The individual chapters contain plenty of good advice and entertaining anecdotes—although I could have done without one multi-page account of an obsolete, bespoke text editor application!

A good read for non-fiction writers.

Book review: ‘Watling Street’ by John Higgs Thu, 01 Nov 2018 11:43:59 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Travels through Britain and its ever-present past. Watling StreetThis book was recommended to me by a friend. He thought I might enjoy it as ‘it has something of the thoughts-on-a-walk feel of On the Moor about it’. He was right: I did enjoy the book; and the device of going off on all manner of random tangents inspired by things encountered on a journey was indeed reminiscent of my own book (albeit, as my friend observed, the themes were different).

In ‘Watling Street’, John Higgs uses a sporadic trip up the eponymous Roman road as an excuse to investigate such diverse topics as:

  • fortifications under Dover cliffs;
  • Boudicca;
  • the code-breakers of Bletchley Park;
  • conflicting hypotheses about what inspired James Bond’s code-name, OO7;
  • the link between Charles Dickens and Rod Hull & Emu;
  • highwaymen (and women);
  • rugby football mythology.

It’s all very entertaining stuff, set against the backdrop of the UK’s insane Brexit vote (my adjective, not Higgs’s). Oh, and there’s even a four-part podcast, which is a nice touch.

Book review: ‘All Among the Barley’ by Melissa Harrison Thu, 01 Nov 2018 11:41:43 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Rural idylls weren’t quite as idyllic as they seemed. All Among the BarleyAll Among the Barley initially seems to be a simple tale of country folk going about their business in early 1930s East Anglia. There are cart-horses and scythes and hayricks and corncrakes. The early pages reminded me of Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, and Ronald Blythe’s non-fiction classic Akenfield. It all seems very idyllic. But therein lies the assumption challenged by this enjoyable novel: that traditional ways were better, and that change is regrettable.

The novel is seen through the eyes of adolescent Edie Mather, a farmer’s daughter. Edie is an awkward, intelligent girl who struggles to fit in. She is soon befriended by a dynamic, enthusiastic visitor to the village, the perfectly named Constance FitzAllen. The other villagers are initially wary of Miss FitzAllen, but she gradually wins most of them over by getting involved in all aspects of village life. Connie has a passionate interest in traditional rural practices, and wants to document as many as possible before they disappear. But, as the story progresses, we begin to realise Miss FitzAllen has more of an agenda than we first realised.

All Among the Barley contains a few shocking incidents, and an absolute bombshell of an ending that are impossible to describe without spoilers, but the overall effect is haunting. It’s a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Disclosure: I follow Melissa Harrison on Twitter, and consider her to be an online friend.

Book review: ‘In My Mind’s Eye’ by Jan Morris Sat, 29 Sep 2018 12:27:01 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A thought diary.

In My Mind’s Eye

This gentle book by the veteran writer reminded me very much of Ronald Blythe’s excellent Wormingford series of books (minus all the religion).

It comprises 188 short diary entries, covering all manner of topics, ranging from the former British Empire to getting the car valeted, from model ships to observing passers-by from a local tea shop.

Jan Morris’s motto is Be Kind. Reading this book made me more inclined to try to be so.

Book review: ‘Our Place’ by Mark Cocker Sat, 29 Sep 2018 12:25:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late?

Our PlaceCharles Darwin’s most famous paragraph—the wonderful final paragraph of On the Origin of Species—begins with a description of:

an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth.

Darwin goes on to explain how these diverse lifeforms have evolved complex interdependencies. He is, in effect, describing a thriving ecosystem in a tiny section of the English countryside. It’s a lovely example of early ecological writing.

To read Mark Cocker’s Our Place: can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late? is to realise Darwin’s entanged bank is no longer thriving. For a nation that prides itself on its love of the natural world, we Brits have let things slip in our own backyard. Things are far worse than they seem. Our green and pleasant land is struggling, and we are to blame.

Visiting particular locations by way of example, Cocker explores where it all went wrong. The usual culprits feature prominently: intensive farming, commercial forestry, an ever-growing population, exploitative land-owners, politicians, environmentally hostile subsidies, toothless legislation. The sheer number of different official designations for environmentally important sites also seems positively—perhaps deliberately—counter-productive.

More surprising, and shocking, to me was the failure of major environmental organisations to work together for the good of our countryside. Speaking as someone who spent many years trying (largely unsuccessfully) to get a number of different public-sector organisations to collaborate more closely, the problem of conflicting priorities between different environmental groups was disconcertingly familiar.

There have been occasional forward-thinking initiatives attempting to put more emphasis on the environment, such as diverting farm subsidies towards more environmentally friendly farming practices. (‘What the fuck is a twite?’ a hill-farmer once asked me, when they learnt there was money to be made allowing their fields to remain unkempt.) But such initiatives never seem to last long.

To a cynic like me, the problems seem insurmountable. Cocker offers a number of suggestions about where we should go from here, but there is little cause for optimism to be found in this book.

An important book, but a depressing read.

A face for radio Fri, 31 Aug 2018 15:53:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) In which I am interviewed for a ‘radio’ documentary. Radio interview
“Erm… I mean, erm…”

I took part in a unique (to me) and bizarre exercise earlier this week, when I was interviewed for a ‘radio’ documentary. I put the word radio in scare-quotes, because the documentary will actually comprise the dissertation of a masters student studying Radio at the University of Sunderland.

The subject of the documentary is Robert FitzRoy, descendant of Charles II, captain of HMS Beagle, friend of Charles Darwin, surveyor, religious fundamentalist, inventor of the weather forecast, Governor of New Zealand, suicide, and a bunch of other stuff. Robert FitzRoy was an interesting chap.

I’m relieved to say the documentary will include contributions from a number of interviewees, so will not rely entirely on my shambolic, rambling contribution. No, this is not my incorrigible, self-deprecating modesty kicking in: I really was dreadful. Performing live has never been my forté; I much prefer to work asynchronously, brainstorming ideas, getting them down in draft, tweaking them to within an inch of their lives, then tweaking them a whole lot more.

I dare say giving interviews is something you get better at with practice. I used to be pretty dreadful at reading out loud, but improved dramatically when writing On the Moor, having discovered that reading your writing out loud is by far the best way to work out what’s wrong with it. But I reckon I’d have to go through a hell of a lot of interviews before the shambolic rambling turns into something half-usable.

Still, though, at least I know what to expect next time—in the unlikely event there ever is a next time!

Where has all the heather gone? Thu, 09 Aug 2018 14:25:56 +0100 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) The Moor is looking decidedly lacklustre this August. I was up on the Moor earlier this week, hoping to take some photos of the heather at its finest. In August, the Moor reaches peak purple. But the unusually dry summer has left it parched. There’s plenty of purple on the lower, damper levels and slopes, but the tops are decidedly lacklustre.

This is what it looked like at the trig point in August 2016:

Trig. Point 4144
The trig point on 26-Aug-2016.

…and here’s what it looks like in August 2018:

Trig Point
The trig point on 07-Aug-2018 (note the absence of purple).

It has not been a good year for heather.

With no purple to shoot, I decided to make a time-lapse video of the rocks just below the edge. The same rocks feature on the cover of my book On the Moor. But making a video was really just an excuse for sitting there doing nothing for 20 minutes. I made a brew, took in the view, and admired a family of four kestrels hanging in updraught.


There are far worse ways to spend 20 minutes.

Anyway, here’s my video:

Newsletter No. 14: The terror Carter’s warriors Fri, 27 Jul 2018 16:12:56 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Liverpool · chinese warriors · Ben Myers · shoes on wires · Patti Smith · Wuthering Heights · stratigraphy · astronomy · ancient DNA · storm petrels · LIMONCELLO ICE CREAM!! Rich Text

27TH JULY 2018


My cultural highlight since the last newsletter was visiting England’s first city to see the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at Liverpool World Museum. (Or ‘the terror Carter’s warriors’, as I insisted on calling them.)

Terracotta Warriors, Liverpool

While we were in town, we also took the opportunity to swoon at Liverpool’s magnificently refurbished Central Library. I’ve published a set of photos from our day out on Flickr.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I hope you took my advice in the previous newsletter to read Ben Myers’ novel The Gallows Pole before it won the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction… As I predicted with such uncharacteristic confidence, it actually won!! Ben described the whole literary prize experience as ‘like being on psychedelic drugs’. Congratulations, Ben: a well-deserved award. (I wasn’t just being polite, by the way, you really should read the novel: it’s excellent.)

  2. As Britain and Ireland continue to swelter in unseasonably hot summer sunshine, hidden landscapes are being revealed.

  3. I’m really enjoying rock-poet Patti Smith’s Instagram photos. A highly personal celebrity social media feed, with some wonderful images.

  4. A friend of mine once made a prize-winning short film inspired by the phenomenon. Now video documentary maker Matthew Bate asks what’s behind the urban meme of shoes hanging from overhead wires?

  5. Kathryn Hughes is unconvinced by the strange cult of Emily Brontë and the ‘hot mess’ of Wuthering Heights. In On the Moor, I describe Wuthering Heights as a ‘highly enjoyable train-wreck’—although, as a local, I might be a little biased. Despite a marked lack of train-wrecks, I recently enjoyed Kathryn Hughes’ own book Victorians Undone (see Reviews section below).

  6. The International Commission on Stratigraphy recently announced its official 2018 version of the earth’s stratigraphic intervals (Holocene, Pleistocene, and all that malarkey). They released a handy PDF chart to make everything clear. (Link courtesy of John Hawks.)

  7. We all know modern astronomy is proper science, while modern astrology is proper nonsense. But, as historian of science Thony Christie explains, throughout much of their history, the two were practically joined at the hip.

  8. What ancient DNA says about us. How David Reich’s pioneering study of ancient DNA is set to revolutionise our ideas about human migration and identity.

  9. South America’s Otherworldly Seabird. To save the tiny South American storm petrel, scientists are venturing to its secret home in the Atacama Desert—and sticking their noses into a lot of stinky holes in the ground.


Some book recommendations for you:

Victorians Undone
by Kathryn Hughes
Tales of the flesh in the age of decorum. A warts-and-all approach to history, with a particular emphasis on the warts. You’ll never look on the young Queen Victoria in the same light again.
Unnatural Selection
by Katrina van Grouw
Art meets science in this stunningly illustrated coffee-table book about the selective breeding of animals.
Darwin’s Backyard
by James T Costa
An enjoyable exploration of Charles Darwin the experimeter. Find out how and why Darwin carried out his long-term experimental research programme into such diverse topics as: barnacles, the dispersal mechanisms of plants, and the intelligence and actions of earthworms.

Shameless plugs

I recently sent out the first edition of my Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. The format bears an uncanny resemblance to this Rich Text newsletter, but the content is decidedly Darwin-focused. You might like to subscribe.

I also recently wrote about the rough patch in our garden, and the delights of going camera-less.

I hope you’re managing to cope in this ridiculous heat. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make another batch of limoncello ice-cream. Here’s the recipe. You can thank me later.

Limoncello ice-cream

Limoncello ice-cream recipe Fri, 27 Jul 2018 10:13:06 +0100 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) An easy-peasy recipe that doesn’t require an ice-cream machine. Notes: Serves 8-10. Does not require an ice-cream-making machine. Will keep in the freezer for a month. If you can’t obtain any limoncello, you can, apparently, use three tablespoons of ice-cold water instead—but it’s hardly going to be limoncello ice-cream, then, is it?


  • 3 fat, juicy lemons
  • 200g icing sugar, sifted
  • 450ml double cream
  • 3 tablespoons limoncello, ice cold from the freezer


  1. Finely grate the zest of the 3 lemons into a bowl, then add their juice.
  2. Stir in the sugar and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Whip the cream with the limoncello to make soft peaks, then beat in the lemon-juice mixture.
  4. Turn into a plastic tub, cover and freeze overnight.

Limoncello ice-cream

Book review: ‘Unnatural Selection’ by Katrina van Grouw Wed, 25 Jul 2018 09:41:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Art meets science in this stunningly illustrated book. Unnatural SelectionA strong contender for my favourite museum is the Natural History branch of the National Museum of Ireland, known locally as The Dead Zoo. It contains none of the child-friendly, interactive gimmickry that seems to blight most museums these days; it’s simply score after score of traditional wood-and-glass cases packed with dead animals, with no hint of a card inviting you to ‘interpret’ the ‘experience’.

In one respect, Katrina van Grouw’s wonderful coffee-table book Unnatural Selection reminded me very much of the Irish Natural History Museum: it has a distinctly old-fashioned feel to it, containing as it does a huge number of fabulous, meticulously detailed, hand-drawn illustrations of selectively bred animals and their skeletons. They’re the sort of illustrations you might expect to find reproduced as etchings in weighty Victorian tomes on animal husbandry. But, thanks to modern image-reproduction technology, the illustrations in this book are far more subtle than any etching. And they really are very wonderful indeed: exquisite drawings of dogs and pigs, pigeons and poultry, sheep, cattle and even budgerigars.

There, the similarity with the Irish Natural History Museum ends. Although the images are undoubtedly the star of the show, they’re accompanied by well-researched text concerning the selective breeding of animals by man.

Unnatural Selection has been published to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s long, lesser-known work The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Darwin saw natural selection of organisms in the wild as closely analogous to the selective breeding of domesticated species by humans (the unnatural selection of this book’s title). We might not always think of them in that way, but van Grouw rightly treats domesticated animals as every bit as ‘animal’ as the wild animals from which they’re descended. Whether or not they’re allowed to survive and reproduce by their human breeders is simply another case of selection in action. Perceived usefulness and/or appeal to humans becomes just one more selective pressure on domesticated species: one that can slew their evolution in ways natural selection in the wild might never allow.

I was particularly taken by van Grouw’s excellent example of the British bulldog to illustrate how selective pressures can change for domesticated animals, thereby causing them to evolve new forms. Before the introduction of animal cruelty laws in the UK, bulldogs, as their name implies, were selected for their ability to fight bulls. This selection was carried out primarily (and unwittingly) by the bulls themselves: those dogs that were unsuccessful at fighting bulls, unsurprisingly, tended not to leave many offspring! Once bull-baiting was banned, bulldogs continued to be bred for show purposes. Whether or not individual dogs were allowed to reproduce was now determined by how closely they matched the breeders’ ideal of what a bulldog should look like. The selective pressure had changed from fighting ability to meeting breeders’ aesthetic standards. The resulting change in the shape of bulldogs’ skulls was rapid and remarkable, as illustrated by van Grouw’s startling before and after illustrations. A modern-day pedigree bulldog would stand little chance in a face-off against an angry bovine.

Echoing Darwin, van Grouw divides her book into sections entitled ‘Origin’, ‘Inheritance’, ‘Variation’, and ‘Selection’. She covers a host of subjects, including species classification, plasticity of forms, selection and variation, the genetics of inheritance, mutations, and the various types of selection. Her text explores how the different factors that drive evolution affect domestic and wild species alike. Darwin would have loved this book.

My only (very minor) misgiving about the book was its sheer physical size. Even if I hadn’t been recovering from a hernia operation when he read it, I would have found a smaller book more manageable. But a smaller book would not do service to the marvellous illustrations. Between the competing selective pressures for a more manageable size and doing justice to the illustrations, the illustrations won out—as well they should.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

The Rough Patch Thu, 19 Jul 2018 15:12:22 +0100 Richard Carter ( On the advantages of being a crap gardener.
On the advantages of being a crap gardener.

Article source:

Without doubt, my favourite part of our garden is the Rough Patch.

Rough patch
The Rough Patch from Richard’s Seat.

The Rough Patch led a brief life as a vegetable patch shortly after we moved in, but events soon overtook us. By events, I mean nettles. Fortunately, stinging nettles are one of my favourite flowers, so I didn’t go out of my way to do anything about them. They seemed to like it there, so live and let live. (Live and let live being so much easier than weeding.)

Once the nettles had established themselves, our former vegetable patch became fair game as a dumping ground for any garden waste too bulky to compost: lopped branches, excavated roots and soil, last year’s Christmas tree. Until we bought a garden incinerator, the Rough Patch, as is soon became known, was also the site of occasional bonfires. Despite all this chopping and changing, burning and dumping—or, more likely, because of it—the Rough Patch continues to thrive.

Not only is the Rough Patch my favourite part of our garden, it’s also a firm favourite with the local invertebrates—and, therefore, the garden wrens. My natural gift for horticultural lethargy has resulted in a thriving ecosystem. I should probably get some sort of environmental award.

A few years back, I took one of the heavy millstone grit blocks removed from our house during some building work and set it on end against our workshop wall, overlooking the Rough Patch. It became known as Richard’s Seat. Known to me, that is. I like nothing better that to sit there quietly for ten minutes with a mug of tea, taking in the view, pondering over which garden project I’m not going to do next.

Going camera-less Sun, 15 Jul 2018 15:18:59 +0100 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) Taking walks without lugging around a massive camera bag: it’ll never catch on! A fortnight ago, after putting it off for a decade, I finally underwent surgery to sort out a hernia. I’m pleased to report everything seems to have gone remarkably smoothly, and I’ve experienced very little pain. Thank you, NHS!

I’m under instructions to take plenty of gentle exercise, and not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. So, I’ve been walking around the local lanes most days. Usually, when I take a walk, I lug around my bulky camera bag. But that’s not an option at the moment. I’ve been forced to go camera-less. (Well, camera-less apart from my mobile phone.)

I have to say, the experience has been a revelation. I’ve always found the constant burden of a camera bag something of a nuisance, but I love taking photographs, so along comes the gear. Being forced to leave my camera at home, and to walk a bit more slowly than normal, has been an incredibly enjoyable experience. When I see something that piques my interest, I simply stop and have a good look, without the option/compulsion to record the experience for posterity. It’s weird: this must be how non-photographers experience stuff all the time. I’m kind of envious.

After my enforced photographic break, I’ll be tempted to go camera-less more often. But I suspect I’ll resist the temptation. You never know what you might bump into on a walk. Not having a proper camera to hand seems an unnecessary risk to me. I mean, what if I were to come across something unusual like—oh, I don’t know—a fantastic wasps’ nest, and I only had my crappy phone-camera with me?

Well, this, actually:

Wasps' nest
A wasps' nest yesterday.

Dammit! It’s no good: I’m going to have to go back with my telephoto lens soon!

Stupid hernia operations!

Postscript: I did indeed go back:

Wasps' nest shot with SLR.

Book review: ‘The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being’ by Alice Roberts Mon, 09 Jul 2018 12:56:02 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Evolution and the making of us. The Incredible Unlikeliness of BeingA few years back, I went to see my doctor. I’d been experiencing a number of apparently unrelated minor ‘symptoms’. I wanted to make sure the symptoms really were minor and unrelated, and not due to some more serious, underlying, undiagnosed condition. One of my symptoms was a recurring, dull pain in my left shoulder. I could never work out precisely where the pain was coming from, but it was, I explained, “definitely somewhere in the shoulder region”.

My doctor smiled and said she knew exactly what my problem was, as she experienced it too! Like me, she suffered occasional bouts of acid reflux in her stomach. When acid reflux kicks in, excess gases expand the stomach wall, putting pressure on your diaphragm. One of the nerves associated with the diaphragm runs a convoluted route via the left shoulder blade and hooks up with the rest of the nervous system in the neck. So, when my acid reflux kicked in, I experienced pain signals that seemed to be coming from my shoulder, but which were actually coming from my diaphragm.

Thanks to Alice Roberts’s excellent book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, I now know the culprit to be one of my two phrenic nerves. It turns out the phrenic nerves’ convoluted paths through my body are a consequence of both our species’ evolutionary history, and the complex way in which the unfolding blob that was to become me developed in the womb.

Alice Roberts is my favourite TV science presenter. She has a rare talent for simplifying scientific ideas without dumbing them down. I don’t know whether she ever has to stand her ground against producers exhibiting the modern preference for simplistic explanations, but I like to think she occasionally has to insist on being allowed to use (and explain) the correct scientific terminology. In other words, to treat her audience like grown-ups.

I’m glad to report Roberts writes in very much the same style as she presents. There is plenty of scientific terminology in this book, and some of the concepts explained are complex, but the writing simplifies without surrendering to the simplistic. It’s the sort of writing that makes you feel cleverer simply for having read it. Being treated like a grown-up can have that effect on people.

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being takes us on a head-to-toe (then back up to the arms) tour of the human body. It shows how the vestiges of our evolutionary history are written into our bones and organs. Our bodies are compromises, constrained by physics, and by our heritage: Inelegant Design, as I like to think of it, in stark contrast to the Intelligent Design our bodies would presumably exhibit, had they really been put together from scratch by an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent creator. It’s a subject that interests me very much, sneaking its way several times into my own book, On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk.

But The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being is not just about pointing out our design flaws. It celebrates the marvellous, frankly bonkers way in which our bodies are constructed in the womb. It explains what we can tell about our evolutionary predecessors by looking both at their remains, and at our own bodies. It discusses conflicting hypotheses about various bodily structures, and how we now know some of these to be wrong. And it does all this with charm, intelligence, appropriate humour, and excellent line-illustrations courtesy of the author.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Darwin’s Backyard’ by James T Costa Thu, 28 Jun 2018 13:21:27 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) How small experiments led to a big theory. Darwin’s BackyardFor many years, one of the many items on my list of books and articles I might one day write has been ‘Book about Charles Darwin’s experiments’. Now I know exactly how Darwin must have felt when he received Alfred Russel Wallace's bombshell letter: SCOOPED, DAMMIT!

The good news is I was right in thinking there was a fascinating book to be written about Darwin’s extensive, often eccentric, experiments. The even better news is that James T Costa has written that very book (and, I must begrudgingly concede, the result is far better than anything I might have come up with).

Darwin’s Backyard is highly readable, meticulously researched exploration of Charles Darwin the experimeter. With typical self-deprecating humour, Darwin famously remarked ‘I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.’ This book describes Darwin’s long-term experimental research programme into such diverse topics as: barnacles, pigeons, honeycombs, the dispersal mechanisms of plants, the intelligence and actions of earthworms, insectivorous plants, pollination, flower morphology, and plant movement. This is a man who fed cheese to plants, who left dead birds floating in water for weeks on end, and who serenaded earthworms with bassoon and piano.

Costa is particularly good at explaining why Darwin’s often goofy-sounding experiments were anything but foolish. They all explored and supported his great theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Costa is also very good at explaining what Darwin got right, where he occasionally went wrong, and what we now know about the subjects under investigation. Each chapter ends with some suggestions for experiments you might like to try yourself.

My only trifling quibble with this book was its title and subtitle. In the UK, a ‘back yard’ is a small enclosed area at the back of a house, usually paved in cobblestones, concrete, or bricks. To refer to Darwin’s magnificent gardens at Down House in this way (and to keep referring to the autumn as ‘the fall’) was jarring for this British reader. The pedant in me would also take issue with the subtitle, ‘how small experiments led to a big theory’. While in some cases this might be true, I would suggest the reverse was true in many cases: it was Darwin's great theory that inspired his experiments—and many thousands of experiments since.

But trifling/pedantic quibbles aside, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Dispelling the Darkness’ by John van Wyhe Mon, 18 Jun 2018 12:19:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin. Dispelling the DarknessAs an unashamed, self-confessed Darwin groupie, I should perhaps come clean at the start by saying that, although I also have a major soft-spot for Alfred Russel Wallace, the recent tendency to describe him as ‘forgotten’ or ‘overlooked’ or ‘the discoverer of evolution you’ve never heard of’ irks me immensely. Alfred Russel Wallace has always been, and remains, an important figure in the history of the biological (and geographical) sciences. The fact that he is not as famous as Charles Darwin is hardly surprising: few other scientists are. While Alfred Russel Wallace did indeed independently come up with an idea uncannily similar to Darwin’s Natural Selection, he is not as famous as Darwin, quite simply, because he did not write On the Origin of Species. Wallace was a fascinating character who made genuinely important contributions to science. We should celebrate him in his own right; not constantly refer to him as somehow being overshadowed by Darwin.

John van Wyhe takes the main title for his book from a quote by Thomas Henry Huxley, who referred to Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace having ‘dispelled the darkness’ at ‘the heart of the species problem’. But van Wyhe dispels plenty of darkness himself in this enjoyable, meticulously researched work. In particular, he debunks numerous misunderstandings, myths, and conspiracy theories surrounding Alfred Russel Wallace and his ‘co-discovery’ of the natural selection with Charles Darwin.

The book concentrates primarily on Wallace’s time collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago. Interspersed amongst accounts of Wallace’s travels, van Wyhe explores how Wallace developed important theories concerning the succession of species, the distribution of species, and, most famously, what we now think of as natural selection. In the process, van Wyhe debunks such ideas as:

  • Wallace being ‘overlooked’ because he was working class. (He was middle class.)
  • Wallace’s original concept of how natural selection works being identical to Darwin’s. (They were certainly similar, but there were important differences.)
  • Wallace’s theory of evolution being identical to Darwin’s. (Darwin, with a twenty-year head-start on Wallace, unsurprisingly, took numerous factors into account that Wallace never considered, including, as Wallace himself noted after first reading Origin: “the laws of variation, correlation of growth, sexual selection, the origin of instincts & of neuter insects, & the true explanation of Embryological affinities”.)
  • Wallace having written his famous paper about natural selection on the island of Gilolo, not Ternate, as he himself recorded. (A seemingly trivial detail important to some conspiracy theories.)
  • Wallace having written this paper with the original intent of sending it to Darwin;
  • Wallace, like Darwin, having originally been inspired in his evolutionary theorising by the writings of Thomas Malthus;
  • Wallace having been inspired in his evolutionary thinking by the racial affinities of the natives of the Malay Archipelago;
  • Darwin and his friends having conspired to deprive Wallace of due credit for the theory of natural selection;
  • Darwin having stolen the very idea of Natural Selection from Wallace;
  • Wallace having been disappointed at not receiving enough credit;
  • Darwin having deliberately delayed publishing his evolutionary theory out of fear of the scandal it would cause.

On the whole, I think van Wyhe makes an excellent job of debunking these ideas while in no way diminishing Wallace’s contributions to science. As I’m a self-confessed Darwin groupie, you (and no doubt the conspiracy theorists) might expect me to say that. But van Wyhe is careful to show his historian’s reasoning. He demonstrates time and again how Wallace was pretty hopeless at accurately recording dates (so his dates should not always be taken at face value). He demonstrates how timelines concocted by conspiracy theorists are either wrong, or make uncompelling conclusions if you dig deeper (e.g. into the timetables of shipping companies). He demonstrates how conspiracy theorists use inconsistent standards of evidence depending on whether it supports or weakens their arguments. And he demonstrates that there is nothing unusual (and, therefore, necessarily sinister) in there being missing documentation. It is not just fossil records that contain gaps!

I enjoyed this book even more than I expected. It probably won’t convince any conspiracy theorists, but what evidence ever would? But van Wyhe cuts through the bullshit to restore Wallace to his rightful place in the scientific pantheon.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I have met John van Wyhe once. In 2009, he gave me and another Darwin groupie a private viewing of Charles Darwin’s old rooms at Christ’s College Cambridge. He also runs the excellent website Darwin Online, without which much of my own (amateur) historical research into matters Darwinian would be far more difficult.

Book review: ‘Victorians Undone’ by Kathryn Hughes Mon, 11 Jun 2018 16:37:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Tales of the flesh in the age of decorum. Victorians UndoneI was given this book as a birthday present by a friend. I presume it was the chapter entitled Charles Darwin’s Beard that made her think I might like it. What can I say: my friends know the kind of topics that interest me.

At first glance, judging the book by its over-salacious subtitle, I was worried it might be crammed with scores of gossipy, titillating titbits from the hypocritically strait-laced nineteenth century. But Victorians Undone is a more serious book than that, taking a warts-and-all approach to history, with a particular emphasis on the warts. In other words, it discusses the sort of stuff you don’t find in most history books. It turns out our Victorian forebears weren’t the stern-faced, black-and-white characters staring back at us from daguerreotypes; they were flesh and blood, just like us.

The book comprises five essays, each of which might easily have formed the basis of a book in its own right. The titles of the essays are:

  • Lady Flora’s Belly
  • Charles Darwin’s Beard
  • George Eliot’s Hand
  • Fanny Cornforth’s Mouth
  • Sweet Fanny Adams

But to list these headings is to give nothing away. Kathryn Hughes uses the nominal subject of each essay as an excuse to go off on all sorts of interesting, occasionally obscure tangents. It’s a technique I enjoy very much indeed (and have been known to adopt myself).

I won’t spoil the book by going into specific details. But I’ll certainly never look on the young Queen Victoria in the same light again. And now I’ve finally learnt who Sweet Fanny Adams was, I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Definitely my kind of book. Recommended.

Newsletter No. 13: Bramblings! Fri, 18 May 2018 10:36:39 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) bramblings · wheatears · Mary Beard · Beaker folk · Meera Sodha · recipes · John Tyndall · Eunice Foote · religion · Ben Myers · Austin Kleon · Walter Benjamin · giant sloths · Shetland · Neil Ansell · Charles Darwin Rich Text

18TH MAY 2018


Blimey, when I said I’d see you in Spring, I had no idea Winter would drag on quite so long! Still, we’ve finally knocked another one off. Those of us living in the Northern hemisphere, at least.

Highlight of the over-extended winter was my first ever sighting of bramblings. I’d been keeping an eye out for them all winter, and finally spotted a pair in our cherry tree when I popped into the kitchen to put the kettle on one afternoon.

Male brambling
Male brambling.

Highlight of Spring, so far, has been the return of my beloved wheatears to the Moor. As ever, it was the flash of their eponymous ‘white arses’ that gave them away. (Photo below.)

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. The Guardian published an excellent profile of everyone’s favourite classicist and tweeter, Mary Beard. As my Latin teacher Spiny Norman would no doubt have observed, exegit monumentum aere perennius. (No, me neither.)

  2. Recent DNA analysis suggests the arrival of Beaker folk 4,500 years ago changed Britain for ever.

  3. We tried Meera Sodha’s recipe for aloo paratha with quick lemon pickle. It was mind- and mouth-blowingly fantastic. (Two recommendations: don’t de-seed the chillis, and place the frying pan on a high, not medium, heat.)

  4. In my book On the Moor, I describe how the Victorian physicist John Tyndall first investigated what we now call the Greenhouse Effect. Turns out, unbeknownst to Tyndall (and almost everyone else) an American scientist named Eunice Foote carried out similar, less detailed, experiments three years earlier.

  5. The wisdom of youth: recent research indicates being non-religious has become the norm among young Europeans.

  6. My mate Ben Myers’ excellent novel The Gallows Pole has been shortlisted for the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. To look really cool, you should try to read it before it wins. Ben also has a new non-fiction book out: Under the Rock. I’m very much looking forward to reading.

  7. Austin Kleon on doing something small every day to build a body of work.

  8. Alan Nance attempts to retrace the final journey of philosopher, critic, storyteller, and Jew, Walter Benjamin.

  9. Following in very different footsteps, thanks to a remarkable find, scientists have managed to retrace a giant sloth hunt.

  10. An interesting cultural history piece on how Shetland whalers headed south.

Shameless plugs

I’ve started a new page on my website quoting extracts from reviews of ‘On the Moor’. So you no longer have to take just my word for it.

The nature writer Neil Ansell provided some nice blurb for the cover of my book. Here’s my review of his latest book, The Last Wilderness.

I’m about to launch a second newsletter in my capacity as the Head (well, Only) Honcho at the Friends of Charles Darwin. It will be all about Darwin, evolution, and stuff like that. As all the best Darwin quotes have already been used as book titles, my working title for the new newsletter is, rather sensibly, The Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

Male ‘white-arse’
Male ‘white-arse’.

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

Book review: ‘In Patagonia’ by Bruce Chatwin Mon, 30 Apr 2018 13:54:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Wandering about Patagonia with no clear plan in mind. In Patagonia

I first read In Patagonia many years ago, and had been meaning to re-read it for some time. My memories of it still left a lasting, albeit vague, impression. But my ageing eyes were put off by the small typeface in my battered old copy of the book. Fortunately, the 40th anniversary edition proved far easier to read.

My vague memories of the book weren’t far wrong. After all these years, In Patagonia is still a strange, haunting book. Bruce Chatwin seems to wander about Patagonia with no clear plan in mind, delving into history, making random excursions, and describing encounters with colourful locals. It’s a format that works well.

Being more cynical than when I first read the book, I now suspect some of Chatwin’s stories were embellished for dramatic effect. But In Patagonia remains an unusual, fascinating read.

On thing I had forgotten was just how short most of the chapters are. There are 97 of them in total, with many being only two or three pages long. It’s a format I found remarkably engaging. With such short chapters, Chatwin doesn’t have time to hang about. He’s on to his next subject and up to speed in a couple of sentences. Which makes the book a real page-turner.

Still very good, after 40 years.

Book review: ‘Heligoliand’ by Jan Rüger Mon, 30 Apr 2018 13:51:10 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Britain, Germany, and the struggle for the North Sea. Heligoliand

I bought Jan Rüger’s Heligoland on a hunch, having read two highly complimentary reviews. The hunch was that I would enjoy the book very much indeed, not least because the subject matter seemed to echo a number of themes explored by one of my favourite writers, W.G. Sebald. My hunch was correct: Heligoland is a fantastic read.

The eponymous subject of this book is a pair of small islands in the German Bight of the North Sea. Annexed from Denmark by the British during the Napoleonic Wars to prevent it becoming a French naval stronghold, the archipelago became a base for British wartime smuggling and espionage operations. It became an official British colony with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Two years later, Heligoland rebranded as a seaside spa, which in later years (to the consternation of the British) became a major centre for gambling, and a refuge for German revolutionaries.

After the unification of Germany, Heligoland was much coveted by Bismarck, who saw it as a launchpad to German imperial ambitions. The colony was eventually horse-traded with Germany for unopposed British access to Zanzibar. The main island was heavily fortified by its new owners in advance of the First World War, during which, thanks to the new fortifications, it saw very little action. The fortifications were dismantled in line with a provision of the Versailles Treaty after the war. The resentment this caused in Germany became a major source of Nazi propaganda between the wars.

When the Nazis rose to power, they heavily refortified the main island. But the advent of aerial warfare had made Heligoland less strategically important. It was largely ignored by the allies during the Second World War until, in the final days of the war, it was blanket-bombed to such an extent that the Germans were forced to desert the island. To add insult to injury, in the years immediately after the war, the British used Heligoland as a bombing range. But the ultimate insult came in 1947, when they did their level best to level the island by setting off stockpiles of wartime munitions in a single ‘Big Bang’. The explosion changed the geology of the island forever. After a coordinated series of protests, Heligoland was finally returned to German control in 1947, where it remains to this day.

Rüger’s fascinating history of the archipelago is really a history of Anglo-German relations over the last two-hundred years. It shows how continent-wide political manoeuvrings had profound effects on the two tiny islands. It’s a wonderful example of describing major themes by concentrating on small, specific examples.

The Sebaldian themes that emerge throughout the book include the Napoleonic Wars, the North Sea (née German Ocean), the leisure activities of the idle rich, aerial warfare, war crimes, and walk-on parts by assorted artists and despots. Even Werner Heisenberg makes an unexpected appearance. It was during a prolonged visit to Heligoland in 1925 that he first formulated quantum theory: a circumstance that seems metaphorically apt, bearing in mind Heligoland’s uncertain position during much of its political history.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘The Ascent of John Tyndall’ by Roland Jackson Tue, 20 Mar 2018 14:38:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A long-overdue biography of the Victorian scientist, mountaineer, and public intellectual. The Ascent of John TyndallThe Victorian physicist John Tyndall is one of those figures who tend to appear on the periphery of other people’s biographies. He socialised and worked with many famous individuals, and was himself famous and influential in his day. But his fame rapidly diminished after his tragic death.

Roland Jackson suggests, at the conclusion of this excellent biography, that Tyndall’s relative obscurity these days can be attributed to three factors: (1) his wife’s failure to produce a planned biography meant no biography appeared until 1945 (over 50 years after Tyndall’s death); (2) Tyndall was a great experimentalist, rather than theoretician, and it is the theoreticians who tend to be remembered in physics; (3) Tyndall was one of the last of the great classical physicists, missing out on the revolutionary discoveries that took place in his chosen field within a few years of his death. By the time the first biography appeared, Tyndall’s physics was, in some respects, out of fashion.

Tyndall’s reputation is due a renaissance. As the person who explained the physics behind what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect, he deserves to be better known at a time when human-induced climate change is finally being recognised as one of the most pressing concerns of our age (at least by those who don’t have a vested interest in denying it).

In addition to the Greenhouse Effect, Tyndall is perhaps best known for explaining why the sky is blue. Indeed, he receives honourable mention regarding both these subjects in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk. But, I must confess, my knowledge of Tyndall’s science pretty much ended with these two subjects until I read this extensive biography. True, I did know he was a member of the X-Club: a dining society of scientific friends, who campaigned on behalf of naturalistic science (and, therefore, against the encroachment of theology into scientific matters). I also knew that he was a friend of Charles Darwin, climbed the Matterhorn, and was accidentally killed by his wife (see my book for more details). But I had no idea Tyndall had explained how atmospheric conditions can affect the transmission of sound (another topic touched on in my book). Nor did I know he was a forceful proponent of atomic theory, ether theory, and the germ theory of disease. Nor that his investigations into germ theory and other topics led to his invention of a new sterilisation process, the firefighting respirator, and to an improved design for foghorns. While these topics might sound eclectic, Jackson shows how they all stemmed from related studies into sound and light transmissions through gases.

For a change, my hero Charles Darwin is very much a peripheral figure himself in this biography. Other scientists, rightly, feature more prominently. The cast of characters is daunting: I would have appreciated a brief dramatis personae at the front of the book to remind me occasionally who some of them were. Notable figures include Robert Bunsen, Heinrich Gustav Magnus, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Babbage, Rudolf Clausius, James Joule, John Herschel, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Lubbock, George Busk, Herbert Spencer, Richard Owen, James Dewar, and Louis Pasteur. But Tyndall’s extensive social and professional circle didn’t stop at scientists. As well as a generous smattering of the nobility, his friends also included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Last but by no means least, I have to declare a special interest in Tyndall’s closest friend, the mathematician Thomas Archer Hirst, who, Jackson recently suggested to me following an exchange on Twitter, might possibly have been the previous owner of my personal copy of Tyndall’s last book, New Fragments.

From relatively humble beginnings, Tyndall first worked as a surveyor in his native Ireland before moving to England, where he worked for the railway surveyor (and my magnificent namesake) Richard Carter. It was while he was based in Halifax that he became friends with Hirst. Both later went on to study in Marburg, in what is now Germany. An invitation for Tyndall to give a talk at the Royal Institution, which was deemed a great success, led to further invitations and a job offer from Faraday. Tyndall was to spend the rest of his career at the Royal Institution, where he eventually succeeded Faraday. Like his predecessor, he was greatly admired for the quality of his public lectures, which often involved live demonstrations.

It was ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, who first seems to have interested Tyndall in the study of glaciers. Tyndall’s subsequent trip to the Alps led to a life-long love of mountaineering. It was a golden age for the sport, which Tyndall still occasionally treated as a scientific pursuit. Some of his mountaineering exploits sound reckless to modern ears. I was amused at his thinking a bottle of champagne was suitable refreshment when attempting a new alpine peak. That said, Tyndall was the first person to climb the Weisshorn, and, after a number of earlier attempts on the summit, the first to traverse the Matterhorn (which had been conquered only three years earlier, not so much with a bang as by a Whymper).

The Tyndall that emerges from this biography is a fascinating and likeable character. He doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour, but he comes across as a loyal friend, outspoken champion of science, forceful critic, and a man with a strong appreciation for the charms of the female sex (albeit, not for their intellectual abilities). Jackson seems to find his subject likeable too, although he is not above criticising Tyndall for his sexism, and occasional disingenuities and inconsistencies.

Jackson is one of the editors on the ongoing John Tyndall Correspondence Project. As well as in his copious correspondence, Tyndall’s life is well documented through journals, scientific papers, newspapers, periodicals, and books. The amount of documentation available means Jackson has been able to stick to the facts, without the need for too much conjecture (the bane of many biographies). He has also adopted a mainly chronological approach when telling the story of Tyndall’s life. This always strikes me as the best approach in biographies, although it does make the accounts of Tyndall’s yearly lecturing and mountaineering cycles occasionally repetitive.

The Ascent of John Tyndall is a long-overdue, magnificent tribute to an important, but largely under-appreciated scientist.

Highly recommended.


  • I received a free, advanced review copy of this book from the publisher;
  • as explained in the above review, I have previously had brief contact with Roland Jackson via Twitter and email concerning my copy of Tyndall’s last book.
Newsletter No. 12: Unspeakable things beneath the shrubs Fri, 16 Feb 2018 13:13:12 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Mark E Smith · Alan Bennett · Carl Linnaeus · Ronald Blythe · human evolution · flu epidemics · Great Exhibition of the North · Charles Darwin · insects · introverts · Virginia Woolf · John Tyndall Rich Text



Good grief, is it still February? As I say in On the Moor:

Christmas long-gone, and still winter drags on! By February, it’s getting beyond a joke. As my friend Mary used to say, there’s a reason why they only gave it twenty-eight days.

Still, we’re getting there. The snowdrops are out. The ash trees are beginning to bud. Dunnocks are starting to do unspeakable things beneath the shrubs. Spring is most definitely on its way.

Mill in snow
The view over my garden wall on Monday.

Me and my big mouth!

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. One of my greatest music heroes, Mark E Smith of The Fall, has died. In an entirely selfless, humanistic attempt to educate the masses, I’ve been tweeting a weekly #FallFriday video link for the last few years. Everyone is unique, but M.E.S. was truly a one-off. Some tribute pieces:
  2. Extracts from Alan Bennett’s 2017 Diary appeared on The London Review of Books website.
    You can also listen to him reading the extracts.
  3. How the index card cataloged the world
    It turns out Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy (Homo sapiens, and all that), also had a hand in inventing that most useful of categorisation tools: the humble index card.
  4. Akenfield revisited: what a rural classic reveals about our changing countryside
    Researchers have begun working on Akenfield Now, a project that will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ronald Blythe’s classic book Akenfield. As with the book, the project will draw on oral histories recited by people who have grown up or lived in the area for much of their lives.
  5. The origin of ‘us’: what we know so far about where we humans come from
    A handy potted account of what we currently know about human evolutionary history.
  6. …but, as always, our knowledge keeps growing. STOP PRESS: Oldest known human fossil outside Africa discovered in Israel
    A fossil, dated to nearly 200,000 years ago, is almost twice as old as any previous Homo sapiens remains discovered outside Africa.
    See also: Humans left Africa 40,000 years earlier than we thought
  7. The Untreatable
    An informative, scary piece about flu epidemics.
  8. Great Exhibition of the North: an event to transform and delight
    Newcastle and Gateshead will host the biggest event in England next year with an exhibition designed to challenge preconceptions of the North. #TheNWRA
  9. The book that coloured Charles Darwin’s world
    Like other naturalists of his time, Charles Darwin’s documentary tool was the written word. During the Beagle voyage, he drew many of his words from a slim volume entitled Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.
  10. Insects took off when they evolved wings
    The evolution of wings not only allowed ancient insects to become the first creatures on Earth to take to the skies, but also propelled their rise to become one of nature’s great success stories, according to a new study.
  11. Making it as an introvert
    A typically thoughtful video by photographer Sean Tucker on the challenges of being an introverted freelancer.
  12. Harvard University Library has digitised Virginia Wolf’s photograph album and made it available online.

Shameless plugs

To mark Charles Darwin’s 209th birthday, I wrote a piece about how the ghost of his friend John Tyndall (probably) helped solve the mystery of a morbid inscription I found in a book of Tyndall’s essays.

A couple of reviews of my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk

Legendary science blogger, PZ ‘Pharyngula’ Myers describes it as:

…wonderful. Science and history and geography and evolution and culture all tangled up in musings while walking about the moors around Hebden Bridge.

while equally legendary science writer Brian Clegg writes:

There’s much to enjoy in Richard Carter’s pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England’s Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it’s inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants […] or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

What do you mean you haven’t got round to buying a copy of On the Moor yet? What happened to the New Year’s resolution? That yacht isn’t going to buy itself, you know!

See you in the Spring!

Love & hugs,

High tides and volant voles Thu, 04 Jan 2018 15:03:08 +0000 Richard Carter ( An unplanned visit to the flooded Dee Marshes is rewarded with a wildlife spectacle.
An unplanned visit to the flooded Dee Marshes is rewarded with a wildlife spectacle.

Article source:

Catching up on Twitter in a Wirral Starbucks the morning after Storm Eleanor, I read the following:

@RSPB_BurtonMere Burton Marsh completely flooded! Lunchtime’s high tide could be spectacular! Get down to Parkgate!

An immediate change of plan. Twenty minutes later, I pull into the marsh-side car park at Parkgate. There are dozens of birders already there, all of them far better equipped (and insulated) than me. So I head over to a quiet corner and take shelter behind a convenient wall.

The Dee Marshes only flood a few times a year. The signs of the previous high tide are unmistakeable: flattened marsh grass; plastic jetsam; rank, salty mud. A second flood seems unlikely: an hour before high tide, there’s only the customary distant glint of water way across the marshes near the Welsh bank.

I’m soon joined by a couple of birders. We trade bird tales as the waters slowly encroach into the marsh. It’s bitterly cold. I’m ill-prepared for such conditions, but it’s worth it. There are far more birds flying about than usual: gulls, geese, ducks, waders, starlings, herons, egrets. I’m told I just missed a male hen harrier. I’m immediately compensated with a brief sighting of a short-eared owl scudding low across the rising water channels.

The birds become more agitated as the tide reaches the scrape. A water rail comes tearing across the marsh like a roadrunner and vanishes beneath the wall at our feet. He’s followed by dozens of terrified voles, many of which are swept up by gulls and gobbled down whole, mid-air. Others are dropped during gullish squabbles. One jettisoned vole flies so close that all three of us duck. It splats into the soft marsh and promptly disappears: a lucky escape. I take another look for the hiding water rail. He spots me, and makes a bolt for it across a shallow pool, disappearing round the corner of the wall.

I’m shivering uncontrollably now. My heated car-seat beckons, but I manage to hold out for another half-hour or so, until I can no longer feel my fingers.

What a spectacular start to the new year!

Lapwings over the Dee Marshes.
The rising tide reaches the scrape
The rising tide reaches the scrape.
Water rail
Water rail.
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole.
2017: a year in photos Mon, 01 Jan 2018 14:34:17 +0000 Richard Carter ( My seventh annual video slideshow review of the year.
My seventh annual video slideshow review of the year.

Article source:

For the last few years, at this time of year, I've produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here's the 2017 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year's slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Placid Reflux, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Newsletter No. 11: Penguin eggs and yetis Sat, 02 Dec 2017 11:13:57 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Sir Thomas Browne · Saturn · penguin eggs · heroes of science · evolution of languages · nature books · dna barcoding · periodic table · Alice Roberts · geology Rich Text



Only eight days since my last newsletter: people will talk!

As my last one didn’t contain the customary links to articles you might find interesting, I thought I’d better make amends as soon as possible. But first…

Shameless plug

On the Moor
Buy from Amazon uk | .com

In the unlikely event it has escaped your notice, MY BOOK IS FINALLY OUT!!

An ideal Christmas present for all the science, history, and nature fans in your life. Just think how prescient you’ll look when this thing wins the Pulitzer. Why not treat yourself to a copy, while you’re at it?

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

As I read and write about stuff that interests me, it should come as no surprise that some of the following links relate to topics also covered in On the Moor:

  1. Browne
    Thomas Browne

    Robert McCrum’s 2017 Guardian series, The 100 best nonfiction books, nears its end with Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). Although the 17th-century language is hard-going at times, Sir Thomas Browne’s book would certainly make my list. The final, summary chapter in particular is a masterpiece. I first encountered Browne via two of my all-time favourite writers, Stephen Jay Gould and W.G. Sebald. You can imagine my delight when I discovered there’s a Bronze Age urn-burial site within spitting distance of my home, on the edge of the local moor. You can, of course, read all about it (and Sir Thomas Browne) in my book.
    See also my article The Thomas Browne Affair.

  2. Talking of Sebald, Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft captured a final stunning photograph of the Rings of Saturn two days before plunging into the planet’s atmosphere.
  3. My friend GrrlScientist is gradually republishing many of her old stories from various media sites on her Medium page. Her recent repost, The mystery of Captain Scott’s penguin eggs, concerns Bill Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Bowers’ 1911 scientific expedition to collect penguin eggs in Antarctica. Ornithologist Bill Wilson also stars in the chapter about red grouse in On the Moor. I was really taken with Wilson: a real mini-hero of science.
    If this sort of story interests you, you might like to subscribe to GrrlScientist’s newsletter.
  4. Another of my friends, the science historian Thony Christie, generally pooh-pooh’s the idea of lone ‘heroes of science’. Science is a collaborative process, so it‘s unfair (and misleading) to give individuals too much credit. My flippant, but genuine, response is that anyone who contributes to our scientific knowledge is a hero in my book (even those who ultimately get it wrong). Thony’s recent post, History of the little things, makes me suspect we’re in far closer agreement than either of us lets on.
  5. As I explain in On the Moor, my own personal hero, Charles Darwin, provided some useful insights into the evolution of languages. But, as a recent article on the Randomness of Language Evolution explains, just as with species, the English language is shaped by more than ‘natural selection’.
  6. The Guardian recently nominated some of the best nature books of 2017. I couldn’t help noticing one glaring omission.
  7. Identifying species via ‘DNA barcodes’ is another topic mentioned in On the Moor. Now scientists are using it to debunk fragments of ‘yetis’, and, more importantly, to shed light on the evolution of bears.
  8. In a similar vein, new genetics research has settled questions about American prehistory—in particular, about the peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador.
  9. Nasa recently posted a charming version of the Periodic Table showing where your elements came from. (Spoiler alert: No, we weren’t fashioned from clay and spare ribs; as Carl Sagan famously put it, we are made of star-stuff. Isn’t that so much more awesome?)
  10. Even though I thought the suggestion sounded pretty obvious, I was interested by a recent piece on how writing has tended to make language syntax more complex.
  11. A feature interview with one of my favourite science communicators, Prof. Alice Roberts. I’m very much looking forward to reading her latest book, Tamed: 10 Species That Changed Our World: she has a knack for simplifying without dumbing-down.
  12. The British Geological Survey has just published a new interactive Climate Through Time map. This would have been really useful when I was writing the prologue to On the Moor: half a billion years of Earth’s history crammed into a little over 600 words… And they say I can’t write succinctly! (On the strength of this newsletter, they’re probably right.)

Rest assured, the frequency of this newsletter will now return to an a reassuringly vague, as-advertised ‘occasional’.

Love and hugs,

Newsletter No. 10: Book launch Fri, 24 Nov 2017 09:57:30 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) 24-Nov-2017: 158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own book, ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’. Rich Text

24 NOVEMBER 2017


158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.

What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…


I’m delighted to announce that my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk is now available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook on,, and other international Amazon websites.

On the Moor covers (front and back)

On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:

  • Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
  • the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
  • Celtic languages;
  • Bronze Age burials;
  • evolution’s kludgy compromises;
  • bird migration;
  • DNA barcoding;
  • skull anatomy;
  • where Earth got its water;
  • the mapping of Great Britain;
  • grouse disease;
  • Scott of the Antarctic;
  • how to define a species;
  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
  • the Brontës;
  • the Laws of Thermodynamics;
  • why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
  • the Greenhouse Effect;
  • the songs of skylarks;
  • snipe courtship;
  • vapour trails;
  • rooks’ faces;
  • the best way to cook a wheatear.
  • …Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!

I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.

But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:

Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.

Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)

Apologies for the shamelessly pluggy nature of this edition of the Rich Text newsletter, but it isn’t every day to get to announce your first proper book.

Normal service will be resumed next time.

…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!

My book is finally out! Fri, 24 Nov 2017 09:56:59 +0000 Richard Carter ( I’m delighted to announce the launch of my book ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’.
I’m delighted to announce the launch of my book ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’.

Article source:

24 November 2017

158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.

What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…

I’m delighted to announce that my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk is now available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook on,, and other international Amazon websites.

On the Moor covers (front and back)

On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:

  • Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
  • the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
  • Celtic languages;
  • Bronze Age burials;
  • evolution’s kludgy compromises;
  • bird migration;
  • DNA barcoding;
  • skull anatomy;
  • where Earth got its water;
  • the mapping of Great Britain;
  • grouse disease;
  • Scott of the Antarctic;
  • how to define a species;
  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
  • the Brontës;
  • the Laws of Thermodynamics;
  • why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
  • the Greenhouse Effect;
  • the songs of skylarks;
  • snipe courtship;
  • vapour trails;
  • rooks’ faces;
  • the best way to cook a wheatear.
  • …Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!

I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.

But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:

Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.

Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)

…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!

The appearance of my child Wed, 15 Nov 2017 15:27:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) This afternoon, I received my proof copy of ‘On the Moor’.

‘I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child.’
Charles Darwin, writing from just below a Yorkshire moor to his publisher, John Murray, 3rd Nov 1859, on receiving his first copy of On the Origin of Species.

I finally know the feeling, Charles.

This afternoon, I received my proof copy of On the Moor:

‘On the Moor’ proof

Not quite as ground-breaking as On the Origin of Species, perhaps, but no reason to be any less pleased or proud.