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So here’s a turn out for the books. I’ve been asked by the BBC to work on a new three-part television series based on the life of Charles Darwin chronicling the turbulent 150 years following the publication of the Origin of Species. I’m not allowed to give away too much about the series except to say it will have a very high profile presenter who has already publicly sung the praises of Darwin’s contribution to science and who I think is the perfect choice for popularising the subject of evolution among British audiences.

It’s due to come out early next year to coincide with Darwin’s Bicentenary, but expect other announcements here before then.

Faith schools in Britain have always claimed it’s their adherence to religious principles that leads to above average student grades. But a study by Rebecca Allen, an academic at the Institute of Education, and reported in The Guardian today, offers a far more likely reason. Faith schools have been creaming off the richest pupils for years leaving the poorest and most underprivileged children to attend the local comprehensive.

Even when they are situated in deprived inner-city areas, religious schools have fewer poor children than local authority secondary schools.

New figures show that religious schools, in England, admit 10 per cent fewer poor pupils than is representative of the local area. Local authority schools, meanwhile, take in 30 per cent more and have a disproportionately deprived intake. The result is a school system deeply divided by social class.

The researchers discovered tactics included headmasters breaking the ban not to personally invite wealthy parents in for interviews and write their children references. The Church of England acting like a misbehaving pupil caught red handed is now trying to deflect the blame by accusing schools from other faiths.

‘We reject all suggestions that there is a conscious or unconscious policy of creaming off middle-class children,’ said a spokesman for the Church of England. Andy Hibberd, co-founder of The Parent Organisation, said he had never come across a C of E school that rejected children because of their background, but added: ‘I’d be surprised if you could find one Roman Catholic school that could categorically prove it did not [covertly] select parents based on their socio-economic background.’

The report comes the day before hundreds of thousands of secondary school pupils across Britain will discover if they got into the school of their choice. Over-subscription for faith schools in the past has meant parents will often force their children to attend church hoping it will improve their chances of getting in. In future they know all they have to do is have little Johnny choffour driven in a Bentley to the entrance interview.

Beyond the Big Bang

Tonight I attended a talk by science journalist and author Simon Singh at Darwin College in Cambridge University on the development of the Big Bang theory. I’ve seen Simon talk before and he’s a very entertaining speaker using, among other things, electrocuted gherkins and backtracked Led Zeplin to illustrate the science behind the Big Bang.

Meeting with Simon Singh at Cambridge University

As a biologist and journalist I often find myself debating with theists on the origin of life but rarely the origin of the universe. So I was interested to learn that the idea for the Big Bang was originally suggested by George Lemaitre a brilliant physicist and Roman Catholic priest. It’s not easy to say if Lemaitre supported the idea of an expanding universe because it fit into the biblical idea of a created universe, but it nevertheless gained support from scientists and the Catholic church alike. I guess that’s why physicists don’t have to put up with the same religious backlash biologists have to despite that, even by Singh’s own admission to me after the talk, the Big Bang has far less evidence to support it than evolution.

But that might be about to change. A new idea is gaining ground that the universe never began but repeatedly expands and contracts. Already the Catholic church has come out in opposition to it. Although, quite rightly, it has its critics among scientists too. It’s originator, Neil Turok of Cambridge University, has a bet with Stephen Hawking to see which idea, a Cyclic or Big Bang universe, will eventually prove correct.

Depending on who collects physicists and biologists may soon be in the same boat.

It’s the holy grail for taxonomists. Imagine an encyclopaedia containing the details of every known living thing on Earth. If each species had its own page the book would weigh almost half a tonne and sit on a shelf over 80 metres long.

Now a project has been launched by a group of scientists and technology companies that will bring together knowlege gathered on every species over the last 250 years and bring it to a truly global audience. This week the first 30,000 pages of a massive online Encyclopedia of Life has been unveiled and over the next ten years will grow to include 1.8 million pages.

Each species page is a mixture of text, images, video, scientific data, and other information drawn from different sources, and all vetted by experts. The developers say that soon the public and citizen scientists will be able to submit pictures, video and information, the best of which will appear on the site. So just like the species themeselves the encyclopedia will continually evolve as new discoveries are made and information is added.

In addition to the first 30,000 completed pages EOL currently has placeholder pages for 1 million species, and about two dozen highly developed multimedia pages as an example of what to expect in time as the EOL develops. It’s a great idea and will be a monumental feat if they can pull it off, even if the completed EOL will still only represent around 10 percent of all the species estimated to be out there.

Happy Darwin Day

199 Years ago today a man was born who would go on to publish a book that would change forever our understanding of life. What’s more Charles Robert Darwin’s description of evolution by natural selection finally offered a testable scientific explanation for the diversity of life other than a sky fairy puffed it into existence. International Darwin Day is a global celebration of the enormous benefits scientific knowledge has given humanity and recognises that despite our diversity we all have a common origin. Unfortunately some people couldn’t make the party as they are too busy screwing with kids minds by teaching the creation myth in science classes. So my small contribution to this auspicious day is a documentary called Creationists in the Classroom which I filmed last summer as part of my Masters in Science Broadcast Journalism.

For the film I travelled the length of Britain with a camera meeting both Christian and and Muslim creationists from three organisations called Truth in Science, Harun Yahya, and The Emmanuel Schools Foundation. As we approach Darwin’s bicentenary the fact that these people still take the Bible literally only proves that for some all the scientific evidence in the World will never be enough.

Welcome

Welcome to my Guerrilla Science blog. As you can see the site is still under construction but once up and running will feature reviews of science papers that rock my (and everyone elses) world. There will also be reports from the front-line in the ongoing war on reason led by religion and clueless politicians. Stay tuned.

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