14 March 2018

A nod to the art folks

Only yesterday I remarked upon the beautiful artwork for the Focus feature I wrote. (In fact, the scientist I profiled is so enamoured with it that she wants a print for her office.) Now my article on structural colour has come out in Education in Chemistry and the art team have used this stunning beetles image, which is currently full size on the front of their website.

It's illustrating the fact that many beetles get their colours from the structures in the layers of their exoskeletons, as opposed to (or as well as) colour pigments. Although as the squid scientist I interviewed pointed out, the picture is certainly pretty, but the colour structures in beetles aren't nearly as sophisticated as in squid - beetles only make static colour this way, while squids make dynamic colour, producing any colour in the visible spectrum by altering the structures in their skin. (Within microseconds!)

13 March 2018


Last month's BBC Focus magazine was the "optimism" issue. Instead of worrying about a future full of pollution, superbugs and extinctions, my editors at the magazine decided to highlight research that offers potential solutions for some of the big challenges facing the planet. I was asked to profile Cassandra Quave, an ethnobotanist, who studies medicinal uses of plants with a focus on treating antibiotic-resistant infections. She was billed (not by me) as a scientist "whose research might just save the world". Quite something to live up to, huh? I do like the design on this piece and it was the cover article, so here's the cover too.

4 September 2017

Big Questions update

Big Questions in Science came out four years ago next week. Those four years have been pretty busy ones for me so I have to be honest and admit I haven't taken too much notice of what's been going on with it. However, I'm now reliably informed by one of my co-authors that not only have we broken the advance on this book (which means royalties), we've published a Chinese version. It hit Amazon in June apparently.

Yeah. I dunno. I'm not loving the design but I guess a giant Q on the cover doesn't make much sense in Chinese.

As an aside, I'm no longer publishing as "Hayley Birch". You'll find all my newest publications under "Hayley Bennett" and I've amended my Google profile (top right) accordingly.

11 December 2015

New book... terrifying

I have a book out. Apparently. I've just been alerted to this fact by Chemistry World writing a review of it. I did actually know I'd written it, of course, just not that it had published. So that's nice/terrifying... Everything that I publish terrifies me, if I'm honest. Generally, I run and hide - in a social media sense - whenever it happens. Perhaps I'm not the best at doing my own PR.

So, ahem, if you're vaguely interested in sciencey sorts of things and you think maybe you'd like to know some more about chemistry, maybe you should try buying my book and, you know, reading it, or something. Was that a strong sales pitch?

16 July 2015

Found fiction

Discovered this whilst procrastinating/in the midst of a meltdown. I have a vague memory of writing it (probably some years ago) when I was supposed to be doing something far more important...

A dinosaur pooed in my shoe.

I know it was a dinosaur because I heard it while I was inside looking for the other shoe. It made a noise just like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

It was definitely a velociraptor.

I couldn't wear the shoe. It had poo in it. My mum said you should never touch cat poo in case it gets in your eyes and makes you go blind. I think velociraptor poo is probably a bit like cat poo.

There weren't any pictures of velociraptor poo on the internet. There was one of some brontosaurus poo. I thought maybe I could take some pictures of my shoe, and the poo, and put them on the internet. Just in case dinosaurs were pooing in other people's shoes. Maybe they would want to know whether a brontosaurus or a velociraptor had done it.

252 people liked the picture of the poo in my shoe. Some of them didn't believe a velociraptor had done it. But I told them: “I heard it. It sounded just like the one on Jurassic Park.”

One person asked how I knew it wasn't a unicorn. I don't know about unicorn poos. But it didn't sound like a unicorn.


20 May 2015

Birds in the basket

Sorry if you've already seen these photos (and read the story) multiple times via my Twitter and Facebook profiles, but I just have to share...

Yesterday afternoon:

So I was just putting my bike away and turned around to see the same old blackbird perched on the top of the door to the bike shed. "Silly bird," I thought. "Is it still trying to make a nest in here?" I carried on putting my bike away, but when I turned around again I saw the bird's tail poking out of the top of someone's bicycle basket. I got my phone out and crept over to see if I could get a funny picture of it sitting in the basket... Imagine my surprise when I peeked over the rim and saw these!

There followed some discussion among Facebook friends as to whether I should do anything about the situation. After consulting the RSPCA website, we decided that as the birds were healthy and being fed by their mother there was not too much cause for concern. However, I said I would attach a note to the bike - to warn the owner, in case they should suddenly turn up (after several weeks absence, clearly) with the intention of flinging a bag into the basket.

This morning:

Well, I tried.

Unfortunately, Mother Blackbird didn't very much like our plan and quickly despatched the note as if it were an unexploded bomb, onto the grass outside. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to photograph this, but I was just standing there open-mouthed as she pulled off the (three pieces of) sticky tape with her beak and then carried the whole thing away.

Half an hour later, I recounted the story to my own mother over the phone. She is a bit of a twitcher and advised that the nestlings would be out of the nest within a couple of weeks so it was probably best to leave them to it. I'm also sure that putting a note anywhere else - like on the front of the bike shed - would draw too much attention and risk stressing out Mrs Blackbird even more. (She already has a loud, creaky gate and constant to-ings and fro-ings to contend with.) They seem okay where they are, so I will keep an eye out and report back once the chicks have (hopefully) flown the basket!

10 March 2015

The perfect proposal

I am in the midst of writing a book proposal. When I say "in the midst", I mean I have been thinking about it for over nine months and not actually written a word of it yet, so whether you consider this the start, the middle or the end of the process is really a matter of opinion. Anyway, I have come to a point where I feel it would be useful to put my feelings about this process into words. So this is mostly a pep talk / message to my future self, in case I ever find myself in this position again. But just in case it is of benefit to others, I am sharing it.

Following a heart-to-heart with a good friend, the question I have been asking myself just in the last couple of hours is: Why do I really want to write this book? This, I realise now, is the most important question of all.

Do I want to write this book in the hope that it will become a best seller and make me enough money to buy a small island, which I can flounce off to each winter in order to write more best-selling books that will rake in the cash? Or do I want to write this book because it means I can spend several months of my life learning about something that fascinates me and wake up every morning knowing that I have the time and space to write, which is a thing that I genuinely enjoy doing?

If the answer is the small island, then all I am thinking about is how to write the perfect proposal for the best-selling book. All that's in my head is how I'm going to convince the publisher that my book is going to be the Best. Book. Ever. When they read my proposal they need to be thinking, "Man, if we don't accept this proposal then we are ID-I-OTS. Send a courier with a cheque* for six figures immediately."

The book that buys the island is the book that the publisher has been waiting for all their life.

But if the answer is more about fascination, and time and space to write, then I need to view the proposal in a completely different way. I'm thinking about how to attract a publisher who wants to publish my book. This might sound like the same thing, but it's really not. If my aim is to write a book that I'll enjoy writing, I have to write the proposal for that book, not the book that I think the publisher wants. Otherwise, I could end up spending months of my life working on something I'm not particularly excited about and, okay, I might have a small island at the end of it, but will I be HAPPY when I'm flouncing off the following winter to write my next stupendously popular book in the knowledge that part of my soul will have to die in the process?

[Long pause for thought.]

If I go with the second type of book, the gamble is that there might not be a publisher who is as fascinated with the subject matter as I am. Is that likely though? Am I a complete loon who is only interested in stuff that doesn't interest anyone else?

What I think I have concluded is that unless I actually want little pieces of my soul to start disappearing, I have to write the proposal for the second type of book. That way, if it is accepted, I'll have (more of) a guarantee of spending time on something I'll enjoy. Besides which, the mysteries of publishing are such that it can be impossible to predict what it is that the publisher actually wants. If I write the proposal for the book that buys the island, whether the publisher actually likes it or not may have just as much to do with who they had lunch with last Friday as with how I describe the potential market.

The only sensible option is to write a proposal that passionately communicates what fascinates me about the subject matter, and to write it in a style that I will enjoy writing in for tens of thousands of words.

Obviously, I'm making this a bit too black and white. I can't totally ignore what a publisher might want to see in a book proposal. If I am really fascinated with the population dynamics of a very rare species of cockroach and have convinced myself that there are more than a couple of other people in the world that want to read 600 pages on the subject, then I have probably strayed too far from the book that the publisher has been waiting for all their life. But ultimately, there's very little point submitting a proposal about ladybirds when what I am really interested in is cockroaches.

There. I think I have justified to myself the type of proposal that I REALLY WILL start writing tomorrow. My soul will remain largely intact. Purveyors of small islands need not contact me just yet. But who's to say that the book I want to write isn't the book that buys the island? Or at least a patch of garden to put a two-metre square writing hut on...

*I don't know why they wouldn't just log in to internet banking and send the six figures electronically. But publishers can be strange creatures.

27 January 2015

Horrible Histories

So I'm a bit behind the times, but I've only just discovered the genius that is Horrible Histories. It actually contains quite a lot of science (see below). Word is that it's not completely accurate, but, hell, it's certainly funnier than most comedy programmes on the telly at the moment...

23 January 2015

Sports and periods

So, a quick word on all the sports and periods stuff that has been bandied about in the last week.

To recap: British tennis player Heather Watson loses a first round match at the Australian Open, makes a casual remark about "girl things" affecting her performance and now she's broken "the last taboo" in tennis.

The BBC followed up with a lengthy discussion of whether periods really affect sporting performance and Runner's World encouraged Paula Radcliffe to speak out on the subject. Middle distance runner Jess Judd has been drawn into the debate too, after it emerged she was prescribed drugs to delay her period - with apparently unhelpful side effects - during the 2013 World Championships. The Telegraph chipped in with an awkward piece that started "Poor Heather Watson" and ended in what some might describe (I wouldn't) as a "joke" about PMT.

Honestly, I don't whether to laugh or cry. It's as if no one ever considered that having blood streaming out of you, being kept awake at night by stomach cramps and all the other general inconveniences that come with being on your period, might not be the best thing for someone trying to push their body to the limits of human performance.

So good on Watson for just coming out with it. But she clearly didn't expect her remarks to cause such a stir, and they shouldn't have. Being a modern kind of woman, she probably didn't consider that mentioning a thing that affects 50% of the people on the planet would be such a big deal.

OBVIOUSLY, the reason most female athletes don't talk about their periods publicly is because they don't want anyone to think they're trying to make excuses. But that doesn't mean female athletes aren't talking about them at all. The idea that Watson's remarks were "the first time in history" that someone has referenced periods as a reason for a poor performance is plain ridiculous. Er. Perhaps, women just aren't talking about them to the national sports media, because they're afraid someone somewhere will say, "Yes, but can she really put that crappy match/race down to her period? Maybe she just didn't train hard enough." (Unfortunately, I suspect that is what some people will now be saying.)

So while I think we should talk more openly about periods, I wonder how Jess Judd, for example, will feel about some disappointing performances being so publicly put down to periods. Perhaps periods were a big factor but I'm sure both Judd and Watson will have other thoughts about why things didn't go to plan and they'll have discussed them in private with their coaches.

Plenty of women in sport ARE talking about periods - to each other and to the teams around them. I know a running coach who expressed some concern about my periods and potential symptoms of anaemia. I've talked about periods numerous times with team mates at my running club. I'm sure I'm not the only one here.

Honestly, I don't think anyone really knows whether having a period makes you suck at sport. I haven't done a thorough search of the literature, but from what I can tell the studies are quite limited in scope - this one, from 2006, covers basketball, volleyball and martial arts but it's quite common in sports science for studies to be small and for methods to vary from one study to the next, making it difficult to come to solid conclusions.

Doubtless, there's a psychological aspect to it as well. There have been plenty of times I've got myself into some sort of shape for an important (by my standards) race and then realised it was on a collision course with the first day of my cycle. It puts you off but if, say, you've trained for a marathon for six months, well, you just have to get on with it. Which I think is what Watson was saying - "Hey, what can you do?", rather than "Oh, poor me".

Yes, it would be good if we knew more about the effects on sporting performance and how to safely avoid those effects. But I don't think we need special allowances for period days or anything. We've be dealing with them for, like, millions of years, after all, and we're mostly competing against other people with the same problem.

It would just be nice, though, if these sorts of statements didn't come as such a shock. By the media's reaction, you'd have thought we were still in an age when ladies were only let on to tennis courts in full length frocks and it would be unthinkable for a woman to try to run a marathon. So can we all just talk about this stuff enough so that periods are no longer a taboo.... but not so much that amazing athletes like Heather Watson and Jess Judd have to be pitied or excused for having a period? No, not "Poor Heather Watson"! Amazing Heather Watson! Who had a bad day and is probably over it now because she's a strong, intelligent woman who works really freaking hard.

  • Blood Speaks discusses the stigma attached to menstruation in other parts of the world.
  • Salty Running is home to numerous articles about running, periods and fertility written by women who run.

16 October 2014


The weather has changed, the days are getting shorter and I won't be able to get to my allotment after work any more. Not without a head torch, anyway. So I thought I'd share a photo of some of the fruits - or vegetables - of this summer's labour. I'm suddenly a big fan of chard. It was easy to grow, mainly because the plant was given to me by a neighbour, but it didn't seem to require much attention once in the ground. The horseradish was found wild among the parsnips - we had grown our own but the wild plant fared better. We managed to have an entire meal out of this lot, though we did have to add some beef brisket to make proper use of that horseradish...

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