Day of the Seafarer

Ship's Wheel

Today, 25th June, is the International Day of the Seafarer – a United Nations observance day.

Many will know the quote from Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows when Water Rat (“Ratty”, who is actually a Water Vole!) says to Mole:

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

What is less well known is the adventurer, Sea Rat’s, speech:

“And now,” he was softly saying, “I take to the road again, holding on southwestwards for many a long and dusty day; till at last I reach the little grey sea town I know so well, that clings along one steep side of the harbour. There through dark doorways you look down flights of stone steps, overhung by great pink tufts of valerian and ending in a patch of sparkling blue water. The little boats that lie tethered to the rings and stanchions of the old sea-wall are gaily painted as those I clambered in and out of in my own childhood; the salmon leap on the flood tide, schools of mackerel flash and play past quay-sides and foreshores, and by the windows the great vessels glide, night and day, up to their moorings or forth to the open sea. There, sooner or later, the ships of all seafaring nations arrive; and there, at its destined hour, the ship of my choice will let go its anchor. I shall take my time, I shall tarry and bide, till at last the right one lies waiting for me, warped out into midstream, loaded low, her bowsprit pointing down harbour. I shall slip on board, by boat or along hawser; and then one morning I shall wake to the song and tramp of the sailors, the clink of the capstan, and the rattle of the anchor-chain coming merrily in. We shall break out the jib and the foresail, the white houses on the harbour side will glide slowly past us as she gathers steering-way, and the voyage will have begun! As she forges towards the headland she will clothe herself with canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind, pointing South!

And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!!”

The expression, running away to sea, like running away to join the circus, speaks to us of a desire for adventure, for shores anew, and for a life lived to the full, despite, or even because of the elements of danger. Life, and work, at sea can still fulfil these desires, and dangers remain – the sea is an unpredictable force of nature, personified by the ancient Greeks and Romans as Poseidon and Neptune respectively. Seafaring for work is, by definition, a global enterprise, and around 90% of goods are transported by sea. The International Maritime Organisation is marking today’s Day of the Seafarer with its 2020 campaign, “Seafarers are Key Workers” to acknowledge the work that they do, and continue to despite the pandemic, and how they play an important, if often unseen, key part in all our lives.

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Learn more about the history of seafaring:

(by Learn for Pleasure on 25th June 2020)


‘Crazy Beast’ Fossil Found

crazy beast fossil

Islands are the epitome of isolated evolution and Madagascar holds the crown for producing phenomenal plants and animals from hissing cockroaches to panther chameleons. It is the 4th largest island on earth and is where this 66 million-year-old, opossum-sized mammal fossil was found.

On 29th of April 2020, the journal Nature announced that a research team which was led by Dr. David Krause has discovered this perfectly preserved, not to mention practically complete skeleton in Madagascar. This new Mesozoic mammal was named Adalatherium which means “crazy beast’’, the name being derived from Malagasy and Greek languages.

Dr. Krause who is the Senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science says that, compared to known mammals’ skeletal anatomies, it is astonishing how an ancient mammal like this managed to evolve. According to him, it is an inconceivable discovery which even breaks prevailing theories of palaeontology.

Gondwanatheria is an extinct group of Mammals which were previously recognised from cranial fragments, teeth and a few lower jaws. These mammals lived in the Southern Hemisphere in the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, hence the name. The first fossils were discovered in the 1980s in Argentina, and other fossils were found later in other countries including Africa, India, Madagascar and Antarctic Peninsula. These mammals were assumed to be similar to Armadillos, Anteaters and Sloths.

However, according to Dr. Krause, Gondwanatheria was a failed evolutionary experiment which came to an end during the Eocene. Adalatherium belongs to these mammals that went extinct approximately 45 million years ago. This mammal, which lived among dinosaurs and mammoth crocodiles, had bizarre nerves and blood vessel supply passageways. No living nor extinct mammal had this many of holes or (foramina) on its face – its most distinguished feature is the large hole which is located on top of its ultra-sensitive snout which was covered in whiskers. The teeth of Adalatherium also had peculiar traits compared to other mammals, one of the leg bones was curved in an abnormal way and its backbone had several more vertebrae than previous Mesozoic mammals that have been unearthed.

Its other pre-eminent quality is that Adalatherium was rather large as the other mammals who lived among the dinosaurs were usually the size of a mouse. The scientific team is still baffled by the bizarre features of Adalatherium. For one, according to Simone Hoffmann from the New York Institute of Technology who is the primary collaborator of Dr. Krause, Adalatherium’s anatomy tells two different stories from its front and back, making it quite tricky to figure out its movements other than presuming it was capable of running and digging.

Adalatherium’s extraordinary traits were developed as a result of the isolation of Madagascar from the mainland being alienated in the Indian Ocean. As the plate tectonic history of Gondwana evidence suggests, this isolation helped these mammals to evolve for over 20 million years.

Over the past 25 years Dr. Krause and his team have managed to uncover other vertebrates including a predatory frog (Beelzebufo), a buck-toothed dinosaur (Masiakasaurus) and a pug-nosed, vegetarian crocodile (Simosuchus) on Madagascar.

Even though Adalatherium is just a small piece of a puzzle in the long history of early mammalian evolution, it unfolds many new opportunities to further understand the lives of Gondwanatherians.

Learn more about fossils.

(by Learn for Pleasure on 4th May 2020)


Our Top Six Lockdown Podcasts for Your Brain



Whether as a distraction from lockdown anxiety, or the need to fill our days with stimulating activities, we’re all more reliant on external forms of entertainment right now. TV shows may be running out of episodes, condemning us to more repeats than usual, and the physical library is out of bounds, but podcasts are still going strong. Most podcasts have always been fairly “homebrew” affairs facilitated by a healthy “do it yourself” ethos, with hosts recording from their own homes and studios. Thankfully for us, this has made it a virtually indestructible form of entertainment at times like these. Right now, they are the balm we all need to distract us from the lack of routine and the mundanity of our lives. So dig out your laptop, phone, or command your smart device to play one of Learn for Pleasure’s top 6 podcasts.

1. The Folklore Podcast

The Folklore Podcast is created and presented by author and folklore researcher Mark Norman. It is a longstanding podcast now it its fifth season, with, at time of writing, 73 episodes available for your listening pleasure. It’s an exploration of folklore from around the world, and features many eminent folklore authors, researchers and professors. The many episodes include “Black Dogs and the Wild Hunt”, “Gef! The Extra Special Talking Mongoose”, “Witch Bottles” and “Celtic and Western European Fairies”, so take a trip into the fascinating realms of folklore with The Folklore Podast.

Visit: The Folklore Podcast

2. The Sound Of The Hound

Chronicling the journey of the people and the technology that brought recorded music to the masses, and focusing specifically on Fred Gaisberg, who the hosts describe as a ‘nineteenth century amalgam of Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell and Indiana Jones’. Writer James Hall and music industry executive Dave Holley begin the podcast journey with the opening of the first recording studio.

Visit: The Sound of the Hound

3. Field Recordings

Understatedly, and amusingly, describing itself as a podcast where ‘audio-makers stand silently in fields (or things that could be broadly interpreted as fields)’ an array of human (and animal life) is here. The sound of a thunderstorm over Brittany, a saxophonist playing amidst lockdown in Rome, or the chatter of a starling murmuration that builds to a crescendo in County Meath, Ireland – this is the podcast to lift you from your lounge and place you somewhere, almost anywhere, different.

Visit: Field Recordings

4. Philosophy For Our Times

Bringing together high profile figures and leading figures to discuss the news, politics, and culture. With a new episode every week, this will stimulate the brain matter while pondering over whether the mind is part of the world, or the world is part of the mind, the myth of the self, and philosophy versus quantum theory.

Visit: Philosophy for our Times

5. Grounded With Louis Theroux

This one is a bit of a gamble, as it’s new and devised specifically during lockdown. That said, it’s Louis Theroux, and his documentaries have always been insightful, provocative, and entertaining. In his podcast he’s interviewing (in his pyjamas) all of the high profile people he’s wanted to talk to from both sides of the Atlantic . . . and occasionally interrupted by his kids. This is lockdown, after all!

6. North West Footwear Database

Last, but certainly not least, is this atmospheric podcast series, with its 1970s inspired synth soundtrack, and more than a hint of hauntology about it. It is written an performed by Tim Foley, and is described as “stories from a strange institution hidden in the Peak District”. We’ll say no more and let you discover the intrigues of the North West Footwear database for yourself!

Visit: the North West Footwear Database

(by Learn for Pleasure on 28th April 2020)


Here be Dragons

Western dragon with four legs and wings breathing fire

Dragons come in many shapes and sizes. Depictions of them range from the Western ones which are typically four legged with wings, through the two legged wyverns to the legless Asian varieties.

Western Dragons

In the West dragons in culture are normally creatures that cause death and destruction and are to be feared, and the term “Here be Dragons” was sometimes added to early maps to indicate that this were places where dangers were thought to lurk. This interpretation isn’t always the always the case though – we’re thinking of the Ice Dragon from Noggin the Nog, visit the Dragon’s Friendly Society if you’d like to visit, or revisit, this classic animation. They are also represented as defenders of important places and treasure. Joseph Campbell is famous for his concept of the monomyth, that influenced the story of Star Wars. He said, of the protagonist in a “Hero’s Journey”, that

“[f]or those who have not refused the call [to adventure], the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass”.

He also said, later in the journey, in the

“Belly of the Whale”, that “[t]hat is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons …”.

Others say that Western dragons are just going about their own business and generally get a bad press.

Asian Dragons

Asian dragons are however typically associated with the rain, and with good fortune. A Chinese legend says that a horse-dragon, the lung ma, was the inspiration for not only the invention of Chinese writing, but also the I Ching. It says that Fu Hsi was crossed a ring when he saw the horse-dragon with a selection of dots on its face, back and side. He was so inspired by this that when he got home he drew a picture of the horse-dragon complete with the dots, and it was this picture that was used as the basis for both Chinese writing and the I Ching.

Dragons or Dinosaurs

While the origin in the belief in dragons is not known, it has been argued that some of the inspirations for them came from ancient people finding the bones of large dinosaurs. It isn’t hard to imagine ancient people coming across large bones that belonged to no creature that they were familiar with and believing them to belong to large fierce creatures, and being correct!

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Learn more about: Archaeology

(by Learn for Pleasure on 23rd April 2020)


Earth Day 2020 – Earth Day is 50

(by Learn for Pleasure on 22th April 2020)

planet earth from space, the blue marble

Earth Day – this image of our planet Earth from space is the original Blue Marble photograph. This iconic photograph was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on 7th December 1972. To them it had the size and appearance of a glass marble, which prompted the name. Apollo 17 was the last lunar mission with a crew so there have been no human take images of the whole earth since that time. NASA have released a number of blue marble images since then, but they have been taken from un-crewed vehicles, such as satellites. The Blue Marble 2012 image is a composite image taken in this way. The Blue Marble is used as the basis of the unofficial image of Earth Day flag.

Earth Day is 50 Years Old

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and took place primarily in the United States by 20 million people which was 10% of the population. It is now celebrated in 192 countries by more than a billion people. It is co-ordinated by the Earth Day Network whose stated mission is “To build the world’s largest environmental movement to drive transformative change for people and planet” and to “diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide”.

The Earth Day 2020 theme is “Climate Action”.

“Every year the Earth Day Network, as organizers of the original Earth Day, selects an environmental priority to engage the global public.

The enormous challenges – but also the vast opportunities – of acting on climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary year. At the end of 2020, nations will be expected to increase their national commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, so the time is now for citizens to call for greater global ambition to tackle our climate crisis.

Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable. Unless every country in the world steps up – and steps up with urgency and ambition – we are consigning current and future generations to a dangerous future.

Earth Day 2020 will be far more than a day. It must be a historic moment when citizens of the world rise up in a united call for the creativity, innovation, ambition, and bravery that we need to meet our climate crisis and seize the enormous opportunities of a zero-carbon future” – Earth Day Network.

We can all play our part in tackling climate change. As the “think globally, act locally” philosophy informs us – every small positive change that we make makes a difference for the environment as a whole. We are all interconnected and we all can make a difference.

Take a look at our environmental studies courses to see where your next green step might take you: