Friday, February 05, 2016

caterpillars and cats

In the roundup of German pieces published in January/ February, we encounter Lewis Carroll's hookah-smoking caterpillar, sticky mussels, tortoiseshell cats and lignin:

Rohstoffquelle und Ballast
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 64, 17-18
open access

Ausgeforscht: Chemische Schwärmereien
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 64,207

Biomaterialien: Der Unterwasser-Klebstoff der Muscheln
Chemie in unserer Zeit 50, 14-15.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben - Das Genom: Ein Chromosom wird ausgeschaltet
Chemie in unserer Zeit 50, 72-73
Abstract and restricted access to full text
(new series of short articles on the network nodes of the genome, starting with Xist and X-inactivation)

Chemie in unserer Zeit (also known as ChiuZ) has just entered its 50th year, so there are also some celebrations and reflections going on in the issue - although strictly speaking the round birthday is at the end of the 50th year, but hey, let's celebrate anyway ...

Monday, January 25, 2016

world under water

I'm not known for talking about the weather, even less to write about it, but with all that climate change going on and our civilisation not being able to either avert it or to adapt to it, I do have to deal with weather news more often than I would like to. The last couple of months have seen some more of those exceptional, once in a century flood disasters that seem to be coming round every year these days, and nicely timed to fit in with the COP21 conference at Paris. So I rolled up all the flooding news and climate policy into one dripping wet feature, which is now out in Current Biology:

World under water
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 2, 25 January 2016, Pages R47–R50
Summary and limited access to full text / PDF download

The feature should become freely accessible one year after publication.

Meanwhile, here is a magic link that allows free access for the first few weeks.

floods

We have been spared significant flooding so far this winter, but this is a photo of the cycle path that normally enables us to go into town, under water in November 2012. (Own photo via flickr.)

Monday, January 11, 2016

the great megapoo escalator

What links whale poo, the genome of the woolly mammoth, geo-engineering, megafauna extinction, gene editing, Homo sapiens' role as a predator, phosphorus, and the Haber Bosch process (which turns nitrogen from the air into fertiliser)?

Apart from the fact that these are topics I have written about in the past, they have all come back in my latest feature, which combines previous interests in a way that is downright spooky. I've counted 7 cross references to previous Curr. Biol. pieces alone, and there are some connections to work published elsewhere as well. Most surprisingly of all, it all makes sense, at least to me.

So the grand unifying principle that links all these issues is, ahem, megafauna excrement (or megapoo, to use my shorthand for the article). It turns out that large animals are good at moving nutrients against the flow, from the bottom of the oceans to the top of the mountains, with the actions of whales, seabirds, migrating fish, and terrestrial megafauna combining to form one gigantic nutrient escalator. Whereas we humans tend to do the opposite, we flush our droppings down the toilet and use sophisticated engineering to ensure that they disappear from circulation as fast as possible. And our domesticated livestock isn't much use at nutrient dispersal either.

Not for the first time, I've just learned about an amazing way in which the biosphere functions to keep our planet habitable, only to find out in the process that with our combined use of plumbing and and decimation of megafauna, we've found yet another way to wreck biosphere functions. So this was simultaneously very inspiring and very depressing.

Read the story here:

Megafauna moves nutrients uphill
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 1, pR1–R5, 11 January 2016
Summary and restricted access to full text and PDF download
The article will become freely accessible one year after publication.
Magic link for free access (expires seven weeks after publication).

Poo makes the world go round - although large animals make a bigger contribution than the modest dung beetle. Image: Kay-africa/Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 25, 2015

open archives

As I may have mentioned, my features in Current Biology become freely accessible one year after publication. So, by now, all features published in 2014 or earlier are in the open archives. Here are some of the highlights of 2014:

November: How wild do you want to go? - rewilding efforts in the UK and elsewhere

July: Connecting with the natural world - use of modern technology in conservation and ecology

June: Phage therapies for plants and people

May: Chronic stress means we're always on the hunt - featuring "blue mind"

May: Learning to live with sharks

April: The complicated origins of our species

March: Latin America's resources: blessing or curse? - featuring Colombia's gold and Ecuador's oil.

March: The past and future habitability of planet Mars

PS: It just occurred to me that I could look at the viewing stats of the relevant blog entries - according to those the rewilding feature was the most popular one in 2014, followed by the one on stress and the blue mind. Glad my selection wasn't entirely decoupled from what readers want ...

Part of the information that went into those features ... (own photo)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

our place in the Universe

no matter if you believe in Santa Claus or not, the end of year with its long nights is as good a time as any to look up at the stars and reflect on our place in the Universe. In this seasonal spirit I have written up a feature on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), which has recently received a major cash boost, combined with recent findings from the study of extrasolar planets.

The feature is out now and appears to be on open access for now (until the next issue appears in 2 weeks):

Listen out for life

Current Biology

Volume 25, Issue 24, pR1151–R1153, 21 December 2015

Full text and access to PDF

should that not work, here is a magic link that allows free access for 50 days after publication. When that expires, you'll just have to email me for a PDF file. The feature will then return to open access one year after publication.

The feature also served as an excuse to reproduce the Hubble extreme deep field image - even though, of course, the galaxies shown in this picture are so far away in space and time that it is completely impossible to communicate with them, so the picture is just here to show what a mindboggling big place the Universe is:

This Extreme Deep Field image obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope shows galaxies from 13.2 billion years ago. It compiles observations from a minute patch of sky that would appear empty to normal telescopes, so every speck of light seen in this image is a distant galaxy. (Image: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

blue moon

The harvest of the German magazines in November and December includes cephalopods (on the cover of Nachrichten aus der Chemie, below), neon on the moon, and molecular electronics:

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Die wundersamen Fähigkeiten der Tintenfische
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 1186-1188.
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Neon auf dem Mond
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 1259.

Materialforschung: Biomolekül als Elektronikbaustein
Spektrum der Wissenschaft No. 11, 17-19

cover of Nachrichten aus der Chemie, Dec. 2015.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

world on fire

Only recently, I wrote a feature explaining how fire is part of the natural cycle of life for many biotopes around the world. This is definitely not the case for the Indonesian peat lands and forests that have been burning for several months, through to early November. These fires were a major environmental catastrophe caused by a combination of factors including an exceptionally strong El Niño, the use of fire to clear land for agriculture, and the draining of peat lands. With its complex connections to global climate and trade, this catastrophe may well be a taste of what the future holds, as I explain in my latest feature, out now:

A fire with global connections
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 23 December 07, 2015, Pages R1107-R1109

Summary and restricted access to the full text (will become open access one year after publication).

Magic link for full text access, only works for seven weeks after publication.

PS: Underlining my point re. global connections, publication of this feature was delayed by severe flooding in Chennai, India (where typesetting and production for Current Biology is done), which may also be due to the exceptionally strong El Niño happening right now.

Greenpeace observers found new oil-palm seedlings planted in freshly burnt lands, demonstrating the connection between the fires and the deforestation for palm oil plantations. (Photo: Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

more Huguenots

When I reported on the suspected Huguenot connection of my ancestor Jean Bonnedame (* 1666 Mörlheim, today part of the city of Landau) , I didn’t know the last name of his wife, Maria Sara, whom he married in 1724. We now know that she was called Maria Sara Bouquet, (*1699 Minfeld).

It turns out that her family appears to be of Huguenot origin as well. Specifically, her father Philipp Bouquet was probably born around 1655 in the pays de l'Alloeu, a small patch of land just west of Lille (today in north of France) which originally was one of the provinces of the Spanish Netherlands. He came to the town of Billigheim (in the Palatinate, just south of Landau), which had a significant population of Huguenot refugees, with his father Laurent Bouquet (Boquai) in 1664. We don’t know anything about his mother. In 1685 he married Christina (last name unknown) at Archenweyer near Billigheim. Their son Isaac Bouquet was born in Archenweyer in the same year.

Like many other Huguenots, the Bouquets followed the invitation from the Duke of Prussia and moved on to the East, to the Uckermark area around Prenzlau in 1686, and were still there in 1690. (A list of residents confirms there were no Bouquets left behind in Billigheim by 1692.) However, there are no family events recorded in the Uckermark and by 1699 they were back in the Palatinate, where Philipp was administrator (Hofbeständer) at Minfeld. Sara Bouquet was born there in December 1699. Philipp Bouquet died on the Baltic island of Rügen, which must have been in Swedish possession at that time. We have no idea how or why he got there, so any clues appreciated. Christina died at Mörlheim in 1733.

There are a few Bouquet (Bocquet, Boquai, etc.) families documented in the area that is now the region Nord/Pas de Calais, but most are catholics, so ours are the black sheep. If anybody knows anything about protestant Bouquet families in that space and time, all hints would be much appreciated.

A couple of generations down the line this means that the couple that emigrated to the Black Sea, Johannes Klundt and Eva Maria Hust, may both have had quite a lot of “migration background”. Johannes Klundt has three grandparents of suspected French or Swiss origin. The odd one out is Anna Apollonia Schmitt. And the name Hust may also be of French, ultimately of Hungarian origin.

Sailly sur la Lys - one of the four towns of the pays de l'Alloeu.

« Prevote » par Médard — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prevote.jpg#/media/File:Prevote.jpg

Monday, November 16, 2015

climate responses

The upcoming climate conference COP21 at Paris (which I hear will go ahead despite the recent attacks) will reveal whether or not our civilisation can deal with the challenge of man-made climate change. To mark the occasion, I've had a look at how nature suffers from, responds to or copes with climate change. The resulting feature is out now:

How nature copes with climate change

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 22, pR1057–R1059, 16 November 2015

Summary and restricted access to full text, PDF file.

The feature should become freely accessible one year after publication. In the meantime, here is a magic link that will allow access for the first 50 days.

Paris, place de la republique - own photo from February 2014.

Friday, November 13, 2015

microscopes for molecules

Researchers at the Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL) are using a whole range of fascinating methods to achieve visualisation of molecules at the time and space resolution that is relevant to molecular bonds and reactions, i.e. 0.1 nm (Angstrom) and femtosecond. In an attempt to understand how they do it, I wrote a feature about what they call "the chemiscope", which is now out in the November issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Here's looking at molecules
Chemistry & Industry November 2015, 22-25

abstract, preview of first page and restricted access to full text.

Image source: CaSTL. The image relates to the research paper:
Vibronic Motion with Joint Angstrom/Femtosecond Resolution Observed through Fano Progressions Recorded within One Molecule Joonhee Lee, Shawn M. Perdue, Alejandro Rodriguez Perez, and Vartkess Ara Apkarian*, ACS Nano VOL. 8 ’ NO. 1 ’ 54–63 ’ 2014

The same issue also contains a book review on page 49 - not exactly a recommendation, so I won't name the book here.

Monday, November 02, 2015

deep mysteries

A recent report from the European Marine Board looked into the question of whether and how the economic opportunities present in the as yet unexploited deep ocean could be used in a sustainable way. The short answer is, we don't know nearly enough about the deep sea to handle this challenge responsibly. A slightly longer answer is in my latest feature which is out today:

Deep sea in deep trouble?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 21, pR1019–R1021, 2 November 2015

Abstract and restricted access to the full text and PDF download.

Here's a magic link that provides free access for the first 50 days after publication.

A crab observed at 700 metres depth off the coast of Ireland. (Photo: MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

writing history

Asterix: Le papyrus de César

The 36th Asterix album – the second from the new team, Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad – addresses a question of utmost importance for the historical consistency of the whole oeuvre: Why on earth did Caesar not mention the indomitable Gauls and their numerous victories against his legions in his famous De Bello Gallico? Did he falsify the historical record by omission? Are all the zillions of schoolchildren who start their Latin reading with “Gallia est omnis divisa …” fed a pack of lies?

The issue is addressed with a very satisfying story, resulting in an album worthy to be read alongside the Golden Era ones written in the years before Goscinny died. On the basis of this story, there are deep discussions to be had about how history is written, the contribution of reportage, the value of oral tradition, and the philosophy of truth. Oh, and the vanity of writers and the publishing industry. And Assurancetourix the bard (Cacofonix / Troubadix) plays an early example of a Stroh cello, so what’s not to love?

Intriguingly, this arrived on my doorstep just after I started reading another recently published book featuring the origins of Caesar’s famous opus. In the third volume of his fictionalised biography of Cicero, Robert Harris imagines Cicero’s secretary Tiro visiting Caesar in Gaul and reading the beginning of his 12th chapter: “Flumen est Arar quod per fines Haeduorum et Sequanorum in Rhodanum influit, incredibili lenitate ita ut oculis in utram partem fluat iudicari non possit.” Seeing that Tiro is believed to have written a biography of Cicero which is lost, while Caesar’s book is so ubiquitous that it would survive the apocalypse, this encounter between two authors is also an interesting reflection on the vagaries of history writing.

looks like a fragment of the lost scroll survived in the font of the word "papyrus" - maybe the authors should reveal that in full ...

PS: here's an interview with the creators, from the Guardian.

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