Thursday, August 13, 2020

russian riddles

The Anna Karenina fix

Viv Groskop

Harry N. Abrams, 2018
Penguin 2019

It may be an age thing, but I am finding myself reading memoirs a lot, and maybe even writing some. Obviously I’m not all that interested in reading how people got rich and famous or how they changed their diet, but there is a sub-genre that I find really exciting, balancing cultural issues I’m interested in (literature, languages, music, art) with the life experience. So it's about how people interacted with cultural things and it helped them find out who they really are.

An important example and possibly the reason for my new interest is Elena Lappin’s memoir about her family and her five languages (What language do I dream in?). Eric Siblin mixed 1/3 memoir with 2/3 biographies of more famous people (Bach, Casals) to paint a picture of the cultural monument known as The cello suites. Then again, I'll also accept an old house as a cultural asset, see Hancox by Charlotte Moore.

I recently noticed that Viv Groskop has a new book out about French literature, and as I am a bit careful about what Anglophones write about all things French, I opted to check her earlier book about Russian literature first. It turned out to be a fine addition to my new favourite memoir sub-genre. While discussing 11 works by 10 major Russian writers (Tolstoy gets the first and the last word), she applies the philosophical insights to be gained from these books to her own coming of age and finding her identity. In a nutshell, based on her unusual name she thought she might be of Russian origin and therefore went on to study Russian and aspired to become Russian, but in the end her migration background turned out to be something else entirely.

This is arranged as a clever little puzzle, or maybe as a set of Russian dolls. Can’t be quite sure as I read the chapters in the wrong order, first those about the books I’ve read (long ago), and then the rest, not necessarily in the right order, as I was more curious about some of the works discussed than about others. But in the end it was all exciting enough to make me read all the chapters so all good and riddle solved. (Here is a photo of the Groskop family of 1915 including info about their origins, if you want to find out without reading the book.)

At some point, I think I’ll read the French book too. Another book-related memoir is Lucy Mangan’s book about children’s literature, Bookworm. And I need to read Hadley Freeman's House of Glass.

I like the cover, too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

science news 12.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


New species of dinosaur discovered on Isle of Wight
A new study by Palaeontologists at the University of Southampton suggests four bones recently found on the Isle of Wight belong to new species of theropod dinosaur, the group that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and modern-day birds.

Primate voice boxes are evolving at rapid pace

Gorilla skull and larynx
Credit: Copyright Dr Jacob Dunn, Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)


For bacteria, a small genome means some serious decluttering -- even in the ribosome
Researchers have studied the genomes of some 200 strains of bacteria to determine which proteins in the ribosome, part of the key cell machinery, can be safely lost and why. Research showed that frequently lost ribosomal proteins tend to be placed on the ribosome surface, where they usually have fewer contacts to other ribosome components. Yet since ribosomal proteins are in the cell's essential toolkit, they are generally among the last to leave a 'downsizing' bacterial genome.
Funny though that in mitochondria we see the opposite - new proteins being added to a ribosome that has become virtually useless, producing fewer proteins than it needs for its own assembly. See my recent feature here.


Malaria discovery could expedite antiviral treatment for COVID-19
New research into malaria suggests targeting enzymes from the human host, rather than from the pathogen itself, could offer effective treatment for a range of infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

COVID-19: Herd immunity in Sweden fails to materialize

food and drink

Gluten in wheat: What has changed during 120 years of breeding?
spoiler: authors find no evidence that breeding has caused rise in gluten sensitivity problems.


What violin synchronization can teach us about better networking in complex times


From the news media:

Underneath its skin, dwarf planet Ceres is an ocean world
, according to the Dawn results reported in the Guardian.

Monday, August 10, 2020

planting trees

Open Archive Day

Planting some trees is (almost) always a good idea, but if we want them to help us out with stopping the climate catastrophe, we should do a bit of thinking before reaching for the shovel.

In my feature last August I rounded up some good and bad examples of reforestation, to give an impression of the complexities involved. The feature is in the open archives now:

How to bring back our planet's forests

If humans weren’t interfering, around two thirds of the ice-free land surface would be covered by trees. Restoring a fraction of the missing natural forests would sequester enough carbon to keep climate change within the limit of the Paris accord. (Photo: jarmoluk/Pixabay.

Friday, August 07, 2020

science news 7.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Hubble uses Earth as proxy for identifying oxygen on potentially habitable exoplanets
Taking advantage of a total lunar eclipse, Hubble used the Moon as a mirror to study sunlight that had passed through Earth's atmosphere. As a result, Hubble detected Earth's own brand of sunscreen - ozone - in our atmosphere. The technique simulates how scientists will search for evidence of life on planets around other stars.

New insight into the evolution of complex life on Earth
This is about the proteasome being involved in the cell division of archaea (as well as in eukaryotes).


Fossil mystery solved: Super-long-necked reptiles lived in the ocean, not on land
By CT scanning crushed fossilized skulls and digitally reassembling them, and by examining the fossils' growth rings, scientists were able to describe a new species of prehistoric sea creature. Tanystropheus hydroides, named after mythology's hydra, was a twenty-foot-long animal with a ten-foot-long neck.

The digitially reconstructed skull of Tanystropheus, using CT scans of the crushed skull pieces.
Credit: Stephan Spiekman et al.


Researchers hope to save seabirds by calculating the value of their poop


Chemists build natural anti-cancer compound with lean new process


New science behind algae-based flip-flops
a bit of seasonal science ...


Completing the set: 'Coupon-collection behavior' reduces sex-ratio variation among families
A new analysis of sibling records from more than 300,000 individuals suggests that some parents continue to reproduce until they have children of both sexes.


From the news media:

Tanystropheus (see picture above) is also reported in the Guardian.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

science news 6.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


New study reveals lower energy limit for life on Earth
An international team of researchers led by Queen Mary University of London have discovered that microorganisms buried in sediment beneath the seafloor can survive on less energy than was previously known to support life. The study has implications for understanding the limit of life on Earth and the potential for life elsewhere.


The curious genome of the tuatara, an ancient reptile in peril

International scientists and Ngātiwai, a Māori tribe, teamed up to sequence the genome of a rare reptile, the tuatara, uncovering some unique aspects of the tuatara's evolution. The genome sequence will enable comparative studies to better understand the evolution of the tuatara and its distant relatives: other reptiles, birds, and mammals. Shedding light on the tuatara's biology will help protect this vulnerable species.
Credit: Bernard Spragg (Flickr, CC0)


Herbivores, not predators, most at risk of extinction
One million years ago, the extinction of large-bodied plant-eaters changed the trajectory of life on Earth. The disappearance of these large herbivores reshaped plant life, altered fire regimes across Earth's landscapes, and modified biogeochemical cycling in such a way that Earth's climate became slightly colder.

Bird nests attract flying insects and parasites due to higher levels of carbon dioxide

Algal symbiosis could shed light on dark ocean
New research has revealed a surprise twist in the symbiotic relationship between a type of salamander and the alga that lives inside its eggs. A new paper in Frontiers in Microbiology reports that the eggs compete with the algae to assimilate carbon from their surroundings - a finding that could inform similar processes in the dark ocean.

New Guinea has the world's richest island flora


Drivers from poor cities can be exposed to 80% more air pollution


An iconic Native American stone tool technology discovered in Arabia
A new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE examines fluted projectile points from southern Arabia, detailing production methods and technical aspects that indicate differences in function from the technology of the Americas, despite similarities in form. Findings from experimentation and comparative analysis suggest that highly-skilled, convergent technologies can have varying anthropological implications.

Men scoring higher on 'man box' scale are prone to violence, mental illness


From the news media:

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

science news 5.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Stars rich in phosphorus: Seeds of life in the universe

Surprisingly dense exoplanet challenges planet formation theories
New detailed observations with NSF's NOIRLab facilities reveal a young exoplanet, orbiting a young star in the Hyades cluster, that is unusually dense for its size and age. Weighing in at 25 Earth-masses, and slightly smaller than Neptune, this exoplanet's existence is at odds with the predictions of leading planet formation theories.

VLBA finds planet orbiting small, cool star
Precision measurements made with the VLBA have revealed that a small, cool star 35 light-years from Earth is orbited by a Saturn-sized planet once every 221 days.


Between shark and ray: The evolutionary advantage of the sea angels


Studies shed new light on how biodiversity influences plant decay

Small trees offer hope for rainforests
Small trees that grow up in drought conditions could form the basis of more drought-resistant rainforests, new research suggests.

Scientists discover new penguin colonies from space

Are vultures spreaders of microbes that put human health at risk?

A new analysis published in IBIS examines whether bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that are present in wild vultures cause disease in the birds, and whether vultures play a role in spreading or preventing infectious diseases to humans and other animal species.
Credit: Jorge de la Cruz


Nanostructures modeled on moth eyes effective for anti-icing
Researchers have been working for decades on improving the anti-icing performance of functional surfaces and work published in AIP Advances investigates a unique nanostructure, modeled on moth eyes, that has anti-icing properties. Moth eyes are of interest because they have a distinct ice-phobic and transparent surface. The researchers fabricated the moth eye nanostructure on a quartz substrate that was covered with a paraffin layer to isolate it from a cold and humid environment.


'Price of life' lowest in UK during COVID-19 pandemic, study finds
The price the UK government was prepared to pay to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic was far lower than in many other developed nations, a study has revealed.
Confirming my suspicion that we have deatheaters in charge.

Easy to overdose on paracetamol if you're selenium deficient, says research


Key brain region was 'recycled' as humans developed the ability to read

dystopian futures

Consumers don't fully trust smart home technologies
Not fully? People shouldn't even buy any of these things. Opening your home to surveillance and hackers is the opposite of smart.


From the news media:

A remarkably well preserved mammoth skeleton from a Siberian lake.

Oh and the penguin colonies spotted from space are also in the Guardian. Disappointingly, the sattelites only saw vast areas of ice discoloured by guano - not vast huddles of actual penguins.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

science news 4.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


ALMA captures stirred-up planet factory
Planet-forming environments can be much more complex and chaotic than previously expected. This is evidenced by a new image of the star RU Lup, made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Iron-rich meteorites show record of core crystallization in system's oldest planetesimals

Early Mars was covered in ice sheets, not flowing rivers


Malignant cancer diagnosed in a dinosaur for the first time

Study: Oriole hybridization is a dead end
A half-century of controversy over two popular bird species may have finally come to an end. In one corner: the Bullock's Oriole, found in the western half of North America. In the other corner: the Baltimore Oriole, breeding in the eastern half. Where their ranges meet in the Great Plains, the two mix freely and produce apparently healthy hybrid offspring. But according to scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, hybridization is a dead end and both parent species will remain separate.

Bullock/Baltimore Oriole hybrid.
Credit: Bryan Calk, Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Scientists discover secret behind Earth's biodiversity hotspots

Identifying the blind spots of soil biodiversity

Study calls for urgent plan to manage invasive weed which threatens livelihoods in Africa


Speech processing hierarchy in the dog brain

Humans and flies employ very similar mechanisms for brain development and function

Energy demands limit our brains' information processing capacity


The art of making tiny holes
It sounds like a magic trick: A highly charged ion penetrates several layers of a material. It creates a big hole in the top layer, but travels through the next layer without damaging it. This new technique can be used to modify surfaces with extremely hight precision.


Ancient shell llama offering found in lake Titicaca
< >

dystopian futures

Novel magnetic stirrer speaks to lab equipment
A small device, called "Smart Stirrer", performed a function of a conventional laboratory stir bar, has an integrated microprocessor and various sensors capable of wireless and autonomous report the conversion of properties of a solution. Results are sent to a computer over Bluetooth, and any changes notify the user wirelessly.


From the news media:

Monday, August 03, 2020

colourful characters

I spotted an interesting book review in Current Biology - Thinking like a parrot - and realised that this was a topic about which I haven't written a feature yet, so I closed that gap with a little help from Nicky Clayton (who starred in this feature) and her colleagues. Oh, and I should mention that I found a lot of inspiration on the ecology/conservation of parrots in the grrlscientist blog.

After the cats and mice, another fun topic, but world-saving services will resume soon.

Clever and colourful characters

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 15, 03 August 2020, Pages R841-R844

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Parrots as companion animals require substantial amounts of attention — as does the threat to surviving parrot populations in the wild. (Photo: Michael Clarke/Unsplash.)

Monday, July 27, 2020

sniff it out

Open Archive Day

I am currently reading a book about smell, which I'll need to review when I'm through, so it may be useful for me to reread my smelly feature from last year, which was all about odour space, and is now on open access, so sniff it out:

Odour space - the final frontier

Beetroot is becoming popular thanks to a trend towards more vegetarian and vegan options, but one of its odorants can spoil the pleasure for many. (Photo: © Marco Verch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

running slowly

A courante is a running dance, of course, supposed to be played fast. In my effort to learn the Courante from the first cello suite, however, I don't think I'm getting past walking speed. Works for me - more time to appreciate the music - but don't try dancing to it.

The other problem with the courante is that it has more notes than I can memorise in a month, so I got about half way with memorising it. So I can play the movement at half the required speed and can play half of it from memory. Count it as a half-way success. Incidentally, I note that the person who used the score before me also made fewer annotations to the courante than to the other movements I have played so far. May have been running out of steam too.

Well, anyway, moving on, or rather backwards within the first suite, we now come to the Allemande.

Resources for this movement:

A slow version from Cellopedia is a helpful starting point as the fingerings are clearly visible at all times. And he plays at a speed that even I can manage (judging by the length of the video, it appears to be 2/3 the normal speed).

For a performance at the proper speed, try this recording from Denise Djokic.

And then consider the helpful hints from Inbal Segev. She's done a short tutorial (or two in some cases) for every single movement.Underneath this one there is also a list of helpful links and resources regarding the suites in general which I hadn't seen before.

Bonus material: A lovely arrangement for guitar played by Ana Vidovic

I'm also adding these videos to my youtube playlist "cello repertoire".

(Not our cello this time but an artwork I saw at a Frieze sculpture exhibition in Regent Park, London, last September)

Revision list (newest addition first)

1.3 Courante
1.4 Sarabande
1.6 Gigue
1.5 Minuet I&II
3.5 Bourree I&II

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Telemann's dozen

Two years (and a bit) ago I learned to play Telemann's fantasia No. 2 in a minor, which must have flicked a switch in my flute brain, as I have been playing a lot of unaccompanied baroque pieces ever since. In May, with the lockdown going on and flute lessons being off, I decided on an exploratory run through the remaining 11 fantasias, trying each one for a week, to see if I find one I want to spend more time with. I'm now in the last week of the project, so I have played every note in this lovely book, although not necessarily at the right time:

Oh, and I have added a version of each to my YouTube playlist with flute repertoire.

I have already earmarked No. 11 G major for further study, might also consider 6, 8 or 9. Number 9 is in E major (4 sharps, ####) but what I learned from it is that the fourth #, namely D#, is actually making life easier compared to playing ###, as you don't have to lift the little finger coming down from the E to play the note below. (Obviously, I haven't practiced all of my scales, otherwise I would have known that.)

Here are some interesting thoughts on the fantasias from Rachel Brown, who also has released a CD with the complete set.

Any flute players out there, tell me which one is your favourite?

PS Various artists have identified dance forms in the movements. None of them is marked in the score so I'll add to the list here whatever I can find:

1. Fantasia in A major (Vivace – Allegro=Passepied)
2. Fantasia in A minor (Grave – Vivace – Adagio – Allegro)
3. Fantasia in B minor (Largo – Vivace – Largo – Vivace – Allegro=Gigue)
4. Fantasia in B-flat major (Andante – Allegro=Polonaise – Presto)
5. Fantasia in C major (Presto – Largo – Presto – Dolce – Allegro – Allegro=Canarie)
6. Fantasia in D minor (Dolce – Allegro – Spirituoso=Hornpipe/Rondeau)
7. Fantasia in D major (Alla francese=including a Rondeau – Presto=Folk dance?)
8. Fantasia in E minor (Largo=Allemande – Spirituoso – Allegro=Polonaise)
9. Fantasia in E major (Affettuoso=Sarabande – Allegro – Grave – Vivace=Bourrée)
10. Fantasia in F-sharp minor (A Tempo giusto=Corrente – Presto – Moderato=Minuet)
11. Fantasia in G major (Allegro – Adagio – Vivace – Allegro)
12. Fantasia in G minor (Grave – Allegro – Grave – Allegro – Dolce – Allegro – Presto=Bourrée)

PDF sheet music is freely available, eg from, from where I also nicked the bourrées and rondeaus that weren't specifically assigned in Rachel Brown's essay about the fantasias.

Monday, July 20, 2020

playing cat and mouse

After the Covid communications feature, I needed a little bit of light relief and was very grateful to discover through the twitter feed of French newspaper Libération a recent paper about how mice became associated with human settlements. Obviously, once we had mice in our houses eating all our grain provisions, we also needed cats. Libération referenced an ancient story about cat domestication from the 00s, but I was sure I had seen something more recent elsewhere, and I found it, and so I could close the circle of life: humans - grains - mice - cats - humans. That was very satisfying, and it fits in really nicely with lots of earlier features I wrote about things like the evolution of agriculture, the Indoeuropean languages, dogs, Bronze Age civilisations, and more.

So, great fun, and I hope you enjoy it too.

Of mice and men, cats and grains

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 14, 20 July 2020, Pages R783-R786

Restrictied access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

New analyses of ancient rodent remains suggest that the house mouse moved in with Neolithic humans even before they started storing grain. (Photo: Chris Game/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).)

PS It just dawned on me that this was my 222nd feature in this format, published on July 20, 2020. Also, if you're on instagram (I'm not), you can find the feature here, and like, share, comment, or whatever people do on instagram.
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