Monday, December 11, 2017

bacterial wires

Open Archive Day

I heard last week that the ability of bacteria to form pili that act as electrical wires is not limited to the species of geobacter in which it was first discovered (press release here).

This reminded me of a different kind of bacterial electricity which I described in a feature back in 2012, which is now freely accessible:

Surprises from the sea floor

Microbiologist Derek Lovley and colleaugues at UMass Amherst report finding electrically conducting pili or 'e-pili' in more bacteria species than just the original Geobacter discovery he made 30 years ago.
Credit: UMass Amherst

Saturday, December 09, 2017

well connected

In the round-up of German pieces published in November and December, we gain information and energy from the bloodstream, while solar powered worms are running around in circles and everything is connected to everything else. Business as usual, really.

Netzwerk Leben: GTex - alles vernetzt
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 6, December 2017, pp 428-429
Access via Wiley Online Library
(last instalment of my 12-part series on the molecular network of life)

Ausgeforscht: Frankensteins Blutturbine
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 11, November 2017, page 1175
Access via Wiley Online Library

Warnende Moleküle im Blutkreislauf
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2017, pages 1203–1204
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Solarkreisel statt Energiewende
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2017, page 1267
Access via Wiley Online Library

Friday, December 08, 2017

misa campesina 2018

Musicians and singers wanted for the Misa Campesina Nicaraguense 2018. This folk mass is sung every year in celebration of Oxford’s partnership with Leon, Nicaragua.

The date for 2018 is now confirmed, it is the Sunday 22 April, i.e. Sunday morning during the Folk Weekend. The idea behind this scheduling is that the Oxford Leon Association and Trust is going to invite a very special guest from Nicaragua to take part in the misa and in other events during the Folk Weekend.

There will be around three rehearsals in the weeks before the event, so probably starting from late March. Further info, links, and my ravings on this year’s misa (which was the first time I took part) are here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

estevanico's stories

review of:

The Moor’s account

Laila Lalami

I have a thing about the history around 1492 – the end of the reconquista (expulsion of Arabs and Jews from the Iberian peninsula) and the beginning of the conquest of the New World. Arguably, that’s where all our problems started, including slavery, global imperialism, never-ending wars allegedly about religion. One of my cultural reference points here is from Don Quijote - the scene on a market place in Toledo where Christians, Jews, and Moslems mingle and the narrator has no trouble finding a translator for an Arabic document when he needs one. The imperialism and nationalism emerging after the reconquista banished that kind of multiculturalism from Spain for centuries, and other European nations looked at monocultural Spain as an example.

Given this mild obsession, the Moor’s Account is perfectly positioned to attract my attention – it is set just after 1492, with the protagonist, an African Muslim slave getting involved in a Spanish expedition to Florida that goes catastrophically wrong. Estevanico is one of only four known survivors of a crew of several hundreds that set out from Sevilla in 1527. The other three have given reports that were recorded, but his weren’t, or they didn’t survive. Thus, Laila Lalami fills this gap and uses her imagination to figure out what he might have written.

History knows little about the real Estevanico (although he does have a decent Wikipedia entry), but Lalami has given him a childhood and nascent career as a merchant in Azemmour, Morocco, where (according to her guess) he sold himself into slavery in time of need. The value of freedom is a key theme of the novel, as is the power of storytelling. The latter is of course a favourite subject of almost everybody who writes, but it is handled very convincingly here. Storytelling saves Estevanico’s life multiple times, and the novel is also structured as a collection of stories.

Using the accounts of the other three survivors as a scaffold, Lalami also fills in significant events that the Spaniards may have plausibly swept under the rug, including cannibalism among starving groups of the shipwrecked party, their role as healers among the Native Americans (she hints that catholic authorities would have frowned upon that as suspected witchcraft), and marriages with Native women.

The resulting account looks very convincing as invented history and makes a lovely novel. Only occasionally did some English phrase that doesn’t exist in Spanish remind me of what I would consider its only weakness, namely that it is written in a language that Estevanico would have never encountered in his life. (Then again, the same applies to Rober Harris’s brilliant 3-volume biography of Cicero, which purports to be the lost work of his secretary, Tiro.)

In any case, with the links it draws between the Muslim world, Europe and the Americas, and the problems that were to overshadow centuries, it is a great novel not just about what happened after 1492, but about what went wrong in the last 500 years.

PS by crazy coincidence, while I was reading the book I discovered one of the sources that Lalami used at the flea market - Bernal Diaz, The conquest of New Spain, a beautiful hardback of the English translation for £1. Not entirely sure I'll actually want to read it as well, but it does have lovely illustrations ...

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

changing climate

It has become common practice in the media reports after extreme weather events to say that while climate change makes such events more likely, a specific connection to climate change cannot be made. This, however is now changing as climate attribution science is improving its methods.

While the climate summit was underway in Bonn, I wrote up a feature on the current situation in climate change and the progress in attribution science which is out now:

Finding good explanations for bad weather

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 23, pR1249–R1252, 4 December 2017

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

Bonus material: right behind my feature is a Q&A with phage researcher Britt Koskella, who starred in one of the first features I wrote in this format, back in 2011.

The COP23 climate conference at Bonn was accompanied by large demonstrations in favour of more effective measures to curb CO2 emissions. (Photo: Takver/flickr by a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

wine moves

Around harvest time this year, I wrote a feature on how climate change affects wine production (good news for English wines, not so good for French ones), which is out in the latest issue of Chemistry & Industry, and also on the cover (I objected to the grape/great puns but to no avail):

Grape expectations

Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 09, pages 22-25
DOI: 10.1002/cind.819_6.x

open access to full (HTML) text via SCI website

restricted access to PDF file via Wiley Online Library

Monday, November 27, 2017

woods and trees

Open Archive Day

In October, Oxford University marked the 75th anniversary of possession of its own local forest, Wytham Woods, with the unveiling of a blue plaque and a series of special events underlining the importance of the woods as a community resource and basis for both citizen and academic science.

I have written about Earthwatch projects involving Wytham Woods back in the 00s, but not so much recently. The most recent mention I could find in my features is from the 2014 feature about a global deforestation map which is now on open access:

Fears for the woods and the trees

Wytham Woods

Wytham Woods. Photo by Nerys Groß

Monday, November 20, 2017

how whales learn new tunes

Humpback whales are just people like you and me, as I realised recently when reading a paper about how they learn new tunes. This was one of those moments when hours of leisure time (in this case: time spent in pubs playing wrong notes at the wrong time) magically transform into valuable research. The resulting feature, covering whale songs and folk tunes among other cultural highlights, is out now:

Cultured cetaceans

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 22, 20 November 2017, Pages R1193–R1196

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

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Humpback whales are known for their elaborate songs, which spread through
entire populations by social learning. (Photo: skeeze/

PS there's also a research paper on feeding strategies in blue whales in the same issue, which is why there is a whale shown on the cover as well:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

dvořák times seven

I've rounded up all recordings we have of the Dvořák cello concerto (including two I inherited from my grandad who didn’t play but had witnessed (and photographed) his dad playing cello).

Still space for a few more. Natalie Clein, I’m looking in your direction ...

Monday, November 13, 2017

global genomes

Open Archive Day

I recently reported about the research on hidden biases that are widespread even among people with liberal / egalitarian worldviews who would find the discrimination resulting from bias unacceptable.

One area where biased outlooks have harmed science is modern genomics. The most interesting revelations about the diversity, history and evolution of our species are to be expected from detailed analyses of African genomes as well as from comparing them to genomes representing the endpoints of the migrations that distributed our species around the world.

Instead, genomics spent its first ten years on sequencing males of European origin like Craig Venter and James Watson. Only in recent years, more than a decade after the first genome, has science begun to do our globalised species justice.

A year ago I wrote a feature on how the study of genomes of the native populations of Australia and New Guinea helps our understanding of human migrations and diversity. This feature is now on open access:

Out of Africa, into Australia

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I discovered this sonata via a long rambling path. If I remember correctly, I saw a mention somewhere that Einstein had named his violin "Line" - which resonated as the young musician in the family also assigns names to the ever growing family of string instruments (but not to wind instruments). I asked Paul Halpern, who has written a book about Einstein's friendship with Schroedinger, if he knew what happened to Line, and he referred me to this website about celebrations of Einstein's 125th birthday, where I read:
This lecture was followed by a surprise: a musical event featuring Paul Einstein on violin and Siegfried Räbblen on Piano. Paul, a great grandson of Einstein's is a musician living in the south of France and played on Einstein's violin. The piece was a Mozart Sonata, K304, written in 1778. It is the only instrumental work Mozart wrote in E-minor and its poignancy reflects Mozart's reaction to the news of his mother's death. It was Einstein's favorite.

So I looked it up and found this flute performance of k304 by Ginevra Petrucci and really liked it, and bought the score complete with accompaniment CD. Which turned out to be unnecessary, because as it happened, my flute teacher had just completed her own flute adaptation of the piece. So I worked my way through both movements of her version and am now reasonably happy with my playing, although there are always lots of things left to improve at a later point.

By the way, I don't think it required much virtuosity from Einstein or other amateur violinists to play it - I noticed one could readily play it unchanged on viola i.e. even without the violin's E string, and thus also on cello an octave below. So, if you have a string instrument sitting around, give it a try and release your inner Einstein.

Oh, and for flautists it is of course interesting because it is quite close in time (as well as in the Koechel Verzeichnis) to the two flute concertos.

Next up: a Telemann fantasia ...

Thursday, November 09, 2017

the sound of chemistry

A couple of book reviews I forgot to mention:

Sonochemistry by Gregory Chatel
Chemistry & Industry issue 7, page 39.
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
Chatel offers a brief introduction into what sonochemistry is for the ‘silent’ majority of chemists, which he presents with commendable clarity. Any chemist wondering whether sonochemistry might be worth trying, should find what they’re looking for in the first half of the book.
(spoiler alert, the second half of the book isn't quite as gripping as the first.)

Nanocomposite materials,
Chemistry & Industry issue 6, page 38.
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
I've reviewed way too many "nano" monographs in the last 20 years, so I am losing patience with them. And this one didn't quite manage to convince me that I want to read more ...
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