Monday, January 16, 2017

megapoo makes the world go round

Open archives day - one of my favourite stories from last year has just been switched to open access. It's about how large animals move nutrients against the hydrological cycle, including whales feeding in the deep but releasing themselves near the surface, sea birds feeding on fish but leaving their droppings on land, and terrestrial megafauna moving their goodies uphill.

That's what I called the great megapoo escalator a year ago - needless to say that we humans not only fail to comply with this mechanism but also are in the process of destroying it by eradicating megafauna, which before our time made the largest contribution to this nutrient recycling.

Read my feature in the open archives here.

Seabirds provide an important flow of nutrients from sea to land, acting against the draining that occurs through rivers and runoff from the land. The image shows guillemots, shags and kittiwakes breeding on the Farne Islands. (Photo: Jamumiwa/Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, January 13, 2017

aptamer update

I don't do all that many news stories these days, but I did pick up this one from the lab of my old friend and astrobiology co-author Kevin Plaxco, as it is a further step on a path I have followed since the beginnings more than a decade ago.

So the latest news is that electronic aptamer sensors can now work inside a living, moving mammal, as you can read in Chemistry World today:

Personalised medicine boost as cancer drug monitored in real-time

Previous steps on the way:

Chemists crack cocaine detection Chemistry World 2006

MEDIC to kick-start personalised medicine revolution Chemistry World 2013

Biosensors in real time Feature in Chemistry & Industry 2014, No. 4, pp42-45.

Aptamerensoren für kontinuierliche Bluttests Chemie in unserer Zeit 2014,48, 88

Monday, January 09, 2017

trumpocalypse now

After the first electoral disaster of 2016, I wrote a feature warning that the same kind of wave of angry voters could send Trump to the White House, and sure enough it did. So I got the chance to write another political feature, now one step closer to the apocalypse. On current form it appears obvious to me that the age of enlightenment is over and western civilisation is heading towards a collapse sooner rather than later. Since I wrote the feature, three weeks ago, Putin's role in manipulating the election has become a more prominent issue, so that's missing in my story. Only then did I investigate how long we still may have to put up with Putin. I found out that since his two presidential terms (2000-2008), Russia extended the length of term to six years, meaning that he could remain in office until 2024 - like a certain Mr Trump you may have heard of. What the world will look like if that happens I don't want to imagine. We need to do something.

While I go looking for my thinking hat, read my feature:

The dangers of a post-truth world

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 1, 9 January 2017, Pages R1–R4

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)

The amplification of clickbait and fake news stories through Facebook’s algorithms has been recognised as a problem in the US presidential election. (Image courtesy of Ashley George.)

PS: the artwork in the Daily Mirror front page used in my article is Oh America by Gee Vaucher, I just learned.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

the counted

I am a huge fan of the Guardian's interactive database "The Counted" which has listed all people who died at the hands of US police since the beginning of 2015. It goes to show what a powerful statement you can make just by compiling data.

No matter if you look at the stats per time (3 people killed every single day) or per population, with vast differences according to skin colour, or if you read individual stories behind the photos. Whichever way you look at it is deeply distressing and very powerful.

Set against the dark mood, I was a tiny little bit cheered to see that the total number of deaths has dropped slightly in 2016 against 2015 (1091 and 1146, respectively). While both numbers are equally horrifying (for comparison, the equivalent number for Germany, with 1/3 of the population, is typically in single digits), I'd like to think that the 5.5 % decline is due to the growing awareness thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and also perhaps thanks to the monitoring efforts of this database. The relative incidence of deaths among black citizens has also dropped from 7.69 per million to 6.64 (white: 2.95 to 2.9). Still scandalous but at least moving in the right direction. So maybe compiling data can save lives.

On the other hand, Native Americans have suffered a much higher incidence of police killings than the previous year, which might support the argument that historic crimes are allowed to continue under the cover of law enforcement.

screenshot taken on Jan 3rd. Update: checking back on Jan 14th, the count has gone up to 1091. I've updated the figures above, but the conclusions still hold.

Monday, January 02, 2017

anthropocene now

Happy New Year to all, my one and only NY resolution is to provide a blog entry revisiting one of my features from the open archives on those Mondays when no new feature comes out. Which is the case today, for example. So here goes.

In February 2015, I wrote about the ongoing deliberations of The International Commission for Stratigraphy (ICS) working group chaired by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz to assess whether the changes that humanity has inflicted on our planet call for the definition of a new geological time. If so, experts need to scratch their heads over which level should it be pegged at, and when it may have started without anybody noticing.

In the same feature, I also covered the latest assessment of the "planetary boundaries" by Johan Rockström and colleagues, so it could have been called What have we done to our planet?

Since then, the Working Group on the Anthropocene has voted to formally designate the epoch Anthropocene and presented this recommendation to the International Geological Congress on 29 August 2016. While official recognition and a formal determination of the starting date is still due, the recommendation has been widely reported and the concept of the Anthropocene is now better known than it was two years ago.

My feature, Assessing humanity's global impact, is freely accessible here.

Our civilisation’s ability to picture our planet from space, as photographed here by the Apollo 8 crew, has increased our awareness of its vulnerability to human activities, but unsustainable growth continues. (Photo: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, NASA’s Earth Observatory.)

PS: such as not to dilute the tags for new features (currentbiology, sciencejournalism) I'll tag these flashbacks with CB archives instead and use thematic tags only if new info on the themes has been added since the original article.

Friday, December 30, 2016

20 years online

I have no idea where that time went, but it appears that it’s 20 years ago today that I launched my first website, from which the current site evolved mostly by alternating courses of uninhibited random growth and moderate pruning.

In the last few years, and especially since my tumblr started to attract some followers from late 2012 onwards, I have neglected the old website a little bit, but just now I have cleaned it up a bit and updated things like the publications list. In a way, the various blogs and other online outlets could be seen as the shoots and flowers growing from the original tree I planted in 1996, so I’ll take this anniversary as an excuse to write up a short history of my web presence, although now, 20 years later, almost everybody on the planet has a web presence.

I feel my hair turning grey as I write this, but I actually managed to finish my PhD without ever having used the internet. I did write the thesis on a computer and had a Neolithic laptop, but the network as such was still under construction as I finished, and hadn’t reached my lab yet by the time I left. On arrival at Oxford in 1993 I learned about things like email, and the www, and some time in 1996 I must have realised that everybody could put a page (or twenty) on the web, so why not me?

In the xmas break I learned the essentials of HTML from a book and started composing my home page, which launched on 30.12.1996 under the not so original title of Michael’s Home Page. Rooted in an old technology newspapers and magazines background, I aimed at publishing a numbered issue every week, with sections including science, science communication, bilingualism.

On 13.1.1997, issue 3 appeared with title “Only Connect!”, based on the quote from EM Forster’s novel Howards End which still serves as a motto today and has provided the title and URL for my blog,

After a year, the site had 43 pages, and it soon grew into a tree structure with eight or nine first level pages branching out into hundreds of second and third level ones. For nine years and a bit, it remained my main web presence, and I probably spent way too much time on updating it, which may well have killed my academic career.

Then, in the tenth year, and a few years after leaving the academic career behind, I found my way to MySpace and discovered blogging, as every MySpace account came with a blog by default. For comparison, I also tried yahoo/geocities and blogspot, which is the one I kept using after MySpace went down the drain.

When I moved out of Birkbeck College in 2006, a version of my website stayed there, and is still online here). Incidentally this is about the last version before I introduced the “bookshelf” design of the front page which is still up today, launched in July 2006.

After the great Exodus from MySpace, I joined Facebook, then twitter, and finally tumblr. Initially twitter worked best for me, but in the last few years tumblr has become the outlet where followers actually see and react to my stuff. Although the stats on blogspot aren’t too bad either these days.

With all the excitement of the more interactive and “social” sites, the old website got neglected a little bit, but I still polish it up when I have a new book to promote, or, as happened this year, when the delay in the publications list becomes too embarrassing.

At some point, I may even blow some dust off the 10-year-old front page design. I’ll put that on my (virtual) list of New Year’s resolutions.

My front page as it looks today - I think my initial idea was to change those bookends regularly to refresh the look, but I got stuck with the second pair I made ...

The site is at
as well as at

Thursday, December 29, 2016

landschreiber Mohr

Mohr is an interesting German family name, as it is also an ancient word for dark-skinned people (related to Maure, as in Mauretania), much older than the 19th century import “Neger” related to Spanish / English negro. Both of which, of course, are today considered rude. Mohr may thus in some cases be pointing to a distant migration background, to a darker looking person arriving in the village and being called names which stuck. However, there are also two alternative explanations, one relating to moors (swamplands), the other to pig breeding, so you can’t be sure which of the three applies.

Our Mohr ancestors can be traced back to the small town of Gemünden in the Hunsrück mountains. There we find a Hans Mohr in the 16th century, to whom all of the Mohr families in the Hunsrück area seem to be connected. One significant lineage leads to Nikolaus Mohr of Kellenbach near Kirn, which is well-documented in GedBas.

Our lineage, however, involves Johann Conrad Mohr, who became a Landschreiber for the Duke of Simmern – today a very inconspicuous town of 7000 inhabitants, but it was a state capital until Louis XIV’s troops burned it down in 1689 in the Palatinate succession wars (part of the Nine Year Wars), when they also created that very romantic ruin still overlooking Heidelberg today. The Landschreiber was a leading position in the regional administration, second only to the Amtmann. (I have no idea how these job titles might be translated into English but I’m open for suggestions.)

Considering the importance of his position, it appears likely that Johann Conrad Mohr will have studied law in Heidelberg. What we know for sure is that he married Katharina Bilger at Heidelberg on 25.6.1611 and at least one of their nine children (Juliane Elisa) was born there in 1613.

His tenure as Landschreiber lasted from 1615 to his death (from the plague) on 25.6.1635, interrupted by six years of Spanish occupation, 1626-1632. His boss, the Count-Palatine of Simmern-Kaiserslautern, Louis Philip (1602-1655) reigned 1610-1655, so no change there. Louis-Philip was the younger brother of the “winter king” Frederick V, whose misfortune led to the 30-Years War.

Among the Landschreiber’s children, Johann Ludwig, born 1617, is well represented in GedBas. Intriguingly, he married one Angelique de Madra, who allegedly came to the court at Simmern at 15 as a religious refugee and was then brought up there.

We’re after the older son, Andreas Mohr, however, who was born either in 1612 or in 1615, possibly still in Heidelberg, before his parents moved to Simmern. He married Walburgis, and became a forester, in which role he is documented at Rheinböllen in 1672. Two generations followed in this profession – the son Hans Peter, recorded first at Rheinböllen, then 1670-80 at Argenthal, and the grandson Mathias Mohr at Mengerschied. His daughter Juliane Mohr, born 1717 married an innkeeper at Simmern called Johann Kuhn, which is where we leave the Mohrs and the forests.

Simmern in 1648 by Matthäus Merian, source.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


Hancox: a house and a family

by Charlotte Moore

Charlotte Moore was widely known in autism circles back in the 00s, when she wrote a regular Guardian column called Mind the Gap on her family life and bringing up two boys with autism and one without. This led to a memoir George and Sam about her autistic sons, which I also read and enjoyed, so I took notice when in 2010 she published another book about her family, this time focusing on the house she lives in and the Victorian ancestors from whom she inherited it.

I picked up a copy from Oxfam at some point, but somehow it never got to the top of my wobbly reading pile. Until we started renovating our own crumbling old house, and I wrote a blog entry about it. The clever “link within” widget that cross references my entries dug up an earlier mention of Moore’s book, which I took as a hint and actually read it.

The house as such takes up a slightly smaller role than I might have expected, but it is a suitable foundation to construct a family history narrative on, and as it happens it is also an archive that appears to hold immense treasures of written materials from love letters to furniture bills. It appears to be a family trait that no piece of paper with written information was ever thrown away. This, like many other details, made me think that the autism genes in her family may be similar to those in mine.

At the centre of the family story (although slightly aloof as he had a very busy professional life) stands the physician Sir Norman Moore (1847-1922), only child of a single mother, who twice married women from the vast Leigh Smith clan (descendants of the abolitionist William Smith, MP), which provides most of the surrounding cast, including famous Victorians such as the Arctic explorer Ben Leigh Smith, the women’s rights pioneer and co-founder of Girton College Cambridge Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, and, more remotely, Florence Nightingale.

Most members of the extended family are unusual for their time and social environment. We find a lifelong lesbian couple benefiting from Queen Victoria’s disbelief, a man with three parallel families in different social strata, allegedly trying to undermine the class system, several very early feminists, and lots of fraternising with the servants and volunteer work to help the poor. Although at the end of the day, when it comes to serious business like marriage, there is just as much disapproval of aspiring in-laws as in more conventional circles.

What surprised me is that in the early 20th century much of the family’s daring to be different funnels into converting to Catholicism, which strikes me as slightly at odds with the social radicalism of the earlier times. And as the “Great War” strikes, the family is at one with the zeitgeist, and nobody questions the sense of the great slaughter in the trenches, although the family lost a son in the first year of the war.

In any case, the whole, extremely well documented family history and associated social history makes for an interesting read, all the more so if you reflect how the various extents of eccentricity on display here may have funneled into the author’s autistic offspring.

As I have shown the book cover before and it is sure to resurface among the cross references below, here's a portrait of Sir Norman Moore, from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

open archives 2015

my features in Current Biology become freely accessible one year after publication. So, by now, all features published in 2015 or earlier are in the open archives. Here are some of the highlights of 2015:

Listen out for life (astrobiology and SETI)

Can we change our predatory ways? (Homo sapiens as a weird kind of apex predator)

How life shaped Earth (my contribution to a special issue on the history of life on Earth)

How to protect the last free-living humans (on uncontacted tribes)

Can we avert marine mass extinctions? (given our track record wiping out terrestrial megafauna?)

Assessing humanity's global impact (and the case for the Anthropocene).

PS: New Year's resolution - from January onwards, I will highlight one of the old articles from the open archives on the Mondays between those when a new feature appears.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

cancer stem cells

My review of the book

Cancer Stem Cells: Philosophy and Therapies

appears in issue 10 (December) of Chemistry & Industry, on page 39, (restricted access)

under the somewhat misleading title:

Stem cells for cancer therapy?

Here's the snippet from the review explaining what it's really about:

"What if cancers also relied on stem cells for their growth and spread? If they did, it might be pointless to try to kill the largest possible number of tumour cells. If just one or two cancer stem cells got away, they would start a new tumour, which might explain the frequently observed relapses after seemingly successful treatments. Instead, to cure a patient from cancer, it might be necessary and sufficient to kill all its stem cells."

Monday, December 19, 2016

no miracles needed

The end of year period is always a good one to reflect on our place in the Universe and where we all came from, ie to write another feature on an astrobiology theme. This year it's about recent insights into possible mechanisms relevant for the origin and early evolution of life up to and including the RNA world.

The feature is out now:

How life can arise from chemistry

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 24, pR1247–R1249, 19 December 2016

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)

Rapid progress in investigations into the origin of life is adding to our understanding of how the emergence of evolving systems from prebiotic chemistry may have happened – without the need for magic. (Photo: Rama, Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, December 10, 2016


this term's addition to my nascent flute repertoire is Mozart's stray Andante, K315. The modest speed means that I can actually play along with the CD I have, drown out Aurele Nicolet and pretend I'm performing with an orchestra, which is great fun.

Next up, some "American" period Dvořák ...

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