Monday, September 17, 2018

online archaeology

Open Archive Day

Recent years with the Facebook revelations and the trumpocalyptic tweets that may start a nuclear war any day now have sucked most of the fun out of life on the internet. Even tumblr has taken to flooding me with fake followers - those troll factories must be working overtime these days.

So it's nice to step back in time and remember the happy days of 2013, when we (or I, at least) still naively believed that online communities could be a force for good.

So here's my 2013 feature raving about online cultures, clearly not expecting how it would turn out a few short years later:


What makes people click?



I had completely forgotten that I had used the Delacroix as an illustration with that article (Wikipedia edit wars were the excuse for that). (Artwork: Eugène Delacroix La Liberte Guidant Le Peuple (28 Juillet 1830) Musée du Louvre © 2007 Musée du Louvre/Angèle Dequier.)

Monday, September 10, 2018

tourist trails

Global tourism is growing so steeply that it is rapidly becoming a problem not just for popular destinations (like Oxford, for instance) but also for the environment. Driven by China's wealth explosion and innovations from budget airlines through to airbnb, it produces a carbon footprint that is scary and growing.

As part of today's special issue on migration, I had a closer look at the global impact on tourism in a feature which is out now:

Global tourism's growing footprint


Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 17, 10 September 2018, Pages R963-R965

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)



Own photo (2016)

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Erlebnis Wissenschaft

for more than a decade, from Was Biotronik alles kann (2002) to Invasion der Waschbären (2014), my books in German were published by Wiley-VCH, mostly in their general pop-science series Erlebnis Wissenschaft (not quite translatable, this suggests science is an exciting experience).

Since the publication of the raccoons’ book in 2014, I have had no luck with further proposals, and have been given to understand that the sales of the series weren’t as good as the publisher hoped. Checking up the programme this summer, I realised that the last new title was published in 2016. One that is listed in 2018 is in fact the paperback version of a book previously published in hardback. Coming from the main website, the list doesn’t even have a link, so I had to use search engines to find it here. So, reluctantly, I am having to switch back to hustle mode and try to find a new publisher.

I can accept that on a purely balance-based reckoning, the books may not have been very profitable, but then again, Wiley-VCH is a huge publisher with successful academic titles (the white and blue design inherited from the original Verlag Chemie) as well as the licence for the German version of the hugely successful “For Dummies” series, not to mention a vast array of academic journals. All of which surely could help to fund a bit of an effort to help the public understanding of science with a series of intermediate level popular science books.

Oh well. I may have written critical reviews of one or two of the titles shown below, but I surely will miss the series.




For this photo I rounded up my own titles in the series and a few from other authors. Since taking the photo I keep discovering others that I forgot (eg the biographies of Haber and Lynen and the memoir of Schatz – for the biographies alone it would be worthwhile keeping the series alive).

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Madame Robinson

Leïla Slimani
Dans le jardin de l’ogre


When Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt in 2016 for Chanson douce (English title: Lullaby), I really wanted to read her book but shied away from it because of the subject matter (as a parent, I am a bit squeamish about children being murdered). Then on my recent travel I stumbled across some kind of literary programme on TV5 Monde, where Slimani spoke about her most recent book (Sexe et mensonges : La vie sexuelle au Maroc), discussing the sex lives of Moroccan women with a panel of three blokes and looking as relaxed as if that was the most ordinary thing in the world to do.

So, looking up her oeuvre, I discovered her first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which looked less scary than the prize-winning one, so I read that. It’s in a way a Madame Bovary for the post-Catherine M. times. Which means, we have our medical doctor and his bored wife, but things get rather more out of hand than what I remember from Flaubert’s novel, and the move to rural Normandy (also the setting of Madame Bovary) comes as an attempt to fix things.

Slimani applies a cold psychiatric eye to report a case study of sex addiction – a condition only recognised as a mental health problem by the WHO last month, i.e. several years after her novel was published. She doesn’t spend much time on describing the external settings (Paris, Normandy, Boulogne sur Mer), and I kind of filled in from own memories what I missed there. But the internal landscapes are quite impressive and match the places. Hers, a city bustling with anonymous figures and existential angst, his, the yawning countryside and longing for steady normality, her parents’ the provincial small town of Boulogne (at some point, Napoleon planned to invade England from there, but I think he got side-tracked or something).

All of which reveals Slimani as a sharp and fearless writer, and one day I’ll even drum up the courage to read her other books.

An English translation of this book is scheduled to appear in February 2019 under the title of Adèle.



Available as a very lovely Collection Folio paperback, although I am not happy with the font they are now using for the author's name, which is the main difference between the current design and my collection of folios from the last century.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

plastic problems

Open Archive Day

This time last year, I had a feature on plastic pollution out (I think it was my third one on that topic). Since then, the amount of plastic waste swirling around in the oceans has kept growing, but so has public awareness of the issue. Since David Attenborough brought it up in his TV show, it has risen to a new level of prominence, although that doesn't necessarily mean we'll stop dumping the stuff.

My feature is now on open access:

Our planet wrapped in plastic



PS: a few days after I posted this, it was reported in the news that a device designed to collect plastic waste from the oceans is now afloat and being tested in California. Although nobody seems to have a clear answer as to what the biological bycatch will be.




Monday, August 27, 2018

a very lucky find

Open Archive Day

Last week brought a report of an extremely mindboggling discovery that perhaps got less coverage than it deserved (in the Guardian at least it was a very small story well hidden), namely the genome of an ancient human whose mother was a Neanderthal while her father was a Denisovan.

Just to briefly summarise the possibilities:

* If interbreeding between these two groups was common and successful in terms of viable and fertile offspring, this wouldn't be surprising, but in this case we should have come across other intermediate forms earlier, so not very likely.

* If interbreeding was common and successful in the first generation (but left the offspring infertile or perhaps with some other kind of fitness limitation) there might have been a few of those, but researchers would be very lucky to hit on one of them.

* If interbreeding was rarely successful, this would have to count as an extremely lucky find.

So in any case it is pretty mindboggling, and I trust that Svante Pääbo, who is a joint senior author on the paper, will have triple-checked everything before letting this out.

All of which is just an excuse for plugging my feature on human evolution which I wrote four years ago after attending a meeting with Svante Pääbo and everybody else who is anybody in human evolution:


The complicated origins of our species



Apart from last year's effort specifically on palaeoanthropology in China, this appears to be my most recent one with actual Neanderthals in it. Given how fast the field is moving, I should revisit it soon.

Oh, and what I did visit recently is the Neanderthal museum in the eponymous valley, which hasn't quite caught up with the Neanderthal genome revolution yet, but has this amusing scene of life in the stone age to offer:



(own photo)

Monday, August 20, 2018

like the sound of that

After so many years of writing about science, it can still happen that I bump into an entire field of studies that I somehow managed to miss, although it is really interesting and has been going on for many years. My most recent discovery of this type is soundscape ecology, which uses sound recordings to study the composition and health of ecosystems and can detect changes that happen over time, eg with the seasons, after natural diasters, or due to climate change.

As this was all new to me, I did a general feature explaining what it's all about and how it can help us better understand the natural environment. Although pioneers have been recording things for decades now, recent technology has of course made it easier to record, store and process massive amounts of audio data, providing an acoustic component to the general big data revolution in the life sciences.

Anyhow, my feature is out now:

Listening to the sounds of the biosphere

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 16, 20 August 2018, Pages R847–R850

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)



Soundscape ecologists record ambient sound and analyse it for changes that may be linked to environmental change. (Photo: Bryan C. Pijanowski, Center for Global Soundscapes.)


Friday, August 17, 2018

summery smells

oooops, I've somehow lost track of tracking the publications in German, so there is a little gap in the record, but let's just carry on with July/August as if nothing happened ...

So in these two hot summer months we've had molecular wires, mysterious membranes, and the smells of summer:

Molekularer Draht von Hand gemacht
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume52, Issue4, August 2018, Pages 211-212
Access via Wiley Online Library
(molecular wire made by atomic manipulation - related content in English)

Merkwürdige Membranen

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 7-8, Pages 722-724, Juli ‐ August 2018
Access via Wiley Online Library
(why the membranes of archaea are so strange - related content in English)

Der Duft der Sommerferien
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 7-8, Page 811, Juli ‐ August 2018
Access via Wiley Online Library


PS: I've now updated my publications list, so the missing German pieces should be here.

Monday, August 13, 2018

food for evolution

Open Archive Day

I try to avoid the three notorious f-words that are already getting way too much attention (fashion, food, football), but this was one story about food that I actually found fascinating - how a certain kind of diet, based eg mainly on seafood, or on plant food, can over many generations shape human evolution, producing genetic variants that are still observable today.

Read all about it in my rare foody feature which is now on open access:

How our diet changed our evolution



Own photo. For the reasons mentioned above, I don't have many photos of food, but found some plant-based dessert option ...

Saturday, August 11, 2018

16,000 words

In a review of the book “vox” by Christina Dalcher I read the claim that people – men and women alike – speak an average of 16,000 words a day. The research, published in Science in 2007, was designed to debunk the myth that women talk three times as much as men, and it duly found that both talk the same amount within error.

Still, as somebody who prefers writing to talking, this strikes me as a huge amount. That must be around two hours of solid monologue, or four hours of conversation, if you allow the other person half the time. Longer, if you take time to reflect between your exchanges. Just to get a measure of how much text that is that people talk on average, consider this:

I typically write around 1000 words a day (I read a lot more, and I’d reckon I speak fewer). Just imagine I could come up with 16,000 meaningful words a day – which of course I would not dream of wasting on the fickle oscillations of air, but would rather write down for publication. At a fairly typical rate of 40p per word, these could theoretically earn £ 6400 in a day, or two million in a year.

Well the bug in that calculation is that I can’t come up with 16,000 words worth of meaningful content every day, nor can anybody else, which is why people tend to talk about the weather and repeat themselves all the time. Yes I do realise that all that small talk serves a social function, but why can’t people just rub each other’s backs instead? In that respect, chimps and bonobos are more civilised than we are. Failing that, playing music with people works for me. A way of communication as well, but with fewer words.

I appreciate that the 100-word limit imposed on women in Dalcher’s dystopian novel amounts to torture (the lowest word counts reported in the science paper were closer to 500), but 1000 words is probably a daily budget I could get along with. Add to that 1000 written words, and I’ll swap the rest of the 16,000 for wrong notes played at the wrong time. This blog entry contains 373 words, by the way.



PS: The Guardian reviewer doesn't like the book ...

Monday, August 06, 2018

shipping news

For some strange reasons I keep seeing adverts for Arctic cruises, which drive me up the wall. The fact that one can now steer a whopping big cruise ship through the Northwest Passage and around the top end of the Americas is of course a consequence of our tragic failure to do something about climate change. But instead of reading it as a sign and changing our ways, we send ships to the formerly pristine Arctic waters to pollute and melt them some more.

So, well, after seeing too many of those ads I didn't book a cruise, but I wrote a feature about the Arctic shipping craze, which is out now:


Arctic shipping threatens wildlife


Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 15, 06 August 2018, Pages R803–R805

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 ice-strengthened passenger expedition vessel Marina Tsvetaeva is one of many vessels that can now travel through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic summer. Marine biologists predict the increase in shipping traffic will impact on vulnerable species including iconic marine mammals. (Photo: Allen Powell by a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.)

Monday, July 30, 2018

crunch time for crispr

Open Archive Day

The European Court of Justice has ruled that gene editing using crispr falls under the EU regulation for GM organisms.

This is a little bit surprising, as crispr is a lot more elegant and subtle than old-style GM, which means that a) it is less likely to produce harmful side-effects, and b) it is much harder if not impossible to detect, as a crispr-induced point mutation could just as well be a random mutation.

This is why, a year and a half ago, when I wrote a feature about gene-edited crops, I was fully expecting regulators to classify these new methods separately from old GM. Clearly, they didn't read my article, which is now openly accessible:

Harvest time for crispr-cas?
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