Wednesday, May 23, 2018

the trouble with whales

Así nacen as baleas
by Anxos Sumai
Galaxia 2007

English edition, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales:
That’s how whales are born, Small Stations Press, Sept. 2017

This short novel presents a triptych, with the outer parts set in a recognisably 21st century present and narrated by the nameless female protagonist, and the core in 1984, around her third birthday, with a detached narrator referring to her as “a Nena”, the girl.

The girl is grown up now and has an obsessive interest in the whales that serve as the leitmotiv, which she has managed to channel into a budding career as a marine biologist. Just now, however, her family has summoned her away from her field research in Baja California, Mexico, to attend to the family business built by her mother, which has created considerable wealth, with considerable strings attached.

The apparent conflict between her ambition as a scientist and the family expectations for her to take care of the business appears to be her big problem initially, but the look back into her childhood reveals a whole cupboard full of (whale-sized) skeletons and stray emotional baggage. In comparison, the present human resources problem appears eminently solvable. After all, working out who should run a thriving chain of hardware stores, that’s not the worst imaginable problem a family can have.

In the present, our marine biologist struggles in her dealings with the various females from her bed-ridden, possibly malade imaginaire, mother through to the girlfriend she left behind with the whales of the Pacific. Men tend to be mysteriously absent, such as her sea-faring father who never returned since she was born, and her brother whose room is preserved as a shrine and who only appears in the central 1984 narrative, or barely visible, like her uncle.

There is poetry in the way objects, animals and plants play important roles when the human communications fail in the claustrophobic environment of the family home where most of the novel is set. In spite of all the trauma involved, it manages, as the whale mascot with its 400-kg heart suggests, to remain very warm-hearted and optimistic.




Monday, May 21, 2018

punk turtle and friends

When that Australian turtle with the green mohawk (Mary River turtle, Elusor macrurus) became a media sensation, I realised that there was a fairly big conservation story behind it, namely an advance enabling researchers to classify endangered reptiles on the basis of both their threat level and their uniqueness in evolutionary terms. The acronym EDGE combines these two criteria, Evolutionary Distinctiveness and Global Endangerment.

The EDGE of existence project at the Zoological Society London, which has previously published EDGE rankings for mammals and birds, has now released one for reptiles, so I've written a feature covering both the metholodical progress that made this possible and a few prominent examples from the new list. My feature is out now:


Reptiles on the EDGE



Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 10, 21 May 2018, Pages R581–R584


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The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a fish-eating crocodilian found in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, is among the 20 highest-priority reptile species in a ranking based on evolutionary distinctiveness and global endangerment. (Image: © Shivapratap Gopakumar/Flickr by a CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

reading in Galician

So this week saw the annual Dia das letras galegas (Galician Literature Day, May 17), about which I have obsessed here and here, and also in the twitter hashtag #Euleoengalego (I read in Galician).

But why do I? One obvious reason is that I need to learn the language so I understand the naughty bits in the songs we sing at the Galician sessions, and reading novels has served me well as a learning strategy for English, French and Spanish, so why not. (Also, there is a special deal with Romance languages, you buy two and get the third one free.)

There are additional motivating factors, however, which I am only beginning to discover. All other languages I have learned before were languages of empires at some point, and were aggressively inflicted on the less-well armed people. Galician, by contrast, only had a modest kingdom for a few decades in the Middle Ages, and has since then been a minoritized language, suppressed over centuries by the Castilian-speaking imperialists. So helping to keep it afloat is among other things also an anti-imperialist statement.

Then there is the familiar and related problem that everything published in English is overrated by default and spread around half the globe even if it has no merit whatsoever. Given this language privilege, all sorts of shady people publish books in English for political or commercial motives, regardless of whether they are any good.

The resulting problem for me as a reader is that not only there is way too much stuff being published in English to keep up even with the reviews, let alone the books, but also there is a substantial risk of picking up something that is downright rotten.

My impression is that this doesn't happen in a minoritized language. Especially in the Spanish situation where anybody who is literate enough to write a book in one of the co-official languages could just as well write it in Spanish instead and reach a potential market more than 100 times larger. So people who do write in Galician, I suspect, do it because they love the language and want to make a contribution to keeping it alive. (Incidentally, the author featured in this year's Dia das letras galegas, Maria Victoria Moreno, learned Galician as an adult and describes her relation with the language as a love affair - one that was downright dangerous under Franco.) And that, according to my theory, explains why, five novels into the Galician reading experience, I haven't yet found a book I didn't like. Prove me wrong.

Here's book No. 5 (almost finished):

Monday, May 14, 2018

regulate drugs

Open Archive Day

Back in 2013 I wrote a feature on the collateral damage of the global prohibition on drugs. It came out within days of the death of Oxford teenager Martha Fernback from an accidental overdose, which could have been avoided if drugs were sold with proper controls and labels like other products. Martha' mother, Marie Cockburn went on to campaign to legalise and regulate drugs, follow her progress on twitter.

Things are moving very slowly, but the understanding that the war on drugs isn't working and has killed millions over the last 100 years is gaining ground.

My feature is in the open archives here:


Drugs prohibition is criminals’ gain, neuroscience’s loss

Monday, May 07, 2018

two faces of facebook

Cambridge Analytica has now thrown in the towel, but the important questions of the recent facebook crisis remain unresolved. The network connecting and observing more than two billion people is a typical dual use technology, it can do a lot of good and also help psychological studies, but the possibilities of manipulation and misuse for political or financial gain are also endless.

My feature on this weighs both uses and asks how science should handle this dangerous tool in the future:

Watching two billion people

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 9, 7 May 2018, Pages R527–R530

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Monday, April 30, 2018

it's complicated

Open Archive Day

The evolutionary history of our species used to be simple due to the scarcity of data. We had about seven data points and drew a squiggly line to connect them and that was that (maybe I'm simplifying this slightly). Now we have genomes of modern and archaic humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans, increasingly documenting migrations and admixture, so it's getting more complicated as there are so many dots to connect. Plus, finds in Asia could still undermine the whole out of Africa thing.

A year ago, I had a closer look at fresh palaeoanthropology from China, but I suspect things are changing so fast I may have to rewrite this account pretty soon. Anyhow, here it is again, on open access, enjoy it while it is still more or less true:

A new continent for human evolution




A collection of 47 human teeth discovered at Daoxian is anatomically modern yet surprisingly old. (Photo: S. Xing and X-J. Wu.)

Monday, April 23, 2018

weird membranes

Today's issue of Current Biology contains a special section on membranes, and my contribution to that is a feature investigating why the membranes of archaea are so weird (sorry, different from all other membranes). Back in the 90s, I did my PhD work next door to Karl Otto Stetter's Archaea Centre at Regensburg, so it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, but I also learned lots of new things about their evolution.



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Archaea represent a unique life form whose complexities science is only beginning to understand. Researchers in Regensburg and Munich, Germany, are studying the functions of cellular appendages such as the flagella-like archaella of Methanocaldococcus villosus. (Image: Gerhard Wanner, Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich.)

Friday, April 20, 2018

romance of wikipedia

I've been slightly obsessed with Galician and some other Romance languages recently, which must have been a side effect of being exposed to and then inheriting the admin of the amazing Galician Session Oxford. I discovered that the Galician version of Wikipedia is quite amazing (considering the number of speakers of the language), so I looked up some other Wiki versions in Romance languages with a view to use one or the other as study aids, and found that their sizes don't necessarily scale with the numbers of speakers:

1 000 000 +

Français 1 975 000+ articles

Italiano 1 430 000+ voci

Español 1 404 000+ artículos

100 000+

Português 997 000+ artigos

Català 577.879 articles.

Română 385.164

Galego 147 109 artigos.

Latina 128 288 paginarum


10 000+


Occitan 84 312 articles
Asturianu 74 671 artículos
Piemontèis 64 327 artìcoj
Aragonés 32 946 articlos
Sicilianu 25 949 vuci
Nnapulitano 14 516 artícule
Vèneto 11 145 voxe

1 000+

Corsu
Emigliàn–Rumagnòl
Lìgure
Malti*
Mirandés
Picard
Rumantsch
Sardu

* NB: I realise Maltese is a semitic language, but half its vocabulary is of romance origin.



Image: Wikipedia

Monday, April 16, 2018

zoo research by numbers

Open Archive Day

A recent paper claims to be the first to have quantified the scientific output of zoos and aquariums:

Quantifying the contribution of zoos and aquariums to peer-reviewed scientific research



which reminded me of my own more qualitative effort from 2015, which is now in the open archives:

Can zoos offer more than entertainment?



Zoos and aquariums are facing criticism for keeping animals in captivity under conditions that might not always match their requirements. (Photograph: Mike Peel www.mikepeel.net.)










Monday, April 09, 2018

seven years

Open Archive Day

From around 2000 until early 2011, I used to write occasional short to mid-length "news focus" or "news feature" pieces for the front pages of Current Biology. After a slight revamp of those pages in early 2011, the editors asked me if I could do a full length (2000 words) feature for every isssue, i.e. two per month, and I accepted the challenge.

If I have got my maths right, I have now published 167 of these features, so I must have been getting some things right. I only missed 3 issues I think, in 7 years. Here's the first one that appeared in the new format, seven years ago, covering a topic I have dealt with multiple times before and after, and like everything else from the first six years, it's in the open archives):

New fears over bee declines




(Own photo.)

Monday, April 02, 2018

mind Africa's genomes

Africa has been left behind by much of modern biomedical science and biotechnology, so it is always good to see when new initiatives aim to spread the benefits to this continent, as the newly launched NeuroGAP and NeuroDEV programmes for psychiatric genetics do. However, one also has to watch out very carefully, not to create the impression that Western scientists extract samples and scientific insights from the continent in a one-way system. Empowering local scientists and building capacity in situ have to be important parts of any such projects.

I've tried to gain a balanced perspective of all this in my latest feature, which is out now:

Mind the genome diversity gap

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 7, 2 April 2018, Pages R293–R295

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Sites in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are involved in the projects.
Credit : Susanna M. Hamilton, Broad Communications


Monday, March 26, 2018

robot revolution

As the dangers of internet bots and self-driving cars have been in the news, the mechanical robots with arms that move around things are almost looking oldfashioned, but it is all part of a big technology move that creates independently acting beings, and we will have to think about how they fit in (without running over pedestrians). This is the topic of my third feature on robots, which is now on open access:

How will robots integrate into our world?

My previous efforts (also in the open archives) are here (2015) and here (2013).




Own photo, taken at the robots exhibition at the Science Museum, London, in Feb 2017.


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