Monday, July 16, 2018

two years on

Open Archive Day

We certainly live in interesting times now, in the sense of the famous Chinese curse. As I write this Brexit still means chaos and Trump says Russia didn't meddle with elections because Putin told him so. Oh well.

Not sure if it's much use to look back how it went wrong, but here's my first relevant feature written just after the Brexit referendum.

Angry voters may turn back the clocks

The feature warned of a possible Trump victory, so here's one of my photos from last Thursday's anti-Trump demo at Blenheim Palace:

Monday, July 09, 2018

sequence everything

It's three decades since the Human Genome Project was organised and 15 years since it published the draft sequence, so it may be worth asking what could be the next big thing for biology.

One possibility that is being looked at is to sequence the genomes of every single eukaryotic species known to science. The Earth BioGenome project, which promotes this idea, has calculated that this could be done within 10 years and would cost no more than the first human genome did.

A crazy idea? Find out in my latest feature which is out now:

The genome sequence of everything

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 13, 9 July 2018, Pages R719-R721

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)



Beetles account for a substantial part of eukaryotic diversity and will keep genome sequencers busy for a while. (Photo: Tim Sackton/Flickr.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

chemistry stories

These days, I don't write as much about chemistry as I used to as the features for Current Biology keep me reasonably busy, but here's a couple of news stories I did for Chemistry World. The one that came out today involves Harry Anderson's lab at Oxford - I consulted him about something else and asked what he was up to these days, so I found out about this:

Most complex reaction ever triggered by atomic manipulation makes molecular wire


And the other was something that Chemistry World commissioned while this one was sitting around waiting for the original paper to come out. This is about new ways of predicting how several elements may be combined to form new materials:


AI teaches itself to identify materials – and predict new ones too







Image source

Monday, July 02, 2018

plight of the primates

Open Archive Day

We all know that orangutans are in trouble, and the other great apes are also having a rough time in the anthropocene. While these are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, our extended family, the order primates, is endangered across the board, with over 60% of the species listed as threatened.

In a paper based on literature review and modelling of land use until the end of the century, researchers from the German Primate Centre (Deutsches Primatenzentrum, DPZ) highlight the plight of the primates and paint an even darker future for them.

Which chimes with the take-home message of my feature from a year ago, which is now on open access (and which happens to have the same title as the DPZ press release, but I admit it wasn't a terribly original title anyway):

Primates in peril





a male mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz)
Image source: Wikipedia

Monday, June 25, 2018

knickers in a twist

Open Archive Day

I'm still struggling to understand the discussion about upskirting that's been raging around here - can't really imagine that any photos taken that way will be of a quality that could get anybody excited. Also, if a paraphilia focused on such pictures exists, it won't help to send the people affected by it to jail. (If anybody asked me, I'd just suggest to un-invent smartphones and selfie-sticks.)

Wikipedia seems to think that underwear fetishism is not in fact a paraphilia, which explains why it doesn't turn up in this list of paraphilias. (Which serves as a reminder that deviant desires can be a lot worse than the issue in question. There are more than 500 that have a name, and I spotted some that involve rape, cannibalism and other horrible things.)

Still, the whole area is still insufficiently understood, and our society, which only recently stopped regarding homosexuality as one of these perversions, is poorly prepared to deal with the issues which in some cases can become a life-and-death problem.

So I guess my 2014 feature on paraphilias may still be a useful starting point for those who want a scientific angle on these things:

Paraphilia or perversion?

For anybody who wants to spend more time on the issue I recommend the book that inspired the feature, namely

Perv - the sexual deviant in all of us, by Jesse Bering.




Detail of "The swing", by Fragonard - just paint a smartphone into the guy's hand and it's totally up to date ... (Still on view at the Wallace Collection, London, but who knows for how much longer?)


PS re. the title of this post - I love female-specific metaphors, so I'll take any excuse to let my hair down and get my knickers in a twist ...


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Najla Shami

We were treated to an amazing concert from the Palestinian/Galician singer-songwriter Najla Shami (with guitarist Sérgio Tannus) this week, organised by the university's Galician Studies Centre as part of this year's Forum for Iberian Studies.

I do love a bit of Arabic influences mixed into my music (see also: Shakira), and I may have lost count but I think I heard Najla singing in seven different languages that evening, so this hit all the right spots. Oh, and she's an amazing singer as well.

So, anyhow, here are some videos with the some of the songs she played here:


Camiño Branco official video

A lingua que eu falo live with Sérgio Tannus

Coração Estaladiço live with Sérgio Tannus

There's also lots of good stuff on her SoundCloud page.

And here are a couple of photos I took towards the end of the show:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

origins of Indo-European languages

I've always been obsessed with languages (Romance ones preferably, but will also consider others), so it's only natural to take any opportunity to write about science-language interface. There haven't been all that many (the 2012 feature on the evolution of writing and my ancient paper on the linguistics of protein folding spring to mind), but recent work on ancient DNA has yielded a good excuse to revisit the family tree of Indo-European languages, comparing results from archaeology, genetics, linguistics and cultural history.

The resulting feature is out now:

The Indo-European ancestors' tale

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 12, 18 June 2018, Pages R679–R682

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)



Statistical analyses can show that ancient fairy tales have likely evolved from common ancestors of the Indo-European language groups or even from the culture that spoke the Proto-Indo-European language. (Image: From The Folktales of Bengal illustrated by Warwick Goble.)

Friday, June 15, 2018

desalinate this

When I prepared the blog entry for the fusion feature, I realised I forgot to toot my horn for the previous one which was about desalination of sea water. So without further ado, here goes:


A growing thirst

Chemistry & Industry 2018, vol 82, no 3, pp 30-33

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (members only)

I can send the PDF file, just drop me a line.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

fresh fusion

I really should go out more and explore more of the exciting science going on all around me, so it was a great opportunity when I was asked to write about new approaches to fusion energy, as there is a start-up company doing that up the road in Yarnton, called First Light Fusion.

So I visited them and marvelled at their huge supply of gunpowder (some seriously old technology used to facilitate the new ones) and at the workshops where they are building what could become a revolution in energy technology. We'll see.

The feature is out now:

A new dawn for fusion energy

Chemistry & Industry 2018, vol 82, no 4, pp 30-33

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (members only)

I can send the PDF file, just drop me a line.

and here's a sneaky preview of the first page:

Monday, June 11, 2018

virtual worlds

Open Archive Day

A year ago I immersed myself in virtual reality for my feature on the use of VR technology in science and medicine. While this was all very interesting and impressive, I haven't felt the desperate need to put the goggles back on in the twelve months since. Real reality is hard enough to keep up with ...

Anyhow, my VR feature is now in the open archives, so you can immerse yourself completely free and maybe get ideas for virtual realities you want to explore ...

Exploring virtual worlds






Life in tropical environments like the Amazon rainforests can also be experienced through VR. (Photo: Valdemir Cunha/Greenpeace.)

Monday, June 04, 2018

life in the city

Urbanisation may well be the most dramatic global change happening today, with obvious effects on environment and wildlife. One aspect that biologists are only beginning to appreciate is that this is a large scale pseudo-experiment with similar alterations of habitat happening in many places, across climate zones, so it makes sense to study how those species that don't disappear on impact cope with the change and adapt to life in the city.

Urban ecology as a steady state has been studied for a while, but the scale and evolutionary nature of the adaptation to city life is only beginning to be appreciated, and the field still has some catching up to do to make the most of this unprecedented global experiment that has already begun.

My feature covering all this is out now in today's issue of Current Biology:

Adapting to life in the city


Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 11, 4 June 2018, Pages R635–R638

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)



Urban robin, own photo.



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

the science of Angélique

Trying to organise my book reviews, I came across this text I wrote in March 2016 after re-reading Angélique, which for some reason I didn't post then. As my recent reviews masterpost has a dramatic shortage of French novels, I'm now adding this as an almost review:

reasons to read Angélique

Each time my random path through life intersects with a copy of the historic novel Angélique by Anne and Serge Golon, I get asked why I would read that kind of nonsense. As it happens, I can think of a few good reasons, so here goes:

For the science – the first volume of the franchise revolves around a trial for sorcery, the pretext for which is the mining operation of the accused, which involves extraction of gold from minerals using lead as a solvent (cupellation). The argument why this is just chemistry and not the “transmutation” the mediaeval alchemists were after is a difficult one and handled competently. Serge Golon (1903-1972), who was probably more of a technical advisor than a co-author, was an engineer and geologist, so he would have known this sort of stuff.

For the social history – I don’t care what the courtiers were wearing for the wedding of Louis XIV, but the whole mining story also involves skilled miners immigrating from Germany. Plus there is the backdrop of the Huguenot persecution. Both issue figure prominently in my family history. Also fun to explore 17th century Paris – much of which disappeared when Napoleon III and Haussmann set to their grand-scale building project that created the city we know today.

For the literary merit – I wouldn’t vouch for the translations, but the original doesn’t quite deserve the trashy reputation it appears to have. One can certainly make out the author’s ambition to write a Dumas novel with a female lead, and I’m guessing that much of the stick she’s been getting over the year was simply sexism – a historic novel by a woman about a woman can’t be any good. Of note, for a book written in the 1950s, it is remarkably fearless in dealing with issues that were unmentionable back then, such as rape.

Incidentally, I only found out recently that Anne Golon has re-published the series to correct some mutilations that the original publishers made without her knowledge. Think I might just invest in a copy of that version.

-----

Update 2018

Checking the facts for this post, I just found out that Anne Golon died on Bastille Day last year, aged 95. I was travelling at that time and must have missed the news.

It looks like those "restored" versions of at least four of the Angélique novels have been published as "version augmentée", swiftly followed by a new edition billed as "version originale" to confuse readers completely. So the restored / augmented version looks like this, but sadly volume 1 doesn't seem to be available right now, although the following ones are:



Oh and from today, the tag for French books is livres en français



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