Monday, December 05, 2016

evolution of cities

towns and cities seem to be growing "naturally" wherever humans decide to settle and start to trade. Intriguingly, some key parameters of their growth appear to have remained constant from antiquity to this day, suggesting that neither technology nor political organisation has had much of a say over the human tendency to aggregate. Now, however, as the majority of people already live in towns and cities and billions more are to follow, we can't allow settlements to grow on their own. Good and sustainable planning is required to make sure that the dramatic urbanisation of our species doesn't lead to large scale disaster.

I've explored these issues in my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

The urbanisation of our species

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 23, pR1205–R1208, 5 December 2016

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The mathematical equations relating the growth of population density of a city to its population size apply to medieval cities just as well as to modern ones. The photo shows a side road in the historic part of Mainz, Germany (own photo).

Monday, November 21, 2016

forest biodiversity

the ongoing deforestation of our planet is a major crisis, but it's not only about the loss of forest area. The biodiversity is important and endangered too, and recent analyses suggest it gets too little attention. Hence my latest feature:

How can we save forest biodiversity?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 22, 21 November 2016, Pages R1167–R1170

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Forests with a rich mixture of species not only look more interesting, they are also more productive and can thus better protect us from climate change. (Image: Deborah Taylor.)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the end of the world

it is the end of the world as we know it, and it may lead to the end of the world full stop. Children born this year have a theoretical life expectancy that would take them close to next century, but I'm now fairly sure that our civilisation will not survive that long. Rather than adding to the general tsunami of comment, I'll just compile a few links here, both to my own earlier articles and to recent opinion pieces that I found helpful. (last updated: 25.11.2016 - updates will appear at the top of the lists)

George Monbiot: The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces

George Monbiot: Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph

"Hitler's only kidding about the antisemitism" New York Times, 1922

Naomi Klein: It was the Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump

Gloria Steinem: After the election of Donald Trump, we will not mourn. We will organize

Simpsons writer says President Trump episode was 'warning to US'

My features on related topics:

Will our civilisation survive this century?
Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 23, R1017-R1020, 2 December 2013

Angry voters may turn back the clock
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 15, pR689–R692, 8 August 2016

Cover of the first issue of Der Spiegel after the election.

Friday, November 11, 2016

lighting the future

Edison-style incandescent lamps have disappeared from the shops. The energy-saving compact lamps that replaced them are also likely to go, and are already being replaced by even more energy-efficient LED lamps. But is this the best solution, the ultimate light bulb? Will they last as long as Edison's bright idea? In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry magazine I looked into new developments in lighting technology:

What a bright idea

Chemistry & Industry Volume 80, Issue 9, pp 22-25, DOI: 10.1002/cind.809_8.x

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Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Australian genomes

After rapidly developing the second and third generation sequencing methods that make it feasible and indeed affordable to sequence many human genomes, research has been slow to turn to address human genetic diversity (most of which is in Africa, not between the arbitrarily defined "races") and the migrations in which our ancestors spread out around the globe. Even though extinct relatives including Neanderthal and Denisovan have had their genomes published years ago, it's only now that Australia and Papua New Guinea are receiving adequate attention. The genomes of their indigenous populations cast a unique and revealing spotlight on the history of our species.

Read all about it in my latest feature:

Out of Africa, into Australia
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 21, 7 November 2016, Pages R1119–R1121

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Since modern humans expanded into the Australian continent some 40,000 years ago, they developed a rich landscape of cultural and linguistic diversity — until the arrival of the colonialists who failed to appreciate their ancient civilisation. (Photo: © Wayne Quilliam Photography/Yothu Yindu Foundation.)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

this old house

Now that our house has become a bit quieter, we’re doing some long-overdue repairs, and while uncovering the bricks and floorboards we’re also exploring some of its history, if only so we know who to blame if it falls down on us. Seriously though, if anybody happens to know any further details, please let me know.

The story starts in 1883, when the third batch of plots of our neighbourhood was sold to individuals for investment or development – the unique mix of many different styles still on display today is the result of this. Together with William Street, and the short stretch of Marston Road between these, this is the oldest part of New Marston. The oldest surviving buildings date to the 1880s.

On the 12th of February 1883, the Oxford Industrial and Provident Land and Building Society Ltd. sold the plot of land to Mr Harry Charles Poulter, of 59 George Street, Oxford, College Servant, for the sum of 12 pounds 10 shillings. The land is described as Lot 25, “a plot of freehold land in the parish of Marston, in the county of Oxford”. It is one of the 59 lots comprising the “No. 8 Estate”, which covers the last third of the area, most distant from the Marston Road (then the Main Road), but closest to the city. In our section, the plots are 22 foot wide, in the middle section they are the most generous at 24, and towards the Marston Road under 20. Our block is described as “coloured in blue”, but the blue has faded quite a bit in 130 years. Estates No. 6 and 7 are coloured yellow and pink, respectively. Come to think of it, it’s real life Monopoly, with blocks of properties tied together by colour.

On the same day, the plot situated back to back with ours, facing the back lane that is now Edgeway Road, which was then Lot 9 in the same batch, was sold to Frank Poulter, the younger brother of Harry Charles. Both can be found in Ancestry. Harry Charles was born in George Street Oxford, in 1850, where he still lived at the time of buying the land. He went on to marry Ellen and they had six children born between 1888 and 1900. His brother Frank was born in 1862. Their parents were Henry Poulter and Mary Ann Eaton.

On the 17th of April 1906, Mr Harry Charles Poulter (now residing at 26 Buckingham Street, Oxford) sold the plot to Miss Sarah Austin of 93 Southfield Road, Oxford for £ 19,-. The document we have on this transaction is dated 27.10.1913, obviously prepared to facilitate the onward sale now including a house.

On a map of the area dated 1910 the house is clearly shown, as well as 123 Edgeway Road, but no other houses towards the far ends of the roads:

On the 20th of November 1913, Miss Sarah Austin sold the plot to Mrs. Emma Andrews, complete with „the messuage or tenement erected thereon and now in the occupation of Thomas Austin“, along with the back-to-back plot in Edgeway Road (Lot 9), combined purchase price £ 160. In Kelly’s Directory of 1913 „Austin, Thomas, builder“ is listed as a New Marston resident without an indication of his specific address.

On 21.3.1938,Emma Andrews sold Lot 9, today known as 117 Edgeway Road, to Sidney Cooke and Harold Lisemore. On July 28th, 1940, Emma Andrews, then residing at 113 Sugworth Lane, Radley, Berkshire, died leaving her sister, Mrs. Rose Annie Timms, as well as Doris Silvester to execute her testament.

On August 9th, 1943, Rose Annie Timms, widow of Frederick Timms, 31 Culham, sold the house to Emily Gladys Maud Dore, 80 Great Clarendon Street, “spinster”, for £ 100.

On July 8th 1961, Emily Gladys Maud Dore, then resident at the house, died intestate. Her father, retired master carpenter Victor Henry Dore, was the only relative entitled to her estate and thus inherited the house, which in May 1964 he sold to the company Pristacott Developments (Towersey) Ltd., 57 High Street, Oxford, for £ 1400.

On July 27th 1964, Pristacott (now based at 43 New Inn Hall Street) obtained planning permission for an extension to create a bathroom and change the baywindow at the front. Of February 9th 1965, Pristacott obtains a more wide-ranging planning permission also including the garage: “Extension to form bathroom, porch and garage for private car”.

At least since the mid 1980s, and until his death in April 1993, the author, tutor and editor John Blackwood lived in the house. He used the garage to run a small publishing company, Charon Press, with the photographer David Collett of William Street, where they published their own books including “Oxford Gargoyles and Grotesques” (1986) and similar ones on Windsor’s gargoyles and “London’s immortals”. Being located in Ferry Road, the publishing house was named after the ferryman to the underworld of Greek mythology, who came early to pick up John Blackwood.

Open questions:

We're still unsure as to what the kitchen/bathroom arrangements may have been like before our current bathroom was built in 1964. The room plan may have been like this one. In contrast to that plan, the backside window of our dining room (kitchen in the old plan) appears to have been converted from a door, and right next to it the outside door of the kitchen(scullery) appears to be original (judging by the very Victorian brick arc at the top), but does that mean there was no internal door between dining room and kitchen?

Monday, October 24, 2016

edited crops

The genome editing method CRISPR-Cas promises genetic improvements in crops and livestock without the drawbacks of conventional GM. Regulators have given it carte blanche, but will consumers also accept it? Much depends on how this latest agricultural revolution will be communicated, and whether its potential to empower a wider range of participants (rather than encouraging a monopoly of the GM/Monsanto kind) will be realised.

I've explored these questions in my latest feature which is out now:

Harvest time for CRISPR-Cas?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 20, pR903–R905, 24 October 2016

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The mushroom Agaricus bisporus is the first food variant edited with the help of CRISPR-Cas technology and cleared by the US Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Leif K-Brooks.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

save the elephants

Elephants have been in the news a lot recently, with two international conservation conferences calling on countries to ban all internal ivory trade in line with the international trade ban that has already been in force for decades. The reason is a new crisis in poaching and ivory trading, caused this time by buyer interest from China.

Read my take on the situation here:

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 19, R865–R868, 10 October 2016

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Confiscated ivory items displayed ahead of the first official ivory crush held by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. (Photo: Gavin Shire/USFWS.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016


As the young cellist has moved out now, I am left to focus on my solo flute work (although there’s never a shortage of jolly company for playing a few folk tunes around here, so I’m keeping up some of those sessions as well). I’ve decided to post a musical still life for every work I’ve learned to play, starting with my very first Köchel number, K525, which is, of course, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, all four movements of it. I might play the third movement at the Festival next year, be afraid …

Next up is a work that Mozart actually wrote for flute, the Andante K315.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

butterflies decline

As our species systematically reduces the biodiversity of our home planet, many groups of species are in decline, but few have been so comprehensively observed as butterflies and moths. Other insects may be more important for ecosystem health, but butterflies are beautiful, so they get plenty of attention. Which is also good, as it enables scientists to analyse biodiversity loss across vast areas and through centuries, using the accumulated amateur observations as well as specimen collections kept in museums.

Read more about butterflies in my latest feature which is out now:

Butterflies take a well-studied tumble

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 18, pR823–R825, 26 September 2016

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Der Schmetterlingsjäger (The butterfly hunter) by Carl Spitzweg, 1840. Source.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

megadam mania

I used to think that dams and hydroelectric power plants are generally a good thing as they produce renewable energy which should more than offset any problems they may cause locally. I learned from my research for this latest feature, however, that large dams in tropical climates tend to release methane produced by fermentation of submerged vegetation and algae. In the worst-case scenario, this may mean that a large dam built in the wrong place may be no better for the climate than the equivalent gas-fired power stations. If we're very lucky, someone might find a way of collecting all that methane - by burning it one could both produce more energy and reduce its climate impact. But while this kind of solution is still in the dream stage, countries like Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo keep building ginormous dams.

Read all about it:

A global megadam mania

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 17, pR779–R782, 12 September 2016

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The Three Gorges Dam in China is currently the largest power plant of any kind, but maybe not for much longer ...

By Source file: Le Grand PortageDerivative work: Rehman - File:Three_Gorges_Dam,_Yangtze_River,_China.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

a fond farewell

Rainer Jaenicke 1930-2016

My old professor or Doktorvater, as we like to call PhD supervisors in Germany once the title is in the bag, died at the end of July aged 85. Throughout our shared project (one year final year thesis plus three years doctoral thesis) he was a generous friend more than a boss, and remained one in the 23 years after. So, I’ll try to honour him with an obituary, which is not a format I have often had to write, but as time goes on, one does tend to have more farewells to make. Here’s my first attempt, I may add to it later.

Rainer Jaenicke was the youngest of the four children of a semi-famous chemist, Johannes Jaenicke (1888-1984), who during the Weimar Republic was the assistant of Nobel Laureate Fritz Haber, assisting, among other projects, with the doomed attempt to isolate gold from sea water to pay off Germany’s debt, and his wife Erna Buttermilch (1895-1961).

Johannes Jaenicke spent much of his long life meticulously compiling material for a biography of the great chemist and controversial figure (Haber’s ammonia synthesis process produces half the nitrogen contained in the bodies of the world population, but he also pioneered the use of chemical weapons), but, as he lost his eyesight with age, he ended up being unable to write it. All existing biographies of Haber are based on Johannes Jaenicke’s extensive collection, which has been archived by the Max Planck Society.

His three sons all became professors of some kind of chemistry. Walther Jaenicke (1921-2011) of physical chemistry at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg; Lothar Jaenicke (1923-2015) of biochemistry at Cologne, and Rainer Jaenicke of biophysical chemistry at Regensburg.

The one thing I know about Rainer Jaenicke’s childhood in Frankfurt is that at age 13, he teamed up with a young pianist who accompanied his flute playing, Agathe Calvelli-Adorno. They lived happily ever after, as they say, and played music together for over 70 years.

Both families had partial Jewish background and suffered for it during the Nazi time, but made it through. Her Jewish grandmother was deported to concentration camp Theresienstadt and died soon after liberation. The Jaenicke brothers saw their career options limited by being fractionally Jewish according to the Nazi arithmetics (through their mother) but made up for it after the end of the “1000 years”.

Rainer Jaenicke married his pianist just before he obtained his PhD in physical chemistry with Hermann Hartmann (1914-1984) in Frankfurt, started a family, and got his Habilitation in 1963. With their children, they set off to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked with Max Lauffer (1914-2012) until 1969. Soon after his return he secured a professorship at the newly founded University of Regensburg, Bavaria. He took the chair for biophysical chemistry, which he held until his retirement in 1999. I believe he also served on the committee that commissioned / chose the around 30 major artworks that are scattered around the campus. For a project of this size it was a legal obligation to have a certain amount of “Kunst am Bau”, and there is a nice little book, called “Rund um die Kugel,” discussing all the artworks.

From the US, he brought back the research interest of protein assembly systems such as tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) – a classical system to study self-assembly which in my student days was still used in the practical biochemistry course in his department. From there, his research interests widened to protein folding and stability, including stability under extreme physical conditions like salinity, high and low temperatures and high pressures, which is where my thesis happened.

By the 1990s, one of his trademarks was to keep old-fashioned physical methods of analysis alive, especially analytical ultracentrifugation. This method involves spinning a sample so fast (40,000 rpm would be a typical speed) that large molecules such as proteins are gradually pulled out of solution by the centrifugal force. And this happens in a transparent cell, such that one can shine light through the sample and actually watch the molecules go down.

During my time in the lab (1989-1993) he kept two Beckman model E centrifuges alive and spinning, which was an achievement in itself, as the company had stopped making and indeed servicing these instruments, each the size of a generously-proportioned wardrobe, some time in the 1980s. Several dead machines in the basement were cannibalised for spares. As he was reluctant to persuade students to dedicate three or four years of their lives to an extinct technology, he did many of the centrifugation runs himself, and had great fun fiddling around with the machines.

And right he was too, because around that time, Beckman changed their mind and decided to develop a new instrument from scratch. I vividly remember Howard Schachman (1918-2016 - he died a week after RJ) visiting the lab, another model E aficionado, recalling how the company asked him for advice. As they had closed down the relevant department many years ago and fired everybody who knew anything about analytical ultracentrifuges, they were facing an uphill struggle trying to build a new one. But they got there in the end, and the instruments are now a bit more compact, so they can sit on a lab bench and feed their results to a computer.

As a supervisor, he was very generous with ideas, suggestions and help in establishing collaboration opportunities. I had collaborations with five labs outside Regensburg, four of which he enabled with phone calls to the relevant group leaders (the fifth was someone I met at a conference). While always ready to offer this kind of help and support, he never ever told me what to do – I had a rather painful awakening when I moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship in the UK and lost some 95% of the freedom I had been used to.

Part of the reason for my freedom was in the fact that during my doctoral thesis I was the only person in the lab working on the effects of high hydrostatic pressure. There were crowds of protein folding people and of those doing thermal stability, a few looking at salinity. Thus, there was no need for higher level co-ordination, there was no risk of my work overlapping anybody else’s, and I could basically do whatever I wanted. In this situation, as my own sub-group leader, and as I was also writing my own papers from day one, I put the asterisk indicating the correspondence author behind my name, just on the naïve assumption that he wouldn’t want to be troubled with the paperwork. He never queried that – only when we wrote a review together after I left the lab did he regain the asterisk, which any other professor would have claimed as their statutory right throughout.

Incidentally, he didn’t try to steer his children into a certain direction either. His daughter became a nurse, his sons an actor and an artist. He always highlighted their career choices – very unusual for a family of chemists – with pride, contrasting them to the children of colleagues (presumably including, though not mentioning, his brother) who were groomed to follow in the scientific tradition.

During my Regensburg years, I gained the impression that he had never really adapted to the Bavarian temperament of the people around him. Regensburg being a modern university serving a regional constituency (as opposed to the ancient universities like Heidelberg which attract students from all of Germany and indeed abroad), even most of the faculty colleagues had a conspicuous regional accent - not just in their language but also in their thinking and (conservative) worldview. He probably found he had more in common with the many international visitors he invited to Regensburg than with his immediate colleagues and next-door neighbours.

Thus, even though regulations for professors of his generation would have enabled him to use university facilities as an emeritus indefinitely, it was no big surprise to hear that in the late 1990s, after retiring at 68, he moved to the small town of Schwalbach am Taunus, within S-Bahn commuting distance of the city of Frankfurt, which he routinely referred to as home. The couple bought a bungalow – modest looking on the ground floor, but with a basement doubling the area and providing an impressive exhibition space for works of their artist son, Alexander Calvelli, as well as other graphic works which they collected. There were also guest rooms complete with musical instruments – visitors had the choice of sleeping in the presence of a harpsichord or a grand piano.

For nearly two decades, they kept a busy social and musical life at Schwalbach. The last time I visited, in the spring of 2014, the onset of memory loss was noticeable, although he could still play music. His condition gradually worsened to cut him off from the outside world, with the impressions from music remaining the last connection.

some items from my collection of RJ memorabilia ...

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