Monday, May 23, 2016

lumbricus terrestris

Earthworms have found very little appreciation in mainstream biology ever since their biggest fan, Mr Charles Darwin, died. Now, however, several projects are underway aiming to reveal the ecology, diversity and economic benefits of worms and other soil invertebrates - including a new Earthwatch-sponsored "citizen science" project encouraging you to survey the earthworms in your garden. Read all about it in my latest feature which is out now:

Putting earthworms on the map

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 10, pR387–R390, 23 May 2016

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Darwin’s interest in earthworms led to the publication, in the last year of his life, of a book about them. This is a caricature of Darwin’s theory in the Punch almanac for 1882, published at the end of 1881, just after publication of his book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations of their Habits. (Image: PD-ART(cc PD-old-100)/Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, May 09, 2016

drawing life

I always wanted to do something on scientific illustration, so the current exhibition of Maria Sibylla Merian's Suriname insects, and the forthcoming 300th anniversary of her death were a good excuse to give in to that. My feature on biology illustration from Merian to this day is out today:

Putting biology in the picture

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 9, pR343–R346, 9 May 2016

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Maria Sibylla Merian, Grape Vine with Gaudy Sphinx Moth, 1702–3, is on display as part of the exhibition Maria Merian’s Butterflies at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 9 October. (Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.)

Friday, April 29, 2016

april book reviews

The April issue of Chemistry & Industry includes two book reviews from me, on page 40 a long one on

Still only one Earth:
Progress in the 40 years since the first UN Conference on the Environment.

R. E. Hester and R. M. Harrison, eds.
RSC publishing, 2015
(vol 40 of the series: Issues in Environmental Science and Technology)
ISBN 978-1-78262-076-1


"This look back over four decades is bound to produce a quaint mixture of issues that have been fixed and are thus mainly of historic interest, such as the ozone hole and leaded fuel, and on the other hand issues in progress that should have been solved but haven’t, such as climate change and local pollution in the rapidly growing economies like China and India."

... and on the following page a short one on

Einstein’s dice and Schrödinger’s cat:
How two great minds battled quantum randomness to create a unified theory of physics

Paul Halpern
Basic Books 2015
ISBN 978-0-465-07571-3


"Simplifying the complex network of the physicists that shaped our current world view by focusing on a subset of two, this analysis shows that it is not just the individualities of each that shape the process, but also the interactions between them."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

licence to smell

The slightly belated roundup of German pieces published in April (there were none in March, I think) includes the whiff of dead people as well as the underappreciated sense of smell of living people, a dead chemist who could have become Bond, the rise and rise of vegetarian mycoprotein products (such as Quorn (TM)), a potential treatment for cataracts, and the question why elephants rarely get cancer.

Wir können besser riechen als wir denken
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 140-143.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

See also my feature in English, which is now on open access.

Grauer Star: Aggregate aufgelöst
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 83.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Die Notbremse
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 88-89.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Mykoprotein als Fleischersatz
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 403-405.
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Beinahe Bond
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 446.
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Ausgeforscht: Ätherisches Nachleben
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 487.
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Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen has studied the smell lexicon of hunter-gatherer societies in South Asia. The photo shows her sampling the smell of wild ginger during a field trip to the Jahai in Malaysia. (Photo: Niclas Burenhult, Lund University, Sweden.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

two billion cars

Earlier this year I stumbled across economists' projections that there will be 2 billion motor vehicles on the roads by 2030. We passed one billion some time around 2010. So the car population will double within 20 years. Maybe the scariest part of this is that those economists seem to think that this is a good thing, and how lovely that people will have to buy fuel for those (because the vast majority will still run on fossil fuels!) and what opportunities that will bring for economic growth.

Well, put that together with the facts that nearly all Diesel cars emit more than they are allowed to, the ongoing scandal of VW's emission test cheating, and that people in cities like London are actually dying prematurely due to this pollution, and the road building that destroys the rest of the natural environment left on this planet, and all that gets me quite angry enough to write a couple of thousand words in a few hours. For comic relief I have thrown in a photo from last year's World Naked Bike Ride - virtually the only visible protest against car culture these days.

My feature is out today:

A planet with two billion cars

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 8, 25 April 2016, Pages R307–R310

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People look much nicer without cars (and clothes) - Bristol WNBR 2015

Friday, April 22, 2016

how to hammer a dulcimer

We seem to have given birth to a new string instrument, and now I'm trying to rationalise what happened:

So the young musician in the family wanted a hammered dulcimer. Her mother found a build-your-own instruction online. Her grandad helped her build the box. And I helped with the bridges and all the metal that goes on top (20 hitch pins, 40 tuning pins, more than 30 metres of piano wire for 20 courses of strings). And miraculously, the international 3-generation project actually resulted in a real musical instrument, which is now playable:

And here's what it sounds like shortly after completion of the work:

It's not very difficult to play (essentially it works like a xylophone with strings) and the construction isn't too challenging either. We disobeyed the instruction in adding more courses on the bass bridge, and by making the treble and bass bridges in one piece each with holes in it, rather than as many little ones.

With hindsight, I would suggest that the "simplification" of building the box rectangular rather than as a trapezoid as in commercially available dulcimers is causing as much trouble on the strings side as it avoids on the box building side, so I might one day try to do one with the proper shape. As for the cost, it's just under £ 4 per course of 2 strings for the metal work - plus the wood, paint glue etc. if you don't have that lying around anyway. In our household we probably have several dulcimers worth of broken furniture that could be recycled, so watch this space.

Monday, April 18, 2016

bike to work

lots of European countries have programmes encouraging people to cycle to work, like for instance:

Austria: Radelt zur Arbeit

Denmark: Vi cykler til arbejde

Germany: Mit dem Rad zur Arbeit

Netherlands: Fietsen naar het Werk

Norway Sykle til jobben

To find similar campaigns near you (even a few small ones in the UK), check:

Bike 2 Work

Speaking of bicycles, our tandem, which served us faithfully from 2005 to 2014, has now left the premises, donated to a community bike workshop where it will be restored hopefully find a new lease of life.

Monday, April 11, 2016

animal internet

Last July, in a feature about advanced applications of technology in animal tracking for ecology, I mentioned the book "Das Internet der Tiere" by Alexander Pschera. I'm very pleased to hear that an English translation of this fascinating book is coming out this week, published by the New Vessel Press. Here is what I wrote in the introduction to my feature last year:
"More than 50,000 wild animals are currently equipped with tracking devices that record their moves and in many cases additional data about their physiology, their environment, their behaviour, or their interactions with other animals. Due to the miniaturisation of electronic devices and improvements in communication technology, the opportunities have expanded to reasonably non-invasive tagging of smaller animals including small birds and even larger insects.
This trend produces more than just a large stash of “big data” in ecology. As the author Alexander Pschera has argued, it creates the “internet of animals” in analogy with the much-hyped internet of things – which is why his book, published in German, is also called “Das Internet der Tiere” (2014). Some tagged animals already have their social media profiles where human fans can follow their moves.
Pschera’s favourite animal, the Northern bald ibis or waldrapp (Geronticus eremita) also has an online presence that allows the author to stay in touch. The waldrapp has been virtually extinct in the Alps but a successful, technology-guided reintroduction effort from the EU-funded project Waldrapp Team brought the birds back. Echoing the 1996 movie Fly away home, the team used light aircraft to teach the birds their historic migration route which had fallen into oblivion.
As they are still highly endangered, the birds are closely monitored. Martin Wikelski – a pioneer of the internet of animals – and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology at Radolfzell, Germany, have recently developed solar-powered GPS tags for the waldrapps, which could, in principle enable tracking an animal for its whole lifetime without the need for recapture. Thus, their fans can follow their every move, and the team relies on social media including Facebook to publicise the cause (
Pschera argues that this phenomenon creates a new interface between us humans and our natural environment, with which we have somewhat lost contact due to the technical progress and urbanisation of the 20th century. Like in pre-industrial times, wild animals will once more be able to teach us many things about the world we live in. As Wikelski puts it in his preface to Pschera’s book: “Humanity as a whole will receive the support of a guide dog, to finally realise Humboldt’s ideal of understanding nature […] through the interplay of its constituent parts.” This revolution takes place simultaneously on land, in the oceans, and in the air."

(The feature is still behind the paywall but should come out into the open one year after publication, i.e. on July 20th.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Australia's wildlife in peril

As the Great Barrier Reef is beginning to suffer catastrophic bleaching from the current El Niño warming, Australia's unique biodiversity on land is also under threat from deforestation and habitat loss. I've rounded up a few of the issues currently being fought over especially in Queensland in my latest feature which is out now:

Fate of Australia's wildlife in the balance

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 7, 4 April 2016, Pages R257–R259

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The iconic koala is one of many species losing large areas of habitat as deforestation accelerates in the state of Queensland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

one plucky little ship

As Ireland commemorates the centenary of the Easter Rising, I’ll chip in with what little I know about a relative of mine who played a small role in this story, as second officer on the Aud (Libau), which was to deliver weapons to the Irish rebels.

Walter Düsselmann was born at Krefeld 22.12.1882 the third of five children of August Düsselmann (1844-1899) and Anna Josephine Hagermes. August was the founding director of Krefeld’s fire brigade when it became professional in 1890. He was one of 13 children from this "Krefeld clan" benefiting from that town's silk weaving boom.

In 1904, Walter was steward on the ship Elfrieda, from Rotterdam to Portland, Oregon, arrival 21.5.

In 1913, he was third officer on the Volturno, which caught fire in the North Atlantic on 11.10. 1913. The ship carried 657 people including 500 migrants from Rotterdam to New York. It had to be evacuated completely, with nine other vessels coming to the rescue. Heavy seas made the rescue operation difficult, and 136 people died in the disaster.

In March 1916, he was recruited as second officer on the Libau, with the mission to evade the sea blockade and to deliver arms to Ireland’s Easter revolution. Masquerading as the Norwegian fishing vessel Aud, the Libau took the long route to Ireland, via the Arctic circle.

Against considerable odds, the ship reached its destination, the town of Tralee on Ireland’s west coast, on April 20, but its signals remained unanswered. (The Easter Rising began on Monday 24.4.) It was then captured by the Royal Navy and escorted to the harbour of Queenstown on the southern coast, where the crew destroyed the ship to keep the weapons out of enemy hands.

The crew were held prisoners between two and four years. The captain of the ship, Karl Spindler, later wrote a book about the adventure, with the occasional honourable mention of Walter's contributions.

At Christmas 1921, Walter gave a copy of Spindler’s book, published that year, to his cousin Josephine Bender (1881-1966). The book is still in the possession of Josephine’s descendants.

On 17.10.1943 Walter died in the war, not clear where.

In 2012, one of the anchors of the Aud is retrieved from the wreck and conserved under the supervision of the National Museum of Ireland.

Descendants of Aud crew members have called for the crew to be honoured in the course of the centenary celebration, but no specific recognition has been offered so far.

Strangely, I can't even find a crew list online, so I'll just type it out here, as given in Spindler's book (leaving out military titles, filling in first names where I know them):
1. Kommandant: Kurt Spindler
2. I. Offizier: O. Heß
3. II. Offizier: Walter Düsselmann
4. Obermaschinist: P. Rost
5. II. Maschinist: K. Hauenschild
6. III. Maschinist: Wilhelm Augustin (1890)-1972)
7. W. Bruns, Steward
8. R. Strehlau
9. P. Mathiesen
10. Friedrich Schmitz (1892-1977)
11. A. Schabbel
12. A. Hoffmann, Schiffskoch
13. Signalgast K. Battermann
14. Chr. Meyer
15. F. Schildknecht
16. P. Gutzner
17. H. (Jans) Dunker (1891-1978)
18. G. Pöhlmann
19. I. Kuligofski
20. A. Böthling
21. G. Schmidt
22. H. Brock

Map from Spindler's book.


Arthur Spurgeon: The burning of the Volturno, Cassell and Company Ltd. London, 1913.

Karl Spindler: Das geheimnisvolle Schiff. Die Fahrt der Libau zur irischen Revolution, August Scherl Verlag, Berlin, 1921. English translation published as: Gun running for Casement in the Easter Rebellion, 1916. W. Collins 1921.

Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del Celta. / The dream of the Celt

Monday, March 21, 2016

plague's progress

Here in Europe we have the plague so firmly associated with the Middle Ages that many are not aware that the disease's causative agent, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is still going strong in natural reservoirs eg in the western parts of the US. At the moment we don't need to worry too much, as it can be easily treated with antibiotics, but what if it develops multidrug resistance? Or if some unsavoury characters develop it as bioweapon complete with drug resistance?

Reason enough to worry a bit and to look at the trail of destruction that Yersinia has left in the past as well as its current presence and future risks. All this cheerful stuff appears in my latest feature which is out now:

A plague on mankind
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 6, p R219–R221, 21 March 2016
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The feature will become freely accessible one year after publication.

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The city of Marseille suffered the last major outbreak of the second plague pandemic in Europe in spite of sophisticated quarantine procedures. After heavy casualties, the epidemic was confined to this area and died down there. This contemporary engraving is by the artist Michel Serre (1658–1733), who distinguished himself in the city’s response to the disaster. (Photo: Robert Valette/Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

clear coast

People in Norway are kept very busy cleaning marine litter off their famously fractal coastline. Bo Eide, who was involved with my first feature on the issue, has just told me that they have made another video, Ren Kyst II. Like the first one, it's a very neat clip on a very messy subject:

See also my more recent feature focusing on microplastics, from February 2015, so it must be freely accessible now.

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