Monday, July 27, 2015

platypuses in translation

I'm very pleased to report that my book "The birds, the bees and the platypuses" is now available in Arabic translation thanks to the Hindawi Foundation (set up by Ahmed Hindawi), a non-profit publishing operation aiming to make the world's knowledge accessible in that language.

The steadily growing list of titles they've translated is here (in English). Details of my book are here (in Arabic). I understand the print edition costs $10, and electronic versions are also available.

This is a screenshot, as in my attempt to save the cover image from the site I lost the writing on the cover. No idea how that can happen. Also, I'm afraid the cover features an inverted helix, but I'll let this pass for once.

Monday, July 20, 2015

animals on the move

Thanks to the ongoing revolution in communication technology which now tracks our every move, it is also much easier to track wild animals, even small ones. What's more by tracking many and diverse animals, we can learn more about the biosphere than was possible previously, as animals can become reporters in the service of science, and may help their own survival in the process.

I've discussed these things and the recent book "Das Internet der Tiere " (The internet of animals), shown below, in my latest feature in Current Biology which came out today:

Animal moves reveal bigger picture
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 14, pR585–R588, 20 July 2015
Summary and limited access to full text and PDF download
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Das Internet der Tiere: Der neue Dialog zwischen Mensch und Natur, by Alexander Pschera, October 2014.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

beyond silicon

Moore's law, the famous (partially self-fulfilling) prophecy that has defined the current technology revolution, turned 50 this spring, and, give or take a few tweaks, it's still holding up ok. However, we are now in sight of some serious physical limits to the further improvements possible with silicon technology. Thus, experts are asking what comes beyond silicon, and in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry I have rounded up some of the answers, both speculative and real-world ones.

Beyond Silicon

Chemistry & Industry No. 7, pp 42-45

limited access to full text and PDF download.

This all reminds me of the 1990s, when we were also worrying about limits to chip technology, only then it was the wavelength of visible light that limited the optical techniques. Overcoming these limits enabled the boom in nanotechnology and all of today's communication tech. Exotic alternatives such as molecular computation, which I discussed in a chapter in this book:

were already explored back then, but remain in the realm of the less likely paths today.

In the same issue, there's also my review of the book

Low cost emergency water purification technologies by Ray and Jain.

Monday, June 29, 2015

why reduce harm

... when you could go and lock up harmless people?

Well, ahem, don't get me started on the psychoactive substances bill which is currently on its way through UK parliament and may well become law. I find it ironic that this steaming pile of b****t, which will make totally harmless substances like nitrous oxide (used in childbirth and whipping cream, no less) illegal, shows up at the same time as the commercial success of e-cigarettes demonstrates that harm reduction is possible. Sadly though, reducing harm is not what our government wants. Appeasing the Daily Mail is more important, obviously.

Anyhow. My feature juxtaposing these two issues is out now in Current Biology:

Drugs: blanket ban or harm reduction?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 13, pR523–R525, 29 June 2015
Summary and limited access to full text
(should become openly accessible one year after publication)

Laughing gas has been safely used for over two centuries, as this cartoon from the early 19th century exemplifies.

PS (14.7.2015) Today, the Anyone's Child, a group of families who lost children to the war on drugs (including Anne-Marie Cockburn, mother of Oxford teenager Martha Fernback who did two years ago), are taking their petition for a drugs policy based on harm reduction to Downing Street. You can sign their petition here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

folding into 3D

There have been exciting developments recently involving one- and two-dimensional structures that can be induced to buckle or fold into complex three-dimensional architectures. I've explored these in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry, which is now online:

Scientific origami
Chemistry & Industry Volume 79, Issue 6, pages 26–29, June 2015
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

A sneaky preview of the first page (as shown on the Wiley Online Library page):

On page 49 of the same issue there is also my review of the book:

The price of global health: drug pricing strategies to balance patient access and the funding of innovation

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

pee-back time

The round-up of German pieces published in June covers African genomics, gene editing, and advanced materials reflecting urine from the much peed-upon walls of St. Pauli district in Hamburg.

Crispr-Cas: Gen-Schere weckt Neugier, Hoffnungen und Ängste
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 3, page 158, Juni 2015
Abstract and restricted access to full text.
related content in English

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Afrikas Genome
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 647-649
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Clochemerle 2.0
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63,751

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

little birds lost

Some large iconic bird species have recovered across Europe, but many less conspicuous ones are still declining. Even "common" species like the house sparrow have suffered dramatic declines, and ecologists have argued that their loss in abundance may make more of an impact than than the plight of the rarer birds that conservation efforts tend to focus on.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology which is out now:

Europe’s bird populations in decline
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 12, pR483–R485, 15 June 2015
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.057
Abstract and restricted access to full text
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

PS In lieu of a bird picture, enjoy this beautiful dinosaur on the cover of the issue:

Monday, June 01, 2015

genome editing

Some time around 1994, I heard freshly-minted Nobel laureate Tom Cech (one of the discoverers of natural RNA enzymes, aka ribozymes) give a talk in Oxford, and he finished by saying that most of what he had presented happened thanks to his brilliant post-doc, and we should remember her name, she would go on to do great things. That post-doc was Jennifer Doudna, who now has a very good chance to get a Nobel prize herself for her work on CRISPR-Cas, the “bacterial immune system”, which Doudna and others turned into a turbo-charged gene editing tool.

Currently, researchers are still teasing out some very fundamental details of how this system works in the wild, while its application in the laboratory is turning the world of genetics upside down, as it allows gene editing with unprecedented ease. And while US scientists are holding meetings to call for a moratorium on its application to the human germline, a team in China has proceeded to to just that.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology. If I got my counts right, this must be the 100th in the new format we introduced in February 2011, when I started providing a feature for every issue of the magazine (i.e. two per month). I think I only missed 3 issues since then, so I guess it worked out quite nicely. So here’s number 100:

Bacterial scissors to edit human embryos?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 11, pR439–R442, 1 June 2015

Abstract and restricted access to full text

(should become open access one year after publication)

Monday, May 25, 2015

busking protest

We had great fun last Thursday busking "non-compliantly" to protest against Oxford City Council’s plans to use a new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) to attach the threat of large fines and a criminal record to “non-compliant busking” i.e. anything that their staff consider to be in violation of the busking code. Much like the notorious ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders), the PSPOs are a malicious trick to criminalise behaviours that were previously considered minor misdemeanours. (They also wanted to do the same to criminalise rough sleeping and charge homeless people fines, but the public outcry made them reconsider that part of the plan. NB they're not even the only Labour council to try that.)

The code as such isn’t all that bad. Apart from the much-ridiculed requirement to smile while you're playing (impossible for flautists and other wind players!), I think the ban on CD sales should be removed. It’s been ignored for years, but when the council started to police it last summer, they scared away some of the best busking acts we had, including PerKelt.

Green Party councillors were very supportive and patient listeners. I think the council is still going to debate the changes on June 11, so maybe the Greens can still persuade the Labour majority to fix the problems and withdraw the threat of criminalising harmless musicians?

own picture. A selection of seven pictures appears on my street music blog on tumblr.

 

Further info and updates (newest at the top):

On 11.6., the scheduled decision day, as we held another protest busk, the news broke that a legal intervention from Liberty delivered the same morning had succeeded in persuading the council to think again. Let's hope they arrive at a better conclusion when they're done with it. Oh, and here's a recording of the busking protest orchestra performing "Creep" by Radiohead. I think this was the first attempt, it got better by the third time round.

2.6. The scrutiny committee has unanimously passed the recommendation that the code of conduct should be reviewed before it can be hitched up to the PSPO. However, only 3 (out of 12 or so) members supported a motion to remove non-compliant busking from the PSPO altogether.

ITV coverage broadcast regionally on 29.5.

The next busking protest jam session will be on June 11, meet Cornmarket Street at 3pm.

Scrutiny committee meeting on PSPOs will take place on Tue June 2nd, 6 pm, town hall.

BBC news item with a photo of me tooting my flute

Daily Telegraph coverage - I understand this was on the front page of the paper on the day after our protest.

21.5. event page on facebook

Keep Streets Live

online petition

Paula Cocozza about PSPOs.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

oxford alumni divest

In my recent feature on “25 years of climate change failure” I reported among other things the ongoing campaign of Oxford students to persuade the University to divest its massive £ 3.8 billion endowment from all fossil fuel investments.

After deferring the decision in March, the university’s governing body has last Monday chosen a path of the smallest possible action which, with a lot of good will, could be spun as “doing something”. Specifically, the university has asked its money people not to buy any investment in coal or tar sands in the future, as these are the dirtiest kinds of fossil fuels. As I understand it, the university doesn’t hold any such investments at the moment anyway, so it’s not divesting from anything, it’s just promising not to commit any major crimes against our climate in the future. (While they’re sorting out their ethics, maybe they could also pledge not to buy or sell any slaves?)

Nearly 70 Oxford alumni have now protested against this failure to act more decisively by handing back their degrees. The photos below are from a slightly improvised reverse degree ceremony held today outside the University Offices in Wellington Square (proper degree ceremonies are held at the Sheldonian Theatre hence the pun “Shelldonian”). The 59 degrees sent in beforehand were lined up at the start of the event, to which the nine participants added theirs in the course of the ceremony. At the end, the alumni successfully divested from the black stuff, namely the gowns and mortarboards.

Prominent alumni who have pledged to hand their degrees (although I’m not sure if they already have) include environmental campaigner George Monbiot and solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett.

All photos my own.

Further reading

Other reports on the university's decision:

Damian Carrington in the Guardian

Miriam Chapman on Fossil Free UK

Similar problems elsewhere:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ocean worlds

A few years ago, I reviewed "The goldilocks planet" by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, which gave an excellent fast-track account of our planet's climate history.

Now the authors have again provided a very insightful, big-picture view of our home planet, this time focusing on the oceans, which are, after all, the most important factor in making our planet habitable and setting it apart from the around 2000 other planets we know of so far:

Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets.

In my latest "long-essay" review I have discussed the book in the context of astrobiology. You can find the review in the current issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Chemistry & Industry 2015, issue 5, p 48
(restricted access)

or email me for a PDF file. Or just buy the book.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

arks or prisons?

In my latest feature in Current Biology I've explored the ethical quandaries around animals being held captive in zoos and aquariums. Starting from a binary of the animal ark vs animal prison kind, I discovered that there is a third dimension to it as zoos are increasingly also using their expertise to help animal conservation in situ, i.e. in the natural habitat where they belong.

Read all about it:

Can zoos offer more than entertainment?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 10, pR391–R394, 18 May 2015
Abstract and restricted access to full text
(article should become openly accessible one year after publication)

Expatriate animals in Lille, France (own photo).

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