Monday, August 22, 2016

talking to animals

Inspired by the recent news of mutual communication between honeyguide birds and humans, I have had a look at our exchanges with other animals, including barking and meowing ones. The resulting feature is out now:

Talking with animals:

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 16, pR739–R742, 22 August 2016

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Magic link for free access
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The Yao in northern Mozambique cooperate with honeyguide birds to raid bees’ nests, which the birds locate and the humans then break up to provide food for both. Humans and birds have specific calls for their joint honey-hunting expeditions, which have been established for several centuries at least. (Photo: Claire N. Spottiswoode.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

never too late

Never too late: My musical life story
by John Holt
Delacorte 1978; Da Capo 1991

After years of troubling the family class at the Oxford Music Festival in a duo with the young cellist, I also tried my luck as a solo flautist in the late beginners class this year. As I produced my first note on the flute at age 35, I considered myself qualified for this event. The adjudicator made lots of encouraging noises and recommended John Holt’s book to the class, consisting only of me and a pianist, mentioning that the author had taken up flute and cello at a similarly advanced age.

Closer inspection revealed that Holt had started the flute at 35 and the cello at 40, which quite closely matches the ages at which I got involved with the same instruments, so I just had to read the book to find out how he got to that point. (Part of my trajectory is outlined in this blog entry about our family cello.)

So I found out that the author had no exposure to music at home (must be bad when he writes down the five notes that his grandfather used to whistle as a musical influence!) and discovered singing when he joined the glee club late in high school. Having had no luck with music at college, he briefly sang in a barbershop quartet in his 20s, later taught himself three chords on the guitar, still blissfully unaware of what the #s and bs were for. Asked a musician what orchestral instrument to learn and was recommended the flute. Got on alright but dropped out when life got busy, then discovered the cello and threw himself into learning it. At the time of writing (in his early 50s) he was busy playing in three different amateur ensembles every week and practicing four hours a day.

In real life, Holt tried teaching, got disillusioned, and ended up writing books about education policy, home schooling and “un-schooling”, so he also has interesting observations on the process of learning in people of all ages. The important messages in this book are that 1) the widely held beliefs that many people are “tone-deaf” and that the ability to learn a musical instrument to amateur proficiency is rare are plain wrong, and 2) while an early start has its advantages, a late start also has some.

Like the adjudicator I would recommend the book to any grown-up toying with the idea or feeling the urge to learn an instrument. It’s the perfect protection against those who try to tell you you’re too old – as the head of a council music school told me at the ripe old age of 16. Holt’s story shows that it’s never too late.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

exoplanetary chemistry

In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry I have covered some recent developments in the discovery and chemical analysis of exoplanets, as well as the Breakthrough Listen programme, aiming to detect communications from their inhabitants.

Life among the stars

Chemistry & Industry vol 80, issue 7 (Aug. 2016), pp 18-21.

Free access to full text (HTML) via SCI.

Restricted access to full text and PDF download via Wiley Online Library.

In other astrobiology news, Germany now has a scientific society dedicated to this field, the Deutsche Astrobiologische Gesellschaft (DAbG). The founding meeting will be at the workshop "Astrobiology: Life in the context of cosmic evolution." at Berlin-Adlershof, Aug 31 to Sep 2. Programme.

Poster of the event.

Monday, August 08, 2016

progress ends here

As a non-British EU citizen living in the UK and likely to be affected by Brexit if and when it happens, I've had to spend a few weeks reading up on the referendum and all the other crazy things happening in the world right now, so I was glad to get the opportunity to write up what I think I understood in a feature for Current Biology. (Always handy when obsessive reading magically turns into valuable research.)

The theme that links Brexit to the rise of Trump, Le Pen, and other populist candidates appears to be that developments of the last three decades like scientific and social progress, European unification, globalisation, etc. have left far too many people behind, who now constitute the angry voters that are ready to elect populists offering reactionary recipes and simple lies in response to the complex questions of today's world.

For a somewhat more detailed analysis, read:

Angry voters may turn back the clock

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 15, pR689–R692, 8 August 2016

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Large pro-EU demonstrations, unheard of before the referendum, were held in London and other cities after the vote. The narrow margin of the result as well as the false promises that were withdrawn the day after the vote led to calls for a new referendum based on an actual plan of how an exit might work. (Photo: höRticuLtora/flickr.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

disappearing forests

My latest feature is about deforestation in Eastern Europe - of the legal kind in Poland and of the illegal kind in Romania. Oh, and I also managed to get a mention in for Chernobyl - at least one place in Europe where wildlife is left in peace.

Europe's last wilderness threatened

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 14, pR641–R643, 25 July 2016

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(should become open access one year after publication)

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Białowieża forest,Poland (Photo: Ralf Lotys/Wikipedia.)

Monday, July 11, 2016

heads of the dead

today's issue of Current Biology includes a special section on the "Biology of Death". My contribution was inspired by the recent exhibition "The Skull - Icon. Myth. Cult." which I saw at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Völklingen Ironworks near Saarbrücken, Germany, back in May, as well as by the famous shrunken heads at Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, not far from our home. The feature rounds up various ways in which different cultures have preserved and manipulated the heads of family, friends and foes for various reasons.

Read all about it:

Heads of the dead

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 13, pR544–R547, 11 July 2016

Restricted access to HTML full text and PDF download - should become open access one year after publication.

magic link for free access, works up to 7 weeks after publication).

The Latmul in Papua New Guinea honoured notable ancestors by sculpting a new, beautiful face onto their exhumed skulls, using clay and shells. This is an example from the Gabriel Max collection. (own photo)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

weird science

You might say my articles about science are all weird, but now I have one that actually appeared under the title Weird science, and that's a first. It is about quantum biology, a new(ish) interdisciplinary field that looks at some of the more surprising aspects of quantum mechanics and their role in biology.

The feature appears in Chemistry & Industry Volume 80, Issue 6, pages 22–25, July 2016
free access to full text in HTML format via SCI website
abstract, first page, and restricted access to PDF files via Wiley Online Library

Oh, and it made the cover, too, see below.

(Unfortunately, the magazine has been reduced to 10 issues a year, which is why issue no. 6 is out in July. Very confusing.)

In the same issue, on page 38, you'll also find my review of Alan Heeger's memoir "Never lose your nerve!"

Monday, July 04, 2016

time to move on?

From my family history, I know that people in centuries past have found great opportunity in new homelands, but the crucial thing is to know when it is time to move on. My great-grandfather found business success in Königsberg, Eastern Prussia, and he left literally on the last ship that got through. My ancestors who emigrated to the Odessa region (today's Ukraine) on the shores of the Black Sea in 1806 (having left the relevant oldest son behind!), established a good life there for a couple of generations. After 1870 the new paradise lost its shine and many families moved on to the US. The descendants of those that stayed suffered forced relocation to Asia and prosecution under Stalin.

So, well, right now the candidates among whom the next UK prime minister will be chosen are debating whether or not Britain (in whatever diminished size it will exist then) will allow EU citizens to stay after it has signed out of the EU. Of course they won't deport 3 million people. But conceivably, we might need residence and work permits, and equally conceivably, the recently introduced threshold of £ 35,000 salary required for the permission to stay could also apply to EU citizens (the median salary is substantially below that figure, so only those who fall into the top 40% or so of earners can stay).

So, reluctantly, after 23 years of living here very happily, we're having to consider our options, to make sure that after 2018, we will still be able to live within the EU and without having to justify our existence. Like Scotland, we may have to leave to remain. Watch this space.

A few random thoughts on the issue (will occasionally add new ones at the top of the list):

  • 16.8. According to the Sunday Times, article 50 may only be triggered in late 2017 - more time to get ready for a Brexodus. The Brexiteers are beginning to realise that they don't have the skilled personnel they would need in order to even begin thinking about such a gigantic project. Give them a bit more time and maybe they will realise that it wasn't such a bright idea in the first place.
  • 8.8. My feature on Brexit and other populist menaces has appeared in Current Biology.
  • 13.7. Theresa May has appointed Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office, showing exactly what she thinks of the 7 billion foreigners out there. I for one am taking this as a personal insult. Also, she keeps saying she wants to make the country work for British citizens. No word about EU citizens, but is the chain around her neck supposed to be a subtle hint?
  • 11.7. As Theresa May is now certain to become prime minister, her speech held today promises a country that works for everyone. There are some quite progressive things in there, but unfortunately the term "everyone" doesn't appear to include the 3 million EU citizens who live here.
  • 6.7. Nice to know that parliament supports our right to stay, but note that this is non-binding and a majority in parliament is against Brexit anyway.
  • Considering how much time I've lost following the whole chaos, worrying about our future here and making contingency plans for a possible Brexodus, I would extrapolate that the worries of more than 2 million EU citizens currently working in the UK should add up to make a measurable dent in the country's economic performance.
  • Theresa May becoming prime minister (and staying until 2020) is probably our worst scenario, as she has the intelligence and the cold heart to go through and do the worst. Boris Johnson's fantastic incompetence was (relatively) a glimmer of hope while he was still in the running.
  • Cultural events I have attended since the referendum: A Galician folk session, a concert by the Liverpool band Dead Belgian, who play the songs of Jacques Brel, and an Irish session. How much of Oxford's international scene will survive once the drawbridges go up?
  • Without free movement we probably wouldn't be here at all - so I imagine that the future hassle of work permits etc. may very well redirect part of the academic traffic to alternative destinations.
  • While all major scientific organisations are trying to reassure people that international cooperation will go on as before, there are also some, like the Wellcome Trust, that could decide to move their funds and activities elsewhere.
  • While Scotland and Northern Ireland understood their best interest, it was quite shocking that Wales, which benefits hugely from the EU, voted out. Some explanations here.

Look, there are 27 countries we can move to!

Image: Wikipedia
(spare a thought for the volunteers who are trying to keep the Wiki entries on the Brexit crisis up to date and readable)

Friday, July 01, 2016

cycling highway

It’s very exciting news that an intercity cycle highway is being built in the Ruhr area, Germany. I think this will save a huge number of car journeys. Many people there do cycle within their city (and/or for leisure) but tend to use the car by default when going to the other cities of the area, although they are all very close to each other. So having this cycle highway could do wonders.

And due to the recent deindustrialisation (accompanied by renaturation of rivers, creation of green spaces), there are lots of tracks, bridges, etc. already in place that can be used.

For more info, read this recent story in the Guardian.

Or check the project website (in German only, I think), from where I pinched this logo:

Monday, June 20, 2016

saving corals

I have covered the growing danger to coral reefs a few times in my articles, but this time round I'm going one step further and focusing on the question of what, if anything, science can do to save them. Can we support their migration to cooler habitats? Breed supercorals? Should we?

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

Can science rescue coral reefs?
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 12, 20 June 2016, Pages R481–R484

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NB with all the excitement about bleaching and temperature resistance, I may have forgotten to mention that overfishing is also a significant threat to corals in some parts, as they depend on grazing fish to clear away algae.

Corals after a bleaching event at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Justin Marshall/CoralWatch.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

melting points

Alexander Calvelli's latest exhibition, Schmelzpunkte (melting points) opens today at Henrichshütte Hattingen, Germany. It runs until October 23rd, opening times Tue-Sun 10-18h, Fri till 20h.

Am E-Ofen. Georgsmarienhütte, 2001.
Foto: Alexander Calvelli

Here's the press release from the museum (seems to be available in German only, sorry!):

"Schmelzpunkte" heißt eine neue Ausstellung mit Gemälden des Kölner Künstlers Alexander Calvelli, die der Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) vom 17. Juni bis 23. Oktober in seinem Industriemuseum Henrichshütte Hattingen (Ennepe-Ruhr-Kreis) zeigt. In einer historischen Halle präsentiert das LWL-Museum rund 150 Gemälde des Künstlers. Darüber hinaus laden einige der Bilder im Außengelände zum direkten Vergleich zwischen dem Motiv und seiner künstlerischen Bearbeitung ein. "So treten Industriekultur und Malerei in ein besonderes Spannungsverhältnis", sagte Kurator Dr. Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch vom LWL-Industriemuseum am Montag (13.6.) bei der Vorstellung der Ausstellung in Hattingen.

"Ich male vergängliche Architektur" - mit diesem Satz beschreibt Calvelli sein Werk und verbindet so inhaltlich die nahezu fotorealistische Darstellung von Blumen mit den Motiven der Schwerindustrie. Letztere bilden den Mittelpunkt der Ausstellung. Schmelzpunkte stehen dabei für Transformationsprozesse: Mit den Aggregatzuständen ändern sich Strukturen und Gefüge. Metalle werden aus Erzen erschmolzen, umgeschmolzen, in Formen gegossen und geformt. In Konverter und Elektroofen löst sich alter Schrott auf, bevor er erneut in Form gebracht einem neuen Nutzungszyklus zugeführt wird. Diese Transformationsprozesse prägen das Erscheinungsbild des Strukturwandels.

So spannen die Gemälde Calvellis den Bogen vom Erz zum Schrott, vom Ursprung zum Niedergang. Sie zeigen mittelständische Betriebe und Großkonzerne, archaisch wirkende Kleinschmieden und gigantische Schmiedepressen. Die Darstellungen von längst verschwundenen Werken, aktiven Arbeitsstätten und im industriekulturellen Kontext neu entdeckten Anlagen vermitteln einen Eindruck von den Wandlungsprozessen, denen die Montanindustrie seit jeher ausgesetzt ist.

"Die Gemälde Calvellis ziehen den Betrachter durch den hohen Realismus in ihren Bann. Die Strukturen der Arbeitsorte treten plastisch hervor. Es braucht eine Zeit intensiver Betrachtung, um zu erkennen, wie künstlerische Akzentuierungen die scheinbare Realität bewusst verfremden", so Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch. "Der intensive Blick in die Werke vermittelt einen nachhaltigen Eindruck von der Arbeit mit glühenden Metallen. Tatsächlich geht es nicht um die Dokumentation industrieller Anlagen oder die Illustration technischer Prozesse, sondern um die kritische und distanzierte Auseinandersetzung mit den Zeugnissen des Industriezeitalters."

Bei der Eröffnung am Freitag (17.6.) um 19.30 Uhr wird der Künstler anwesend sein. Die musikalische Begleitung erfolgt durch den Klangkünstler Georg Zangl. Gäste sind herzlich willkommen. Der Eintritt ist frei.

Schmelzpunkte: Alexander Calvelli - Industriemalerei
17. Juni bis 23. Oktober 2016
LWL-Industriemuseum Henrichshütte Hattingen
Werksstraße 31-33
Geöffnet Di-So 10-18 Uhr, Fr -20 Uhr


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

boron, barbecue and biotech

In the roundup of German pieces published in June, we have biotechnological uses of algae, burning barbecues, hydrogen bonds, and circadian clocks:

Bor baut Brücken
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 3, page 159
abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Die Zeitschaltuhr
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 160–161, Juni 2016
Free access to full text and PDF download

Impfstoffproduktion: Alge statt Ei?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 6, pages 610-612
abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Jetzt wird's brenzlig
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 6, pages 719
restricted access to full text and PDF download

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