Monday, February 23, 2015

can Pythagoras take a shower?

During a recent stay at a cosy little hotel in Germany, we had a shower cabin with a square footprint (ABCD) and a sliding door (ab) that operated such that its endpoints a and b slid along the sides of the square, so point a moved along AB, while point b moved along BC.

We wondered if a well-rounded hotel guest – let’s call him Pythagoras (hint, hint) - could fit into the shower cabin and close the door behind him. Specifically, if the side length of the square is 1 meter, what is the maximal radius of a rigid rotund guest that could fit in and close the door?

Answers on a postcard. (This really happened, and the young mathematician in the family worked it out. However, I suspect that somebody, eg Martin Gardner, must have come up with this riddle before.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

good bye to the Holocene?

The Holocene, which began around 11,700 years ago, has been an unusually stable and benign period in Earth's climate history, and with its equanimity it has enabled Homo sapiens to spread around the world and build our modern civilisation. Now, however, evidence suggests that our own economic activities have killed off this geological epoch that saw (and facilitated) the rise of our species to world domination.

As an official working group is pondering the case for declaring a new epoch, the Anthropocene, two separate assessments of the damage we have caused to the Earth system have been updated and improved.

All this is covered in detail in my latest feature in Current Biology, which came out on Monday:

Assessing humanity's global impact
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 4, pR131–R134, 16 February 2015

Summary and restricted access to full text and PDF download.
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Friday, February 13, 2015

a Huguenot connection?

Every self-respecting family tree needs a Huguenot ancestor. Our best bet for this is Johanna Bondam (Bodang, Bondamm, Pondam, Bontam), the mother of the emigrant Johannes Klundt, who left the Palatinate for the shores of the Black Sea and left descendants around the world.

Maria Johanna Bondam, protestant, was born in Mörlheim (today a part of Landau town) around 1735 as one of at least three children of Johannes Bondam and his wife Maria Sara, last name unknown. Her older sister Maria Eva Bondam (born at Mörlheim as well) went on to marry a Jacob Frary of Swiss descent and went on to have nine children. Her descendants are listed on GedBas. The younger brother Pierre Bondam was born in 1737 at Billigheim, a few kilometres south of Landau.

Now both Mörlheim and Billigheim are not just any old villages in the Southern Palatinate. Mörlheim was the first place in Germany where Waldensians from the Piedmont (then part of the Duchy of Savoy, now in the northwest of Italy) settled after they began to be expelled from their home region. There is a whole book about the trek of the Waldensians from the Alps to Germany with a big chapter about Mörlheim, complete with lists of inhabitants of the manor, which had been founded in 1148 as a subsidiary to the Cistercian abbey of Eußerthal.

There were originally only three or four families of peasants working there, but in 1655, 15 families of Waldensians arrived, with 60-70 people in total. In the privileges set out for them by the prince elector, it is specified that there should be at least 40, but no more than 1000 families of settlers. They moved into the abandoned buildings of the abbey, which had been dissolved with the reformation in 1560. The first list of settlers, consisting exclusively of Waldensians from the Piedmont, does not contain a Bondam person.

But further fugitives arrived, as the colony began to thrive. The settlers planted mulberry bushes and produced silk. By 1670, there were around 100 families represented by a council of 12.

However, most of these fled when French troops advanced in 1688/89, although the invadin troops ended up using the former abbey for storage and didn’t destroy it. In the spring of 1691 some of the refugees returned, along with a few new settlers, among them our Jean Bonnedame. He is listed among the group of 11 new arrivals as owning 1 Pflug (i.e. around 20 hectares) of land.

The next round-up, made in March 1699 on the occasion of a lawsuit against the lease holder of the land, who apparently tried to cheat the peasants out of their land and possessions, lists Jean Bonnedame among the group of “Walloons, Huguenots”, kept separately from the Piemontais. In 1697, a group referred to as “the Walloons” left the place due to the animosities surrounding the lawsuit. This group includes two from the five people named in the Walloon/Huguenot mixed list but not Jean Bonnedame, so we conclude that he was one of the Huguenots (of which there were only three left at most, after deducting those identified as Walloons).

Considering that Jean Bonnedame was listed as a grown-up in 1691, so must have been born no later than 1670, he will have been too old to be Johanna Maria’s father in 1735 and is likely to be her grandfather.

At the same time, Billigheim was also a place that hosted refugees persecuted for religious reasons. The church records from the 17th century are lost, but in 1699 there was also a Bonnedame person living there, so the family appears to have been split between these two locations, which might explain why Johannes Bondam’s family seems to have moved from Mörlheim to Billigheim before the birth of their son in 1737. Also, there is a Jakob Bondam who was born at Mörlheim in 1720, but his father was called Wilhelm, so the connection to our Bonnedames isn't very clear at all. (To confuse things further, there is a prominent Dutch historian called Peter Bondam (1727-1800), but I don't know where his ancestors came from either.)

So, we’re still not entirely clear what happened there, nor where the Bonnedame families came from prior to 1691, but I think the case for a Huguenot ancestry is growing stronger. As always, any hints appreciated.


Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Image source: Wikipedia

Thursday, February 12, 2015

how to burst the filter bubble

Review of The Filter Bubble
by Eli Pariser
Penguin 2011

Last year, when the publication of a psychology experiment conducted on facebook highlighted the dubious ways in which the company manipulates people’s timelines, some clever observers remarked that this wasn’t really new, and it was all described in Eli Pariser’s book. Which, amazingly, was the first time I heard of the book.

Having picked up a copy for £ 2 on the flea market (somebody clearly thought it was no longer relevant) I’ve now read the book. Essentially it confirms my hunch that the internet took a turn for the worse when the major global monopolists amazon, google and facebook personalised their services and started to pretend that they know which books I want to read, which search results I want to see and which ads I might be interested in. The resulting limitation to what one can see of the internet is the phenomenon that Pariser calls the filter bubble.

Pariser explains very eloquently why this is bad news. It’s bad for creativity, because it removes the possibility of serendipitous findings and unexpected connections (which are basically the things that pay my mortgage, so bad news for me especially!). It’s bad for democracy, because people only surrounded by the opinions they agree with and the friends that have similar views will fail to see that there may be another side to the argument. The anti-Islam movement Pegida in Dresden and other German cities originated as a Facebook group –although long after the Filter Bubble was published. And far from fulfilling the internet’s early promise of distributing power to the people, the application of opaque filtering methods concentrates unseen and unaccountable power in the hands of a small number of global companies.

What can we do about it? One can’t completely opt out of it, as an increasing number of services would just stop working if you chose to block all cookies. Pariser says companies should be open about what kind of filtering and personalisation they apply to any given product. But seeing that the key players hold quasi monopolies, what are the chances that they will comply with Pariser’s wish? Four years after his book was published, I haven’t seen it happening, and the affair around the Facebook experiment seems to suggest they are still blissfully unaware of the problem. Governments could perhaps legislate to enforce more openness, but then again, they never understood the internet anyway, and are already failing to make the companies pay their taxes. Not much hope there either.

Which leaves only consumer choice. I have always preferred social sites with an element of anarchy and randomness to facebook with its emphasis on real names and real friendships. Pariser, although he admits to enjoying facebook as much as the next person, praises twitter for its unfiltered timeline and clarity regarding where filtering is applied. For instance, in searching for hash tags, you can choose between “top results” and “all results”. I would add tumblr to that recommendation, as it also has an unfiltered timeline and the most amazing random people on the planet. (As far as I know, my 1260 followers on tumblr include only one person I have met in real life.) And if you do use Facebook (as I grudgingly do once a week), make an effort to venture outside your bubble. Befriend random people, do unpredictable things. Confuse the algorithms.

Similarly for search, try to think beyond Google, maybe use several search engines. I use duck duck go as default, and only resort to versions of Google when I need results in a different language, so for instance, for family history explorations in Germany. Google’s bots must think that I’m only interested in dead people.

As for amazon, as I’ve explained before, they haven’t managed to figure me out in 15 years, and I don’t think they ever will. It would take a human being to actually read what I write, and they only have computers. So my remedy is: be wide ranging and unpredictable. Surprise yourself and the algorithms. Burst the filter bubble.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

mi verdad

New video from Mana featuring a very pregnant Shakira:

Oh, and the baby was born on Jan 29th.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

light reading

In the round-up of German pieces published in January/February it's mostly about light, so we have photosynthesis, seasonal affective disorder, UNESCO's year of light. Along with that a bit of chemistry bang in the shape of Knallgas bacteria and a new synthesis approach:

Ein neuer Molekülbaukasten
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 1, page 12, Februar 2015
abstract and limited access to full text/pdf
related content in English

Jahr der Erleuchtung
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, Nr 1, pages 133–135
free access

Die Brennstoffzelle der Knallgasbakterien
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, Nr 2, pp 133–135 DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201590047

Chemische Heiterkeit
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, Nr 2, p 215

Fotosynthese mit Turbolader
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 2, pp 17-19

Mehr Licht - die saisonale Depression
Trillium Diagnostik 2014, 12, Nr 4, pp 188-189

Monday, February 02, 2015

drowning in plastic waste

I covered the problem of plastic waste in the oceans two years ago, but as research on the interactions between the plastic materials and the affected biosphere is beginning to emerge, I wrote a new feature, now more focused on microplastics and their biological impact. This has just appeared in Current Biology:

Oceans of plastic waste
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 3, pages R93–R96, February 02, 2015

Limited access to full text and PDF download.
(will become freely accessible one year after publication)

(Photo: © Karumbé-Uruguay.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

organs on chips

The slightly delayed January issue of Chemistry & Industry includes my feature on chip-sized microfluidic models of human organs, mainly based on the amazing work that's been done at the Wyss Institute at Harvard in recent years. This may well revolutionise medicine and make animal testing redundant.

Chips with everything
Chemistry & Industry January 2015, pp 28-31
Free access to full text

Image: Harvard's Wyss Institute

In the same issue, there is also my review of the book

The burning answer: a user’s guide to the solar revolution
by Keith Barnham (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2014)

The solar revolution
Chemistry & Industry January 2015, pp 48-49
Restricted access

Here's a snippet from my (long essay) review:

"In fact, Barnham delivers three books for the price of one: a popular science book on the historic developments that led to our current energy technologies, then the “user’s guide” of the subtitle, an analysis of the present day situation in the renewable energy vs. climate change field complete with a manifesto for the revolution, and finally a look at what should and might happen in those crucial 15 years ahead of us, which may well decide the long-term success of our civilisation."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

reading the world

I was very impressed when I read that the author Ann Morgan had managed to read one book from each of the 196 countries represented at the 2012 Olympics in London. Her list of books read and others that were recommended to her is here, and the book she wrote about the experience is reviewed here.

Thinking about how embarrassingly far I would fall short of that figure I estimated I would be lucky to make it to 50 countries (in my life so far, not in a year) and started my own list to prove it. If and when I've reviewed a book on this list, I've included a link to the review. If I can't remember whether I've actually read it (even though it's on my shelf), I've marked it with CR. NFY means not finished yet. Still struggling to get to 50 though.

  1. Algeria – Mehdi Charef: Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed (CR - saw the movie though)
  2. Argentina – Federico Andahazi: El anatomista (The anatomist)
  3. Austria – Daniel Kehlmann: Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the world)
  4. Belgium – Amélie Nothomb – L’hygiène de l’assassin
  5. Brazil – Paulo Coelho: Der Alchemist (The alchemist)
  6. Canada - L. M. Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  7. Chile – Isabel Allende: La casa de los espiritus (The house of the spirits)
  8. China – Hong Ying: K – the art of love
  9. Colombia – Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Cien años de soledad
  10. Congo, Republic of the – Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé (Broken Glass)
  11. Cote d'Ivoire – Fatou Keita: La rebelle
  12. Cuba – Zoe Valdes: La nada cotidiana
  13. Ecuador – Alicia Yanez Cossio: El cristo feo
  14. Equatorial Guinea – Guillermina Mekuy: El llanto del perro
  15. France – Anna Gavalda: Ensemble, c’est tout (Hunting and gathering)
  16. Germany – Charlotte Roche: Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands)
  17. Guatemala – Miguel Angel Asturias: Leyendas de Guatemala (CR)
  18. India – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and dust
  19. Iraq - Weam Namou: The feminine art
  20. Israel – Ephraim Kishon: Oh, oh, Juliet
  21. Italy – Umberto Eco: Der Name der Rose (The name of the rose)
  22. Kyrgyzstan – Chinghiz Aitmatov: Jamila
  23. Lebanon - Vénus Khoury-Ghata: Les fiancés du Cap-Ténès (CR)
  24. Madagascar – Michele Rakotoson: Dadabé
  25. Mexico – Laura Esquivel: Como agua para chocolate
  26. Mongolia – Galsan Tschinag: Die Karawane (NFY)
  27. Morocco – Tahar Ben Jelloun: Harrouda (CR)
  28. Netherlands – Anne Frank: Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank (Diary of a young girl)
  29. New Zealand - Katherine Mansfield: Stories
  30. Nicaragua – Gioconda Belli: El pergamino de la seduccion (The scroll of seduction)
  31. Nigeria – Sefi Atta: Swallow
  32. Peru – Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del Celta (The dream of the Celt)
  33. Poland – Stanislaw Lem: Stories
  34. Russia – Mikhail Bulgakov: Master and Margerita
  35. Senegal – Ousmane Sembene: Guelwaar
  36. Sierra Leone - Aminatta Forna: The memory of love (NFY)
  37. Spain – Almudena Grandes: Castillos de carton
  38. Sweden – Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking
  39. Switzerland – Max Frisch: Homo faber
  40. Syria - Rafik Schami: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (NFY)
  41. United Kingdom – Esther Freud: Lucky break
  42. United States – Megan Clark: Seduce me
  43. Vietnam - Kim Thuy: ru (NFY)

Own photo of my reading pile some time in early 2014.

PS: I'll keep updating this with any further reading adventures, hoping that one day I can travel around the world in 80 books ... So this post will also serve as a directory to my reviews of world fiction.

Monday, January 19, 2015

evolution of allergy

In December, I attended the Cell Symposium on type 2 immunity (i.e. our adaptive immune system as opposed to innate defence mechanims) and learned a lot about the big two questions in the field of allergy, namely why did allergies evolve, and why are they becoming more prevalent in industrialised societies?

It's been a steep learning curve not helped by immunologists' habit of speaking in acronyms, but I believe I discovered some meaningful connections to evolution and ecology - it's really all about snakes and parasitic worms. So I wrote a feature summarising what I think I understood, which is out today:

Why did evolution give us allergies?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 2, pR53–R55, 19 January 2015

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

The Cell Symposium in session (this was a reception in the town hall though, not part of the scientific programme). Own photo.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

reinventing Paris

review of:

Paris reborn
Stephane Kirkland
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013

The city landscape of Paris is instantly recognisable in many photos that don’t contain any landmarks or specific clues. You see the slate-covered mansard roofs, the well-aligned balconies, the wide boulevards, the trees, the street furniture, and you just know it must be Paris.

One important reason why it is so recognisable is that much of it was built within two decades (1852-1870) and to strict design standards keeping the extravagance of architects and developers in check. More than 100,000 houses were built in this time, and half a dozen entirely new transects cut in straight lines across the city. The name most widely associated with this remarkable act of urban development is that of the prefect of the Seine département, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. We like to talk about Haussmannian boulevards, and there is even a boulevard named after him.

Kirkland argues that, while Haussmann was the right person in the right place at the right time to ruthlessly implement the vision of what we now appreciate as the Parisian city landscape, it wasn’t his vision at all. President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who then became emperor Napoléon III by a coup d’état followed by a plebiscite, had drawn the colourful lines on his master plan when Haussmann was still a provincial bureaucrat in Bordeaux, and even before him there had been similar ideas and concepts floating around. It was no secret that Paris at the beginning of the 19th century was in urgent need of renovation. It was the combination of the emperor’s vision and the prefect’s efficiency at getting things done that made this project a reality.

In his very readable account of the origins of one of today’s leading tourist magnets, Kirkland aims to distribute the blame and credit fairly, spelling out the specific contributions of Napoléon III and Haussmann, as well as those of the architects and financiers involved. He also acknowledges the dark sides of the “grands travaux”, from the wholesale destruction of medieval Paris (apart from Notre Dame cathedral, which was lovingly restored) through to the questionable finance deals and the banishment of the working class to the suburbs.

It was partly due the republican critics of these faults that Haussmann, the rather boring bureaucrat, came out of this story with the biggest slice of posthumous fame. Under the empire, the critics couldn’t attack the emperor directly, so they pinned all the blame on Haussmann. He didn’t mind too much, and he added to his immortal fame by publishing three volumes of memoirs when he was underemployed under the third republic. The republic, for all its criticism of the empire, essentially carried on with the project of modernising Paris in the same style, culminating in the world exhibition of 1900, which gave the city the metro and the Eiffel tower.

Cover of the hardback edition. I hear it is now out in paperback.

Monday, January 05, 2015

fun with science

Current Biology starts its 25th year today and, in celebration, issue 1 of vol 25 is dedicated to the biology of fun and all things fun in biology (there's also a press release for this).

My contribution to this has been a look back at my own work in science communication (not quite 25 yet but soon) and to reflect on how having fun with and occasionally even making fun of science can help the worthy cause of disseminating the insights of science to a wider public.

The joy of science communication

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 1, pR27–R30, 5 January 2015

Free access to full text and PDF download.

Own photo of young people having fun with science at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

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