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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

a valiant vicar

In the course of our investigations into the ancestors who were tradesmen in the small town of Kirn from the 15th through to the 17th century, we also came across a likely ancestor who was the town’s first Lutheran vicar. (I was actually baptised in his church, where his bones are probably still underfoot, which is kind of spooky.) He had an unusual life, so here’s a draft version of his biography:

NB: I've added a German version of his biography to

Peter Siegel was a student of Martin Luther at Wittenberg and went on to introduce Luther’s ideas to his home town of Kirn long before the area officially became protestant.

Peter Siegel was born in 1485 as the son of the baker Nikolaus Siegel and his wife, who was a daughter of Hen Thielmann. He started out learning his father’s trade and then probably became a monk. In October 1518, at the unusually advanced age of 33, he went to Wittenberg to study theology with the reformer Martin Luther, whose ideas had inspired him.

After three years of study, in 1521, the rulers of his home territory suggested he should become vicar of Münster am Stein, which is also on the river Nahe, downstream of Kirn. It is unclear whether he actually obtained this job, but he soon married a woman from his home town named Gertrud (not quite in accord with catholic dogma).

He then moved back to Kirn, where, according to his tombstone, he was a vicar from 1528 to his death in 1560 (although the first mentions in the town archives only date to the 1530s). Specifically his epitaph said that he “preached the gospel of Christ at this church for 32 years – no matter how much his adversaries raged – in its pure and unadulterated form, after elimination of all man-made additions.” In Latin that reads:

qui cum duos et triginta annos, huic Ecclesiae, quantumvis frementibus adversariis, Evangelium Christi pure sincereque, neglectis hominum figmentis, tradisset

Those raging opponents will mainly have been the members of the local Collegiate church, who made several complaints to the archbishop at Mainz about their vicar. Disputes over the true faith raged on into the 1540s, such that one cannot pin down a date for the introduction of the reformation at Kirn. The territorial overlords clearly protected their renitent protestant vicar from prosecution by the archbishop, but only “came out” as protestants after the 1555 Augsburg Settlement, which allowed each ruler complete freedom to choose the faith for their domain (cuius regio, eius religio).

The citizens of the small town (which, despite its strong tradition in trades and crafts, only officially became a town in 1857) were already very supportive of their protestant vicar by that time. A significant date in this context is 1544, which is when the records of the wool weavers' guild stop mentioning the Corpus Christi (Fronleichnam) holiday, which is a highly significant day for catholics only. Kirn remained purely protestant until 1681 when French troops took over the town and the castle next door to it, the Kyrburg.

Peter Siegel died on October 15th, 1560 and was buried in his church, which had to be partially rebuilt in later centuries, but still is a protestant church in the same location to this day. From 1684, the French occupation forced the town to simultaneously use the church for catholic as well as protestant services, and the new catholic altar came to cover up Siegel’s tomb. Later on, the tombstone, whose inscription survives in transcripts (although the date had to be corrected), was removed and remains lost.


Own photo of the Lutheran church at Kirn.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

stripped back cellulose

Cellulose as made by plants is a complex material that mankind has used for all kinds of applications for millennia. Only in the 20th century synthetic materials increasingly replaced it, mainly because the plastics can be tailored to any material property required. Now, however, as plastic waste is becoming a global problem and sustainable solutions are in high demand, researchers are rediscovering cellulose and stripping down its complexity, resulting in so-called nanocellulose. With these structural building blocks of natural cellulose, they can then construct composite materials to rival the synthetic ones.

I've written a feature about nanocellulose which is out in the December issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Nature's building blocks
Chemistry & Industry December 2014, pp 18-21
(premium content, but I can send PDF "reprints" on request)

On page 51 of the same issue you'll find my review of the book "The economic competitiveness of renewable energy - pathways to 100% global coverage, by Winfried Hoffmann.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

the trouble with animals

It's all very well having animals around as food or for company, but the trouble is that we pick up diseases from them, and those can be deadly, especially in the initial phase after jumping across to our species. At the end of the year in which Ebola hit the headlines for months, I've discussed the wider problem of zoonotic disease and the lessons to be learned from the failure to tackle Ebola in time to stop it running out of control.

Our shared burden of diseases

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 24, pages R1139–R1141, 15 December 2014 Abstract and limited access to full text and PDF download

(I can send PDF "reprints" on request, and the article should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

seasonal offerings

My German pieces published in December are embarrassingly seasonal - there is ice and snow aplenty in a feature about the subglacial biosphere of Antarctica, and the target of my regular fun-poking is Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), which is known in Germany as Weihnachtsstern (christmas star). That's quite enough xmas for me, I don't want to hear it mentioned again until next year ...

Mikrobielle Artenvielfalt unter dem Eis der Antarktis
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 62, 1186-1187, 2014
[related content in English]

Die Wissenschaft vom Weihnachtsstern
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 62, 1251, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

how to feed the world

The world population keeps growing, more people want better diets, and climate change puts food production at risk. All these global trends mean we as a civilisation will have to act now to make sure we will still have enough food in the next few decades.

Plant science can offer crucial support for this quest in a number of ways. Improvements in crop yield through genetic engineering are a controversial route, but even by tracking down wild relatives of crop plants and feeding their desirable traits into the gene pool by conventional breeding, plant scientists can help to improve global food security. Importantly, bridges must be built between fundamental research in plant science and the applied research in agriculture.

These issues are covered in some detail in my latest feature which is out today:

Plant science called up to provide food security

Current Biology
Volume 24, Issue 23, pR1105–R1108, 1 December 2014
abstract and limited access to full text and pdf
(should become open access one year after publication)

The feature was inspired by this special issue of the American Journal of Botany (October 2014):

Monday, November 17, 2014

go wild

Back in October, I attended the Earthwatch debate on rewilding, which offered an interesting range of perspectives on the issue - and was followed by an enthusiastic audience with a majority in favour of reintroducing carnivores like lynx and wolf to the UK.

I've distilled my impressions into a feature which is out in Current Biology today:

How wild do you want to go?

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 22, pR1067–R1070, 17 November 2014

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

(My own photo of the event, Kate Humble giving the introductory speech.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

the butcher, the baker ...

... I'm actually short of a candlestickmaker in this story, but I have a few other interesting trades, so bear with me:

Until around a decade ago, I believed I was the first person in the family to be born in the small town of Kirn, by the river Nahe. While 3/16 of my ancestors hail from the surrounding hills of the Hunsrück, they seem to have studiously avoided the river valley with the towns Oberstein, Kirn, Sobernheim, and Kreuznach.

Then we discovered one ancestor who was born at Kirn more than 300 years before me (in 1654, to be precise), and she turned out to be related to the Andres family, who went on to found the local brewery (Kirner Pils), which is still thriving today, bucking the trend that has seen much larger companies dominating the beer market. They do make very good beer, as well, so I’m glad they’re still there (and still in the hands of the Andres family).

After pulling various threads attached to that family we have now got a whole network of ancestors who were crafts and tradesmen in Kirn, going back to the mid-15th century. There were butchers, bakers, tanners, weavers, plus the extinct profession of Schleifmüller, which I’ll explain below. For two centuries they had a thriving small town economy there – even though Kirn only officially became a town much later (1857) and the inhabitants had to pay to get their freedom in 1600. Then, however, the plague arrived in 1606, closely followed by the 30-years war (1618-1648), devastating the whole community. During the war, the number of households in Kirn fell to one tenth of what it had been before (230 to 22). Just after the war, as some refugees returned, there were 74 households, and the population would take until 1800 to recover, by which time my ancestors were long gone.

Here are, in chronological order, some of the things we think we know about our ancestors in this little community in its heyday until darkness fell.


In generation 17, born between 1440 and 1470, we have three households. Henn (Henrich, Hen) Kub (Koben) married Katharina Hensels around 1465. Not sure what they did for a living, but from the next generation onwards the Kubs are bakers, so let’s assume that. From 1481 to 1488 Hen Koben was mayor (Schultheiß) of Kirn. He lived in a house in the Adelsgasse that will later be home to the Creutzer family, below. Today this street is called the Nahegasse, and it's the tangent on the West side of the market square, so it's at the very heart of the historic centre of the town.

Second, a tanner called Steffen, which in some sources is given as his last name and in others as his first name, with Lauer, an old-fashioned word for tanner, as the last name. At this time, the use of family names was still fluid, and we have several examples of people switching between their father’s first name, their profession, and a nickname, as a family name. Steffen’s daughters called themselves Lauer, so let’s stick with the name under which you’ll find him in GIB, i.e. Stephan Lauer. His wife is Katharina (Ketter) Wöllenstein (Wolfstein, Wellstein), they married around 1495. (Strictly speaking, we don't know where this family lived - research is ongoing.)

Third, a “Schleifmüller” called Contz Schmidt, meaning he had a water mill and used the power to sharpen tools and possibly swords as well. People working at a Schleifmühle were also referred to as smiths, so his last name may reflect this. He obtained a heritable leasehold for his mill in 1468 – this is the earliest firmly established date in all of our family history. While there is nothing left of the mill, the millstream is still there, so one can guess the location.


One generation down the line (born 1470-1490), we have the descendants of the above plus a few newbies. New kids on the block in generation 16 are the tanner Hen(rich) Culmann and his wife Catharina Treger.

Henrich Kub’s son was a baker called Hans Kub, but he seems to have kept a low profile, as that is all that we know about him.

The tanner Stephan Lauer had two daughters whose first names we don’t know. The one we care about married another tanner called Lauer, Simon Lauer, who came from Gemünden, some 20 km north of Kirn in the Soonwald, and by the Simmerbach which joins the Nahe just downstream of Kirn.

The other Lauer daughter married a man called Wöllstein (note the similarity to her mother’s name, Wöllenstein, but no link established yet), and went off to Becherbach, just a few kilometres south of Kirn, where she had a daughter, who would later marry her first cousin, the son of the older Lauer girl and Simon Lauer, called Johannes Simon – where, again, the father’s first name became the family name for a lineage that remained present in Kirn through to the 20th century.

Contz Schmidt had three sons, one of whom called himself Theiß, which became the family name of his descendants, and which is now quite a widespread name in the area. Of interest to us, however, is the first-born called Conrad Schmidt, who expanded his father’s business. In 1524 he is recorded as the owner of two mills and a house in the Steinweg, the northern extension of the Adelsgasse.


In Generation 15 (born 1500-1520) we have three households, and as we are following the daughters of the smiths and the tanners, we are saying good-bye to these professions and focus on food production.

Around 1525, Eulalia, the daughter of the tanner Hen(rich) Culmann and Catharina Treger married the earliest known male ancestor of the Andres lineage (of brewery fame) to show up in Kirn, a butcher who is variously also known as Endres Metzler (referring to his profession). Eulalia was the oldest of five children, who all went on to have their own families. Two of the sons became butchers under the family name of Pass, which was their father’s nickname. Of the at least 16 grandchildren of Culmann/Treger, one marries Hans Theiß, grandson of Contz Schmidt, another Johannes Simon, grandson of Simon Lauer. Both marriages are not part of our relevant lineages, showing that there are multiple cross-links between these families.

The Kub kept their passion for baking, as Adam Kub was a baker like his father, and he married Anna Simon, daughter of Simon Lauer and the nameless older Lauer girl.

Finally, the nameless Schmidt girl married another baker called Ulrich Emich. Now that is an interesting name, because the former lords of the Kyrburg, the castle overlooking the town, came from a family whose firstborn sons were called Emich throughout the 11th and 12th century. I need to investigate what exactly it means when this name turns up as the family name of an ordinary citizen two hundred years later. Confusingly, another Ulrich Emich worked at the castle around the same time, and there have been earlier Emichs in the services of the counts of the Kyrburg, specifically Wilhelm Emich was Sekretarius there 1568-1577, and as a reward for his faithful service, he received a house in the Steinweg, close to where the Kub and the Schmidt people mentioned above lived as well, which could count as circumstantial evidence that he is in fact linked to these townspeople.

Ulrich Emich later (around 1570) married a second woman, who is called Wellstein in one source and Anna Wolfstein in another (AIS). The latter source claims that she was the mother of the Emich daughter we’re interested in, but if the marriage date is correct, this would appear implausible, so we’re sticking with the Schmidt girl. (Although the Wellstein ancestors reach one generation further than the Schmidt ones and yield another person resident in the Adelsgasse.)


In generation 14 (born 1525-1560 ), we have three households again, featuring a wool weaver and two butchers.

The woolweaver is a new arrival called Jean (Johann) van Dham (later: Dammi) from Malmedy, a town near Liege, in today’s Belgium (then it was a small church territory), or possibly from St. Vith, in the district of Malmedy. Von Dhams lived in St. Vith over many generations, but are believed to have come from Fels (Larochette) in Luxembourg originally. Intriguingly, there is an earlier von Dann family of wool weavers recorded in Kirn from 1530 onwards, and I have a suspicion they come from the same source.

The butcher Uli Andres, son of Eulalia Culmann and Andres Metzler, married Sabine Kub, the baker’s daughter.

The nameless daughter of the other baker, Ulrich Emich, married the butcher Jakob Creutzer ,who lived in Hen Kub's house in the Adelsgasse. They had three children in 1580-1585, but she must have died then, as he married again and had another three children with his second wife.


Generation 13 (born 1550-1590), the field is narrowing, and we can begin to see where all this is leading …

The immigrant wool weaver brought along a son called Hans Dammi, who worked as a cotton weaver. He married Elisabeth, the widow of Urban Welsch, who was also a wool weaver, but we don’t know her background. The name Welsch also points to a migration background, it essentially meant “foreign”, and one online genealogy claims that he is also from Malmedy, so at first I thought he may have received the moniker on arrival at Kirn. However, as the Malmedy area was also German speaking, and there are Welsch families in that area to this day, I now think that the name is due to an earlier migration event and he already lived in Malmedy under that name, which would be helpful in tracing down his family connections there. After Hans Dammi’s demise Elisabeth married a third time in 1614, this time the lucky man was another wool weaver called Matthes Wilhelm.

Merten Andres, still following in the butcher tradition, marries the competitor’s daughter, Katharina Creutzer. Her brother Georg Matthias Creutzer keeps the butcher shop going and becomes mayor in 1635, as does Katharina’s son Jakob Andres ten years later.


In generation 12 we have the winning couple (born 1614/1619):

While the Andres sons march on to butcher shop, inn-keeping, and finally beer brewing glory, we follow daughter Anna Margareta Andres who marries the weaver Johann Dammy, son of Hans.

They seem to have been of the robust sort – having lived through the thirty-years war and a return of the plague, he reached the age of 78, and she was 80 or 81 years old when she died in 1700.

Johann Dammy was mayor in 1676 (it was obviously the thing to do, in those circles). A local historian also mentions that after the war ended in 1648, and there were no funds to restore the public bath houses by the river, Johann Dammy rented the huge copper kettle that had become redundant and used it to dye his fabrics.

The couple only married in 1651, when they were both well over 30, but given the hardship the town suffered in the thirty-years war, they probably waited to make sure that it was really safe to do so. They had five children born in 1652 and 1666. The second of them, Elisabeth, was the last of my direct ancestors to be born in Kirn. In 1682, she married Matthes Wilhelm Schüler, an innkeeper in Kirchberg, and moved there. Although her brother Johann Jakob Damme had several sons, the name disappeared from Kirn, no person with this name appears to have been born there after 1700.

One hundred years later, Johann Jakob Andres began brewing beer for other inns as well as his own. Two hundred years later, his grandsons Philipp and Carl Andres launched the brewery as large scale business.

The tanners, including the Simon family, also went on to do well, and in the 19th century, leather factories became one of the key industries of the town.


Own photo.

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