Wednesday, October 18, 2017

white paper water

back in September 2015, I spent a week at Leipzig, having a lovely time with a bunch of water chemists discussing what chemistry can do to safeguard our water. It wasn't quite as much fun trying to write up the proceedings as a white paper if only because I am not much good at juggling the input of multiple co-authors. But somehow, miraculously, a finished product materialised. In my post-traumatic state I appear to have missed the memo when the thing was published, but it is online both

in English


in German

and on open access so feel free to read it if you must. I just looked it up because I needed some of the info I learned at Leipzig.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Open Archive Day

This time of the year, the names of the months tend to get modified for various health and charity endeavours from stoptober to movember, so let's celebrate octopusober as well, with a flashback to my September (!) 2015 feature on the amazing intelligence of cephalopods:

Intelligent life without bones

Writing this changed my views in so far, as I now find it very disturbing that people actually eat octopuses. You might as well eat dogs.

Among the behaviours recently observed in octopuses is a ‘tap on the shoulder’ with one arm approaching from the far side, startling the prey and chasing it into the other seven arms. (Photo: Roy L. Caldwell.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

connect seven

The roundup of German pieces published in September and October includes worms (separately) damaging books and plastic bags, the benefits of fish oil and cannabis, the networks of microglia in the brain and chemists' families, including the family of my PhD supervisor whose father worked with Haber, who invented the synthesis of ammonia, about which there is also an article. Obviously, you can buy fish in plastic bags and even catch it yourself using those very same caterpillars as bait, and cannabis probably influences the microglia in some ways, so everything is connected to everything else. Phew.

Stickstofffixierung: Ammoniaksynthese bei Zimmertemperatur?
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2017, p 294
Access via Wiley Online Library

Abbau von Polyethylen: Kontroverse um Raupen und PE
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2017, p 294
Access via Wiley Online Library

Netzwerk Leben: Mikroglia – Wächter im Gehirn
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2017, pp 298–299
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Ausgeforscht: Verjüngungsrausch für Senioren
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 9, September 2017, page 975
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Ein Genschalter für Essgewohnheiten
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, pages 989–991
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Chemie als Familientradition
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, pages 1036–1038
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Dem Bücherwurm auf der Spur
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, page 1075
Access via Wiley Online Library

Monday, October 09, 2017

islands of life

Island biogeography is a very successful concept looking at how species manage in (partial) isolation from the rest of the world. It applies to islands in the sea, of course, but also to other isolated patches of habitat such as forest fragments, areas of land cut off by by roads, or sea floor areas with specific properties such as those around hot springs.

In my latest feature, I have rounded up some examples of non-literal island biogeography, and I also managed to sneak in a nod to the Cassini spacecraft, which went on its last nosedive while I was writing this piece.

Life’s islands under the sea

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 19, pR1037–R1040, 9 October 2017

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

Biodiversity on and around islands can be very different from the nearest mainland. Island biogeography models these phenomena on the basis of dispersal and extinction. (Photo: Falco Ermert/Flickr by a CC BY 2.0 licence.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

unusual instruments

The Oxford Music Festival is mainly for young musicians playing orchestral instruments, guitar or piano, but there is also a space for people of all ages playing weird and wonderful instruments.

Following my suggestion, the committee has launched a new class called:

Show us your unusual instrument

Non-competitive. Any non-orchestral instrument from early music, folk, non-European traditions, including home-built or -modified or newly invented instruments. 5mins to play a piece and explain the instrument.

Time limit 5 mins.

It's class 160 near the bottom of this page

IMPORTANT: registration deadline is Sat 14th of October. (Although the festival itself takes place on the last weekend in January and the first weekend in February.)

So sign up now for a chance to show and play your ophicleide, hurdy-gurdy, nyckelharpa, khene, theremin, morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), tromba marina (marine trumpet), crumhorn, txalaparta, shawm, or whatever other instrument you play, and help to show the world that music doesn't always have to be played on violin and piano.

For those who don't know the festival format: There is an entry fee to pay (£9 for this class), which buys you the opportunity to perform to an expert audience, constructive criticism from the adjudicator - a professional musician and music teacher, who normally will dispense a carefully crafted sandwich with criticism surrounded by praise - plus the chance to meet other unusual instrumentalists, plus free entry to the festival on the day you perform, so you can listen to other musicians performing all day if you like. There are typically four strands of classes running parallel, so you can pick and mix.

I'm signing up to improve my skills on our home-built hammered dulcimer, and I'm advertising the class to make sure it won't be just me hammering the dulcimer ...

Angel with viola a chiavi ('keys'), Cappellina di Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy. Fresco by Taddeo di Bartolo, 1408. Image source: Wikipedia

PS (19.10.2017) in related news, the Society for strange and ancient instruments has just completed crowdfunding to build a quartet of marine trumpets.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

predatory ways

Open Archive Day

Both insect food and artificial meat have been in the news recently, so it may be a good time to reheat my feature on how we (as a species) tend to kill the wrong animals and mess up ecology:

Can we change our predatory ways?

Monday, September 25, 2017

antiquity's genomes

Research using ancient genomes is still advancing rapidly. At first, it was limited to higher latitudes, but it is now possible to sequence ancient DNA from warmer parts of the world, bringing it closer to the origins of western civilisation, and, soon, to the origins of our species.

In my latest feature I discuss the results of genomic studies of ancient Greeks and Canaanites (in today's Lebanon), which add genetic substance to the stories of Homer and the Bible. Both studies pin down migrations, but also reveal a remarkable degree of genetic continuity across millennia. While the piece was in press, some of the groups involved in the Greek study have gone further south and published ancient genomes from sub-Saharan Africa. Hard to keep up these days.

Read all about Greeks, Minoans, and Canaanites here:

Roots of Mediterranean civilisations

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 18, pR979–R982, 25 September 2017

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

Restoration of a late Minoan fresco dated ca. 1525–1450 BCE. Only the offset, irregularly shaped fragments are original. The faces of the women were copied from other, smaller Minoan artworks. (Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dodge Fund, 1927.)

PS: looks like archaeology at Troy is also making progress, see this report in The Guardian which came out just after my feature.

Monday, September 18, 2017

megadams march on

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I reported how the inflationary spread of megadam projects in tropical countries may do the environment more harm than good. The thing is that submerged vegetation in large reservoirs in the tropics can release enough greenhouse gases to wipe out the climate benefits from the hydroelectric plant in comparison to a modern gas-fired power station.

However, the megadam mania has marched on regardless. Earlier this year, for instance, the Guardian asked:

Why is Latin America so obsessed with mega dams?

and concluded that other renewable energies may be preferable in many cases. Some projects have in fact been stopped by protests and environmental concerns, but in many places, the mania continues.

My feature is now on open access:

A global megadam mania

Thursday, September 14, 2017

galician news

It looks like I have inherited the admin side of Oxford's Galician session, after the founder and all-round musical genius Mano has left town. At the same time I realised that I had a WordPress account that I haven't used in 10 years, so I will now advertise the sessions and generally rave about Galician music there as well as in the Facebook Group which I've just set up.

So, you choose:

Galician Session Oxford (WordPress blog)

Galician Session Oxford (Facebook group)

Oh, and I'm also running an email list, but that will only involve one mail per month, just the reminder I'll send one week ahead of the session. Drop me a note if you want to get on that list.

The sessions will continue to happen at the James Street Tavern, last Wednesday of every month, 8:30pm.

I will never get bored of the illustrations from the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Monday, September 11, 2017

becoming a plant

Today's issue of Current Biology has a special section called

The making of a plant

with lots of fascinating stuff on everything plant related from cell biology to agriculture.

My contribution is a feature rounding up various ways in which mimicking plants can be useful for us, from architecture through to ecology and behaviour of pollinators:

Reinventing the plant

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 17, 11 September 2017, Pages R855–R858

access to full text and PDF download
(open now, may be paywalled when next issue appears, but will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

a flood of floods

Open Archive Day

With the recent "unprecedented" floods in Texas and India, we have gained further examples demonstrating what catastrophic climate change will look like on a regular basis. For most people a warmer climate will not mean relaxing by the pool, but fleeing floods and other disasters.

The connection is quite simple really. Warmer sea surface water allows storms to pick up more water vapour and more energy, both of which make them more devastating. I've discussed all this in a feature published early last year, which is now on open access:

World under water

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Nicaragua's struggles

Open Archive Day

The project to build a ginormous canal across Nicaragua has divided opinion. It is likely to spell ecological disaster in a number of ways, but then again, it is hard to deny one of the poorest countries in the Americas the opportunity to capitalise on its geographic location.

I reported on the project in November 2014 in a feature which is now in the open archives:

Will the Nicaragua Canal connect or divide?

Now it looks like it is definitely going to be built, even though not all Nicaraguans are happy with it. Recent press reports suggest that conflicts with protestors may be escalating, answering my title question by reminding us that the canal not only connects two oceans but also divides the country, although these letters suggest the majority is still behind the project.

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