Monday, November 20, 2017

how whales learn new tunes

Humpback whales are just people like you and me, as I realised recently when reading a paper about how they learn new tunes. This was one of those moments when hours of leisure time (in this case: time spent in pubs playing wrong notes at the wrong time) magically transform into valuable research. The resulting feature, covering whale songs and folk tunes among other cultural highlights, is out now:

Cultured cetaceans

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 22, 20 November 2017, Pages R1193–R1196

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)

Humpback whales are known for their elaborate songs, which spread through
entire populations by social learning. (Photo: skeeze/

PS there's also a research paper on learned feeding strategies in blue whales in the same issue, which is why there is a whale shown on the cover as well:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

dvořák times seven

I've rounded up all recordings we have of the Dvořák cello concerto (including two I inherited from my grandad who didn’t play but had witnessed (and photographed) his dad playing cello).

Still space for a few more. Natalie Clein, I’m looking in your direction ...

Monday, November 13, 2017

global genomes

Open Archive Day

I recently reported about the research on hidden biases that are widespread even among people with liberal / egalitarian worldviews who would find the discrimination resulting from bias unacceptable.

One area where biased outlooks have harmed science is modern genomics. The most interesting revelations about the diversity, history and evolution of our species are to be expected from detailed analyses of African genomes as well as from comparing them to genomes representing the endpoints of the migrations that distributed our species around the world.

Instead, genomics spent its first ten years on sequencing males of European origin like Craig Venter and James Watson. Only in recent years, more than a decade after the first genome, has science begun to do our globalised species justice.

A year ago I wrote a feature on how the study of genomes of the native populations of Australia and New Guinea helps our understanding of human migrations and diversity. This feature is now on open access:

Out of Africa, into Australia

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I discovered this sonata via a long rambling path. If I remember correctly, I saw a mention somewhere that Einstein had named his violin "Line" - which resonated as the young musician in the family also assigns names to the ever growing family of string instruments (but not to wind instruments). I asked Paul Halpern, who has written a book about Einstein's friendship with Schroedinger, if he knew what happened to Line, and he referred me to this website about celebrations of Einstein's 125th birthday, where I read:
This lecture was followed by a surprise: a musical event featuring Paul Einstein on violin and Siegfried Räbblen on Piano. Paul, a great grandson of Einstein's is a musician living in the south of France and played on Einstein's violin. The piece was a Mozart Sonata, K304, written in 1778. It is the only instrumental work Mozart wrote in E-minor and its poignancy reflects Mozart's reaction to the news of his mother's death. It was Einstein's favorite.

So I looked it up and found this flute performance of k304 by Ginevra Petrucci and really liked it, and bought the score complete with accompaniment CD. Which turned out to be unnecessary, because as it happened, my flute teacher had just completed her own flute adaptation of the piece. So I worked my way through both movements of her version and am now reasonably happy with my playing, although there are always lots of things left to improve at a later point.

By the way, I don't think it required much virtuosity from Einstein or other amateur violinists to play it - I noticed one could readily play it unchanged on viola i.e. even without the violin's E string, and thus also on cello an octave below. So, if you have a string instrument sitting around, give it a try and release your inner Einstein.

Oh, and for flautists it is of course interesting because it is quite close in time (as well as in the Koechel Verzeichnis) to the two flute concertos.

Next up: a Telemann fantasia ...

Thursday, November 09, 2017

the sound of chemistry

A couple of book reviews I forgot to mention:

Sonochemistry by Gregory Chatel
Chemistry & Industry issue 7, page 39.
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
Chatel offers a brief introduction into what sonochemistry is for the ‘silent’ majority of chemists, which he presents with commendable clarity. Any chemist wondering whether sonochemistry might be worth trying, should find what they’re looking for in the first half of the book.
(spoiler alert, the second half of the book isn't quite as gripping as the first.)

Nanocomposite materials,
Chemistry & Industry issue 6, page 38.
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
I've reviewed way too many "nano" monographs in the last 20 years, so I am losing patience with them. And this one didn't quite manage to convince me that I want to read more ...

Monday, November 06, 2017

phosphorus problems

Of the multiple global problems that we are facing in the anthropocene, phosphorus may be one of the more confusing. Some say we're about to hit peak phosphorus, others that it will last a few centuries longer. Then again, we shouldn't really dig up all the geological reserves and pour them into our waterways, because that will lead to eutrophication disasters.

In either case, it would be good to know where the phosphorus is and which way it flows. Based on a better knowledge foundation, we can then perhaps build a more circular phosphorus economy.

All of which is explained in more detail in my latest feature which is out now:

Where is all the phosphorus?

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 21, pR1141–R1144, 6 November 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)

The alchemist Hennig Brand discovers phosphorus, as imagined by Joseph Wright of Derby. Image source
(I used this pic the last time I wrote about phosphorus in Curr Biol, back in 2010, so I couldn't use it again in the feature)

Monday, October 30, 2017

insect declines

Open Archive Day

Dramatic declines in flying insect populations have been in the news recently, which reminded me of last year's feature on butterfly declines. Butterflies may not be the most important insects ecologically, but their visibility and aesthetic appeal means that they are better studied than many.

My butterflies feature is on open access now:

Butterflies take a well-studied tumble

(own photo)

Monday, October 23, 2017

hidden bias

Of course people aren't racist, if you ask them. In the last decades, openly acknowledged prejudice has lost ground in western society, and only a small minority would admit to it. But are people still biased deep down, maybe without realising it?

Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji have developed a very clever way of testing for such hidden bias, the implicit association test (IAT), which you can try out for yourself here. The test has now been widely used and many people report that they discovered implicit bias they were unaware of previously.

All this isn't quite new any more, but given that some remarkably prejudiced people are now in positions of power in some countries I could think of, and given the horrendous number of black people killed by police in the US, it is more important than it may have been in the more optimistic times when the test first went online. So I've read the book Blindspot by Greenwald and Banaji (shown below) and written up a feature about the remarkable story of the IAT and what it means for us today.

Oh, and I took two versions of the IAT, and I am pleased to report that:

1) Your data suggests:
Little or no association between Female and Male with Science and Liberal Arts.

2)Your data suggests:
Moderate automatic preference for Black people compared to White people.

So I am now moderately biased in favour of the IAT, as it gave me the results I hoped for.

Anyhow, here's my feature:

Can we change our biased minds?

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 20, pR1089–R1091, 23 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)

Friday, October 20, 2017

ave maria

My great-grandfather Heinrich had played the cello in an amateur string quartet in the 1920s to 1930s, and I was told that when he died in 1958, a cellist played the Ave Maria at his funeral.

While the piece is quite famous as a song, I recently started to wonder what the cello version sounded like and if I might be able to play it. I found a very easy adaptation for cello alone (in F major) that I can actually play (adagio happens to be my favourite tempo, too).

More interesting is this version for cello and guitar. (I'm a bit confused about the key, but I think it is in A while the original song is in Bb.)

So there's something left to aspire to once I get bored with the easy version ...

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
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Ausgeforscht: Dem Bücherwurm auf der Spur
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, page 1075
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