Wednesday, July 26, 2017

what is life

the latest issue of C&I contains my review of a book called "What is life?" - sadly not Schrödinger's take on the matter though.

Free access.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

fragmented forests

Brazil hosts a pioneering experiment designed to study the ecological damage done by forest fragmentation. After making some real progress in slowing down deforestation, however, the country is now once again speeding up the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The lessons learned in decades of research in the Amazon clearly haven't made much of an impact on the people now in power.

Read all about it in my latest feature, which is now out:

Brazil's fragmented forests


Current Biology volume 27, Issue 14, 24 July 2017, Pages R681–R684

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

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Oh, and I think this must be the 150th contribution in the series of features started in February 2011.



Research at the BDFFP has shown that forest fragmentation and edge effects significantly alter the abundance of bats. (Photo: Oriol Massana and Adrià López-Baucells.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

climate canaries

So I came across a story about albatrosses and how they are affected by ocean warming, and I wanted to do effects of warming more widely (other than corals), but all roads led to birds. Ocean warmings leads to more frequent extreme climate events, and it turns out that birds with their complex life cycles including migration, nest-building and parental care routines, are often quite vulnerable to these events. So they are our modern day coalmine canaries in a way.

All will be explained in my latest feature out now:


Volatile climate stirs bird life cycle


Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 13, pR623–R625, 10 July 2017


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Sea birds like albatrosses are sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. In one recent study, a well-studied population was shown to suffer from the increasing temperature variations but to benefit from recent warming bringing it closer to its temperature optimum. (Photo: Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo/NOAA Corps. (CC BY 2.0).)

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

dvořák sonatina

I've just finished off the Dvořák sonatina op 100, having played all four movements over the last few months. I love it mainly for its echoes of the other "American" works, including the cello concerto and the New World symphony, which Dvořák wrote around the same time.

I started this adventure by buying a flute arrangement by James Galway, but soon realised he needlessly transposed the entire work as high up as physically possible, which in my ears doesn't sound very nice even if it is played competently, never mind when I try it. So I went back to the violin version (which is free online) and started from that, made it a bit more flutey with my teacher's help, looking at Galway's version for inspiration only where changes were necessary.

You can find a version that follows similar lines and uses the richer colours of the lower register here, played by Julien Beaudiment.

Next up: Albert Einstein's favourite Mozart sonata.

Monday, July 03, 2017

ecosystem service update

Open Archive Day

The ecosystem services concept aims to quantify the commercial value of all the natural resources we generally use without thinking, from the air that we breathe to the rain that waters our plants. The idea is that businesses have so far failed to protect these natural resources because they don't show up on balance sheets, and they appeared to be in unlimited supply, although we now know that they aren't and that in some respects we have already exceeded the capacity of our planet.

I learned about these things in 2011 and wrote a feature about them which is now openly accessible:


Valuing nature


The ideas have become more widely known since then but haven't quite managed to save the world as yet. It has also been criticised by some environmentalists, eg George Monbiot, on the grounds of turning nature into just another commodity.



Monday, June 26, 2017

coral conundrum

Open Archive Day

After several features on threats to coral reefs, including ocean acidification, warming, El Niño, and overfishing, I wrote one last June on what if anything can be done to save them.

Still, the threats keep coming and the solutions don't seem to be moving quite as fast as the problems.

This feature (like the earlier features it references) is now on open access:


Can science rescue coral reefs?




Aerial view of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island, which is surrounded by coral reefs that provide study material for research into the stress resilience of corals. (Photo: Doug Peebles.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

primate problems

There are around 500 primate species on our planet. Two thirds of them are threatened with extinction, because one, Homo sapiens, isn't quite as wise as the binomial name suggests. In my latest feature I have discussed some of the threatened species and the problems they are facing:

Primates in peril

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 12, pR573–R576, 19 June 2017



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Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta) at Berenty Private Reserve in Madagascar. Source: Wikimedia

Friday, June 16, 2017

strings attached

In the round-up of German pieces published in May and June we have 3D-printed aliens, tattooed cucumbers, as well as entanglements of DNA and shoelaces (which, of course stand in for DNA as well):


Netzwerk Leben: Verwicklungen der Schnürsenkel
Chemie in unserer Zeit 51, 154-155
restricted access


Ausgeforscht: Tätowierung für Gurken
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 5, p619
restricted access

Ausgeforscht: E.T. aus dem 3-D-Drucker
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 6, p751
restricted access

Medizin: Gefaltete DNA für Diagnose und Therapie
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 6, pp636-639
restricted access

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

20000 leagues under the sea

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I enjoyed reading up about the late 19th / early 20th century pioneers of bathymetry, or the measurement of ocean depth (or sea floor topography, depending on whether you prefer your glass half full or half empty). Much of it sounded like a Jules Verne novel, with the sense of awe for the as yet unexplored which we appear to have forgotten, even though the sea floor remains poorly described to this day. So the vague memory I retain of the feature I wrote is that it was all about Captain Nemo, although in truth it probably wasn't.

The feature is now on open access so you can check for yourself:

How deep are the oceans?





Friday, June 09, 2017

cellular computation

as I have been saying since I wrote a book chapter on Molecular Computation (1998), the fundamental processes in a living cell are essentially computation. This could potentially be used in two ways - building computers based on molecules and cells, or manipulating important biological processes (eg in medical or agricultural context) using computational tools.

Back in the 1990s, the molecular computer was a promising avenue, but it never quite took off. Now the other way round, programming biology, seems the more exciting prospect. This has given a major boost by the recent invention of a compiler that can translate computer code into DNA regulatory networks, which in most cases even work in the cell.

As we are increasingly becoming aware that complex regulatory networks (rather than single genes and enzymes) are the things that we need to understand and control if we want to change biological processes, this development could very well revolutionise several areas where we interfere with living beings, from agriculture to medicine.

Read all about it in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry:

Cellular computer
Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 4, pages 26–29
DOI: 10.1002/cind.814_7.x
Full text (Wiley Online Library)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

virtual gets real

I'm not a gamer so I've happily ignored a large part of the technology developments in recent years. However, they are now reaching the point where there is significant collateral benefit for science. Virtual reality tech combined with miniaturised cameras and autonomous vehicles for oceans, air and space now allows us to explore spaces where we cannot go ourselves. Similarly, in neuroscience, VR combines with imaging technology to record brain responses to experiences that would in real life be incompatible with the study.

Luckily, the Radcliffe Science Library did a demonstration workshop just at the right time so I could try out a bit of VR myself and get an impression. And then I rounded up a few of the examples of how VR is actually becoming useful for science.

The feature is out now:

Exploring virtual worlds

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 11, pR399–R402, 5 June 2017


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Greenpeace UK has recently launched a VR app enabling smartphone users to experience the Arctic from the safety of their homes. (Photo: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

homo migrans

Open Archive Day

Science magazine published a special issue on human migrations earlier this month, underlining the points that all humans have a migration background and movement is vital for science and progress (while also sticking out their tongue to the Drumpf administration).

Which reminds me that I had a feature on migrations published two years ago, which is now in the open archives:

Genetic traces of mankind’s migrations


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