Monday, April 20, 2015

climate change at 25

I first heard about carbon dioxide causing climate change in the late 1980s. I was dabbling in a bit of local politics with the Green party in Germany and preparing a manifesto for the 1990 elections, for which I wrote a couple of pages on emission control. The emissions we were worried about back then were, of course, toxic gases that caused visible problems on short timescales, such as acid rain and Waldsterben. I remember thinking something along the lines of "what's wrong with carbon dioxide? It's not even toxic!"

But with the first assessment report on climate change published in 1990 we soon learned what was wrong with carbon dioxide, and at that point the world really should have changed course and reduced emissions, but unfortunately they kept going up. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, it was an unfortunate coincidence that climate change only became apparent in the very moment when western democracies responded to the collapse of the communist bloc by abandoning all attempts to regulate corporations and markets, and these forces took the world in exactly the wrong direction.

Anyhow, 25 years after the problem was recognised and described, we're still making no progress towards solving it, which is very frustrating. I've comemorated and analysed this depressing anniversary in my latest feature which is out today in Current Biology:

Twenty-five years of climate change failure
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 8, pR307–R310, 20 April 2015
Summary and limited access to full text and PDF file
(should become open access one year after publication)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

an ancient copper mine

After writing about the Simon family who were miners in Fischbach (Nahe) and then 170 km further south in Markirch (Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Alsace), I had the opportunity to revisit the ancient copper mine at Fischbach, which is where Johann Christoph Simon must have worked before migrating to Markirch, and where some of his brothers as well as his father Nickel Simon also worked.

Specifically the five men who were linked to the Fischbach mining industry were (with made-up translations of the job titles Schmelzer, Röster, Bergschmied):

  • Johann Nickel Simon, born Niederhosenbach in 1672-3, worked as a smith and as a miner, married Anna Francisca in 1700, died 1754 aged 81.
    as well as his four sons:
  • 1701 Johann Nickel Simon jun – roaster and smelter at Allenbach
  • 1703 Johann Jacob Simon – smith at the mines in Markirch
  • 1705 Georg Nickel Simon – miner at Fischbach and Kautenbach
  • 1707 Johann Christoph Simon – smelter at Markirch

They were part of the second and final era of success for the Fischbach mine, which had a fair number of ups and downs throughout the centuries. Here’s my potted history which I also wrote up in German for Wikipedia:

According to a document from 1461, copper mining in the valley of the Hosenbach creek near Fischbach dates back to at least 1400. In 1473, the two counts whose territories met on the hill above the mines signed an agreement to split all income from mining equally between them.

In the 16th century, the mines were thriving with up to 300 miners working there. Copper was sold beyond the region, for instance to Dinant (today’s Belgium), which was a centre of brass making. Due to the 30-Years War and the difficulties in maintaining the safety of the mines and the transport of the metal produced, mining ceased from 1624.

Mining was resumed at the Hosenberg site in 1697, but not in the sites on the opposite bank of the creek. From 1730 to 1765, the industry flourished once again. Johann Christoph Simon and his brother Johann Jacob Simon must have been in Markirch already (Johann Christoph married there in 1732 Around 1750 there is also the earliest evidence of the use of explosives in mining – even though the know-how was already developed half a century earlier in eastern German mining regions such as Saxony, and migration from those areas to Fischbach has been described by Bühler and Brandt. Between 1765 and 1776, the mining business went into decline, and in 1792, war forced its closure once again. Several attempts to revive it were undertaken in the 19th and in the 20th century, but all failed, due to high costs and low yields.

In 1975, the mine was opened to visitors. Guided tours around the impressive network of man-made caves are offered all year round. Above ground, there are also exhibits demonstrating copper smelting, as well as a sight-seeing circuit.

Back to the family history – Bühler and Brandt note that the Fischbach miners were highly respected professionals, as evidenced by the fact that they married into well-known families of nearby market town Kirn. However, my Fischbach ancestors and those in Kirn represent completely different lineages and cross-links between them have yet to be found. We have a few more generations of Simon ancestors, back to Mathes Simon, born around 1600 in Allenbach, but no details of what they were doing while the copper mine was closed.

Fischbach copper mine with life-size figures of miners, own photo.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

solutions for everybody?

In my round-up of German pieces I mentioned my review of the film "Better living through chemistry" which was part of the annual April fun and games section in Nachrichten aus der Chemie. Here comes a shorter version of my thoughts on this film, in English:

One question puzzles viewers of this film from the beginning to the end: Why on earth is it narrated by Jane Fonda? I think I worked it out at last – she’s the agony aunt of some third class waiting room magazine and the question she’s answering this time is something along the lines of: “I spend my life being everybody’s doormat – can chemistry improve my life?” And, according to agony Aunt Jane, it can.

In the fairy tale that Auntie Jane tells us to make her point, she’s equipped the protagonist with a small-town pharmacy, to make sure he has a good supply of chemicals to experiment with. At the beginning, he doesn’t quite know what to do with that, other than quietly enjoying the intimate information he has about lots of people in the town.

In the course of an evening delivery to a posh address he meets a very conventionally attractive woman in a very transparent negligee, who describes herself as a trophy wife and complains of the terminal boredom that comes with this job. She has the bright idea that the pharmacists, who has “solutions for everybody but himself” might find the formula to change his life on the shelves of his workplace. The drugs work magic on him, lifting his love life, sporting achievements, and even his hair.

What else can you do with chemistry? Oh, yes, murder people. The chemically enhanced couple have a half-hearted go at that, but the scriptwriters (Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who also direct) clearly shied away from the dark side and hastened to return to the safer ground of lesser crimes.

What is disturbing about the movie is its morality about drugs, reflected not only in Auntie Jane’s voiceover recommending misuse of prescription drugs but also in the reckoning at the end. Watch out who gets punished and who gets away. And perhaps you shouldn’t follow Auntie Jane’s advice.

It appears the film went straight to DVD in Europe, and deservedly so.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

layers of gold and plastics

In the round-up of German pieces published in March / April we find structures folded and intertwined, deposits of gold and plastics, and reflections on a chemistry-related movie.

Pop-up im Mikromaßstab
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 2, page 94, April 2015
Abstract and limited access to full text

Hauptsache, die Chemie stimmt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 433-434
review of "Better living through chemistry", English version here.

Was macht der Müll im Meer?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 443-444

Ausgeforscht: Eine Hölle mit goldenem Boden
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 503

Molekularer Drudenfuß und Davidstern
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 3, 10-12
first paragraphs of the article and limited access to full text

... oh, and a new Wikipedia entry as well.

macro-scale origami birds (own photo)

Monday, March 30, 2015

robot march

It may be an age thing, but I am getting increasingly skeptical of the general direction that technology is evolving towards. I was very happy with the tech we had until 2006 or so, and then came the unstoppable rise of facebook, smartphones that broadcast your every move, search engines trying to read your mind, drones, self-driving cars, and e-readers that tell their corporate motherships what pages you've read and which passages you've highlighted. I'm beginning to think that a dystopia of the Brave New World kind has already sucked us in.

After reading The Filter Bubble and filter-feeding on all the robotic news that comes in on a daily basis now, I've written another feature about all this, which is out today. Health warning: the content may frighten you.

The unstoppable march of the machines
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 7, pR255–R258, 30 March 2015
summary and limited access to full text and PDF file

(own photo, taken at an innovation event at Said Business School last year)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

rondo from Beethoven duo No 2

Here comes a new chamber music score we've prepared for cello (grade 7+) and flute (hopeless, i.e. me). It's the third movement of the second duet from Beethoven's three duets which I think were originally written for clarinet and bassoon.

Monday, March 16, 2015

marine megafauna

One of the wonders of marine biology is that the oceans still host megafauna with a size distribution similar to what it was in the pleistocene, while here on land there are hardly any big animals left, thanks to the relentless destruction caused by a certain species known as Homo sapiens.

In recent decades, large whale species have been pulled back from the brink of being hunted to extinction, but large parts of the marine fauna could again be at risk if industrialisation and overexploitation of the marine environment continues. Essentially, we can still avoid doing to the oceans what we did to the land, but the time to change our ways is right about now.

This is the gist of my latest feature which appeared in Current Biology today:

Can we avert marine mass extinctions?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 6 March 16, 2015
Summary and links to full text / PDF download
(restricted access but should become freely accessible one year after publication)

A whale shark (Photo: Zac Wolf/Wikipedia.)

Friday, March 13, 2015

migrating miners

When I investigated the possible Huguenot origins of my Bondame ancestors in the Palatinate region, I looked at a map of Huguenot settlements in German-speaking areas, which also showed one in Markirch / Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines in Alsace. As one of my ancestors in the Palatinate came from that little town, I was intrigued and wondered whether some of his folks may have also been Huguenots or other refugees for religious reasons.

The guy who left Markirch to settle at Böchingen in the Palatinate was Paul Simon (1740-1813). The name Simon is completely useless for internet searches as it is a very common family name and also a widely used Christian name, and both these things across several European languages (never mind the famous namesake). Moreover, the male line only spent a few decades at Markirch. Before that, the Simons came from the Hunsrück area (where in a separate Simon lineage we have seen the name become a family name based on the Christian name of the founding father).

Thus, I really needed to look at Paul Simon’s mother and grandmothers. His mother was called Maria Susanna Trimbach (1713-1752). So I did a search on “Trimbach Markirch” and on the first page of ten results there were three separate items of interest. First I learned that there is a Trimbach winery in that area to this day. This is the third name in that small part of my family tree that is being printed on wine labels as we speak, along with Klundt and Minges, but I’ll rave about this another day. Second, a gravestone still exists of a Jacob Trimbach who died in September 1649. I still need to work out how he relates to my Trimbachs.

And third, there was a whole research paper on migration of miners across Europe, with Fischbach and Markirch being the focal points, and migration routes leading onwards to France. Paul’s father Johann Christoph Simon was among the miners who migrated from Fischbach to Markirch, and as his marriage to Maria Susanna Trimbach is mentioned in the text, this document turned up in my search. I would never have been able to find it based on his name.

So that migration of the miners, broadly westbound, is in addition to the eastbound flight of the Huguenots who also settled at Markirch, as the map suggested. The town, which allegedly was the third-largest in upper Alsace (today’s department Haut-Rhin) until the 19th century, must have been an interesting place to be at the time. Here’s the potted history of the town, adapted from the French Wikipedia article:

From the 14th century through to the French revolution, the town was split in two parts, with the small river Lièpvre representing the frontier between separate territories, and after the reformation, between confessions. The right bank of the river was part of Alsace, German speaking, and under the rule of the lords of Rappolstein (Ribeaupierre). On the left bank it was ruled by the dukes of Lorraine, French speaking, and would remain catholic after the reformation.

The mining which gave the town its post-reunification name of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines has been an important activity since the 10th century, but it was the rise of silver mining in the 16th century that brought affluence to the town, with its peak activity from around 1545 to 1580. However, mining ceased during the 30-years war (1618-1648) and was only revived in 1710-1711.

At that time, the counts of Rappolstein, who owned the German side of the town, had close links to the Hunsrück area through marriages with the house of the Wild and Rheingrafen who ruled there. As a result, there were close political connections between the areas from 1673 to 1776, which may explain the very lively migration of miners from the Hunsrück to Markirch, including my ancestor Johann Christoph Simon (1707-1756) and his brother Johann Jakob Simon (1703-1761).

This was part of a larger pattern of westwards migration of skilled workers often originating in the eastern German regions like Harz and Erzgebirge, and leading as far west as southwest France. The historians Hans-Eugen Bühler und H. Peter Brandt have analysed this phenomenon in a detailed study published in 2003: “Muster europäischer Migration im Bergbau des frühen 18. Jahrhunderts: Fischbach/Nahe und Markirch/Elsaß als Drehscheiben des Austauschs” which also features the Simon family, who must have arrived at Markirch before 1732 (the date of Johann Christoph’s first marriage there).

Those typically Lutheran miners arriving from Fischbach will have found an interesting multicultural scene at Markirch where there were five different religious affiliations to choose from, including Anabaptist, Lutheran, German Reformed (Calvinist), French Reformed (Huguenot), and Catholic (NB that’s only on the German side of town, there was a separate Catholic parish on the French side). I understand the Amish also have their roots at Markirch, resulting from a schism in the local Anabaptist community that occurred in 1693.

The origins of this diversity go back to 1566, when the count of Rappolstein, Eguenolf III, introduced the Lutheran creed (although he was officially subject of the catholic Habsburg empire). Soon after, the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France brought a wave of Huguenot refugees, joined by Calvinists expelled from Lorraine by the duke Charles III in 1585, and the complete parish of Badonviller in Alsace, fleeing the count of Salm in 1625. It was a lively little refugee camp there, where worshippers were mainly divided by language. German services were held at a little chapel “in the fields” (Mattenkirch) and attended by refugees and miners alike, while the French-speaking protestants used Saint-Pierre-sur-l'Hâte.

The field chapel succumbed to arson in 1757 but was rebuilt three years later and served until 1867. It was there that a tombstone was discovered with the name of Jacob Trimbach, who died on September 3rd 1649.

In 1768, Paul married Anna Christine Jungbluth in Böchingen in the Palatinate and settled there. By that time, there wasn’t much opportunity left in mining at Markirch. The new game in town was textiles, which were to become the dominant industry in the 19th century.

Bühler and Brandt note in their paper the surprising mobility of skilled miners in the 18th century. Not only did they migrate half-way across Europe to find opportunities in new or reviving mining regions. They often stayed mobile over several generations, with Fischbach and Markirch serving as relais stations for onward migrations that led second and third generations of mobile families as far afield as western France.

In the case of my ancestors, however, onward migration led Paul out of the whole mining business and into a wine growing area (not sure what he did for a living, but almost everybody in Böchingen has some connection to wine making!) – maybe this has something to do with the fact that his mother was a Trimbach? That’s the Alsatian wine connection which I need to unravel some other time. (Oh, and there still is the possibility that some of Paul's non-Simon ancestors in Markirch actually were Huguenots. Stay tuned.)

Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. Photo: Bernard Chenal / Wikipedia.

Monday, March 02, 2015

human smell is not so bad

Our sense of smell has the reputation of being the poor relative to the superior abilities of other mammals such as canines or rodents. However, recent research has shown that it does have some amazing capabilities thanks to the combinatorial power of its hundreds of different chemoreceptors. Moreover, if we're not very good at naming smells or remembering them, that may be due to cultural rather than biological reasons.

Read all about it in my latest feature which has just come out in Current Biology:

Our sense of smell at the crossroads

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 5, pR173–R176, 2 March 2015

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

Stop press: I've just received a special link that should provide free access to my article until April 21st. And I'm officially allowed to post it on social media. Click here.

Sweet osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans) is a plant appreciated for its fragrance across southern Asia, where it is also used as a food ingredient and in herbal teas. A recent study has identified 23 volatile substances in its odour. (Photo: Laitr Keiows/Wikimedia Commons.)

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

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