Thursday, February 23, 2017

a mixed bag

My round-up of German pieces published in February (none in January) includes Trumpian chemistry, CRISPR in agriculture, enzymatic Si-C bonding, and cancer stem cells:

Organosiliciumverbindungen leicht gemacht
Chemie in unserer Zeit vol 51, p 9
open access (apparently, don't know why)

Netzwerk Leben: Die Stellknöpfe der Entwicklungsuhr
Chemie in unserer Zeit vol 51, pp 68–69
open access (apparently, don't know why)

Genetisches Tipp-Ex für die Landwirtschaft
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65 , pp 128-130
abstract and restricted access to full text

Chemie ist Trumpf
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65 , p 215
open access

Monday, February 20, 2017

caring about victims

Lives lost are met with dramatically different responses in the media and in the general public. One child abducted and killed in a wealthy country can keep the front pages for weeks, while tens of thousands of children perish in humanitarian crises without much notice. Many of the political conflicts dramatically enhanced by the recent US elections boil down to which lives people care more about and which ones less. The unborn vs. the already born, the black youth vs the white policeman, the European native vs the Syrian refugee.

Racism fuelled by vicious scapegoating favoured by certain politicians and media outlets is one obvious reason for distributing empathy inequally. However, there are also some other, more surprising mechanisms at work, like the identified victim effect, which is measurable in that people donate more money to help a single identified victim of crisis than they would if there are several in the same situation. This effect is also one of the reasons why empathy is not always a good guide to sensible political decisions.

I have looked into these issues for my latest feature which is out now:

Caring about humanitarian crises
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 4, pR123–R125, 20 February 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)

Research shows that empathy responds better to images of a single identified, or at least identifiable, person. While groups of victims may need more support, their numbers rather subtract from our empathy. Charities and political organizations have long used this effect, with ads and posters of individuals, like in this charity campaign from 1918. (Image: United States Government/Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

chimps revisited

Open Archive Day

Many of my features are in one way or another about Homo sapiens - eg how this one species wrecks its home planet in record time. So it's always a welcome relief to report on other animal species that don't destroy their habitat and look at the amazing things they can do.

A year ago I wrote a feature on chimpanzees and the question whether their tool use can be described as culture. This feature has now entered the Open Archive so it's freely accessible here:

Chimpanzees, our cultured cousins


Photo: Thomas Lersch via Wikipedia

Monday, February 06, 2017

fantastic species

After all the depressing news of Death Eaters taking over the White House and starting to blow up our planet, I needed some cheering up, so I wrote a feature that's a bit of light entertainment (compared to the others), about the magic of marine biology, complete with dragons, unicorns and psychedelic colour schemes. The Harry Potter Universe also provided inspiration for the title:

Fantastic species and where to find them.
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 3, pR83–R85, 06 February 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)

Oh, and by sheer coincidence, the cover of the issue also shows one of the fantastic creatures I've discussed in my feature, a leafy seadragon :

The cover relates to the paper by Connell et al. (pages R95–R96), who use natural CO2 underwater seeps in the southwest Pacific, which represent near-future oceanic conditions, to demonstrate how a marine calcifying animal can in fact thrive in acidic waters due to the increased supply of habitat and food. The image shows a leafy sea-dragon (Phycodurus eques), an iconic marine animal of southern Australia that lives among CO2-affected habitats.

Monday, January 30, 2017

can we still stop the collapse?

Open Archives Day

(trigger warning - depressing outlook)

Three years ago, I asked in a feature:

Will our civilisation survive this century?

and discussed the issue in the light of evidence from earlier collapsed societies, as well as the current crises that humanity is failing to address.

As things are going now, we can count ourselves lucky if civilisation survives the next four years, and we'll probably have to put in some extra effort to make it to the middle of the century, never mind the end. Accordingly, the famous Doomsday Clock has just been moved forward by 30 seconds.

So we have about two and a half minutes to do something. The first waves of global resistance have been encouraging, but much more is needed. As the horror clown in the White House steers his administration in exactly the wrong direction on almost every level and the UK government rushes to line up with him, multiple responses are required and things could get a lot worse before they get better. So, not to get anyone down, but this may be a good time to read my collapse feature, which is openly accessible now, as it is more than a year old.

Just now, my therapy is watching the counter on the online petition against a state visit from the horror clown. As I'm writing the count increases by ~200 every 10 seconds.

Also, the pink pussyhats have cheered me up enormously, so to end on a positive note I'll include the cover of Time magazine:

Monday, January 23, 2017

losing our lakes

Lakes are sensitive to a range of disturbances from human activities, from pollution to water shortage. Some are simply disappearing from the face of the Earth, which can have serious ecological knock-on effects.

Following the publication of a new database of key parameters of lakes around the globe, I have rounded up a few examples of lakes that are in trouble or disappearing. The resulting feature is out now:

The world's vanishing lakes

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 2, pR43–R46, 23 January 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)

Where the Aral Sea used to be. Source: Zhanat Kulenov, Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 16, 2017

megapoo makes the world go round

Open archives day - one of my favourite stories from last year has just been switched to open access. It's about how large animals move nutrients against the hydrological cycle, including whales feeding in the deep but releasing themselves near the surface, sea birds feeding on fish but leaving their droppings on land, and terrestrial megafauna moving their goodies uphill.

That's what I called the great megapoo escalator a year ago - needless to say that we humans not only fail to comply with this mechanism but also are in the process of destroying it by eradicating megafauna, which before our time made the largest contribution to this nutrient recycling.

Read my feature in the open archives here.

Seabirds provide an important flow of nutrients from sea to land, acting against the draining that occurs through rivers and runoff from the land. The image shows guillemots, shags and kittiwakes breeding on the Farne Islands. (Photo: Jamumiwa/Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, January 13, 2017

aptamer update

I don't do all that many news stories these days, but I did pick up this one from the lab of my old friend and astrobiology co-author Kevin Plaxco, as it is a further step on a path I have followed since the beginnings more than a decade ago.

So the latest news is that electronic aptamer sensors can now work inside a living, moving mammal, as you can read in Chemistry World today:

Personalised medicine boost as cancer drug monitored in real-time

Previous steps on the way:

Chemists crack cocaine detection Chemistry World 2006

MEDIC to kick-start personalised medicine revolution Chemistry World 2013

Biosensors in real time Feature in Chemistry & Industry 2014, No. 4, pp42-45.

Aptamerensoren für kontinuierliche Bluttests Chemie in unserer Zeit 2014,48, 88

Monday, January 09, 2017

trumpocalypse now

After the first electoral disaster of 2016, I wrote a feature warning that the same kind of wave of angry voters could send Trump to the White House, and sure enough it did. So I got the chance to write another political feature, now one step closer to the apocalypse. On current form it appears obvious to me that the age of enlightenment is over and western civilisation is heading towards a collapse sooner rather than later. Since I wrote the feature, three weeks ago, Putin's role in manipulating the election has become a more prominent issue, so that's missing in my story. Only then did I investigate how long we still may have to put up with Putin. I found out that since his two presidential terms (2000-2008), Russia extended the length of term to six years, meaning that he could remain in office until 2024 - like a certain Mr Trump you may have heard of. What the world will look like if that happens I don't want to imagine. We need to do something.

While I go looking for my thinking hat, read my feature:

The dangers of a post-truth world

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 1, 9 January 2017, Pages R1–R4

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 amplification of clickbait and fake news stories through Facebook’s algorithms has been recognised as a problem in the US presidential election. (Image courtesy of Ashley George.)

PS: the artwork in the Daily Mirror front page used in my article is Oh America by Gee Vaucher, I just learned.

Some links covering the first weeks of the Trumpocalypse:

First on the White House agenda – the collapse of the global order. Next, war? by Jonathan Freedland (4.2.) - If you're not terrified yet, read this, you will be.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

the counted

I am a huge fan of the Guardian's interactive database "The Counted" which has listed all people who died at the hands of US police since the beginning of 2015. It goes to show what a powerful statement you can make just by compiling data.

No matter if you look at the stats per time (3 people killed every single day) or per population, with vast differences according to skin colour, or if you read individual stories behind the photos. Whichever way you look at it is deeply distressing and very powerful.

Set against the dark mood, I was a tiny little bit cheered to see that the total number of deaths has dropped slightly in 2016 against 2015 (1091 and 1146, respectively). While both numbers are equally horrifying (for comparison, the equivalent number for Germany, with 1/3 of the population, is typically in single digits), I'd like to think that the 5.5 % decline is due to the growing awareness thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and also perhaps thanks to the monitoring efforts of this database. The relative incidence of deaths among black citizens has also dropped from 7.69 per million to 6.64 (white: 2.95 to 2.9). Still scandalous but at least moving in the right direction. So maybe compiling data can save lives.

On the other hand, Native Americans have suffered a much higher incidence of police killings than the previous year, which might support the argument that historic crimes are allowed to continue under the cover of law enforcement.

screenshot taken on Jan 3rd. Update: checking back on Jan 14th, the count has gone up to 1091. I've updated the figures above, but the conclusions still hold.

Monday, January 02, 2017

anthropocene now

Happy New Year to all, my one and only NY resolution is to provide a blog entry revisiting one of my features from the open archives on those Mondays when no new feature comes out. Which is the case today, for example. So here goes.

In February 2015, I wrote about the ongoing deliberations of The International Commission for Stratigraphy (ICS) working group chaired by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz to assess whether the changes that humanity has inflicted on our planet call for the definition of a new geological time. If so, experts need to scratch their heads over which level should it be pegged at, and when it may have started without anybody noticing.

In the same feature, I also covered the latest assessment of the "planetary boundaries" by Johan Rockström and colleagues, so it could have been called What have we done to our planet?

Since then, the Working Group on the Anthropocene has voted to formally designate the epoch Anthropocene and presented this recommendation to the International Geological Congress on 29 August 2016. While official recognition and a formal determination of the starting date is still due, the recommendation has been widely reported and the concept of the Anthropocene is now better known than it was two years ago.

My feature, Assessing humanity's global impact, is freely accessible here.

Our civilisation’s ability to picture our planet from space, as photographed here by the Apollo 8 crew, has increased our awareness of its vulnerability to human activities, but unsustainable growth continues. (Photo: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, NASA’s Earth Observatory.)

PS: such as not to dilute the tags for new features (currentbiology, sciencejournalism) I'll tag these flashbacks with CB archives instead and use thematic tags only if new info on the themes has been added since the original article.

Friday, December 30, 2016

20 years online

I have no idea where that time went, but it appears that it’s 20 years ago today that I launched my first website, from which the current site evolved mostly by alternating courses of uninhibited random growth and moderate pruning.

In the last few years, and especially since my tumblr started to attract some followers from late 2012 onwards, I have neglected the old website a little bit, but just now I have cleaned it up a bit and updated things like the publications list. In a way, the various blogs and other online outlets could be seen as the shoots and flowers growing from the original tree I planted in 1996, so I’ll take this anniversary as an excuse to write up a short history of my web presence, although now, 20 years later, almost everybody on the planet has a web presence.

I feel my hair turning grey as I write this, but I actually managed to finish my PhD without ever having used the internet. I did write the thesis on a computer and had a Neolithic laptop, but the network as such was still under construction as I finished, and hadn’t reached my lab yet by the time I left. On arrival at Oxford in 1993 I learned about things like email, and the www, and some time in 1996 I must have realised that everybody could put a page (or twenty) on the web, so why not me?

In the xmas break I learned the essentials of HTML from a book and started composing my home page, which launched on 30.12.1996 under the not so original title of Michael’s Home Page. Rooted in an old technology newspapers and magazines background, I aimed at publishing a numbered issue every week, with sections including science, science communication, bilingualism.

On 13.1.1997, issue 3 appeared with title “Only Connect!”, based on the quote from EM Forster’s novel Howards End which still serves as a motto today and has provided the title and URL for my blog,

After a year, the site had 43 pages, and it soon grew into a tree structure with eight or nine first level pages branching out into hundreds of second and third level ones. For nine years and a bit, it remained my main web presence, and I probably spent way too much time on updating it, which may well have killed my academic career.

Then, in the tenth year, and a few years after leaving the academic career behind, I found my way to MySpace and discovered blogging, as every MySpace account came with a blog by default. For comparison, I also tried yahoo/geocities and blogspot, which is the one I kept using after MySpace went down the drain.

When I moved out of Birkbeck College in 2006, a version of my website stayed there, and is still online here). Incidentally this is about the last version before I introduced the “bookshelf” design of the front page which is still up today, launched in July 2006.

After the great Exodus from MySpace, I joined Facebook, then twitter, and finally tumblr. Initially twitter worked best for me, but in the last few years tumblr has become the outlet where followers actually see and react to my stuff. Although the stats on blogspot aren’t too bad either these days.

With all the excitement of the more interactive and “social” sites, the old website got neglected a little bit, but I still polish it up when I have a new book to promote, or, as happened this year, when the delay in the publications list becomes too embarrassing.

At some point, I may even blow some dust off the 10-year-old front page design. I’ll put that on my (virtual) list of New Year’s resolutions.

My front page as it looks today - I think my initial idea was to change those bookends regularly to refresh the look, but I got stuck with the second pair I made ...

The site is at
as well as at

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