Monday, June 20, 2016

saving corals

I have covered the growing danger to coral reefs a few times in my articles, but this time round I'm going one step further and focusing on the question of what, if anything, science can do to save them. Can we support their migration to cooler habitats? Breed supercorals? Should we?

I've explored these issues in my latest feature which is out today in Current Biology:

Can science rescue coral reefs?
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 12, 20 June 2016, Pages R481–R484

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

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

NB with all the excitement about bleaching and temperature resistance, I may have forgotten to mention that overfishing is also a significant threat to corals in some parts, as they depend on grazing fish to clear away algae.

Corals after a bleaching event at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Justin Marshall/CoralWatch.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

melting points

Alexander Calvelli's latest exhibition, Schmelzpunkte (melting points) opens today at Henrichshütte Hattingen, Germany. It runs until October 23rd, opening times Tue-Sun 10-18h, Fri till 20h.

Am E-Ofen. Georgsmarienhütte, 2001.
Foto: Alexander Calvelli

Here's the press release from the museum (seems to be available in German only, sorry!):

"Schmelzpunkte" heißt eine neue Ausstellung mit Gemälden des Kölner Künstlers Alexander Calvelli, die der Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) vom 17. Juni bis 23. Oktober in seinem Industriemuseum Henrichshütte Hattingen (Ennepe-Ruhr-Kreis) zeigt. In einer historischen Halle präsentiert das LWL-Museum rund 150 Gemälde des Künstlers. Darüber hinaus laden einige der Bilder im Außengelände zum direkten Vergleich zwischen dem Motiv und seiner künstlerischen Bearbeitung ein. "So treten Industriekultur und Malerei in ein besonderes Spannungsverhältnis", sagte Kurator Dr. Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch vom LWL-Industriemuseum am Montag (13.6.) bei der Vorstellung der Ausstellung in Hattingen.

"Ich male vergängliche Architektur" - mit diesem Satz beschreibt Calvelli sein Werk und verbindet so inhaltlich die nahezu fotorealistische Darstellung von Blumen mit den Motiven der Schwerindustrie. Letztere bilden den Mittelpunkt der Ausstellung. Schmelzpunkte stehen dabei für Transformationsprozesse: Mit den Aggregatzuständen ändern sich Strukturen und Gefüge. Metalle werden aus Erzen erschmolzen, umgeschmolzen, in Formen gegossen und geformt. In Konverter und Elektroofen löst sich alter Schrott auf, bevor er erneut in Form gebracht einem neuen Nutzungszyklus zugeführt wird. Diese Transformationsprozesse prägen das Erscheinungsbild des Strukturwandels.

So spannen die Gemälde Calvellis den Bogen vom Erz zum Schrott, vom Ursprung zum Niedergang. Sie zeigen mittelständische Betriebe und Großkonzerne, archaisch wirkende Kleinschmieden und gigantische Schmiedepressen. Die Darstellungen von längst verschwundenen Werken, aktiven Arbeitsstätten und im industriekulturellen Kontext neu entdeckten Anlagen vermitteln einen Eindruck von den Wandlungsprozessen, denen die Montanindustrie seit jeher ausgesetzt ist.

"Die Gemälde Calvellis ziehen den Betrachter durch den hohen Realismus in ihren Bann. Die Strukturen der Arbeitsorte treten plastisch hervor. Es braucht eine Zeit intensiver Betrachtung, um zu erkennen, wie künstlerische Akzentuierungen die scheinbare Realität bewusst verfremden", so Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch. "Der intensive Blick in die Werke vermittelt einen nachhaltigen Eindruck von der Arbeit mit glühenden Metallen. Tatsächlich geht es nicht um die Dokumentation industrieller Anlagen oder die Illustration technischer Prozesse, sondern um die kritische und distanzierte Auseinandersetzung mit den Zeugnissen des Industriezeitalters."

Bei der Eröffnung am Freitag (17.6.) um 19.30 Uhr wird der Künstler anwesend sein. Die musikalische Begleitung erfolgt durch den Klangkünstler Georg Zangl. Gäste sind herzlich willkommen. Der Eintritt ist frei.

Schmelzpunkte: Alexander Calvelli - Industriemalerei
17. Juni bis 23. Oktober 2016
LWL-Industriemuseum Henrichshütte Hattingen
Werksstraße 31-33
Geöffnet Di-So 10-18 Uhr, Fr -20 Uhr


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

boron, barbecue and biotech

In the roundup of German pieces published in June, we have biotechnological uses of algae, burning barbecues, hydrogen bonds, and circadian clocks:

Bor baut Brücken
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 3, page 159
abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Die Zeitschaltuhr
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 160–161, Juni 2016
Free access to full text and PDF download

Impfstoffproduktion: Alge statt Ei?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 6, pages 610-612
abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Jetzt wird's brenzlig
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 6, pages 719
restricted access to full text and PDF download

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

how Romanian lost its romance

I taught a workshop at Bucharest recently and just before the trip I discovered an old French book about the Romanian language at an Oxfam store, so I read much of it on the way there, and found it really intriguing. As the book is probably out of print, I’ll summarise some of the points I found interesting.

Latin heritage: The area was only under Roman control for a century and a half (106-275) – and the Latin derived language only became prevalent after the Romans left. The invasion of the Huns in 375 and destruction of the towns drove the Latin-speaking townsfolk out to the countryside, where they mingled with the peasants who spoke a Thracian language related to modern Albanian, and from this encounter Romanian was born. Then, the language was fairly isolated from the other Romance languages, and thus kept old-fashioned terms when medieval Latin changed and passed those changes on to Italian and French. Intriguingly, the Iberian languages, on the other end of the continent, retain some of the same old-style expressions, so they sometimes resemble Romanian more than the geographically closer languages Italian and French. For instance, when Latin, French and Italian switched from mensa to tabula for table, the peripheral Romance languages in Iberia and Romania didn’t get the memo, so we have mesa in Spanish and Portuguese and masӑ in Romanian.

German influences include cartof (Kartoffel) for potato, and halba (Halbe) for half a measure of beer, and a word derived from “Schmecker” for their argot. The name of the region around Bucharest, Wallachia, derives from the Germanic word for non-Germanic people, as in Welsch, Wallon, Welsh, etc.

Alphabet: Romanian used the Cyrillic alphabet until 1860, which it had originally adopted from Bulgarian for complex reasons linked to the shared orthodox religion.

Romance language that lost the romance: Again as a consequence of being isolated from the Romance languages in central Europe, Romanian lost Latinate terms from the area of love, romance, relationships. While most areas of Western Europe got their romantic ideas from the troubadours, Romanian lost the words derived from Latin amor, amare, carus and sponsa, and replaced them with the Slav words iubi, dragoste, drag and nevasta, respectively. So it became a Romance language that loves in Slav terms.

Later however, Romanian reconnected with French and got many words from modern French (eg bej, ruj, coafor, creion …), as well as lexical and grammatical influences from Hungarian, Turkish, and Slav languages, often even within the same word. So it ended up as a unique mixture not just of several language influences but also of languages from unrelated families, and with connections all across Europe.


Gilbert Fabre: Parlons roumain, langue et culture Editions L’Harmattan 1991

PS - a quick check on French amazon revealed that it is available as an e-book as well as second-hand. Plus, from the same series there are books about dozens of other languages, mainly those not so commonly taught, so this is a huge temptation. (Lots of them have the same title with only the name of the language exchanged, so you find them easily with the search terms: parlons langue culture. However, there are also recent deviations from the pattern, eg Parlons slovaque, une langue slave, from 2009)

Monday, June 06, 2016

sea floor mapping

I have on various occasions used the statement that we know the surface structure of Mars in greater detail than that of the sea floor on our on planet, and I understand that it is still true overall, but oceanographers are now working to close that gap in our knowledge. Just over 100 years after bathymetry, the science of measuring the depth of the oceans, and thus the topography of the sea floor, began in earnest, experts now met to lay out plans for future progress in exploring what's under the water. This knowledge is important not just for seafarers and fishing industries, but also for the safety of landlubbers in the face of sea level rise and tsunamis.

Read all about it in my latest feature:

How deep are the oceans?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 11, pR445–R447, 6 June 2016

permanent link to full text and PDF download
(restricted for one year, then open)

magic link
(open for the first seven weeks after publication)

The combination of advanced sonar and satellite technology can produce high-resolution 3D models of seascapes like this one in the Caribbean. However, for much of the sea floor, there is still insufficient data. (Source:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

writing course

Just compiling a few links here to use them later at a writing course I will be teaching.

Monday, May 23, 2016

lumbricus terrestris

Earthworms have found very little appreciation in mainstream biology ever since their biggest fan, Mr Charles Darwin, died. Now, however, several projects are underway aiming to reveal the ecology, diversity and economic benefits of worms and other soil invertebrates - including a new Earthwatch-sponsored "citizen science" project encouraging you to survey the earthworms in your garden. Read all about it in my latest feature which is out now:

Putting earthworms on the map

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 10, pR387–R390, 23 May 2016

restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will convert to open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(expires after 7 weeks)

Darwin’s interest in earthworms led to the publication, in the last year of his life, of a book about them. This is a caricature of Darwin’s theory in the Punch almanac for 1882, published at the end of 1881, just after publication of his book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations of their Habits. (Image: PD-ART(cc PD-old-100)/Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, May 09, 2016

drawing life

I always wanted to do something on scientific illustration, so the current exhibition of Maria Sibylla Merian's Suriname insects, and the forthcoming 300th anniversary of her death were a good excuse to give in to that. My feature on biology illustration from Merian to this day is out today:

Putting biology in the picture

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 9, pR343–R346, 9 May 2016

restricted access to full text and PDF download
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Maria Sibylla Merian, Grape Vine with Gaudy Sphinx Moth, 1702–3, is on display as part of the exhibition Maria Merian’s Butterflies at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 9 October. (Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.)

Friday, April 29, 2016

april book reviews

The April issue of Chemistry & Industry includes two book reviews from me, on page 40 a long one on

Still only one Earth:
Progress in the 40 years since the first UN Conference on the Environment.

R. E. Hester and R. M. Harrison, eds.
RSC publishing, 2015
(vol 40 of the series: Issues in Environmental Science and Technology)
ISBN 978-1-78262-076-1


"This look back over four decades is bound to produce a quaint mixture of issues that have been fixed and are thus mainly of historic interest, such as the ozone hole and leaded fuel, and on the other hand issues in progress that should have been solved but haven’t, such as climate change and local pollution in the rapidly growing economies like China and India."

... and on the following page a short one on

Einstein’s dice and Schrödinger’s cat:
How two great minds battled quantum randomness to create a unified theory of physics

Paul Halpern
Basic Books 2015
ISBN 978-0-465-07571-3


"Simplifying the complex network of the physicists that shaped our current world view by focusing on a subset of two, this analysis shows that it is not just the individualities of each that shape the process, but also the interactions between them."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

licence to smell

The slightly belated roundup of German pieces published in April (there were none in March, I think) includes the whiff of dead people as well as the underappreciated sense of smell of living people, a dead chemist who could have become Bond, the rise and rise of vegetarian mycoprotein products (such as Quorn (TM)), a potential treatment for cataracts, and the question why elephants rarely get cancer.

Wir können besser riechen als wir denken
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 140-143.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

See also my feature in English, which is now on open access.

Grauer Star: Aggregate aufgelöst
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 83.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Die Notbremse
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 88-89.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Mykoprotein als Fleischersatz
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 403-405.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Beinahe Bond
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 446.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Ätherisches Nachleben
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 487.
Restricted access to full text

Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen has studied the smell lexicon of hunter-gatherer societies in South Asia. The photo shows her sampling the smell of wild ginger during a field trip to the Jahai in Malaysia. (Photo: Niclas Burenhult, Lund University, Sweden.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

two billion cars

Earlier this year I stumbled across economists' projections that there will be 2 billion motor vehicles on the roads by 2030. We passed one billion some time around 2010. So the car population will double within 20 years. Maybe the scariest part of this is that those economists seem to think that this is a good thing, and how lovely that people will have to buy fuel for those (because the vast majority will still run on fossil fuels!) and what opportunities that will bring for economic growth.

Well, put that together with the facts that nearly all Diesel cars emit more than they are allowed to, the ongoing scandal of VW's emission test cheating, and that people in cities like London are actually dying prematurely due to this pollution, and the road building that destroys the rest of the natural environment left on this planet, and all that gets me quite angry enough to write a couple of thousand words in a few hours. For comic relief I have thrown in a photo from last year's World Naked Bike Ride - virtually the only visible protest against car culture these days.

My feature is out today:

A planet with two billion cars

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 8, 25 April 2016, Pages R307–R310

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

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

People look much nicer without cars (and clothes) - Bristol WNBR 2015

Related materials:

  • Data from our nearest air quality measuring station are here, nice interface to play around with the results and create graphs ...
  • The relevant EU standards are here.
  • A news feature from Nature magazine, June 2016, on pollution in New Delhi.
  • Friday, April 22, 2016

    how to hammer a dulcimer

    We seem to have given birth to a new string instrument, and now I'm trying to rationalise what happened:

    So the young musician in the family wanted a hammered dulcimer. Her mother found a build-your-own instruction online. Her grandad helped her build the box. And I helped with the bridges and all the metal that goes on top (20 hitch pins, 40 tuning pins, more than 30 metres of piano wire for 20 courses of strings). And miraculously, the international 3-generation project actually resulted in a real musical instrument, which is now playable:

    And here's what it sounds like shortly after completion of the work:

    It's not very difficult to play (essentially it works like a xylophone with strings) and the construction isn't too challenging either. We disobeyed the instruction in adding more courses on the bass bridge, and by making the treble and bass bridges in one piece each with holes in it, rather than as many little ones.

    With hindsight, I would suggest that the "simplification" of building the box rectangular rather than as a trapezoid as in commercially available dulcimers is causing as much trouble on the strings side as it avoids on the box building side, so I might one day try to do one with the proper shape. As for the cost, it's just under £ 4 per course of 2 strings for the metal work - plus the wood, paint glue etc. if you don't have that lying around anyway. In our household we probably have several dulcimers worth of broken furniture that could be recycled, so watch this space.

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