Tuesday, August 18, 2015

living with fire

On the 14th and 15th of September the Royal Society will host a discussion meeting on The Interaction of Fire and Mankind (as of today, it looks like they still take registrations for the meeting). I asked a few of the experts who will be speaking at the event about their latest insights into the importance of fire for ecology and wrote up a feature about this, which is out in this week's issue of Current Biology:

Learning to live with landscape fires

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 16, pR693–R696, 17 August 2015
Full text and access to PDF download.

(Open access now, until the next issue comes out, and then again one year after publication.)

Elk escaping a wildfire in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, USA. As fire has been a natural part of many ecosystems for over four hundred million years, many plant and animal species have evolved suitable responses for survival. (Photo: John McColgan/USDA.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

chain mail and cellulose

Just two pieces to round up for July/August, covering DNA chain mail and nanocellulose:

DNA im Kettenhemd
Chemie in unserer Zeit 49, no 4, 226, August 2015; DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201590034
abstract and limited access to PDF file

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Cellulose zerlegt und neu zusammengesetzt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 788-790
related article in English

Friday, August 07, 2015

nature's masterclass

Learning from nature at the molecular scale is a big theme that I've revisited many times since the beginning of my science writing, so when C&I asked me to write about the catalysis work of Theodore Betley, I was glad to see it fitted in with that theme - and with a book about biohydrogen that I reviewed recently.

Both my feature on catalysis and the book review appear in the August issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Nature's Masterclass
Chemistry & Industry August 2015, pp 26-29
free access to full text

Pick'n'mix energies. Review of: (Biohydrogen, Matthias Rögner, ed.)
Chemistry & Industry August 2015, pp 50-51
restricted access

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

the last free-living humans

Three years ago, I read Mario Vargas Llosa's fictionalised biography of Roger Casement, The dream of the Celt, both for fun and for reasons linked to family history. Now the book has come in very handy for the intro of my latest feature, which is on native tribes in the Amazon.

A memory that stayed with me years after reading the novel is that of the shocking abuses committed by rubber companies in the Amazon who captured Natives and exploited them as slaves to harvest rubber in the wild. Sanctions for missing the productivity targets ranged from whipping to murder. (Incidentally, I find it intriguing that the neoliberal politician Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for Peru's presidency at one point, appeared to be unaware of the novels his alter ego writes!) This happened well within the 20th century and 50 years after Peru officially abolished slavery.

Considering this background, I find it understandable that some of the surviving indigenous tribes in the Amazon aren't all that keen on making contact with our civilisation. Some US academics have argued that if they had the "full information" about our civilisation, they would want to take part. My nagging suspicion is that the Natives have better memory than the academics, and even with full information they might still want to remain as they are, the last free-living humans.

My feature on all this is out now in Current Biology:

How to protect the last free-living humans

Volume 25, Issue 15, pR635–R638, 3 August 2015
abstract and limited access to full text
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Uncontacted MashcoPiro Indians on a riverbank near the Manú National Park, Peru. (Photo: © Diego Cortijo/Survival International.)

PS (7.8.2015) A comment obviously meant for this post was made under the next post, where it wouldn't make sense, so I didn't publish it. Essentially, one of the anthropologists in this story said they "could have set me straight" if I had contacted them beforehand (I didn't because they had their say in an editorial in Science magazine, no less). Seeing that our disagreement is not about the native tribes as such (ie their area of academic expertise), but over how benign or not our western civilisation really is, I really don't want to be set straight by them. I have enough life experience to judge our civilisation by myself, thank you very much.

Monday, July 27, 2015

platypuses in translation

I'm very pleased to report that my book "The birds, the bees and the platypuses" is now available in Arabic translation thanks to the Hindawi Foundation (set up by Ahmed Hindawi), a non-profit publishing operation aiming to make the world's knowledge accessible in that language.

The steadily growing list of titles they've translated is here (in English). Details of my book are here (in Arabic). I understand the print edition costs $10, and electronic versions are also available.

This is a screenshot, as in my attempt to save the cover image from the site I lost the writing on the cover. No idea how that can happen. Also, I'm afraid the cover features an inverted helix, but I'll let this pass for once.

Monday, July 20, 2015

animals on the move

Thanks to the ongoing revolution in communication technology which now tracks our every move, it is also much easier to track wild animals, even small ones. What's more by tracking many and diverse animals, we can learn more about the biosphere than was possible previously, as animals can become reporters in the service of science, and may help their own survival in the process.

I've discussed these things and the recent book "Das Internet der Tiere " (The internet of animals), shown below, in my latest feature in Current Biology which came out today:

Animal moves reveal bigger picture
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 14, pR585–R588, 20 July 2015
Summary and limited access to full text and PDF download
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Das Internet der Tiere: Der neue Dialog zwischen Mensch und Natur, by Alexander Pschera, October 2014.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

beyond silicon

Moore's law, the famous (partially self-fulfilling) prophecy that has defined the current technology revolution, turned 50 this spring, and, give or take a few tweaks, it's still holding up ok. However, we are now in sight of some serious physical limits to the further improvements possible with silicon technology. Thus, experts are asking what comes beyond silicon, and in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry I have rounded up some of the answers, both speculative and real-world ones.

Beyond Silicon

Chemistry & Industry No. 7, pp 42-45

limited access to full text and PDF download.

This all reminds me of the 1990s, when we were also worrying about limits to chip technology, only then it was the wavelength of visible light that limited the optical techniques. Overcoming these limits enabled the boom in nanotechnology and all of today's communication tech. Exotic alternatives such as molecular computation, which I discussed in a chapter in this book:

were already explored back then, but remain in the realm of the less likely paths today.

In the same issue, there's also my review of the book

Low cost emergency water purification technologies by Ray and Jain.

Monday, June 29, 2015

why reduce harm

... when you could go and lock up harmless people?

Well, ahem, don't get me started on the psychoactive substances bill which is currently on its way through UK parliament and may well become law. I find it ironic that this steaming pile of b****t, which will make totally harmless substances like nitrous oxide (used in childbirth and whipping cream, no less) illegal, shows up at the same time as the commercial success of e-cigarettes demonstrates that harm reduction is possible. Sadly though, reducing harm is not what our government wants. Appeasing the Daily Mail is more important, obviously.

Anyhow. My feature juxtaposing these two issues is out now in Current Biology:

Drugs: blanket ban or harm reduction?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 13, pR523–R525, 29 June 2015
Summary and limited access to full text
(should become openly accessible one year after publication)

Laughing gas has been safely used for over two centuries, as this cartoon from the early 19th century exemplifies.

PS (14.7.2015) Today, Anyone's Child, a group of families who lost children to the war on drugs (including Anne-Marie Cockburn, mother of Oxford teenager Martha Fernback who died two years ago), are taking their petition for a drugs policy based on harm reduction to Downing Street. You can sign their petition here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

folding into 3D

There have been exciting developments recently involving one- and two-dimensional structures that can be induced to buckle or fold into complex three-dimensional architectures. I've explored these in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry, which is now online:

Scientific origami
Chemistry & Industry Volume 79, Issue 6, pages 26–29, June 2015
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

A sneaky preview of the first page (as shown on the Wiley Online Library page):

On page 49 of the same issue there is also my review of the book:

The price of global health: drug pricing strategies to balance patient access and the funding of innovation

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

pee-back time

The round-up of German pieces published in June covers African genomics, gene editing, and advanced materials reflecting urine from the much peed-upon walls of St. Pauli district in Hamburg.

Crispr-Cas: Gen-Schere weckt Neugier, Hoffnungen und Ängste
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 3, page 158, Juni 2015
Abstract and restricted access to full text.
related content in English

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Afrikas Genome
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 647-649
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Clochemerle 2.0
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63,751

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

little birds lost

Some large iconic bird species have recovered across Europe, but many less conspicuous ones are still declining. Even "common" species like the house sparrow have suffered dramatic declines, and ecologists have argued that their loss in abundance may make more of an impact than than the plight of the rarer birds that conservation efforts tend to focus on.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology which is out now:

Europe’s bird populations in decline
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 12, pR483–R485, 15 June 2015
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.057
Abstract and restricted access to full text
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

PS In lieu of a bird picture, enjoy this beautiful dinosaur on the cover of the issue:

Monday, June 01, 2015

genome editing

Some time around 1994, I heard freshly-minted Nobel laureate Tom Cech (one of the discoverers of natural RNA enzymes, aka ribozymes) give a talk in Oxford, and he finished by saying that most of what he had presented happened thanks to his brilliant post-doc, and we should remember her name, she would go on to do great things. That post-doc was Jennifer Doudna, who now has a very good chance to get a Nobel prize herself for her work on CRISPR-Cas, the “bacterial immune system”, which Doudna and others turned into a turbo-charged gene editing tool.

Currently, researchers are still teasing out some very fundamental details of how this system works in the wild, while its application in the laboratory is turning the world of genetics upside down, as it allows gene editing with unprecedented ease. And while US scientists are holding meetings to call for a moratorium on its application to the human germline, a team in China has proceeded to to just that.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology. If I got my counts right, this must be the 100th in the new format we introduced in February 2011, when I started providing a feature for every issue of the magazine (i.e. two per month). I think I only missed 3 issues since then, so I guess it worked out quite nicely. So here’s number 100:

Bacterial scissors to edit human embryos?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 11, pR439–R442, 1 June 2015

Abstract and restricted access to full text

(should become open access one year after publication)

Related Posts with Thumbnails