Monday, July 25, 2016

disappearing forests

My latest feature is about deforestation in Eastern Europe - of the legal kind in Poland and of the illegal kind in Romania. Oh, and I also managed to get a mention in for Chernobyl - at least one place in Europe where wildlife is left in peace.

Europe's last wilderness threatened

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 14, pR641–R643, 25 July 2016

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(should become open access one year after publication)

I'll add the magic link here when I get it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

heads of the dead

today's issue of Current Biology includes a special section on the "Biology of Death". My contribution was inspired by the recent exhibition "The Skull - Icon. Myth. Cult." which I saw at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Völklingen Ironworks near Saarbrücken, Germany, back in May, as well as by the famous shrunken heads at Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, not far from our home. The feature rounds up various ways in which different cultures have preserved and manipulated the heads of family, friends and foes for various reasons.

Read all about it:

Heads of the dead

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 13, pR544–R547, 11 July 2016

As part of the special themed section, the article is freely accessible (for now, it may go behind the paywall when the next issue appears, in which case you can use the magic link for up to 7 weeks after publication):

HTML full text

PDF download

The Latmul in Papua New Guinea honoured notable ancestors by sculpting a new, beautiful face onto their exhumed skulls, using clay and shells. This is an example from the Gabriel Max collection. (own photo)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

weird science

You might say my articles about science are all weird, but now I have one that actually appeared under the title Weird science, and that's a first. It is about quantum biology, a new(ish) interdisciplinary field that looks at some of the more surprising aspects of quantum mechanics and their role in biology.

The feature appears in Chemistry & Industry Volume 80, Issue 6, pages 22–25, July 2016
free access to full text in HTML format via SCI website
abstract, first page, and restricted access to PDF files via Wiley Online Library

Oh, and it made the cover, too, see below.

(Unfortunately, the magazine has been reduced to 10 issues a year, which is why issue no. 6 is out in July. Very confusing.)

In the same issue, on page 38, you'll also find my review of Alan Heeger's memoir "Never lose your nerve!"

Monday, July 04, 2016

time to move on?

From my family history, I know that people in centuries past have found great opportunity in new homelands, but the crucial thing is to know when it is time to move on. My great-grandfather found business success in Königsberg, Eastern Prussia, and he left literally on the last ship that got through. My ancestors who emigrated to the Odessa region (today's Ukraine) on the shores of the Black Sea in 1806 (having left the relevant oldest son behind!), established a good life there for a couple of generations. After 1870 the new paradise lost its shine and many families moved on to the US. The descendants of those that stayed suffered forced relocation to Asia and prosecution under Stalin.

So, well, right now the candidates among whom the next UK prime minister will be chosen are debating whether or not Britain (in whatever diminished size it will exist then) will allow EU citizens to stay after it has signed out of the EU. Of course they won't deport 3 million people. But conceivably, we might need residence and work permits, and equally conceivably, the recently introduced threshold of £ 35,000 salary required for the permission to stay could also apply to EU citizens (the median salary is substantially below that figure, so only those who fall into the top 40% or so of earners can stay).

So, reluctantly, after 23 years of living here very happily, we're having to consider our options, to make sure that after 2018, we will still be able to live within the EU and without having to justify our existence. Like Scotland, we may have to leave to remain. Watch this space.

A few random thoughts on the issue (will occasionally add new ones at the top of the list):

  • 13.7. Theresa May has appointed Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office, showing exactly what she thinks of the 7 billion foreigners out there. I for one am taking this as a personal insult. Also, she keeps saying she wants to make the country work for British citizens. No word about EU citizens, but is the chain around her neck supposed to be a subtle hint?
  • 11.7. As Theresa May is now certain to become prime minister, her speech held today promises a country that works for everyone. There are some quite progressive things in there, but unfortunately the term "everyone" doesn't appear to include the 3 million EU citizens who live here.
  • 6.7. Nice to know that parliament supports our right to stay, but note that this is non-binding and a majority in parliament is against Brexit anyway.
  • Considering how much time I've lost following the whole chaos, worrying about our future here and making contingency plans for a possible Brexodus, I would extrapolate that the worries of more than 2 million EU citizens currently working in the UK should add up to make a measurable dent in the country's economic performance.
  • Theresa May becoming prime minister (and staying until 2020) is probably our worst scenario, as she has the intelligence and the cold heart to go through and do the worst. Boris Johnson's fantastic incompetence was (relatively) a glimmer of hope while he was still in the running.
  • Cultural events I have attended since the referendum: A Galician folk session, a concert by the Liverpool band Dead Belgian, who play the songs of Jacques Brel, and an Irish session. How much of Oxford's international scene will survive once the drawbridges go up?
  • Without free movement we probably wouldn't be here at all - so I imagine that the future hassle of work permits etc. may very well redirect part of the academic traffic to alternative destinations.
  • While all major scientific organisations are trying to reassure people that international cooperation will go on as before, there are also some, like the Wellcome Trust, that could decide to move their funds and activities elsewhere.
  • While Scotland and Northern Ireland understood their best interest, it was quite shocking that Wales, which benefits hugely from the EU, voted out. Some explanations here.

Look, there are 27 countries we can move to!

Image: Wikipedia
(spare a thought for the volunteers who are trying to keep the Wiki entries on the Brexit crisis up to date and readable)

Friday, July 01, 2016

cycling highway

It’s very exciting news that an intercity cycle highway is being built in the Ruhr area, Germany. I think this will save a huge number of car journeys. Many people there do cycle within their city (and/or for leisure) but tend to use the car by default when going to the other cities of the area, although they are all very close to each other. So having this cycle highway could do wonders.

And due to the recent deindustrialisation (accompanied by renaturation of rivers, creation of green spaces), there are lots of tracks, bridges, etc. already in place that can be used.

For more info, read this recent story in the Guardian.

Or check the project website (in German only, I think), from where I pinched this logo:

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.)

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