Wednesday, March 21, 2018

radium girls

My review of

The radium girls
Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster 2016
ISBN 978-14711-5387-7

is out in Chemistry & Industry, issue 2, page 43, with the very fitting headline:

Death watch

restricted access via SCI (premium content).

very scary stuff but also an inspiring story of women fighting for their rights and winning in the end, thereby saving hundreds of lives:


Young women who had worked as dial painters during the war and then moved on to other things started dying of mysterious symptoms, but it took years before the dots were duly joined. In June 1925, the first male employee died and gained a dubious honour: His post-mortem marked the first time that radioactivity was detected in a human body.

Monday, March 19, 2018

forest family

In contrast to what some reforestation programmes and commercial forestry seem to think, forests aren't just collections of identical trees, they are complex ecosystems with characteristic diversity in plant species as well as in everything else. Big data now enables researchers to analyse that complexity in detail on a global scale and work out how forests successfully spread around the world in relatively short time (less than 1/10 of the age of the Earth) and how humanity is reversing that spread in an even shorter time.

Read all about it in my latest feature, which is out now:

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 6, 19 March 2018, Pages R245–R248

The rise and fall of global forests

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

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(first seven weeks only)

As I used the ginkgo as an example of a tree that lost its ecological context, this was a good excuse to use one of my own photos - taken at the top end of John Garne Way, Oxford Brookes University.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

a cellist lost

I came across Alfonse Mucha’s lithograph of Zdeňka Černý, “The greatest Bohemian violoncellist”, on tumblr and wondered why I had never heard of her. Although the artwork is dated 1913, Google found no recordings of her or reviews of performances, so by the time I reblogged the image I was slightly worried about her and included a question about her further fate in my reblog.

Within 24 hours a helpful follower pointed me to a recent memoir published by Zdeňka Černý’s daughter, Jetta Marie Vasak (My Bohemian Heritage), which I ordered and which answered most of the questions I had. The simple answer to the main question: she married a banker (and non-musician) who wanted her to give up her musical career, and she obliged. The book uses Mucha's lithograph (without the text) as cover art:

The book is a charming collection of vignettes with a catastrophic lack of editing or structure of any kind, so I’ll try to extract from it what I learned about Zdeňka Černý’s life and put it into a short biography (may revise and add to it later):

Zdeňka Olga Černý was born in Chicago 26.8.1895 as the second of three children of Albert Vojtech (“AV”) Černý (* 1.5.1872 Jilove, immigrated to USA in 1888) and Frances (Fanny) Engelthaler (* 5.4.1873 + 24.2.1918). Her father was a successful music teacher (piano, cello, violin, voice) and the founder of the first Bohemian Conservatory of Music in Chicago .

In 1905-6 the artist Alfonse Mucha stayed several months with the Černý family in Chicago and painted several pictures of the older daughter Milada (1892-1973), who was famous as a child prodigy on the piano. Zdeňka asked him to paint her as well, and he promised to do so once she became a virtuoso cellist. At that point, she had only recently started to take an interest in the cello and take lessons with her father.

In March 1913, Mucha visited the family again. By this time, Zdeňka had become an accomplished cellist and played a recital for Mucha with her father accompanying her on the piano. After the performance, she reminded the artist of his earlier promise, and he agreed to start immediately. A photo of Zdeňka with her cello was taken at a studio. Mucha mainly worked from this photo, which he divided in squares. He made a drawing which he then coloured in gouache.

As Zdeňka and her father were preparing for a European tour planned for the following year, Mucha took the drawing to Prague to have the lithographer Neubert print posters under his supervision. For these, Mucha also designed the lettering underneath: “Zdeňka Černý, The greatest Bohemian violoncellist”.

On 29.6. 1914, AV and Zdeňka Černý were on the train to New York to catch a ship to Europe when they read the news of the Sarajevo assassination the day before. They still travelled to London and onwards to Prague, although I’m not sure how many (if any) concerts actually played and where.

By the time they reached Prague, AV was worried that he might be called up for military service in the Austro-Hungarian army and thus started to plan the return. In March 1915, AV played a recital in Prague, but soon afterwards they took the steamship St. Louis from London and by the summer they were back home in Chicago.

During the 1915 summer holiday Zdeňka spent with her father on the shores of Bear Lake near Haugen, Wisconsin, they met Otto Vasak (14.7.1882- 23.6.1961), then 33 and a bachelor, with whom she fell in love. After he returned to the city while the Czerny family still stayed in the summer cabin, they exchanged love letters via a helpful neighbour.

After a night staying out longer than allowed and fearing corporal punishment, Zdeňka eloped, which appeared to be the normal way for daughters to leave the house in that family. She broke off a previous, secret engagement to violinist Jiri Hruso and married Vasak at Chicago on 11.3.1916.

Jetta Vasak reports that Otto forbade her to pursue her musical career or indeed any teaching. A planned performance of the Saint-Saens cello concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock is cancelled. There is no mention of any discussion or resistance (apart from AV who sulked for two years). There is a small hint of a controlling relationship, as the author mentions that Otto did the family shopping at one point to keep Zdeňka indoors, but no indication of any trouble whatsoever. The next time Zdeňka is mentioned touching her cello is after her second husband dies in 1977, when she is already 82 years old.

They had two sons in quick succession, Otto (* 22.5.1917) and Francis (* 25.2.1919)
and then Jetta (* 26.1.1927). Otto played clarinet, Francis trumpet and Jetta French horn, but Zdeňka appeared to be restricted to the role of appreciative audience.

In 1955, Zdeňka and Otto moved from Berwyn to La Grange Park, a suburb of Chicago. Otto died suddenly on 23.6.1961 aged 78. After Zdeňka reported her loss to an old family friend, Robert Dolejsi who lived in California, it emerged that he, too, had become a widower almost at the same time. The two found more common ground and married in 1963.

Zdeňka moved to California to live with Robert. There she came in contact with artists and academics interested in the Mucha lithograph of her, which thus was rescued from oblivion. After Robert’s death, the above-mentioned attempt to reconnect with her cello failed. She died in 1998, aged 102. Sadly, “the greatest Bohemian violoncellist” appears to have spent around 90 years of her life not playing the cello.

Monday, March 05, 2018

regeneration lessons

I hear a certain Dr Who does it all the time, but mere mortals like ourselves can't regenerate, not even as much as a finger. Research into why salamanders can regrow an amputated limb and we can't has received a boost from the genome sequences of three relevant species including the axolotl, which were obtained in spite of considerable difficulties.

Covering these advances in my latest feature, I stuck my neck out a bit and speculated on medical benefits, but I guess it will be a long time before we can learn from the axolotl.

Meanwhile, read the story here:

Regeneration lessons from the axolotl

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 5, 05 March 2018, Pages R187–R189

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 genome of the axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum, is the largest ever sequenced. Researchers hope that it will facilitate the investigation of the remarkable regeneration abilities observed in this species. (Photo: Stan Shebs (CC BY-SA 3.0).)

Monday, February 26, 2018

leaking lakes

Open Archive Day

I've been writing a couple of water-related things this month, including the China piece that just came out, and another feature I'll submit this week. These reminded me of last year's feature on the vanishing lakes - water management failures so big you can spot them from space and have to redraw maps to account for them. Kind of an early warning system for all the water challenges we're facing. Out in the open now:

The world's vanishing lakes

This map shows the world’s lakes with surface areas of 10 hectares or more. The large, dark blue areas in Canada reflect the high concentration of lakes in those regions. (Image: HydroLAB, McGill University.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

water challenges

China is changing dramatically, and one of its key challenges is the freshwater provision in the face of urbanisation, growing industries, and expanding deserts. I had a glimpse of these problems when I attended the CS3 summit on (global) water issues and wrote the White Paper about it, but have now been able to address the specific situation in China more comprehensively in my latest feature which is out now:

China's water challenges

Current Biology

Volume 28, Issue 4, 19 February 2018, Pages R135–R138

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

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The Gobi desert in the north of China has been expanding in recent decades, while a gigantic tree-planting scheme aiming to stop this expansion is being criticised as misguided. (Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.)

Monday, February 12, 2018

fun feature

Open Archive Day

The latest feature to emerge from behind the paywall is one I wrote just for the sheer fun of it, without any major attempts at saving the world. I guess it will be just as much fun a year later, so here it is, on permanent open access, enjoy:

Fantastic species and where to find them

Leafy seadragons are easily identified by the leaf-like appendages they use for camouflage. (Image: Greg Rouse/Josefin Stiller/Nerida Wilson.)

Friday, February 09, 2018

twisted light

Lenses in your cameras, spectacles, or other optical devices are still exactly the same as those used by Galilei and van Leeuwenhoek, a surviving example of analogue technology in a digital world. Physicists have come up with various alternative technologies that can shape light in other ways, independent of the limitations of traditional optics.

In a rare excursion into the scary world of physics, I have written a short feature about these alternative approaches, which is out now in Chemistry & Industry:

Light without lenses

Chemistry & Industry Volume 82, Issue 01, pages 34-35

open access to full (HTML) text
via SCI website

restricted access to full text and PDF file via Wiley Online Library

And my story also made the lovely cover:

Oh, and no page 42 of the same issue there is my long essay review of the book:

by Claire Vallance
World Scientific Press 2017

Monday, February 05, 2018

looking after our planet

Thanks to my recent musical adventures I have met lots of people in the last few years, and I've learned that it's always interesting to find out what they do in real life. One member of our amazing Galican tambourine crew, the Oxford Pandeireteiras, listed on Facebook the job title "Fisheries analyst at Satellite Applications Catapult" which I found intriguing so I asked her about it and the answers led to the feature that is out today:

Eyes on our planet

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 3, pR89–R92, 5 February 2018

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

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(first seven weeks only)

Laura Fontán Bouzas, whose work is the nucleus from which this feature grew ...

Friday, February 02, 2018

10,000 years of progress

This book, published in Bern, Switzerland, in 1940, aims "to celebrate the creators not the destroyers" a pointed hint to what the northern neighbour was doing at the time. Even the 10,000 years of the title can be read as a response to the Nazi 1000 year empire.

Designed as a popularisation for all ages, the book has a woodcut illustration on each of its 250 pages, with a very short and accessible text explaining the way in which humanity has progressed through the invention or methodology shown.

10000 Jahre Schaffen und Forschen: Die Wege des Fortschritts from Einst zum Jetzt.
Bruno Kaiser, with 266 illustrations by Paul Boesch, Pestalozzi-Verlag Kaiser & Co AG, Bern, 1940

PS: While I generally think that Oxfam's Oxford shops are setting prices for books too high, the foreign language books are more reasonably priced. I guess they factor in the assumption that very few people read those languages ...

Thursday, February 01, 2018

fantasia in a minor

At this year's Oxford Music Festival, I played part of the Fantasia in A minor by Telemann, and I can (sort of) play the rest as well, so I'll tick this one off. It's been a very steep learning curve, as the notes leaping around all over the place made absolutely no sense at all at first glance, and I needed the help of my teacher to find the structures in the music (and to know when to breathe).

Next up is a Romantic composition that is also part of the cello canon and was written for an instrument that has since become extinct.

I had started working on the Telemann with a free score from the internet, but then discovered this lovely old edition at an Oxfam shop.

Monday, January 29, 2018

doomsday coming closer

Open Archive Day

One year into the trumpocalypse, we still appear to be on track for the end of civilisation, and the doomsday clock has duely been put forward last week. In case it can offer any comfort, or insights into how it all went wrong, my feature on the post-truth world, written to appear just before the inauguration, is now on open access:

The dangers of a post-truth world

I'll have to wear my pink (purple) pussyhat more often, the magic hasn't worked yet! (Photo and crocheting: NHG)

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