Monday, September 18, 2017

megadams march on

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I reported how the inflationary spread of megadam projects in tropical countries may do the environment more harm than good. The thing is that submerged vegetation in large reservoirs in the tropics can release enough greenhouse gases to wipe out the climate benefits from the hydroelectric plant in comparison to a modern gas-fired power station.

However, the megadam mania has marched on regardless. Earlier this year, for instance, the Guardian asked:

Why is Latin America so obsessed with mega dams?

and concluded that other renewable energies may be preferable in many cases. Some projects have in fact been stopped by protests and environmental concerns, but in many places, the mania continues.

My feature is now on open access:

A global megadam mania

Thursday, September 14, 2017

galician news

It looks like I have inherited the admin side of Oxford's Galician session, after the founder and all-round musical genius Mano has left town. At the same time I realised that I had a WordPress account that I haven't used in 10 years, so I will now advertise the sessions and generally rave about Galician music there as well as in the Facebook Group which I've just set up.

So, you choose:

Galician Session Oxford (WordPress blog)

Galician Session Oxford (Facebook group)

Oh, and I'm also running an email list, but that will only involve one mail per month, just the reminder I'll send one week ahead of the session. Drop me a note if you want to get on that list.

The sessions will continue to happen at the James Street Tavern, last Wednesday of every month, 8:30pm.



I will never get bored of the illustrations from the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Monday, September 11, 2017

becoming a plant

Today's issue of Current Biology has a special section called

The making of a plant


with lots of fascinating stuff on everything plant related from cell biology to agriculture.

My contribution is a feature rounding up various ways in which mimicking plants can be useful for us, from architecture through to ecology and behaviour of pollinators:

Reinventing the plant


Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 17, 11 September 2017, Pages R855–R858

access to full text and PDF download
(open now, may be paywalled when next issue appears, but will become open access again one year after publication)


Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

a flood of floods

Open Archive Day

With the recent "unprecedented" floods in Texas and India, we have gained further examples demonstrating what catastrophic climate change will look like on a regular basis. For most people a warmer climate will not mean relaxing by the pool, but fleeing floods and other disasters.

The connection is quite simple really. Warmer sea surface water allows storms to pick up more water vapour and more energy, both of which make them more devastating. I've discussed all this in a feature published early last year, which is now on open access:


World under water

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Nicaragua's struggles

Open Archive Day


The project to build a ginormous canal across Nicaragua has divided opinion. It is likely to spell ecological disaster in a number of ways, but then again, it is hard to deny one of the poorest countries in the Americas the opportunity to capitalise on its geographic location.

I reported on the project in November 2014 in a feature which is now in the open archives:

Will the Nicaragua Canal connect or divide?


Now it looks like it is definitely going to be built, even though not all Nicaraguans are happy with it. Recent press reports suggest that conflicts with protestors may be escalating, answering my title question by reminding us that the canal not only connects two oceans but also divides the country, although these letters suggest the majority is still behind the project.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

life and her children



Life and her children:

Glimpses of animal life - From the amoeba to the insects.

By Arabella B. Buckley.

With upwards of 100 illustrations

This is a popular science book from 1885. As the author states in the preface: "Its main object is to acquaint young people with the structures and habits of the lower forms of life; and to do this in a more systematic way than is usual in ordinary works on Natural History, and more simply than in text-books on Zoology."

I bought this one from an Oxfam shop - more expensive than what I usually buy, but still under £10. I could almost claim I need it for my work. The writing and the animals are embossed and gilded, which doesn't show very well in my photos but looks lovely in real life. Also, the lower parts of the letters have a horizontal stripe pattern, presumably suggesting they emerge from the water, as life did.

It turns out Arabella Buckley (1840-1929) was Charles Lyell’s secretary and started writing and lecturing about science after Lyell’s death (1875), see her short Wikipedia entry. And it seems to have worked out well for her, considering this impressive list of titles published:

A short history of natural science and of the progress of discovery from the time of the Greeks to the present day. For the use of schools and young persons (1876)
Botanical Tables for the use of Junior Students (1877)
The Fairy-Land of Science (1879)
Life and Her Children (1880) with illustrations by John James Wild
Winners in Life's Race or the Great Backboned Family (1883)
History of England for Beginners (1887)
Through magic glasses and other lectures : a sequel to The fairyland of science (1890)
High School History of England (1891) co-authored by W.J. Robertson.
Moral Teachings of Science (1892)
Insect Life (1901)
Birds of the Air (1901)
By Pond and River (1901)
Wild Life in Woods and Field (1901)
Trees and Shrubs (1901)
Plant Life in Field and Garden (1901)
Eyes and No Eyes (1903)

additional photos are in my tumblr post about the book.

Monday, August 21, 2017

plastic planet

I have covered the catastrophic accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans a couple of times before, but a recent analysis of all the plastic ever produced suggested that this is only the beginning of the problem. Production keeps growing exponentially and faster than the global economy, and the waste produced will follow that curve with only a short delay.

So, time for another feature on the horrible things we're inflicting on our home planet:

Our planet wrapped in plastic

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 16, 21 August 2017, Pages R785–R788

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)



Beaches even on remote and uninhabited islands can accumulate large quantities of plastic waste delivered by the ocean gyres. This picture was taken on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Susan White/USFWS.)


PS other recent news on plastic waste:

Fish mistaking plastic particles for food (16.8.2017)



Monday, August 14, 2017

vanishing wilderness

Open Archive Day

A year ago I wrote about the threats to one of the last true wilderness areas in Europe, the Białowieża forest, on the border of Poland and Belarus. It appears that the risks we worried about then are now becoming a harsh reality, as the Guardian has reported earlier this year:

'My worst nightmares are coming true': last major primeval forest in Europe on 'brink of collapse'


(The Guardian, 23.5.2017)

My feature is now on open access:

Europe’s last wilderness threatened

Friday, August 11, 2017

very hungry caterpillars

the roundup of German pieces published in July and August includes my take on the plastic-degrading caterpillars, along with the surprising regulatory role of ribosomal proteins, the quest for better fertilisers, and musings on a ban of concentrated hydrogen peroxide.


Raupen zerlegen PE
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 4, August 2017, Page 223
Access via Wiley Online Library


Netzwerk Leben: Die Proteinfabrik reguliert sich selbst
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 4, August 2017, Pages 282-283
Access via Wiley Online Library


Besser düngen
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 65, Issue 7-8, Juli - August 2017, Pages 764-765
Access via Wiley Online Library

Jäger und Sammler
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 65, Issue 7-8, Juli - August 2017, Page 859
Access via Wiley Online Library

Monday, August 07, 2017

seafood genes

long chain omega 3 fatty acids, as found in fatty fish, are important for our health - this much is clear. But from this, one cannot conclude that everybody should eat more fish.

In fact they are so important that human evolution has adapted our metabolism to the availability or lack of the fish oil compounds. Thus people from a fish-eating genetic heritage may need the fish oils, while others from a long vegetarian tradition have evolved their own ways of producing the compounds in their body.

Thus, the answer is complicated, as I have explained in my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

How our diet changed our evolution


Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 15, 7 August 2017, Pages R731–R733

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)




In Inuit and other populations traditionally relying on seafood, researchers have found gene variants that weaken the endogenous synthesis of the fatty acids that these people take up with their regular doses of fish. (Photo: Louise Murray/Science Photo Library.)

Friday, August 04, 2017

old tunes

reviving the series of antiquarian books from my shelves, here are some musical titles I bought from the book stall at the Oxford Music Festival this year:




Giesbert, F.J. (Hrsg.):
Deutsche Volkstänze. Eine Sammlung der schönsten Volkstänze und Reigenlieder für 1 oder 2 Blockflöten oder andere beliebige Melodieinstrumente nach Belieben mit einer Laute. Hefte 1 und 2.

My edition is undated but the internet ventures all sorts of guesses ranging from 1910s to 1940s. The serial numbers 2361 and 2362 are not that far away from the Rohr-Lehn recorder book for schools (2661) which is ancient, but was still in use in the 1970s. In fact, you can still get these from Schott Music today, apparently, but they don't reveal the publication date either. The editor, Franz Julius Giesbert, lived 1896-1972, so that narrows it down a bit ...




Der Flötenmusikant - Volkslieder und Tänze für 1 oder 2 Blockflöten gleicher Stimmung edition Schott, Band I-III.

These are also from Schott, and a different version under the same title is still available today, presumably the three booklets merged into one. My three little books have numbers on the back cover and month of printing, reading:

158 XII.61 on the first two volumes, and then 158 VII.63 on the third.

Funnily enough, Giesbert No 1 also has 158 in the same place (but no date) and No. 2 has the number 33 - I think these numbers specify the lists of other works available, but the dates are still likely to be close to the date of printing, right?



Monday, July 31, 2017

nature on fire

Open Archive Day

It's wildfire season in the Northern hemisphere, so a good time to re-consider my feature from two years ago on how nature can live with fire, but humans have managed to turn it into a problem - partly by stopping it from happening.

My feature is on open access here:

Learning to live with landscape fires




A forest fire near Sydney, Australia, dwarfs a fire truck sent to contain it. (Photo: Stefan Doerr, Swansea University.)
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