Monday, January 15, 2018

plagued by the plague

Open Archive Day

A recent press release reminded me that the plague is still a problem in Madagascar - something I wasn't really aware of until I wrote a feature on Yersinia pestis a couple of years ago.

The feature is now in the open archives, so anybody with a strong stomach who wants to know all about the plague's past present and future can read it here:

A plague on mankind

Yersinia pestis
image source

PS there is a famous German sea shanty all about being quarantined on a ship with the plague off the coast of Madagascar, but it doesn't appear to exist in any other language. Plus, Wiki suggests that in the historical event that inspired the song, the disease wasn't the plague after all: Wir lagen vor Madagaskar

Friday, January 12, 2018

reformation remembered

Coming slightly late to the 500th anniversary party - I hear that my likely ancestor Peter Siegel (1485-1560), the first protestant vicar in the town of Kirn, was duly celebrated there on Reformation Day (31.10.).

A well-known actor, Rainer Furch, was engaged to impersonate Peter Siegel during a short piece about the reformation in Kirn, which he wrote and performed.

Incidentally, I was born in Kirn and baptised in Peter Siegel's church, although until very recently, we didn't know about him and I believed I was the first in the family to be born there. Although 3/16 of my ancestors hail from the general area, there was no specific link to the town, until we discovered Elisabeth Dammy, who was born there in 1654, and her ancestry of butchers, bakers etc. all working at Kirn.

Peter Siegel (right), as played by Rainer Furch, together with his current successor, Volker Dressel.

image source

Monday, January 08, 2018

save the rhinos

Rhinoceroses are one of many families of Pleistocene megafauna that have declined dramatically and come close to extinction. Of the five surviving species, three are critically endangered right now, another has made a dramatic recovery after it was believed to be extinct a century ago.

As growing demand for illegal products from the rhino horn fuels a new crisis and conservation science has to pull all the stops keep the species that are still with us, I've looked at the hopes and fears for the surviving rhino species in my latest feature:

Last call to save the rhinos

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 1, 8 January 2018, Pages R1–R3

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)

Oh, I should also mention there are two research papers on rhino conservation in the same issue (I briefly mention them in my feature too):

Cindy Harper et al.: Robust forensic matching of confiscated horns to individual poached African rhinoceros, pages R13-R14, open access

H. L. Mays et al.: Genomic Analysis of Demographic History and Ecological Niche Modeling in the Endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, pages 70-76, open access

which explains why there's a rhino on the cover as well:

This is an Eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli), apparently. No relation of mine as far as I'm aware.

And here's abonus illustration which I added before I saw the cover:

Rhinos depicted in the Chauvet Cave (southern France, ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago)


Saturday, January 06, 2018

a arte de trobar

The year is 1237. As the king of France and the Inquisition are finishing off the genocide of the Cathars in Occitania, King Fernando III of Castile is about to marry his second wife, Juana de Dammartin at Burgos (she narrowly avoided marrying the English king, Henry III). To mark the occasion, a contest of some of the most respected troubadours is held at the castle. At the very last minute, Maria Balteira introduces an odd duo to the event – a Galician xograr (entertainer?), Nuno Porco, and an Occitan refugee shrouding herself in mystery and going by the name of Elvira, whom Balteira had discovered performing at an inn in the town.

They get to perform last, and in the presence of the royal couple and Fernando’s teenage son, Alfonso. After they have blown away the bickering competitors (including eg Pero da Ponte and Bernal de Bonaval) and stunned everybody into silence, the king’s son is the first to applaud. He is, of course, the future king Alfonso X, el Sabio, the author of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. This imagined encounter between the brutally extinguished culture of the Occitan troubadours and the new wave of the Galician mediaeval music is at the heart of this short novel.

Many of the characters are loosely based on historical figures (follow the wikipedia links above to find out about them), but who the hell is Elvira? That is the mystery the novel plays with to great effect, and I’m not going to spoil it here. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I missed all the clues. The answer only hit me when I got to the very last sentence. So I’ll just have to read the novel again – it will be a completely different experience, knowing what I know now.

I’m thinking it might work well in English translation, actually. Would just need a few footnotes. Maybe the Galician Studies Centre and the Oxford Trobadors should conspire to make this happen …

Santiago Lopo
A arte de Trobar
Editorial Xerais, October 2017.

Monday, January 01, 2018

the urban ape

Open Archive Day

All of my Current Biology features from 2016 (and before) are now in the open archives - most of them are about ecology, evolution, conservation of microbial, plant and animal species, but some are also about the strange habits of our own species. One of the conspicuous traits of homo sapiens is that individuals tend to cluster in cities, following scale laws that have remained unchanged across time and space. As more than half of us now live in towns and cities, we are now officially the urban ape.

Back in 2016 I explored all the hows and whys and wherefores around the urbanisation of our species in a feature from which I retain some sort of warm glow, although I can't remember much of the details. Will have to reread it myself as well:

The urbanisation of our species

(Just a random photo of London, to be unoriginal. Taken at the Notting Hill Carnival 2017.)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

beginning to see some improvement

While Brexit, the Trumpocalypse, and other disasters were unfolding, I had a surprisingly good year, so much so that I looked at the short biography on my website earlier this month and realised it needed a major overhaul (done now), as so many exciting things happened this year. While the writing business continued as normal (but no new books to brag about) and the children are have also finished growing up, the surprising new developments of 2017 were mostly of the musical sort.

Maybe it all started when I attended Lydia Kavina’s theremin workshop in November 2016 – once you realise that you can play tunes by waving your hands around in thin air, anything becomes possible. Seriously though, it helped me to trust my unconscious mind, which appears to be a better musician than the conscious one.

With just a short introduction into the basics of the technique, I found I was able to play arpeggios and then tunes. Although the idea was that the teacher played the notes on the piano and the student was to find them on the theremin, I knew both the tunes she played and I realised that when I thought of the next note in my head the hand would do the correct move automatically.

With that in mind, and in preparation for further theremin adventures (and considering that I don't have a proper theremin yet), I picked up the family cello to learn some more interesting pieces, starting with The Swan. To my own surprise, I managed to learn the piece without getting arrested by the animal protection police, so I’m now expanding my cello repertoire, have recently joined an orchestra with the cello (also inspired by John Holt's memoir Never too late), and I’m signing up for the next theremin workshop. Meanwhile, my flute repertoire, supported by half-hour lessons twice a month, is also growing very slowly. I’ve started to mark progress with a still life photo for every piece.

In the very busy Oxford folk scene, I have continued attending many of the regular sessions that I had joined with the young musician during her gap year (2015/16). This was lesson 1 in “Trusting the Unconscious” – if I think about what I’m doing (or sight-read, or recall a tune from memory) I am already three bars behind, but if I just go with the flow, it works much better.

In March I played flute and about three bars worth of guitar in the very lovely Misa Campesina Nicaraguense, which is performed annually in celebration of Oxford’s partnership with León, Nicaragua. Preparations for the Misa Campesina 2018 are underway.

Shortly after the Oxford Folk Weekend, where I played in various sessions for something like 18 hours in three days, we had a special Galician session with Galician bagpiper Carlos Núñez, who is an amazing musician and a huge star in celtic folk and happened to be on holidays in the UK. Which was absolutely magical.

Folk Weekend Oxford 2017, taken by the official photographer.

After the June edition of the Galician session – which has always been my favourite one of the (at least) 10 different folk sessions I have joined or tried out since August 2015 – one of our pandeireteiras (tambourine players/singers) asked me if I was going to run the sessions after Mano’s departure, which was in fact the first time I heard that he was about to leave Oxford. And it was the last of his sessions I could attend, as he moved his final one to mid July, to a date when I was abroad. (Yes I do plan my travel around the Galician sessions and I do get mad when people move them!)

I reckoned that even without Mano’s musical genius and multiple bagpipes, we still had the unique combination of our very enthusiastic and talented Galician pandeireteiras, some seriously good international instrumentalists who can play the tunes much better than I can, and a faithful audience provided by the Intercambio Spanish language meetup, which routinely publicises the sessions as the Galician Music Night. And I reckoned it would be foolish not to do something with these assets.

So, without wanting to claim any musical merit, I agreed to take on the admin and make sure that some of the more experienced folkies would be at hand to keep the tunes flowing more smoothly than I might play them if I was left to my own devices. We had a small session with a core cast at the end of July, but numbers perked up in the following months, as London gaitero David Carril joined us on a regular basis, and after I got hold of the mailing list and set up the facebook group and WordPress blog to make sure that at least the information flows freely.

Simultaneously, our pandeireteiras carried on with their weekly tambourine classes, and we had a few lovely special events, including the Magosto (chestnut party, organised by the Galician Studies Centre), an excursion to David’s third session at London, and a special xmas session.

Oh, and the Galician Studies Centre has also spoilt us with cultural goodies this year. We had the UK premiere of the opera O arame, and the first screening in a new series of Galician movies. All of which is also a welcome opportunity for me to finally get to grips with the Galician language, building on the 2 terms course I attended in early 2016. If you know Spanish, it isn’t all that difficult. It’s essentially the same internal structure with a different set of decorations on the outside. Possibly even easier if you know Portuguese, but I don’t. A native speaker told me it’s just like Portuguese only with lots of xs. And knowing the language also makes it easier to join in the songs we sing at the sessions. So it’s all connected.

Watch this space for more linguistic and musical excitement happening in the new year, everything is possible! A back of the envelope calculation revealed I may have passed those magical 10,000 hours of practice some time in this crazy year, and sure enough, as Pablo Casals famously said (when asked why he still practiced the cello every day in his 90s), “I’m beginning to see some improvement.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

season for astrobiology

Open Archive Day

I've sometimes used the last CB issue of the year as an excuse to revisit astrobiology, seeing that it includes all the big questions of origin that also feed religions. This year, however, I've resisted the temptation, even though we had an interstellar visitor passing by just in time for xmas (see below). Instead, here comes the open archives link to last year's feature on the origin of life :

How life can arise from chemistry

This also means, of course, that all 24 of my 2016 features are now on open access, so go wild and enjoy.

Looking at the stats of this Open Archive tag, I am getting the impression that it is reasonably popular, so I'm planning to carry on in the new year, digging up one old feature on the Monday when no new feature comes out.

'Oumuamua: Interstellar Asteroid
Illustration Credit: European Southern Observatory, M. Kornmesser

Thursday, December 21, 2017

ammonia goes east

I recently noticed that there is an amazing amount of research into improved methods for ammonia synthesis happening in Japan (and hardly any in Europe). It turns out that a continuous tradition links this research to Setsuro Tamaru, a Japanese post-doc who worked with Fritz Haber in Karlsruhe and then in Berlin, until the beginning of the first world war.

As I've always used nitrogen fixation as a key example of how nature does things better than we do, I had a closer look at what the Japanese researchers are up to and where we stand on the spectrum between Haber's classic high temperature, high pressure synthesis, and nature's ambient conditions nitrogen fixation.

The resulting feature is out now in Chemistry & Industry:

N2: no quick fix

Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 10, pages 36-38

open access to full (HTML) text via SCI website ((LINK to follow, hopefully))

restricted access to PDF file via Wiley Online Library

Setsuro Tamaru (1916∼1917 in New York).

Monday, December 18, 2017

bacterial voting

Quorum sensing is the fascinating mechanism by which bacteria decide whether they are present in sufficient numbers to have an effect, eg to produce light for a symbiotic host organism, or to launch an infection in an unsuspecting victim. This field has a fan community among those interested in the resulting phenomena (eg bioluminescence, infection) or in bacterial communications more generally, but I don't think it has received nearly the attention it deserves. Part of the reason may be that some of the most important areas where QS occurs are also incredibly complex. However, bioluminescence offers very simple and elegant model systems, and on the basis of things learned there, science can eventually progress to the messy ones, like our guts.

I think I last wrote about quorum sensing around 10 years ago (and, definitely, in my book Light and Life), so it was about time to revisit the field, which is becoming more important as we are beginning to appreciate the importance of the bacterial symbionts in our bodies. My feature on is out now:

Shining new light on quorum sensing

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 24, pR1293–R1296, 18 December 2017

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)

Embryos of the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes), which are colonised specifically by the luminescent symbiont Vibrio fischeri, are an ideal model system to study aspects of symbiosis and quorum sensing.

(Image: Tim Miyashiro and Andrew Cecere (Appl. Environ. Microbiol. (2016) 82, 3082–3091.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

bacterial wires

Open Archive Day

I heard last week that the ability of bacteria to form pili that act as electrical wires is not limited to the species of geobacter in which it was first discovered (press release here).

This reminded me of a different kind of bacterial electricity which I described in a feature back in 2012, which is now freely accessible:

Surprises from the sea floor

Microbiologist Derek Lovley and colleaugues at UMass Amherst report finding electrically conducting pili or 'e-pili' in more bacteria species than just the original Geobacter discovery he made 30 years ago.
Credit: UMass Amherst

Saturday, December 09, 2017

well connected

In the round-up of German pieces published in November and December, we gain information and energy from the bloodstream, while solar powered worms are running around in circles and everything is connected to everything else. Business as usual, really.

Netzwerk Leben: GTex - alles vernetzt
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 6, December 2017, pp 428-429
Access via Wiley Online Library
(last instalment of my 12-part series on the molecular network of life)

Ausgeforscht: Frankensteins Blutturbine
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 11, November 2017, page 1175
Access via Wiley Online Library

Warnende Moleküle im Blutkreislauf
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2017, pages 1203–1204
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Solarkreisel statt Energiewende
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2017, page 1267
Access via Wiley Online Library

Friday, December 08, 2017

misa campesina 2018

Musicians and singers wanted for the Misa Campesina Nicaraguense 2018. This folk mass is sung every year in celebration of Oxford’s partnership with Leon, Nicaragua.

The date for 2018 is now confirmed, it is the Sunday 22 April, i.e. Sunday morning during the Folk Weekend. The idea behind this scheduling is that the Oxford Leon Association and Trust is going to invite a very special guest from Nicaragua to take part in the misa and in other events during the Folk Weekend.

There will be around three rehearsals in the weeks before the event, so probably starting from late March. Further info, links, and my ravings on this year’s misa (which was the first time I took part) are here.

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