Monday, December 16, 2013

antibiotics in crisis

When I started out writing about science, 20 years ago, I tended to end my articles on an optimistic note, along the lines of: now the molecular structure of this problem is known, surely a solution will soon materialise. How little did I know.

One of the solvable problems I wrote about nearly 20 years ago – and I have an article published in September 1994 to prove it – is the spread of antibiotics resistance. Now the existence of antibiotics resistance traits is natural and there isn’t much we can do about it, but their spread is greatly facilitated by two human activities, namely the reckless use of antibiotics in agriculture, where they are essentially used to speed up growth, and their misguided use in human patients, including pointless prescriptions by doctors, and inappropriate application by patients.

All that was very well known and recognised in the 1990s, so it was deeply distressing for me to find out from a recent report into the problem that antibiotics are still misused in agriculture in the US, and from own experience I know that some doctors still prescribe antibiotics when they very clearly shouldn’t, e.g. for a common cold.

So, well, the problem we’re facing today is that there are hardly any new antibiotics in the development pipeline, and the old ones we have are being squandered through systematic and long-running misuse which should have stopped 20 years ago but for some strange reason hasn’t.

In the US alone, 23,000 people per year are dying from antibiotic-resistant bugs, and the bottom line is most of these deaths could have been avoided if antibiotics misuse had been stopped in time. And this will get worse. Infectious diseases which we’ve almost forgotten are returning because of this.

It’s a very very depressing subject, but if you can bear to read more about it, there is a new feature out in Current Biology today:

Antibiotics in crisis

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 24, R1063-R1065, 16 December 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.057

full text and free access to PDF download

Extended spectrum beta-lactamase-producing strains of Enterobacteriaceae, including Klebsiella species and E. coli, are responsible for around 1,700 deaths per year in the US. (Photo: courtesy of CDC http://www.cdc.gov)

Monday, December 09, 2013

dances with diatoms

German publications in November and December cover foaming proteins, dance your PhD, chemical elements you can by from Holland & Barrett, boron-boron triple bonds, and diatoms. Phew. I won't even try to conjure up a connection between these, apart from the byline. So here goes:

Tierischer Eischnee und andere Schäume
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1227-1229
(a feature in English covering the same ground is here)

Ausgeforscht: Elemente für den Hausgebrauch
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1307

Ausgeforscht: Tanze deine Diss
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1191

Kieselalgen: Weder Tier noch Pflanze, aber klimarelevant
Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 368-374, DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201300621
abstract and restricted access to PDF download

Dreifachbindungen: Bor-Chemie im Aufwind
Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 340
abstract and restricted access to PDF download

Monday, December 02, 2013

collapse ahead

Highly sophisticated societies have collapsed (i.e. lost a lot of of their complexity very quickly) in the past, and there is no reason why this couldn't happen to ours. In fact there are a few very good reasons to believe it will happen well within the 21st century, i.e. within the life-expectancy of everybody born in the richer countries from now on. (I do hope Mumsnet are reading this and can still turn things around!)

We're still wrecking the environment we depend on, and the financial crisis has shown how blindly we can run into a disaster, so, well, there may be interesting times ahead.

I've discussed all this in some detail in a feature that has appeared today:

Will our civilisation survive this century?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 23, R1017-R1020, 2 December 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.028

Free access to full text and pdf download

After writing this feature, I was left with the feeling that we're standing at the edge of a cliff (no pushing at the back!). Since then, however, I've read a book for review that made me think maybe we're already one step further. Like those cartoon characters that stay suspended in mid-air until they realise that they are bound to fall. So I guess it's fine as long as we don't look down. More about that soon, when my review comes out. Now that's what I call a cliffhanger.

Extensive ruins such as those of the Roman colony of Thamugadi (Timgad) in modern-day Algeria remind us that civilisations can and do collapse. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/PhR61.) I actually visited Timgad many years ago. It does make a big impression.

PS Jan 2017: Oooops, I never did resolve that cliffhanger, did I? The book I was reviewing at the time was "The energy of nations" (review is in C&I Feb 2014, p51, but I forgot to blog about it), in which Jeremy Leggett argues that risk-blindness could lead the energy sector into a crash worse than the financial crisis, and big enough to lead to a collapse of civilisation. Now, as an irascible twitter troll takes over the White House and brings along his fossil fuel cronies, this prospect appears closer than ever.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

the male-only prize for science books

The shortlisted titles for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books this year are:

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead
The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life by Enrico Coen
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

Notice anything strange? Hint: look at the first names of the authors. All six of them are men. Surely some coincidence? Well, I went through the list of winners for the last 26 years and the shortlists for the last 14 years. The prize – with its many renamings and reincarnations – has never been won by a woman, which becomes less surprising when you consider that out of the last 14 shortlists, only 5 contained a woman (and none had more than one). That’s 5 / 84 or 6%. (Funnily enough, I seem to remember the fellows of the Royal Society have about the same gender ratio?) In other words: since the year 2000, nine years have produced all-male shortlists.

Taking a quick look at my popular science shelves, I acknowledge that the majority of authors are male, but not an embarrassingly large majority. Some of my all-time favourite popular science books are written by women, including Woman, by Natalie Angier, and Deadly companions, by Dorothy Crawford. The latter title was published in 2007, so could have been shortlisted for 2008. As it happens, 2008 was one of the years without a woman on the shortlist. Plastic Fantastic, a very important book about how science is done these days (using a famous recent case of misconduct), by Eugenie Samuel Reich was published in 2009 – again there was no woman on the 2010 shortlist.

I suppose this is due to an accumulation of bias over the many selective steps involved, from an author drumming up the confidence to make a book proposal, via a publisher accepting the proposal, a publisher suggesting the book to be considered for a prize, through to the longlisting, shortlisting, and prize-giving process.

In any case, it’s clear to me that the prize has consistently failed to reflect the contribution that women make to writing about science, so it should either be scrapped or fixed. Fixing would require positive discrimination – from my experience with “zipper” style gender alternation rules in Germany’s Green Party in the 1980s and 90s I can confirm that very simple measures can work miracles not just for the representation but also for the way things are done – if every committee has at least 50% female participation, the management style is improved dramatically.

Similarly, positive discrimination at the top of the science book prize, making sure that women are visible in the shortlist (e.g. by widening the shortlist), could feed back to the previous selection levels, such that more women are inspired to write about science, more publishers commission them, and more publishers put them forwards for prizes. It shouldn’t be difficult.

The winner of this year's prize will be announced on Monday 25th. We already know the winning author will be a man. Maybe they should rename it the male-only prize for science books.

wrong gender?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

foaming proteins

If you work with proteins in a lab, one thing is for sure: you do not want your protein solution to foam. When it does foam, you can probably throw it away. Unless, that is, it is one of the rare proteins that are meant to act as detergents. So far, they have only been discovered in tropical frogs and in the sweat of horses, so that's why my latest feature is called:

Only frogs and horses

Chemistry & Industry November 2013, pp 24 - 27

restricted access to full text

I'll be happy to send pdf reprints if you want one, email me at

m i c h a e l g r r aaaaatttt y a h o o ddoooottt co dddddooottt uk
(chew that, spammmmbots!)

Monday, November 18, 2013

consciousness in animals

Consciousness is a field that I've avoided until now, as I thought it was hardly accessible to scientific method, and even if scientists get a handle on it, they have to work against centuries worth of philosophical baggage.

Recent research, however, has uncovered intriguing traces of consciousness in animals, and even in those that aren't very closely related to us, such as the corvidae. These discoveries make it possible to cut consciousness down into manageable chunks, each with its own animal model, which makes it much more tractable for science.

So, finally, after many years of not covering this field, I wrote a feature about it, which is now out:

Elements of consciousness in animals

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 22, R981-R983, 18 November 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.078

Free access to full text and PDF link

Experimental setup used in Nicola Clayton's lab to study the food-caching behaviour of jays. When jays realise that they have been observed while hiding their food, they come back to the cache to hide it elsewhere. This is particularly common in jays who have themselves been food thieves, suggesting that they can take the perspective of the thief. (Photo: Nicola Clayton.)

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PS: BBC clip of a crow solving a problem in 8 steps.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

sound machines

Stradivarius by Toby Faber

Macmillan 2004 / Pan 2005

(US title: Stradivari’s genius)

The man we now know as the most famous luthier* of all times, Antonio Stradivari, was born in obscurity, probably in 1644. I find it astounding that the earliest record we have of his existence is a violin he built in 1666. He went on to create around 1200 instruments, roughly half of which are known to be still in existence. Many more trees have died to print theories about what made his instruments so special than for the production of the instruments themselves. So do we need another book about him?

Toby Faber takes the detached view of the amateur enthusiast who gave up on the violin when he left school – he doesn’t have a new theory to propose or a particular axe to grind. He simply follows the “lives” of six of Stradivari’s instruments, the Davidov cello today in the hands of Yo Yo Ma, and five violins, and uses them as a thread for the story of Stradivari’s fairly ordinary (though very long) life and his extraordinary afterlife.

It took his instruments a century of maturation time, as well as innovations in bow building and neck attachment, before they could emerge as the powerful sound machines that came to be considered superior to those of all others. It is a fascinating story, very clearly written and accessible – no previous knowledge of string instruments required.

Faber’s main interest here is the cultural construct of an instrument’s worth and appreciation, so luthiers, musicians, and instrument traders all get equal parts. He doesn’t pay as much attention to another group, the scientists who analysed everything from the acoustics of the wooden construction to the chemistry of the varnish. Maybe there is a popular science book about Stradivari’s instruments still waiting to be written.

* Microsoft Word doesn’t appear to know the word luthier – it’s a maker and repairer of string instruments.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

comeback for Europe's wildlife

We're in the middle of a global disaster for biodiversity, but here's a tiny speck of good news: a few dozen species of mammals and birds in Europe have recovered in recent decades after being severely threatened or even extinct in the wild. A report commissioned by Rewilding Europe analyses these cases. The hope is that understanding the underlying causes of these recoveries may help other species elsewhere.

Read all about this in my latest feature, illustrated with gorgeous animal portraits from the report:

Back from the brink

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 21, R939-R943, 4 November 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.039

Free access to full text and PDF link

Eurasian spoonbill. Its recovery shows that conservation of wetland habitat and nesting sites does help species to recover after dramatic decline. (©Jari Peltomäki/Wild Wonders of Europe and Rewilding Europe.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

the perks of being a book blogger

On September 2nd, I changed my “about” text to indicate that my tumblr blog would henceforth be focused on book-related things:

“I blog and reblog old books, new books, science books, story books, books I read, find, collect or write. Also: science, photography, art, movies with subtitles, pop/rock/latin music, cello and flute music, fair trade, and a modicum of nudity.”

This was simply because since December last year, the main source of notes for my material and new followers for my blog was reblogging from the lovely bookporn blog, so by September an overwhelming majority of my followers must have found me that way. In order to a) give those followers more of what they fancy, and b) increase the “stick factor”, i. e. the percentage among the visitors who find me via a bookporn reblog who then decide to follow me, I made the whole blog a bit more bookish. It’s not exclusively about books, but sufficiently so to get bookish visitors to accept it as a book blog.

Eight weeks into the experience, I can reveal that this switch has been quite successful. The perks of being a book blogger include:

* most trivially, having a focus that actually fits my existing URL and headline, which is a literary quote (from E.M. Forster, Howard’s End)

* by looking at other book blogs to find material to reblog, I’m getting to look at other people’s books at leisure …

* I’m still able to cover all topics that interest me, as all can be covered in books! Specifically, there is still science (especially scientific illustrations, as can be found in books), music, art, and politics.

* I can find a wider audience for my growing reservoir of book reviews, plus leave a scent mark for those books that I would really like to read but realistically will never find the time to (both are included in the “a book a day” tag)

* the bedtime belles I usually reblog as a sign-off at night look even more seductive if they are reading a lovely book,

* I‘m now gaining two followers per day (as opposed to one per day in the months since last December, while I was benefiting from bookporn influx but had no clear identity for the blog).

* I’m being constantly reminded to actually make time to read a book !

For the time being, this blogspot blog will remain the usual eclectic mix of science, culture etc., so if you like snooping around other people's books, find me at http://proseandpassion.tumblr.com/.

larousse

One of those bookish flickr pics of mine which have acquired hundreds of views from the tumblr book fandom.

Monday, October 21, 2013

what the frack

I've avoided the topic of shale gas for a while, seeing that the stupidity of digging up fossil fuels that we can't afford to burn should be obvious to all, but as the UK government seems to have given up on renewable energies and embraced fracking, and we've had some lively protests this summer, I wrote a feature about the recent developments, mainly in Europe, where the responses range from an outright ban on fracking (in France) to enthusiastic support (Poland).

My feature is out today:

Dash for gas leaves Earth to fry

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 20, R901-R904, 21 October 2013, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.006

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A poster that appeared in the New York City subways a few years ago warned of the impact of fracking on the city’s water supplies. The state has since imposed a moratorium on fracking. (Used with permission from Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, produced with Center for Urban Pedagogy and graphic artists, Papercut.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

aspiring actors

review of

Lucky break

by Esther Freud

Lucky break charts episodes from the interlinked lives of a bunch of aspiring actors who meet at drama school and remain loosely in touch for over a decade after.

As she’s been to drama school herself and is married to an actor, Freud has no shortage of material, and the book is rich in absurd details of both the successes and the frustrations of struggling young thespians, ranging from penguins and pantomimes through to staged conversation with members of the royal family.

The large cast and the episodic nature of the narrative requires quite a bit of attention from the reader. Sometimes I felt like I had to keep track of somebody else’s facebook friends, but as the characters mature and their paths diverge, it becomes easier to remember who’s who. Also, it may help to read the book a bit more swiftly than I did.

It all sorts itself out by the end though, and I felt rewarded for staying the course. I’m almost tempted to start over again, now that I know who’s who. The other perk of reading this is that as a freelance writer I suddenly feel I have an amazingly sane and stable career compared to what these poor souls have to deal with.

Friday, October 11, 2013

october harvest

The monthly roundup of things published in German magazines yields algal biofuels, mind-altering drugs and mysterious mechanisms:

Forschungspolitik: Drogengesetze schaden Neurowissenschaften
Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 284 DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201390056 restricted access

Biosprit aus Algen?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, 1035-1036

Ausgeforscht: Struktur und Funktion
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61, p1083

The last item was inspired by the historical scientific instrument of unknown function shown below. There is a competition on for the best explanation of what it might be for.

PS: My feature on diatoms will appear in the next issue of Chemie in unserer Zeit (December) but it is already online (restricted access).

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

chemistry in pores

My latest feature in Chemistry & Industry juxtaposes two different approaches to conducting chemistry in nanoporous materials. There's the work of Makoto Fujita's group at Tokyo, who has used self-assembling, crystallisable molecular cages to carry out chemical reactions and even X-ray structure determination with molecules resident in the channels of these materials. Meanwhile, the teams of Achim Müller and Ira Weinstock have used globular molybdenum oxide capsules to study the assembly of minimalist micelles in their interior.

Pores for thought

Chemistry & Industry 2013, No. 10, 20-23

In the same issue, on pages 50-51, you'll find my long essay review of the book "Functional materials from renewable sources".

Both pieces are premium content on the C&I website, I'm afraid, but I'll be happy to send pdf files if you drop me a note. PS I noticed only recently that the tag "chemistry+industry" isn't actually working (at least in Firefox and in Explorer). It does work behind the scenes, on the page where I can manage and edit my entries, but not on the public side. Assuming it's to do with the "+" sign, so I'm replacing it with "chem-and-ind" from now on. To access old pieces, please use the sciencejournalism tag and patient scrolling. Sorry about that.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

moving targets

Are plant diseases that cause catastrophic famines a thing of the past? Well, ahem, the pests and pathogens keep evolving, moving and spreading, and human activities like global trade and large scale monoculture often help them. So new threats to food security are emerging, and scientists have to find new ways of saving the crops we eat.

Some very scary things I learned from researching this feature which is now out:

Pests on the move

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 19, R855-R857, 7 October 2013, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.034

Free access to full text and PDF file

Stem rust on wheat stalks. (Photo: Liang Qu/IAEA.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dvořák abbreviated

The latest addition to my growing collection of arrangements for cello and flute is an adaptation of the slow movement from Dvořák's cello concerto. I've left out a section in the middle, bringing it down to 6 minutes length. The rest in bar 66 marks the spot.

As the original work is largely a dialogue between the solo cello and the woodwind instruments in the orchestra, I'm hoping that my edit makes some kind of musical sense, but all hints and suggestions for improvements are welcome.

PS: Noteflight members can see a handy list of our other scores here. Mere mortals can access them individually through the earlier blog entries.

Monday, September 23, 2013

a robot's life for me

there are exciting things going on in the fields of robotics, biomimetics, and biohybrids, but for some reason researchers in these fields tend to communicate their important results via conference proceedings rather than high profile journals. So when I went to the conference Living Machines at London in July, I realised that there are lots of things that hadn't shown up in the pages of Nature and Science. I haven't really looked at these issues since publishing "Biotronik" ten years ago - a book in German which looked at biohybrids and the interface between biology and electronics.

Trying to make up for lost time, I wrote a feature about these things, which is out today in Current Biology:

Towards living machines

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 18, R821-R823, 23 September 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.004

Free access to full text and PDF download.

Vicky Vouloutsi from Barcelona held an intriguing talk about programming social behaviour on the established android system iCub (I could have benefited from such programming in my early life too!), so I took a snap of her and her pet:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

mental disorders made accessible

review of

Essentials of psychiatric diagnosis: Responding to the challenge of DSM-5

by Allen Frances

The Guilford Press, New York, June 2013

In April this year, I wrote a feature about the criticism levelled at the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, DSM-5, which appeared in May. One of the critics I cited was Allen Frances, MD, who had criticised from the preparatory stages of the new edition that it was making diagnostic criteria too wide and too vague, at the risk of making mental patients of us all.

Frances is not only a distinguished psychiatrist (he chaired the team that prepared the fourth edition and was also involved with the third edition of the DSM) but also a prolific writer, so he prepared his own, anti-DSM-5 diagnostic guide in time to be published almost simultaneously with the big manual. As he told his publishers about my article, they kindly sent me a review copy of the book.

I was a bit apprehensive at first, as the title sounds somewhat technical and forbidding, but sampling some of the chapters I soon found out that it is highly readable for lay readers. Each chapter for a specific mental disorder has very clear signposting including a screening question, description of a prototype case, and differential criteria to distinguish the condition from separate, but similar ones, or, indeed, from the fringes of normal behaviour. The last distinction is possibly the most important one, as the risk that all variability in human behaviour may get labelled pigeon-holed into psychiatric categories and treated with drugs provided by an all too eager pharmaceutical industry is a growing concern.

The book is “meant for everybody with an interest in psychiatric diagnosis” – not just medical professionals and students, but also anybody who cares about a person who may have mental health problems. Recognising problems early can save lives. And as some of these disorders seem to be spreading, the target audience may well include most of us.

PS: A revised edition has just come out on September 18th. According to the blurb on Amazon, it “features ICD-10-CM codes where feasible throughout the chapters, plus a Crosswalk to ICD-10-CM Codes in the Appendix. The Appendix, links to further coding resources, and periodic updates can also be accessed online (www.guilford.com/frances_updates).”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

not showing at a cinema near you

I only just discovered that the annual statistical yearbook from the BFI (British Film Institute) has statistics on everything, including the foreign language films that I would like to see in cinemas but that fail to turn up. So I had a good look at the BFI statistical yearbook 2013:

According to the country of origin stats on page 17, 151 (23%) of the movies released in the UK in 2012 came from other European countries (198 from the US, 162 from the UK). I have a nagging suspicion that figure includes one-off showings at festivals or at specialised cinemas like the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français in London. At least the number that made it to Oxford cinemas is definitely 5 times smaller. They account for 4.8 % of box office takings, but of course one could argue endlessly which is the hen and which the egg in this story.

Also see the chapter 5, "Specialised Films", which includes specific stats on foreign language films. Apparently, 230 films in 32 foreign languages were released in 2012, accounting for 35.5% of all releases, but taking only 2% of the box-office. Allegedly the number has increased from 96 in 2001, which is contrary to my impression. This is in line with an increase in total releases (and in audience figures), however, so the percentage is stable at 35.5%

Some specific languages (including all that have 10 or more films): French 49 films (I am sure that fewer than 12 were shown here! ), Hindi 44, Tamil 21, Malayalam 19, Turkish 13, Punjabi 10, Spanish 10, German 8, Arabic 4, Italian 3, Mandarin 2, Dutch 1.

On average, foreign language films play at 20 sites on their widest release – the figure for English language films is 159. Commercially most successful foreign language film in 2012 was Untouchable. Three other French films made the top 10 (of non-Hindi foreign language box-office): Amour, Rust and Bone, The kid with a bike (I actually saw this one!). The cumulative stats for the last 12 years have Amélie in 3rd and Volver in 7th position.

Speaking of which, German film “Die Wand” shows exactly once at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, next Tuesday at 6pm. The same slot will host Fernando Trueba's The artist and the model later this year, which allegedly is on release from this week. After a tweet from me, the distributor, Axiom films, pointed me to the list of "tour dates", so you can check if it comes near you.

Londoners also have the benefit of the annual London Spanish Film Festival at the Ciné Lumière, which will run from September 27th to October 9th this year.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

DNA balls

My feature on Spherical Nucleic Acids (SNAs) - a kind of assembly in which short nucleic acid strands stick out radially from a nanoparticle core - is out in the September issue of Chemistry & Industry:

DNA plays ball
Chemistry & Industry 2013, No. 9, pp28-31

This is premium content with restricted access to the full text, but I may get pdf reprints.

Image source: Wikipedia - Adapted from Cutler, J. I., et al., Spherical Nucleic Acids. J Am Chem Soc 2012, 134 (3), 1376-1391. Copyright 2012 American Chemical Society.

PS - as punishment for making fun of people for publishing DNA helices the wrong way round, I've been hit by another inverted helix in the illustrations for this article, which I didn't get to check. Fortunately, it's a detailed ball-and sticks model where the chirality is very hard to verify, so it won't mislead anybody who doesn't know already which way the helix is supposed to turn.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

forty years later

Today is the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile. Thirty years ago, I attended a major event on the eve of the 10th anniversary:

which was a huge arena event with lots of big names. The head of the regional government and future federal president Johannes Rau was sitting in the first row with his very young wife (and I was two rows behind them), when the evening's host Dietmar Schönherr, speaking about the US interference in Nicaragua, referred to the then US president Ronald Reagan as an arsehole. That was front page news the next day.

Based on what I learned that evening and later (eg from books like Joan Jara's excellent biography of her husband Victor), I have never been able to hear any US politician trying to take the moral high ground without grumbling, but look at what your guys did to Chile. And even though it has now returned to democracy, the recent student demos have reminded us that Pinochet's legacy persists in the education system as elsewhere.

Oh well. There doesn't seem to be much going on around here today. Just me and my Victor Jara LPs.

Monday, September 09, 2013

memories are made of what exactly?

Today's issue of Current Biology is a special issue on memory, with lots of great articles on various aspects of memory. Oh, and there's also a feature from me, on sharp-wave ripples and whether or not they're important for memory.

Are memories just ripples in time?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 17, R734-R736, 9 September 2013

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All the themed content in this issue will remain on free access for a month after publication date, apparently.

By coincidence, there is also a new book out about one of the most extensively studied patients with memory loss, H.M. While this isn't directly linked to ripples, the cause of his memory loss was removal of his hippocampi, and they are also the source of ripples, so that was a good enough excuse for me to mention his case.

Friday, September 06, 2013

fun with chemistry

Since April 2000, I've been publishing a humorous column called "Ausgeforscht" (vaguely: all done with research - the launch coincided with the end of my research career) in the magazine of the German chemical society (GDCh), Nachrichten aus der Chemie, every even-numbered month. As of this month, the column will begin to appear in every issue, and it has moved to the very end of the magazine, i.e. to the inside back cover. Easy to find, easy to rip if you want to collect the pieces like I do.

Columns until October 2010 are collected in my book 9 Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums - hopefully with the higher frequency I won't have to wait quite as long to build critical mass for another book ...

Oh, and this was also the round-up of the September pieces, as there is only this one:

Ausgeforscht: Chemie nur für Jungs?
Nachr. Chem. 2013, 61, 991.

The piece features the Let toys be toys campaign against gender stereoptypes in the marketing of toys - several large retailers in the UK seemed to think that chemistry kits were toys for boys, until the campaign started poking them.

9 Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums, Wiley-VCH 2011.

PS (7.9.) latest news from the toys front: LEGO is releasing its first minifigure of a female scientist, and she's a chemist, more info here.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

a naked paradox

Book review:

Die Nackten und die Tobenden

Ernst Horst

Blessing Verlag 2013

This summer was perfect for being out and about with nothing but a sun hat, and the perfect book to enjoy with that would be one about the weird and wonderful cultural history of nudism in (western) Germany, from its beginnings until ca. 1970.

At the heart of this book is an appreciation of the many nudism magazines which blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s, partly thanks to buyers who weren’t necessarily nudists - although both the magazines and the nudists’ associations sometimes connected to them would strenuously deny any kind of erotic subtext to their publications filled with pictures of beautiful naked people (the cover of the book shows a typical cover photo from one of those magazines). This commercially successful double life ended when the unstoppable rise of openly erotic magazines like Playboy (which launched a German edition in the early 70s) deprived them of a large part of their audience.

This paradox is to me the most intriguing aspect of organised and card-carrying nudism to this day, but it was even more pronounced in the prohibitive climate of the 1950s. Nudists were fighting for the right to be different, to indulge in the minority interest of running around in their “Lichtkleid” (i.e. only dressed in light), confronting a catholic/conservative society that saw nothing but sin in nudity. At the same time, however, they were just as keen to be seen as normal people who had no links to anything unspeakable like sex, promiscuity, or homosexuality. Rather than fighting for a more open-minded society, they chose to campaign only for their lifestyle to be accepted as normal, while everybody else who fell outside the norms could go to hell. Ironically, there was no such battle in the GDR, as nudism was one of the liberties tolerated by the regime.

Ernst Horst previously published a book about Erika Fuchs, the highly influential translator of Disney comics, which I still have to read. Here he adopts the pose of an amateur anthropologist somewhat restricted by the scope of what magazines he can find on flea markets and what information he can search on the web. I wouldn’t mind that so much, except that he talks a little bit too much about writing the book, instead of actually covering the subject matter. Apart from that gripe, however, this is a cultural history well worth reading, regardless of whether you’re sporting tan lines or not.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

whatever happened to the Orient Express?

The EuCheMS chemistry congress will take place in Istanbul next year, so I was wondering whether I could go there by train. The SNCF website says it doesn’t sell tickets to that destination. Deutsche Bahn can’t tell the price, but at least it gives me a connection.

Travelling from Frankfurt, it would take three nights, two days (55 h 50 mins total duration), and five changes to get there:

  • Night train Frankfurt to Vienna (EN421)
  • Vienna to Budapest
  • Budapest to Beograd
  • Night train Beograd to Sofia
  • 10 hours wait in Sofia
  • Sofia to Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria
  • Night train Dimitrovgrad to Istanbul

The first train, EN421 comes from Cologne, so the connection also works from there, as well as from other German stations including Bonn, Koblenz, Mainz, Würzburg, Nürnberg, Regensburg, Passau.

Deutsche Bahn very kindly gives me a connection from Paris as well, although it doesn’t even cross German territory. I could take a TGV Paris to Zurich, direct night train Zurich to Budapest, and then it’s the same as above for the rest of the journey (total: 60 hours). From London it recommends going via Brussels and Cologne, 63 hours.

I think the last change in Dimitrovgrad is where they lost me. I wouldn’t actually mind travelling three nights in a row and having some time to look at the cities in between. But Dimitrovgrad, population 38,015, not to be confused with the eponymous town in Russia, sounds random and a bit scary.

Whatever happened to the Orient Express? (I looked it up, the short answer is, it ceased to exist, the long answer is on Wikipedia.) Shouldn’t there be a direct line across Europe, linking all those new member states?

So, well, maybe I’ll skip this conference. Unless somebody has a bright idea? Are there any prospects for improvements in Bulgarian railways?

image source: wikipedia

Friday, August 23, 2013

sweaty horses

Just one article out in German this month, which is about the surfactant protein latherin from horse sweat:

Pferdeschweiß-Protein hält Forscher auf Trab

Chemie in unserer Zeit

Volume 47, Issue 4, page 208, August 2013

Abstract and restricted access to PDF file

An English version of this story appears here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

how cereals tricked us

In my latest feature, out today, I looked at the origins of agriculture. People like to think that it was an invention in the sense that neolithic hunter-gatherers "invented" farming and found it more efficient so switched from food-finding to food production.

However, recent research has shown up a massive paradox in this narrative. For the people concerned, farming wasn't a better way to make a living than foraging. If anything, they had to work harder for less reward. Also, the feat of "domestication" wasn't a clever trick devised by early plant breeders. Rather, people harvested the grains they liked and took them home, and unwittingly exerted selection pressure that changed the species they ate.

When birds spread plant seeds by eating berries, we tend to credit the plant for recruiting the animals as helpers in their own reproduction. After writing this feature I arrived at the conclusion that the origin of agriculture was very similar. Barley tricked humans into spreading its seeds around the world.

Anyhow. Full story here:

The paradoxical evolution of agriculture

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 16, R667-R670, 19 August 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.001

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Image source: Wikimedia commons

Saturday, August 17, 2013

life and times of Ginkgo biloba

Some species have apparently changed very little in hundreds of millions of years and are sometimes called "living fossils". One of them is the ginkgo tree, whose reproductive strategy is older than both conifers and flowering plants. Ginkgo trees very similar to those around today cast their shadows on the first and the last of the dinosaurs, which I find quite mind-boggling.

I've written a short essay review on the book

Ginkgo: The tree that time forgot, by Peter Crane,

which is out in the August issue of Chemistry & Industry, page 49.

Restricted access

Monday, August 05, 2013

hopes and fears for coral reefs

My latest feature in Current Biology is on the recent findings of resilience in coral reefs, and the continuing threats they face:

Hopes and fears for future of coral reefs

Copyright © 2013 All rights reserved. Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 15, R635-R637, 5 August 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.062

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PS: This is post number 1111, by the way.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

anonymously yours

Back in 2003, the web was a very different place – there was no facebook, and I used to socialise on the Shakira forum where at that point people still went by pseudonyms and didn’t show their faces except after you’d won their trust. I got to know quite a few lovely people this way, mainly by exchanging written words, and it always intrigued me how we influenced each other’s lives just through writing. I always wanted to write a movie script about that experience, but I didn’t quite have the right address book to make this sort of thing work.

Over time, I had the pleasure of meeting a few of my forum friends in real life, among them Ana Esther from Spain who spent a few months in Ireland and came over on a night coach to stay with my family for a weekend:

We met again for a concert in Madrid, but then lost touch, except for google+ which we both hardly use at all. Checking google+ this week, I found a link to one of her videos (she’s studied audiovisual communication) and through that discovered an earlier video where she examined the issue of anonymity in online chat. A boy who pretends to be a girl chats with a girl who pretends to be a boy. And when they meet up and discover their mutual deception, they look extremely cute and embarrassed.

Ana Esther wrote the script and plays the girl, check it out (Spanish only, I’m afraid), I love it to bits:

PS I'm basking in the warm glow of the illusion that I might have provided 0.0001% of the inspiration for this, even though I've never pretended to be a girl. Still, my nick, pensandoenti, may have come across as a bit girly, I suppose?

Monday, July 22, 2013

drugs prohibition kills

I wrote a feature about psychoactive drugs a few weeks ago, mainly inspired by the recent paper from David Nutt and colleagues who argued that the blanket ban of psychoactive drugs harms progress in neuroscience (apart from ruining the lives of millions of people with the unwinnable "war on drugs").

Since then, tragic events, including the death of a teenage girl here in Oxford, have highlighted the issue. There is a properly dangerous drug making the rounds in the UK right now, PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) (probably called Dr Death for a reason), but as drugs are banned regardless of their harm, it's hard to know what is and what isn't dangerous. Plus, there is no quality control, and if kids buy an illegal pill, it could contain anything. In the Netherlands, by contrast, there are labs checking up on what is being traded, and they haven't had problems with PMA yet.

Essentially, my bottom line is, people always have used mind-altering drugs and always will do, and if there wasn't this blanket prohibition banning harmless and dangerous things alike, it would be much safer for them to do so. Hardline prohibitionists are just creating most of the problems they are pretending to solve.

Oh well. Don't get me started on this, it drives me up the wall in no time. Just read my feature:

Drugs prohibition is criminals’ gain, neuroscience’s loss

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 14, R585-R588, 22 July 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.012

which is freely accessible (and legal, still!) as

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PDF file.

Cannabis sativa - picture credit: GW pharmaceuticals.

PS: couple of further links re. the recent deaths linked to PMA:

PPS only after publishing this blog entry I became aware of the organisation Transform Drug Policy Reform, which has published detailed suggestions for a drugs regulation based on actual scientific evidence and on policies that are feasible (borrowing bits and pieces from established frameworks such as the handling of prescription drugs). "After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation" is freely available as a PDF download, but if you would like to support the organisation, you can also order it as a book from them. You can also download the executive summary only, which is also available in several other languages including Spanish, Russian, and Italian.

Monday, July 08, 2013

people, pets, and predators

My latest feature in Current Biology covers the triangular relationship between humans, their pets, and undomesticated animals that may come in conflict with one or the other. I've specifically looked at two cases that made headlines recently, namely badgers vs. cattle, and cats vs. birds. As always, problems are complex, and emotional involvement that people tend to have with specific animal species can make it even harder to find rational solutions.

The feature is out in today's issue:

Where wildlife and tame life collide

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 13, R545-R548, 8 July 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.038

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houseboat cat revisited

pet predator from my flickr pics.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

foam from the horse's mouth

In a late follow-up to the frog foam story from 2009, I covered the structure of an equine protein coming from the same groups. Latherin is found in the sweat and saliva of horses and has unusual surfactant properties suggesting a new mechanism.

Read all about it in Chemistry World (free access):

A foaming protein from the horse’s mouth

NB: this came out so quickly that I actually missed it when it appeared, hence the slight delay in horn-tooting.

horses & buttercups

Some not so sweaty horses salivating over buttercups in a field near our house.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

algae, bees, and chemists

The roundup of German pieces published in June includes red algae caught stealing, bees being invited for coffee, and chemists in high office.

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, 647
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Extremophile Rotalge des Gen-Diebstahls überführt

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, 623
Ausgeforscht: Wir sind Papst (und mehr)

Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 146
Koffein stärkt Gedächtnis der Bienen Abstract and restricted access to PDF file

bee25

one of the bumblebees buzzing around on my flickr photostream.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Vénus noire

review of the film

Vénus noire by Abdellatif Kechiche (France 2010)

This film from the auteur of Cous cous (La graine et le mulet) and this year’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the warmest colour (La vie d’Adèle) tells in epic breadth the sufferings of Sarah Baartman, one of the African women shown around as a curiosity ("the Hottentot Venus") in European cities at the beginning of the 19th century.

While mentions and images of the historical Venuses are familiar to many, I think they remained curiosities so far. The film very successfully lifts the human being caught up in this show off the page and makes her experience of hopes, disappointment and exploitation the focus of the story. With the benefit of living in a (slightly) more enlightened age, we can see that she is beautiful, intelligent, and talented in ways that the contemporary audiences – neither the workers in London nor the aristocrats and scientists in Paris – could hardly fathom.

Seeing her strength in the face of adversity is uplifting, but watching her European audiences and the males that exploit her is very uncomfortable if you happen to be white and/or male. The underlying curiosity for people who are different from one’s own is of course not a bad thing, but without respect for the otherness it can have devastating effects.

I find it rather puzzling and depressing that this film didn’t get a UK release (not even on DVD - I bought mine in France, and amazon UK offers an import version). In many ways the London episode (where anti-slavery campaigners even try to liberate Baartman from her employer in a court case) is the less depressing part of the story.

Image from amazon.co.uk

Thursday, June 20, 2013

1000 photos

Tomorrow marks the 3rd birthday of my Flickr photostream, and as it happens, I am also celebrating my 1000th picture there. Oh, and I even got used to the new design. Looks kind of cool as long as you don't scratch the shiny surface and it saves me money on the pro membership ...

The most-viewed photos are still the same ones as last year, so instead I'm posting a brand-new one here, photo number 1000:

liege guillemins

This is of course Calatrava's Liege Guillemins station.

Monday, June 17, 2013

emotional science

In my latest feature in Current Biology I've explored how science, after centuries of trying to shut out all emotional and subjective things, is now rediscovering emotion. After all, we now know that feelings show up in MRI scans, so they must be real. And in some contexts, from conservation through to medicine, they might even be useful.

Can science relate to our emotions?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 12, R501-R504, 17 June 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.056

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blue marble

The blue marble that I got from Wallace J Nichols whose work is discussed in the feature. It symbolises our watery planet as it can be seen from space, and also points to his views on the "blue mind."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

amor (celos de ti)

I just came across an audio file of Shakira performing this song on tumblr and didn't recognise it (it doesn't appear on any of her CDs). Investigating further, I found the video:

The song is by Puerto-Rican composer Pedro Flores and according to this site it was recorded for an anthology of his work.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

control freakery

Each time I’m taking the Eurostar to continental Europe I am left wondering, why is a single passport check ok to travel out, but two or three are done on the way back?

Coming back from Germany via Brussels last Sunday (on the Eurostar departing Brussels at 19:52) we had our passports checked three times (by Belgian and UK authorities in Brussels, and then by UK people again in St. Pancras). The ticket was also checked three times, by the machine at checkin, by the UK passport control in Brussels and by a train manager on the train.

I don’t really see the need for any passport controls within the EU. If I can fly from Madrid to Helsinki or Athens under the Schengen agreement without border control, what’s so special about the UK and Ireland that they can’t join? I’m really not buying the argument that these countries are so attractive they need extra protection.

Then, if you do need passport controls, why not do them once in the right place, and be done with it? If I’m a legal traveller on the first contol, I’ll surely still be legal on the third one. To me, the third passport control on the same leg of the journey really is where security measures end and harassment begins. It didn’t improve my mood that a steward, as I was stepping up to the counter with my son who has autism and needs constant supervision and assistance, shouted at us “one at a time”. If he had actually looked at us before, he could have figured out why we went ahead together.

My personal gripes apart, surely, it can’t be good for the UK economy if people who may be travelling to London on business get harassed this way?

New art work suspended from the roof of St. Pancras station.

Monday, June 10, 2013

bees memories

Recent research and the EU's temporary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides has brought the threats to bees and other pollinators on the agenda again. While manufacturers insist that neonicotinoids aren't toxic to bees in concentrations found in the environment, the interest now focuses on the more subtle effects the substances may have. For instance, by making bees forgetful, even sublethal doses can endanger the survival of the colony.

Read all about it in my feature that came out in Current Biology last week:

EU ban puts spotlight on complex effects of neonicotinoids

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 11, R462-R464, 3 June 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.030

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bumblebee 1103

(one of my many bumblebees on Flickr)

Incidentally, in this month's issue of Chemie in unserer Zeit I also have a piece on bees' memories. Unlike the neonicotinoids, caffeine seems to improve it.

Pflanzeninhaltsstoffe: Koffein stärkt Gedächtnis der Bienen

Chemie in unserer Zeit

Volume 47, Issue 3, page 146, Juni 2013 DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201390029

Abstract and limited access to PDF file

Friday, May 24, 2013

cultural history of geek speak

review of Netymology, by Tom Chatfield

Over the last two decades, the world-wide web has rapidly evolved to become the focus of a world-wide super-culture shared by several billion people using it. This culture has developed new standards of communication and civility, virtual communities (some with their own distinctive cultures), and terminology.

Just with a brief discussion of the etymology and usage of 100 of the termini of the internet age, Tom Chatfield has achieved much more than just creating an annotated list of fancy new words. While one could use it as a reference to look up words that have remained unfamiliar or puzzling (though an index would help with this kind of use), a cover-to-cover reading conjures up a cultural history of the internet age. Each of the words and concepts discussed also serves as a mirror reflecting the behaviour of web users and online communities from a different angle.

Along the way there are lovely little factoids waiting to be picked up. My favourites include: Thomas Edison writing about “bugs” in his inventions; the patron saint of the internet (St. Isidore of Seville, apparently); the use of “OMG” in a 1917 letter addressed to Churchill; and the fact that there is a Wikipedia entry on the gender of connectors and fasteners.

In some cases, the the 3-pages standard length of the chapters left me yearning for more, but then again, the book might have easily become unwieldy, and for those who want to investigate further, there’s always the internet …

PS: on a related topic, also see my recent feature on the evolution of online culture.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

my inner fish

I somehow managed to miss Neil Shubin's excellent book "Your inner fish" when it came out a few years ago. Now, however, I had the chance to read it and catch up with my inner fish on the occasion of the publication of the coelacanth genome.

Shubin's discovery of an intermediate fossil, Tiktaalik, and the genomic comparisons of coelacanth with other vertebrates tell us some amazing things on the transition from fish to land-living animals. What I find most mind-boggling, however, is this: If you look at the tree of life from the perspective of the coelacanth, you'll find that mice, chickens and humans are closer relatives than herring or zebrafish, or anything that lives in an aquarium, and never mind sharks and rays. Try to get that into your brain if you're just a fish.

By coincidence, the reference genome of the zebra fish was published almost at the same time, so I could combine one fish that tells us about our evolution with another that tells us about our development, into a feature that is now out in Current Biology;

What fish genomes can tell us about life on land

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 10, R419-R421, 20 May 2013

doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.068

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Source (via H2origins)

Friday, May 10, 2013

cognitive enhancers

Not that I've felt the need for brain doping (beyond caffeine) so far, but I've been following the field of cognitive enhancers from a safe distance for a while now and have summed up the current state of affairs in a feature for Chemistry & Industry, which is out in the May issue:

Smart New World

Chemistry & Industry No. 5, pp32-35

Full text

In the same issue, I have a review of the book:

Gold nanoparticles for physics, chemistry and biology

on page 47.

Full text

Maybe the smart pills could magically convert me into this guy:

einstein

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

gut feelings

This week's issue of Current Biology has a special section of food and biology. My contribution is a feature on the gut microbiome and what it can tell us about widespread problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Does the gut microbiome hold clues to obesity and diabetes? Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 9, R359-R362, 6 May 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.047

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The issue looks like this:

Monday, April 29, 2013

censorship in the UK

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority has banned this ad:

according to this report in the Guardian, and I'm having a huge problem with this decision. The posters don't show anything at all apart from the drink, just words, and (as the ad slogan itself suggests) any associations are purely in the mind of the beholder.

If we've reached the point of not being allowed to use words that have several meanings because some readers may associate them with a meaning that they themselves will then find offensive, I think we've arrived in a kafkaesque nightmare of censorship. If people are offended by their own thoughts, it should be their own problem, right?

To use a visual analogy, if looking at a lighthouse makes you think of male genitalia, that doesn't give you the right to ask for images of lighthouses to be banned. The association is exclusively your own problem.

And that's essentially the point that the ad itself tried to make in a playful way. Clearly some people at the organisation in charge of such things were unable to grasp this subtle philosophical point.

Monday, April 22, 2013

imaginary maladies

During the preparations for the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, DSM-5, controversies have raged over the broadening of diagnostic definitions. Critics have argued that the new manual, due to be published in May, will turn more people than ever into psychiatric patients.

So I wheeled out Moliere's imaginary invalid and investigated whether the shrinks are letting normality shrink away into oblivion. The resulting feature has now come out in Current Biology:

Has the manual gone mental?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 8, R295-R298, 22 April 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.009

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Hoy Función

A stage production of Moliere's Le malade imaginaire in Argentina, via Flickr.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

online culture

Why is tumblr like ancient Egypt? How do you recognise if a twitter user is part of a specific tribe? Will edit wars on Wikipedia end in peace deals or carry on forever? And why have some social networks turned into ghost towns?

All these questions and more are addressed in my feature on the cultural evolution of online social networks, which is out now in Current Biology:

What makes people click?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 7, R255-R258, 8 April 2013
doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.047

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Twitter users grouped into tribes, annotated with words typically used by each group. Graphic: John Bryden, Sebastian Funk and Vincent Jansen

Monday, April 08, 2013

beer and spinach

In the round-up of German pieces published in April we have serious reports on teeth and on artificial enzymes, and not so serious ones on beer and spinach. The latter made the cover of Nachrichten:

Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, p 74
Neuartige Enzyme

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, p 407
Chiralität und Reinheit des Bieres

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, pp432-433
Spinat macht Skeptiker stark

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, pp440-442
Wie das Krokodil zu Zähnen kam

All on restricted access I'm afraid, but I'll be happy to send pdf reprints.

Monday, March 25, 2013

apps with inverted helices

After my recent blog post on DNA double helices that twist the wrong way (inverted helices), a reader (who prefers to remain anonymous) submitted a few examples of apps featuring such mirror-world DNA. Following the example set in that previous post, I'm showing the corrected versions here:

I'm sure you can still read the text to work out who the culprits were ...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

digging deep

The Deep Carbon Observatory is an international interdisciplinary project studying the hidden carbon fluxes deep within the earth, along with implications for life in the subsurface and on planet formation and development.

I've written a feature about this work which is out in Chemistry & Industry:

Carbon deep

Chemistry & Industry March 2013, pp 32-35

The full text is freely accessible here.

The article is also featured on the cover of the issue:

In the same issue, I also have a review of the book "Synthetic biology: a primer", which appears on page 50.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

how to design new enzymes

Scientists are now able to design new enzymes to catalyse reactions for which a natural enzyme doesn't exist. I've rounded up some of the first success stories in enzyme design for my latest feature which is out now:

Evolving new types of enzymes

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 6, R214-R217, 18 March 2013

doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.054

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Beethoven rondo

Moving on from first movement of the Beethoven Duo no. 1, we're now trying to play the third movement of the same piece, which is actually a little bit easier.

Here's the score:

This is mainly adapted from the Kalmus edition for violin and viola. A slightly different version is included in the duets for violin and cello from Editio Musica Budapest.

PS: Note that I added the first bar just to count me in and allow me time to get my hand back to the flute after pressing start.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

the curse of the inverted helix

I've now figured out what to do with DNA double helices of the wrong chirality, which I frequently see in print and online. Earlier I started compiling a hall of shame, but that might reinforce the wrong image (eg by adding to the already considerable proportion of wrong helices that show up in google searches for double helix).

Instead, I'm now going to flip the images that also contain text, such that the DNA will be the right way round and the text will be mirrored. This way, I can signal-boost the correct structure while also exposing the error.

So, for example, a poster I received yesterday now looks like this:

much better, huh?

The same treatment for the historic blunders of Nature and Science yields:

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

oxidation and procrastination

Ooops, now it's March and I haven't done the roundup of the German pieces published in February yet. Time, you're moving too fast.

So in Feb, we had quantum procrastination, reduction and oxidation at the sea floor, and cycloaddition with triple bonds:

Organische Synthese: Drei mal drei
Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 6
FREE ACCESS (PDF file)

Neuartige Redox-Biochemie im Meeresboden
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, 134-135

Proquastination
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, 111

And talking of which, a late arrival: a short piece on addiction biochemistry that is nominally in the issue for the 4th quarter of 2012 of the magazine:

Trillium Report 10, 200-201
Die Biochemie der Sucht

Monday, March 04, 2013

hearts and minds

My latest feature in Current Biology juxtaposes a highly acclaimed project to simulate the function of the heart and a somewhat controversial, but well-funded one to do the same for the brain.

Simulating hearts and minds

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 5, R177-R180, 4 March 2013

doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.032

Free access to the full text in HTML and in PDF format.

Here is a video about the Alya Red project featured in my article:

Alya Red: A Computational heart

This video recently won Science magazine's prize for science communication.

Monday, February 25, 2013

go further for fairtrade

This year's Fairtrade Fortnight in the UK starts today, details here. In previous years I rounded up all the faitrade products I could find in the household for a group portrait, but that might become difficult as the number keeps growing. Instead, here is a selection of fairtrade chocolates which a family member bought for a science project:

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