Friday, December 25, 2015

open archives

As I may have mentioned, my features in Current Biology become freely accessible one year after publication. So, by now, all features published in 2014 or earlier are in the open archives. Here are some of the highlights of 2014:

November: How wild do you want to go? - rewilding efforts in the UK and elsewhere

July: Connecting with the natural world - use of modern technology in conservation and ecology

June: Phage therapies for plants and people

May: Chronic stress means we're always on the hunt - featuring "blue mind"

May: Learning to live with sharks

April: The complicated origins of our species

March: Latin America's resources: blessing or curse? - featuring Colombia's gold and Ecuador's oil.

March: The past and future habitability of planet Mars

PS: It just occurred to me that I could look at the viewing stats of the relevant blog entries - according to those the rewilding feature was the most popular one in 2014, followed by the one on stress and the blue mind. Glad my selection wasn't entirely decoupled from what readers want ...

Part of the information that went into those features ... (own photo)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

our place in the Universe

no matter if you believe in Santa Claus or not, the end of year with its long nights is as good a time as any to look up at the stars and reflect on our place in the Universe. In this seasonal spirit I have written up a feature on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), which has recently received a major cash boost, combined with recent findings from the study of extrasolar planets.

The feature is out now and appears to be on open access for now (until the next issue appears in 2 weeks):

Listen out for life

Current Biology

Volume 25, Issue 24, pR1151–R1153, 21 December 2015

Full text and access to PDF

should that not work, here is a magic link that allows free access for 50 days after publication. When that expires, you'll just have to email me for a PDF file. The feature will then return to open access one year after publication.

The feature also served as an excuse to reproduce the Hubble extreme deep field image - even though, of course, the galaxies shown in this picture are so far away in space and time that it is completely impossible to communicate with them, so the picture is just here to show what a mindboggling big place the Universe is:

This Extreme Deep Field image obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope shows galaxies from 13.2 billion years ago. It compiles observations from a minute patch of sky that would appear empty to normal telescopes, so every speck of light seen in this image is a distant galaxy. (Image: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

blue moon

The harvest of the German magazines in November and December includes cephalopods (on the cover of Nachrichten aus der Chemie, below), neon on the moon, and molecular electronics:

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Die wundersamen Fähigkeiten der Tintenfische
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 1186-1188.
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Neon auf dem Mond
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 1259.

Materialforschung: Biomolekül als Elektronikbaustein
Spektrum der Wissenschaft No. 11, 17-19

cover of Nachrichten aus der Chemie, Dec. 2015.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

world on fire

Only recently, I wrote a feature explaining how fire is part of the natural cycle of life for many biotopes around the world. This is definitely not the case for the Indonesian peat lands and forests that have been burning for several months, through to early November. These fires were a major environmental catastrophe caused by a combination of factors including an exceptionally strong El Niño, the use of fire to clear land for agriculture, and the draining of peat lands. With its complex connections to global climate and trade, this catastrophe may well be a taste of what the future holds, as I explain in my latest feature, out now:

A fire with global connections
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 23 December 07, 2015, Pages R1107-R1109

Summary and open access to the full text.

PS: Underlining my point re. global connections, publication of this feature was delayed by severe flooding in Chennai, India (where typesetting and production for Current Biology is done), which may also be due to the exceptionally strong El Niño happening right now.

Greenpeace observers found new oil-palm seedlings planted in freshly burnt lands, demonstrating the connection between the fires and the deforestation for palm oil plantations. (Photo: Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

more Huguenots

When I reported on the suspected Huguenot connection of my ancestor Jean Bonnedame (* 1666 Mörlheim, today part of the city of Landau) , I didn’t know the last name of his wife, Maria Sara, whom he married in 1724. We now know that she was called Maria Sara Bouquet, (*1699 Minfeld).

It turns out that her family appears to be of Huguenot origin as well. Specifically, her father Philipp Bouquet was probably born around 1655 in the pays de l'Alloeu, a small patch of land just west of Lille (today in north of France) which originally was one of the provinces of the Spanish Netherlands. He came to the town of Billigheim (in the Palatinate, just south of Landau), which had a significant population of Huguenot refugees, with his father Laurent Bouquet (Boquai) in 1664. We don’t know anything about his mother. In 1685 he married Christina (last name unknown) at Archenweyer near Billigheim. Their son Isaac Bouquet was born in Archenweyer in the same year.

Like many other Huguenots, the Bouquets followed the invitation from the Duke of Prussia and moved on to the East, to the Uckermark area around Prenzlau in 1686, and were still there in 1690. (A list of residents confirms there were no Bouquets left behind in Billigheim by 1692.) However, there are no family events recorded in the Uckermark and by 1699 they were back in the Palatinate, where Philipp was administrator (Hofbeständer) at Minfeld. Sara Bouquet was born there in December 1699. Philipp Bouquet died on the Baltic island of Rügen, which must have been in Swedish possession at that time. We have no idea how or why he got there, so any clues appreciated. Christina died at Mörlheim in 1733.

There are a few Bouquet (Bocquet, Boquai, etc.) families documented in the area that is now the region Nord/Pas de Calais, but most are catholics, so ours are the black sheep. If anybody knows anything about protestant Bouquet families in that space and time, all hints would be much appreciated.

A couple of generations down the line this means that the couple that emigrated to the Black Sea, Johannes Klundt and Eva Maria Hust, may both have had quite a lot of “migration background”. Johannes Klundt has three grandparents of suspected French or Swiss origin. The odd one out is Anna Apollonia Schmitt. And the name Hust may also be of French, ultimately of Hungarian origin.

Sailly sur la Lys - one of the four towns of the pays de l'Alloeu.

« Prevote » par Médard — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prevote.jpg#/media/File:Prevote.jpg

Monday, November 16, 2015

climate responses

The upcoming climate conference COP21 at Paris (which I hear will go ahead despite the recent attacks) will reveal whether or not our civilisation can deal with the challenge of man-made climate change. To mark the occasion, I've had a look at how nature suffers from, responds to or copes with climate change. The resulting feature is out now:

How nature copes with climate change

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 22, pR1057–R1059, 16 November 2015

Summary and open access to full text, PDF file.

Paris, place de la republique - own photo from February 2014.

Friday, November 13, 2015

microscopes for molecules

Researchers at the Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL) are using a whole range of fascinating methods to achieve visualisation of molecules at the time and space resolution that is relevant to molecular bonds and reactions, i.e. 0.1 nm (Angstrom) and femtosecond. In an attempt to understand how they do it, I wrote a feature about what they call "the chemiscope", which is now out in the November issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Here's looking at molecules
Chemistry & Industry November 2015, 22-25

abstract, preview of first page and restricted access to full text.

Image source: CaSTL. The image relates to the research paper:
Vibronic Motion with Joint Angstrom/Femtosecond Resolution Observed through Fano Progressions Recorded within One Molecule Joonhee Lee, Shawn M. Perdue, Alejandro Rodriguez Perez, and Vartkess Ara Apkarian*, ACS Nano VOL. 8 ’ NO. 1 ’ 54–63 ’ 2014

The same issue also contains a book review on page 49 - not exactly a recommendation, so I won't name the book here.

Monday, November 02, 2015

deep mysteries

A recent report from the European Marine Board looked into the question of whether and how the economic opportunities present in the as yet unexploited deep ocean could be used in a sustainable way. The short answer is, we don't know nearly enough about the deep sea to handle this challenge responsibly. A slightly longer answer is in my latest feature which is out today:

Deep sea in deep trouble?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 21, pR1019–R1021, 2 November 2015

Abstract and open access to the full text and PDF download.

A crab observed at 700 metres depth off the coast of Ireland. (Photo: MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

writing history

Asterix: Le papyrus de César

The 36th Asterix album – the second from the new team, Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad – addresses a question of utmost importance for the historical consistency of the whole oeuvre: Why on earth did Caesar not mention the indomitable Gauls and their numerous victories against his legions in his famous De Bello Gallico? Did he falsify the historical record by omission? Are all the zillions of schoolchildren who start their Latin reading with “Gallia est omnis divisa …” fed a pack of lies?

The issue is addressed with a very satisfying story, resulting in an album worthy to be read alongside the Golden Era ones written in the years before Goscinny died. On the basis of this story, there are deep discussions to be had about how history is written, the contribution of reportage, the value of oral tradition, and the philosophy of truth. Oh, and the vanity of writers and the publishing industry. And Assurancetourix the bard (Cacofonix / Troubadix) plays an early example of a Stroh cello, so what’s not to love?

Intriguingly, this arrived on my doorstep just after I started reading another recently published book featuring the origins of Caesar’s famous opus. In the third volume of his fictionalised biography of Cicero, Robert Harris imagines Cicero’s secretary Tiro visiting Caesar in Gaul and reading the beginning of his 12th chapter: “Flumen est Arar quod per fines Haeduorum et Sequanorum in Rhodanum influit, incredibili lenitate ita ut oculis in utram partem fluat iudicari non possit.” Seeing that Tiro is believed to have written a biography of Cicero which is lost, while Caesar’s book is so ubiquitous that it would survive the apocalypse, this encounter between two authors is also an interesting reflection on the vagaries of history writing.

looks like a fragment of the lost scroll survived in the font of the word "papyrus" - maybe the authors should reveal that in full ...

PS: here's an interview with the creators, from the Guardian.

Monday, October 19, 2015

killing the wrong animals

I don't often write about food, but when October approaches I somehow feel obliged to contribute to the various harvest festivities happening in the northern hemisphere, so I wrote a feature about humanity's unsustainable hunger for meat from an ecology / evolution perspective.

The feature is out now:

Can we change our predatory ways?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 20, pR965–R967, 19 October 2015

abstract and open access to full text, PDF file

A vegan cafe/shop I snapped on my recent visit to Leipzig, Germany.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Alexander Calvelli @ Freudenthaler Sensenhammer

The painter Alexander Calvelli, whose work I have been following for a while, has a new exhibition coming up at a small museum in Leverkusen, the Freudenthaler Sensenhammer (a place where they used to make scythes). I just love the name of the place, and Alexander tells me it's a lovely little museum mainly run by volunteers.

The exhibiton Alexander Calvelli - Hämmer & Sicheln - Arbeitswelten opens on the evening of Oct. 23rd:

11. Leverkusener Kunstnacht
Freitag, 23.10.2015, 19.00 Uhr (Einlass 18.00 Uhr)
details

Monday, October 12, 2015

how to wake up sleeping beauties

Among the German publications in September/October we have sleeping beauties (research papers that find belated fame), green roads into the future (made of algal residues), and even one serious article about artificial cells:

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 63 Issue 9, page 967
Ausgeforscht: Grüne Straße in die Zukunft
DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201590318

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 63 Issue 10 pages 1002–1004
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Künstliche Zellen
DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201590319
related content in English

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 63 Issue 10, page 1051
Ausgeforscht: Dornröschen wachgeküsst
DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201590340

Monday, October 05, 2015

how life shaped Earth

History of Life on Earth - a special issue of Current Biology with lots of goodies is now online.

For my contribution, I looked at Earth from an astrobiology angle and examined some of the many ways in which life caused it to become different from our neighbouring planets and much more complex in its chemistry and geology.

How life shaped Earth
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 19, pR847–R850, 5 October 2015

Open access

Table of Content

Friday, October 02, 2015

more films we're not allowed to see

Back in 2010 I started a blog entry listing interesting (mostly European) movies that did not get a cinematic release in the UK. Many updates later, this entry has become just a little bit unwieldy, with two lists running in opposite directions, so I suspect I’m the only one who still finds anything in that entry (although it has been viewed more than 2500 times and is among the five most-viewed entries of all time).

Thus, I decided to start from scratch with a clean slate and just one list of films running chronologically forward, so starting with the earliest ones. I’ll start with films produced in 2012, because that’s where the old review/appreciation list fizzles out (unlike the watch list, which also included films that were more recent and those that I hadn’t seen yet). Within each year, the films that I actually managed to see are listed first.

So, without further ado, off we go:

Camille redouble (Camille rewinds) - France 2012, Noémie Lvovsky - Charming if slightly illogical time travel story featuring the director in the lead role. It was - released in around a dozen countries but no UK date in sight.

La fille de nulle part - France 2012, Jean-Claude Brisseau - this low-budget ghost story looks like poor old Brisseau is now reduced to filming in his own flat and playing the lead himself, but it is still interesting.

Mapa para conversar (A map for love) - Chile 2012, Constanza Fernandez, starring Andrea Moro, Mariana Prat, Francisca Bernardi - three women in a cute little chamber piece mostly set on a small boat. Restrictions clear the mind, as one of the characters says. Available on DVD from the lovely peccadillo pictures.

Des morceaux de moi (Pieces of me) - France 2012, Nolwenn Lemesle, starring Adele Exarchopoulos (before she became famous in that other role) - growing up in a dysfunctional family in the middle of nowhere (in this case Picardie, northern France) can be hell, as the contrast between Adele Exarchopoulos' character, Erell, and everything around her demonstrates. Erell tries to cope by recording a video diary of her daily life, thus locking up her teenage trauma in a little box which she can eventually leave behind.

Una pistola en cada mano - Spain 2012, Cesc Gay - Shown in Germany (Ein Freitag in Barcelona), and at the London Spanish Film Festival 2013.
Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the world) Germany 2012, Detlev Buck. Adaptation of Daniel Kehlmann's bestselling novel.
Klip (Clip) - Serbia 2012, Maja Milos
Weil ich schöner bin - Germany 2012, Frieder Schlaich
El amigo aleman (The German friend) - Germany, Argentina 2012, Jeanine Meerapfel
3 - Uruguay, Argentina, Germany 2012 - Pablo Stoll - oops, there are too many movies called 3, I was looking for this one and first found the one below, and got all confused.
Tres - Ecuador, Argentina, Germany 2012
3 Zimmer/Küche/Bad (Move) - Germany 2012
Baad el Mawkeaa (After the Battle) - France / Egypt 2012
Después de Lucía - Mexico / France 2012
A perdre la raison - Belgium 2012, Joachim Lafosse, starring Emilie Dequenne
Buscando a Eimish - Spain 2012, Ana Rodríguez Rosell, starring Manuela Vellés, Emma Suárez - shown at the London Spanish Film Festival 2012
Joven y alocada - Chile 2012, Marialy Rivas
Goltzius and the Pelican Pelican Company - UK 2012, Peter Greenaway


Angélique (I) - France 2013, Ariel Zeitoun - A fresh-looking new adaptation of the bestselling history romances by Anne and Serge Golon. I admit I watched part of it during travels in a hotel room and kind of liked it, so I ordered the DVD. Review to follow.

Landes - France 2013, François-Xavier Vives, starring Marie Gillain - gloomy reflections on life, boredom and social problems in the vast pine forests near Bordeaux set in the early 20th century. Compare and contrast with Therese Desqueyroux, starring Audrey Tautou, which did get a UK release.

Jack et la mécanique du coeur (Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart) - France 2013, Stéphane Berla, Mathias Malzieu - interesting CGI-fairy tale in a surreal steampunk-style setting. One could spend hours unpicking cultural references from Jules Verne through to modern ones.

Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (Witching and bitching) - Spain 2013, Alex de la Iglesia, starring Carolina Bang, Carmen Maura. Shown at various festivals in the US and UK. Too much horror and buddy movie for my tastes, so I won't even attempt to review it, but here's the New York Times' take on it.

Flores raras (Reaching for the Moon) - Brazil 2013, Bruno Barreto
Ayer no termina nunca (Yesterday never ends) - Spain 2013, Isabel Coixet - shown at the Berlin International Film Festival 2013, and at the London Spanish Film Festival 2013
La marche - France 2013, Nabil Ben Yadir, starring Hafsia Herzi - I only know about this film because the trailer is on a DVD I own, probably one I bought in France.


Todos estan muertos - Spain/Germany/Mexico 2014, Beatriz Sanchis, starring Elena Anaya - the first full-length feature from Sanchis is a nice little film on a former pop singer traumatised by the accidental death of her brother and bandmate. Mecano may have been a musical inspiration. Only released in Spain and Mexico, and shown at a few festivals.

Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles - France 2014, Cécile Telerman, starring Emmanuelle Béart - a spirited defense of authors' rights, in a way. Based on the best-selling novel by Katherine Pancol.

Ocho apellidos vascos (Spanish affair) - Spain 2014, Emilio Martínez Lázaro - only shown at the London Film Festival 2014.
Sous les jupes des filles - France 2014, Audrey Dana
Marie Heurtin (Marie's story) - France 2014, Jean-Pierre Améris, starring Isabelle Carré
Week-ends - France 2014, Anne Villacèque - released in Germany as "Wochenenden in der Normandie"
Au fil d'Ariane (Ariane's thread) - France 2014, Robert Guédiguian - released in Germany in Dec 2014 as "Café Olympique - Ein Geburtstag in Marseille"
Las insoladas (Sunstrokes) - Argentina 2014, Gustavo Taretto - released in Germany in August 2015.
Respire (Breathe) - France 2014, Mélanie Laurent - shown at lots of festivals around the world, released in half a dozen countries.
Qui vive (Insecure) - France 2014, Marianne Tardieu, starring Adele Exarchopoulos


Ma ma - Spain 2015, Julio Medem, starring Penelope Cruz - !!!UK release 24.6.2016!!!, see my review here.

Journal d'une femme de chambre (Diary of a chambermaid) - France 2015, starring Léa Seydoux, shown at the Berlinale, all of which is sadly no guarantee that we will get to see it here (except in the French Film Festival UK showing in a small number of cities.)
Mi gran noche (My great night) - Spain 2015, Alex de la Iglesia, starring Carolina Bang.
Le gout des merveilles - France 2015, Eric Besnard.
Go home - France 2015, Jihane Chouaib
Je suis un soldat - France 2015, Laurent Larivière


Egon Schiele: Tod und Mädchen (Death and the maiden) - Austria / Luxembourg 2016
Paula - Germany 2016, Christian Schwochow. A biopic of painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Marie Curie - France 2016, Marie Noelle.
Cézanne et moi - France 2016, Danièle Thompson




to be continued ... - last updated 18.04.2017

One of our lovely independent cinemas here, not their fault that they're not getting all these films. (Own photo)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

banned books week

Tomorrow is the start of this year's Banned Books Week, and the 55th anniversary of the Lady Chatterley trial is coming up in October, more than enough reason to dig up the old book and read it at last:

The edition on the left is from 1960, just after the famous trial that ended its censorship, first reprinting of the first unabridged edition. The one on the right is from the 1970s. It also includes a preface by Richard Hoggart (an academic who wrote about popular culture and class issues in the UK and an expert witness at the trial), which is really insightful.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

artificial cells

The origin of life remains one of the great mysteries that science still faces. One of the approaches to address it is to try building living cells from scratch, an endeavour that has recently seen a boost due to new ways of creating small cell-like membrane bubbles, or vesicles. Additional benefits from this kind of research may materialise in medical applications like drug delivery and imaging.

Read all about it in my feature:

Artificial cells
Chemistry & Industry Volume 79, Issue 9, pages 22–25, Sept. 2015 DOI: 10.1002/cind.799_6.x

abstract and first page (Wiley)

access for SCI members

In the same issue, on page 49, there's also my review of the book: Junk DNA: a journey through the dark matter of the genome, by Nessa Carey.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

embracing the octopus

On the occasion of the first genome sequence of a cephalopod species I've had a closer look at the biology of the 8-legged animals and learned many amazing things about their evolution, intelligence, and how they make sure their arms don't bump into each other.

All this is in my latest feature:

Intelligent life without bones
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 18, pR775–R777, 21 September 2015
Open access

The photo shows the octopus Wunderpus photogenicus, found in shallow waters from Indonesia to the Philippines. (Photo: Roy L. Caldwell.)

Monday, August 31, 2015

of dogs and people

In my most recent feature I’m exploring the question whether it makes sense to compare psychology of people and dogs - after all the main selective pressure that shaped dogs as a species was integration into human society, so they’re bound to be a bit like us. I also had a look at recent insights and open questions regarding the mutual domestication of both species.

Are dogs just like us?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 17, pR733–R736, 31 August 2015

Open access

The photo is one I took at the Oxford antiques fair back in June - another canine shaped by humans ...

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

living with fire

On the 14th and 15th of September the Royal Society will host a discussion meeting on The Interaction of Fire and Mankind (as of today, it looks like they still take registrations for the meeting). I asked a few of the experts who will be speaking at the event about their latest insights into the importance of fire for ecology and wrote up a feature about this, which is out in this week's issue of Current Biology:

Learning to live with landscape fires

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 16, pR693–R696, 17 August 2015
Open access

Elk escaping a wildfire in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, USA. As fire has been a natural part of many ecosystems for over four hundred million years, many plant and animal species have evolved suitable responses for survival. (Photo: John McColgan/USDA.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

chain mail and cellulose

Just two pieces to round up for July/August, covering DNA chain mail and nanocellulose:

DNA im Kettenhemd
Chemie in unserer Zeit 49, no 4, 226, August 2015; DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201590034
abstract and limited access to PDF file

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Cellulose zerlegt und neu zusammengesetzt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 788-790
related article in English

Friday, August 07, 2015

nature's masterclass

Learning from nature at the molecular scale is a big theme that I've revisited many times since the beginning of my science writing, so when C&I asked me to write about the catalysis work of Theodore Betley, I was glad to see it fitted in with that theme - and with a book about biohydrogen that I reviewed recently.

Both my feature on catalysis and the book review appear in the August issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Nature's Masterclass
Chemistry & Industry August 2015, pp 26-29
free access to full text

Pick'n'mix energies. Review of: (Biohydrogen, Matthias Rögner, ed.)
Chemistry & Industry August 2015, pp 50-51
restricted access

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

the last free-living humans

Three years ago, I read Mario Vargas Llosa's fictionalised biography of Roger Casement, The dream of the Celt, both for fun and for reasons linked to family history. Now the book has come in very handy for the intro of my latest feature, which is on native tribes in the Amazon.

A memory that stayed with me years after reading the novel is that of the shocking abuses committed by rubber companies in the Amazon who captured Natives and exploited them as slaves to harvest rubber in the wild. Sanctions for missing the productivity targets ranged from whipping to murder. (Incidentally, I find it intriguing that the neoliberal politician Mario Vargas Llosa, who ran for Peru's presidency at one point, appeared to be unaware of the novels his alter ego writes!) This happened well within the 20th century and 50 years after Peru officially abolished slavery.

Considering this background, I find it understandable that some of the surviving indigenous tribes in the Amazon aren't all that keen on making contact with our civilisation. Some US academics have argued that if they had the "full information" about our civilisation, they would want to take part. My nagging suspicion is that the Natives have better memory than the academics, and even with full information they might still want to remain as they are, the last free-living humans.

My feature on all this is out now in Current Biology:

How to protect the last free-living humans

Volume 25, Issue 15, pR635–R638, 3 August 2015
Open access

Uncontacted MashcoPiro Indians on a riverbank near the Manú National Park, Peru. (Photo: © Diego Cortijo/Survival International.)

PS (7.8.2015) A comment obviously meant for this post was made under the next post, where it wouldn't make sense, so I didn't publish it. Essentially, one of the anthropologists in this story said they "could have set me straight" if I had contacted them beforehand (I didn't because they had their say in an editorial in Science magazine, no less). Seeing that our disagreement is not about the native tribes as such (ie their area of academic expertise), but over how benign or not our western civilisation really is, I really don't want to be set straight by them. I have enough life experience to judge our civilisation by myself, thank you very much.

Monday, July 27, 2015

platypuses in translation

I'm very pleased to report that my book "The birds, the bees and the platypuses" is now available in Arabic translation thanks to the Hindawi Foundation (set up by Ahmed Hindawi), a non-profit publishing operation aiming to make the world's knowledge accessible in that language.

The steadily growing list of titles they've translated is here (in English). Details of my book are here (in Arabic). I understand the print edition costs $10, and electronic versions are also available.

This is a screenshot, as in my attempt to save the cover image from the site I lost the writing on the cover. No idea how that can happen. Also, I'm afraid the cover features an inverted helix, but I'll let this pass for once.

Monday, July 20, 2015

animals on the move

Thanks to the ongoing revolution in communication technology which now tracks our every move, it is also much easier to track wild animals, even small ones. What's more by tracking many and diverse animals, we can learn more about the biosphere than was possible previously, as animals can become reporters in the service of science, and may help their own survival in the process.

I've discussed these things and the recent book "Das Internet der Tiere " (The internet of animals), shown below, in my latest feature in Current Biology which came out today:

Animal moves reveal bigger picture
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 14, pR585–R588, 20 July 2015
Open access

Das Internet der Tiere: Der neue Dialog zwischen Mensch und Natur, by Alexander Pschera, October 2014.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

beyond silicon

Moore's law, the famous (partially self-fulfilling) prophecy that has defined the current technology revolution, turned 50 this spring, and, give or take a few tweaks, it's still holding up ok. However, we are now in sight of some serious physical limits to the further improvements possible with silicon technology. Thus, experts are asking what comes beyond silicon, and in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry I have rounded up some of the answers, both speculative and real-world ones.

Beyond Silicon

Chemistry & Industry No. 7, pp 42-45

limited access to full text and PDF download.

This all reminds me of the 1990s, when we were also worrying about limits to chip technology, only then it was the wavelength of visible light that limited the optical techniques. Overcoming these limits enabled the boom in nanotechnology and all of today's communication tech. Exotic alternatives such as molecular computation, which I discussed in a chapter in this book:

were already explored back then, but remain in the realm of the less likely paths today.

In the same issue, there's also my review of the book

Low cost emergency water purification technologies by Ray and Jain.

Monday, June 29, 2015

why reduce harm

... when you could go and lock up harmless people?

Well, ahem, don't get me started on the psychoactive substances bill which is currently on its way through UK parliament and may well become law. I find it ironic that this steaming pile of b****t, which will make totally harmless substances like nitrous oxide (used in childbirth and whipping cream, no less) illegal, shows up at the same time as the commercial success of e-cigarettes demonstrates that harm reduction is possible. Sadly though, reducing harm is not what our government wants. Appeasing the Daily Mail is more important, obviously.

Anyhow. My feature juxtaposing these two issues is out now in Current Biology:

Drugs: blanket ban or harm reduction?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 13, pR523–R525, 29 June 2015
Summary and limited access to full text
(should become openly accessible one year after publication)

Laughing gas has been safely used for over two centuries, as this cartoon from the early 19th century exemplifies.

PS (14.7.2015) Today, Anyone's Child, a group of families who lost children to the war on drugs (including Anne-Marie Cockburn, mother of Oxford teenager Martha Fernback who died two years ago), are taking their petition for a drugs policy based on harm reduction to Downing Street. You can sign their petition here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

folding into 3D

There have been exciting developments recently involving one- and two-dimensional structures that can be induced to buckle or fold into complex three-dimensional architectures. I've explored these in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry, which is now online:

Scientific origami
Chemistry & Industry Volume 79, Issue 6, pages 26–29, June 2015
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

A sneaky preview of the first page (as shown on the Wiley Online Library page):

On page 49 of the same issue there is also my review of the book:

The price of global health: drug pricing strategies to balance patient access and the funding of innovation

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

pee-back time

The round-up of German pieces published in June covers African genomics, gene editing, and advanced materials reflecting urine from the much peed-upon walls of St. Pauli district in Hamburg.

Crispr-Cas: Gen-Schere weckt Neugier, Hoffnungen und Ängste
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 3, page 158, Juni 2015
Abstract and restricted access to full text.
related content in English

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Afrikas Genome
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 647-649
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Clochemerle 2.0
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63,751

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

little birds lost

Some large iconic bird species have recovered across Europe, but many less conspicuous ones are still declining. Even "common" species like the house sparrow have suffered dramatic declines, and ecologists have argued that their loss in abundance may make more of an impact than than the plight of the rarer birds that conservation efforts tend to focus on.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology which is out now:

Europe’s bird populations in decline
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 12, pR483–R485, 15 June 2015
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.057
Open access

PS In lieu of a bird picture, enjoy this beautiful dinosaur on the cover of the issue:

Monday, June 01, 2015

genome editing

Some time around 1994, I heard freshly-minted Nobel laureate Tom Cech (one of the discoverers of natural RNA enzymes, aka ribozymes) give a talk in Oxford, and he finished by saying that most of what he had presented happened thanks to his brilliant post-doc, and we should remember her name, she would go on to do great things. That post-doc was Jennifer Doudna, who now has a very good chance to get a Nobel prize herself for her work on CRISPR-Cas, the “bacterial immune system”, which Doudna and others turned into a turbo-charged gene editing tool.

Currently, researchers are still teasing out some very fundamental details of how this system works in the wild, while its application in the laboratory is turning the world of genetics upside down, as it allows gene editing with unprecedented ease. And while US scientists are holding meetings to call for a moratorium on its application to the human germline, a team in China has proceeded to to just that.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology. If I got my counts right, this must be the 100th in the new format we introduced in February 2011, when I started providing a feature for every issue of the magazine (i.e. two per month). I think I only missed 3 issues since then, so I guess it worked out quite nicely. So here’s number 100:

Bacterial scissors to edit human embryos?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 11, pR439–R442, 1 June 2015

Open access

Monday, May 25, 2015

busking protest

We had great fun last Thursday busking "non-compliantly" to protest against Oxford City Council’s plans to use a new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) to attach the threat of large fines and a criminal record to “non-compliant busking” i.e. anything that their staff consider to be in violation of the busking code. Much like the notorious ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders), the PSPOs are a malicious trick to criminalise behaviours that were previously considered minor misdemeanours. (They also wanted to do the same to criminalise rough sleeping and charge homeless people fines, but the public outcry made them reconsider that part of the plan. NB they're not even the only Labour council to try that.)

The code as such isn’t all that bad. Apart from the much-ridiculed requirement to smile while you're playing (impossible for flautists and other wind players!), I think the ban on CD sales should be removed. It’s been ignored for years, but when the council started to police it last summer, they scared away some of the best busking acts we had, including PerKelt.

Green Party councillors were very supportive and patient listeners. I think the council is still going to debate the changes on June 11, so maybe the Greens can still persuade the Labour majority to fix the problems and withdraw the threat of criminalising harmless musicians?

own picture. A selection of seven pictures appears on my street music blog on tumblr.

 

Further info and updates (newest at the top):

On 11.6., the scheduled decision day, as we held another protest busk, the news broke that a legal intervention from Liberty delivered the same morning had succeeded in persuading the council to think again. Let's hope they arrive at a better conclusion when they're done with it. Oh, and here's a recording of the busking protest orchestra performing "Creep" by Radiohead. I think this was the first attempt, it got better by the third time round.

2.6. The scrutiny committee has unanimously passed the recommendation that the code of conduct should be reviewed before it can be hitched up to the PSPO. However, only 3 (out of 12 or so) members supported a motion to remove non-compliant busking from the PSPO altogether.

ITV coverage broadcast regionally on 29.5.

The next busking protest jam session will be on June 11, meet Cornmarket Street at 3pm.

Scrutiny committee meeting on PSPOs will take place on Tue June 2nd, 6 pm, town hall.

BBC news item with a photo of me tooting my flute

Daily Telegraph coverage - I understand this was on the front page of the paper on the day after our protest.

21.5. event page on facebook

Keep Streets Live

online petition

Paula Cocozza about PSPOs.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

oxford alumni divest

In my recent feature on “25 years of climate change failure” I reported among other things the ongoing campaign of Oxford students to persuade the University to divest its massive £ 3.8 billion endowment from all fossil fuel investments.

After deferring the decision in March, the university’s governing body has last Monday chosen a path of the smallest possible action which, with a lot of good will, could be spun as “doing something”. Specifically, the university has asked its money people not to buy any investment in coal or tar sands in the future, as these are the dirtiest kinds of fossil fuels. As I understand it, the university doesn’t hold any such investments at the moment anyway, so it’s not divesting from anything, it’s just promising not to commit any major crimes against our climate in the future. (While they’re sorting out their ethics, maybe they could also pledge not to buy or sell any slaves?)

Nearly 70 Oxford alumni have now protested against this failure to act more decisively by handing back their degrees. The photos below are from a slightly improvised reverse degree ceremony held today outside the University Offices in Wellington Square (proper degree ceremonies are held at the Sheldonian Theatre hence the pun “Shelldonian”). The 59 degrees sent in beforehand were lined up at the start of the event, to which the nine participants added theirs in the course of the ceremony. At the end, the alumni successfully divested from the black stuff, namely the gowns and mortarboards.

Prominent alumni who have pledged to hand their degrees (although I’m not sure if they already have) include environmental campaigner George Monbiot and solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett.

All photos my own.

Further reading

Other reports on the university's decision:

Damian Carrington in the Guardian

Miriam Chapman on Fossil Free UK

Similar problems elsewhere:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ocean worlds

A few years ago, I reviewed "The goldilocks planet" by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, which gave an excellent fast-track account of our planet's climate history.

Now the authors have again provided a very insightful, big-picture view of our home planet, this time focusing on the oceans, which are, after all, the most important factor in making our planet habitable and setting it apart from the around 2000 other planets we know of so far:

Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets.

In my latest "long-essay" review I have discussed the book in the context of astrobiology. You can find the review in the current issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Chemistry & Industry 2015, issue 5, p 48
(restricted access)

or email me for a PDF file. Or just buy the book.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

arks or prisons?

In my latest feature in Current Biology I've explored the ethical quandaries around animals being held captive in zoos and aquariums. Starting from a binary of the animal ark vs animal prison kind, I discovered that there is a third dimension to it as zoos are increasingly also using their expertise to help animal conservation in situ, i.e. in the natural habitat where they belong.

Read all about it:

Can zoos offer more than entertainment?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 10, pR391–R394, 18 May 2015
Open access

Expatriate animals in Lille, France (own photo).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

catching liver cancer early

It’s always great to hear from my former postdoc colleagues who have gone out into the world to set up labs and do exciting research that I can then write about, just occasionally (most of the work I report comes from people I never met). So here is the latest news from the lab of Jenny Yang who arrived at the Oxford lab just a couple of months before me, back in the olden days. She used to work around 25 hours per day, and it’s good to see that her efforts have been rewarded, as she’s now a Distinguished University Professor and associate director of the Center for Diagnostics and Therapeutics at Georgia State University at Atlanta.

 

Jenny’s group at Georgia State developed a protein to bind gadolinium ions, which can then be used as contrast agents in magnetic resonance imaging of cancer in the liver. Other gadolinium-based products have been available, but due to their magnetic properties (low relaxivity) and other problems, they yielded poor contrast capability , which meant that they could only detect cancers that were already quite big. The new protein now enables the detection of liver tumours (both primary tumours and metastases from elsewhere, as quite a few cancers have the habit of establishing metastases in the liver) at a much earlier stage.

ProCA32, the researchers’ newly developed contrast agent allows for imaging liver tumours that measure less than 0.25 millimeters, compared to a current detection limit of 1 cm. Thus the method is more than 40 times more sensitive than today’s commonly used and clinically approved agents used to detect tumours in the liver. (Note that a tumour 40 times larger in diameter would have 40x40x40 = 64,000 more cancer cells, which is a scary thought.)

Specifically, ProCA32 widens the MRI detection window, which is found to be essential for obtaining high-resolution images of the liver. This application has important medical implications for imaging various liver diseases, the origin of cancer metastasis, monitoring cancer treatment and guiding therapeutic interventions, such as drug delivery.

“Our new agents can obtain both positive and negative contrast images within one application, providing double the accuracy and confidence of locating cancerous tumours,” Yang said. “These agents are also expected to be much safer with reduced metal toxicity.”

The researchers have shown proof-of-concept that ProCA32 can be used to detect cancerous liver tumours at an early stage with high sensitivity. In the study, they have also demonstrated that these new agents better facilitate the imaging of multiple organs, including the kidney and blood vessels, in addition to the liver and tumours.

“ProCA32 may have far-reaching implications in the diagnosis of other malignancies, which could facilitate development of targeted treatment, along with effective monitoring of tumour burden reduction,” Yang said. “Our agent and methodology can also be applied to study the brain and monitor treatment outcomes in a number of disorders, including stroke and recovery, Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumours and gliomas.”

reference:

Protein MRI contrast agent with unprecedented metal selectivity and sensitivity for liver cancer imaging
Shenghui Xue, Hua Yang, Jingjuan Qiao, Fan Pu, Jie Jiang, Kendra Hubbard, Khan Hekmatyar, Jason Langley, Mani Salarian, Robert C. Long, Robert G. Bryant, Xiaoping Philip Hu, Hans E. Grossniklaus, Zhi-Ren Liu, and Jenny J. Yang
PNAS 2015 ; published ahead of print May 13, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1423021112

This entry is based in part on the Georgia State press release.

Georgia State University researchers (left to right) Shenghui Xue, Jingjuan Qiao, Shanshan Tan, Mani Salarian and Jenny Yang developed the first robust and noninvasive detection of early stage liver cancer. Credit: Jingjuan Qiao, Georgia State University.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

feminist utopia

Book review:

El país de las mujeres

Gioconda Belli

(2010)

In a small Mesoamerican country called Faguas, a volcanic eruption has enriched the air with an antidote to testosterone, turning its macho men into kind and docile human beings who don’t put up too much resistance when the feminist Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (PIE) sweeps to an election victory and its charismatic leader, famous for having exposed prominent sex traffickers in her TV show, becomes president with an all-female government promising to “clean up” the country.

In a time when much of the more imaginative writing goes in the dystopian direction and the state of the real world may also be headed that way, it is unusual and refreshing to find an unashamedly positive utopian novel. Especially for me with a political background that has quite a few connections to the author’s, the general idealism feels like home and the protagonists the PIE committee are very sympathetic characters.

I’m not entirely sure if the novel would work for anybody who doesn’t experience this huge political feel-good factor. The postmodern structure which mixes different kinds of testimonies and documents is at first a bit confusing until you’ve worked out who’s who. Until about the middle of the book it appeared gratuitously random to me and I would have appreciated a frame, maybe set in the distant future, such as the work of a future historian who explores these developments. Belli has used distant times to great effect in The scroll of seduction as well as in The inhabited woman, and it might have improved this effort as well.

As it stands, this is an interesting book and a heart-warming story for those who still have a heat-conducting heart, but maybe not quite as spectacularly brilliant as the two earlier novels mentioned above. Depressingly, there doesn’t seem to be an English translation at all, although it has been translated into German (Die Republik der Frauen), Dutch (Het land van de vrouwen) and Portuguese (O País Das Mulheres) among other languages.

Monday, May 04, 2015

migration mapped

My great-great-great-grandparents, born in the early 19th century, appear all to have been very solidly German and settled in their respective little patches of the very colourful map of that time. These 28 people (there's been a bit of inbreeding) come from 8 geographically separate regions within what would in 1871 become the German Empire, so they are a meaningful statistical sample of the German population.

I had to go back a further three to six generations to find out that the picture of settled clans rooted in their respective landscapes was completely wrong. For instance, entire villages in the Kraichgau area - one of the 8 regions where my ancestors lived in the 19th century - had been resettled with Swiss immigrants at the end of the 17th century. Elsewhere, Huguenots left their mark, as did skilled metal workers hired in from Wallonia and further migrants from Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, today's Belgium, and probably other places yet to be discovered (I'm gradually building a collection of migration stories here).

I concluded from these findings that everybody has migration background - one just has to dig deep enough to find it. Genomics and genotyping techniques allow scientists to investigate the bigger picture of human migrations on a country, continent, and global scale with unprecedented resolution. The studies confirm the conclusion that I drew from my family research - people have always migrated to seek opportunity and flee hardship, and deep down we are all migrants.

I've had a detailed look at the new science of the genetics of human migration against the backdrop of current political haggling over migrants in my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

Genetic traces of mankind's migrations
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 9, 4 May 2015, Pages R345–R347
Open access

Own photo of the Cowley Road Carnival which every year celebrates cultural diversity around here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

the trouble with photosynthesis

If you look at plants from a technological point of view, there is a fascinating flaw in photosynthesis which is simply down to the fact that it evolved in an atmosphere with virtually no oxygen, and now it is having problems with its own waste product. Some tropical plants like maize and sugar cane have found a fix, but other crops like rice and wheat are massively inefficient at turning carbon dioxide into food, which is why various research groups are trying to improve them.

Read all about it in my feature:

Fixing photosynthesis
Chemistry & Industry April 2015, pp 42-45
Free access to the full text

In the same issue I also have a "long essay review" of the book Fracking by Hester and Harrison (from the series Issues in environmental science and technology)

Fracking - points of view
Chemistry & Industry April 2015, pp 50-51
limited access

Thursday, April 23, 2015

bees can't help it

Another news story on bees and and neonicotinoids. Over the last few years it has become clear that sublethal effects of the pesticides are very bad news for the success of bee colonies. The UK govt seems to think that bees could just say no to poisoned nectar.

Research from Geraldine Wright's lab now shows that they can't detect the poison with their sense of bitter taste. Worse still, they have a tendency to eat more of the toxic stuff. Full story out in Chemistry World, free access:

Bees 'prefer' neonicotinoid-laced nectar
Chemistry World 22.4.2015

The story also appears in the June issue of the printed magazine, on page 29.

own photo (not sure if I've used this one before?)

PS related news that came in just after this:

Monday, April 20, 2015

climate change at 25

I first heard about carbon dioxide causing climate change in the late 1980s. I was dabbling in a bit of local politics with the Green party in Germany and preparing a manifesto for the 1990 elections, for which I wrote a couple of pages on emission control. The emissions we were worried about back then were, of course, toxic gases that caused visible problems on short timescales, such as acid rain and Waldsterben. I remember thinking something along the lines of "what's wrong with carbon dioxide? It's not even toxic!"

But with the first assessment report on climate change published in 1990 we soon learned what was wrong with carbon dioxide, and at that point the world really should have changed course and reduced emissions, but unfortunately they kept going up. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, it was an unfortunate coincidence that climate change only became apparent in the very moment when western democracies responded to the collapse of the communist bloc by abandoning all attempts to regulate corporations and markets, and these forces took the world in exactly the wrong direction.

Anyhow, 25 years after the problem was recognised and described, we're still making no progress towards solving it, which is very frustrating. I've comemorated and analysed this depressing anniversary in my latest feature which is out today in Current Biology:

Twenty-five years of climate change failure
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 8, pR307–R310, 20 April 2015
Open access

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

an ancient copper mine

After writing about the Simon family who were miners in Fischbach (Nahe) and then 170 km further south in Markirch (Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Alsace), I had the opportunity to revisit the ancient copper mine at Fischbach, which is where Johann Christoph Simon must have worked before migrating to Markirch, and where some of his brothers as well as his father Nickel Simon also worked.

Specifically the five men who were linked to the Fischbach mining industry were (with made-up translations of the job titles Schmelzer, Röster, Bergschmied):

  • Johann Nickel Simon, born Niederhosenbach in 1672-3, worked as a smith and as a miner, married Anna Francisca in 1700, died 1754 aged 81.
    as well as his four sons:
  • 1701 Johann Nickel Simon jun – roaster and smelter at Allenbach
  • 1703 Johann Jacob Simon – smith at the mines in Markirch
  • 1705 Georg Nickel Simon – miner at Fischbach and Kautenbach
  • 1707 Johann Christoph Simon – smelter at Markirch

They were part of the second and final era of success for the Fischbach mine, which had a fair number of ups and downs throughout the centuries. Here’s my potted history which I also wrote up in German for Wikipedia:

According to a document from 1461, copper mining in the valley of the Hosenbach creek near Fischbach dates back to at least 1400. In 1473, the two counts whose territories met on the hill above the mines signed an agreement to split all income from mining equally between them.

In the 16th century, the mines were thriving with up to 300 miners working there. Copper was sold beyond the region, for instance to Dinant (today’s Belgium), which was a centre of brass making. Due to the 30-Years War and the difficulties in maintaining the safety of the mines and the transport of the metal produced, mining ceased from 1624.

Mining was resumed at the Hosenberg site in 1697, but not in the sites on the opposite bank of the creek. From 1730 to 1765, the industry flourished once again. Johann Christoph Simon and his brother Johann Jacob Simon must have been in Markirch already (Johann Christoph married there in 1732 Around 1750 there is also the earliest evidence of the use of explosives in mining – even though the know-how was already developed half a century earlier in eastern German mining regions such as Saxony, and migration from those areas to Fischbach has been described by Bühler and Brandt. Between 1765 and 1776, the mining business went into decline, and in 1792, war forced its closure once again. Several attempts to revive it were undertaken in the 19th and in the 20th century, but all failed, due to high costs and low yields.

In 1975, the mine was opened to visitors. Guided tours around the impressive network of man-made caves are offered all year round. Above ground, there are also exhibits demonstrating copper smelting, as well as a sight-seeing circuit.

Back to the family history – Bühler and Brandt note that the Fischbach miners were highly respected professionals, as evidenced by the fact that they married into well-known families of nearby market town Kirn. However, my Fischbach ancestors and those in Kirn represent completely different lineages and cross-links between them have yet to be found. We have a few more generations of Simon ancestors, back to Mathes Simon, born around 1600 in Allenbach, but no details of what they were doing while the copper mine was closed.

Fischbach copper mine with life-size figures of miners, own photo.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

solutions for everybody?

In my round-up of German pieces I mentioned my review of the film "Better living through chemistry" which was part of the annual April fun and games section in Nachrichten aus der Chemie. Here comes a shorter version of my thoughts on this film, in English:

One question puzzles viewers of this film from the beginning to the end: Why on earth is it narrated by Jane Fonda? I think I worked it out at last – she’s the agony aunt of some third class waiting room magazine and the question she’s answering this time is something along the lines of: “I spend my life being everybody’s doormat – can chemistry improve my life?” And, according to agony Aunt Jane, it can.

In the fairy tale that Auntie Jane tells us to make her point, she’s equipped the protagonist with a small-town pharmacy, to make sure he has a good supply of chemicals to experiment with. At the beginning, he doesn’t quite know what to do with that, other than quietly enjoying the intimate information he has about lots of people in the town.

In the course of an evening delivery to a posh address he meets a very conventionally attractive woman in a very transparent negligee, who describes herself as a trophy wife and complains of the terminal boredom that comes with this job. She has the bright idea that the pharmacists, who has “solutions for everybody but himself” might find the formula to change his life on the shelves of his workplace. The drugs work magic on him, lifting his love life, sporting achievements, and even his hair.

What else can you do with chemistry? Oh, yes, murder people. The chemically enhanced couple have a half-hearted go at that, but the scriptwriters (Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who also direct) clearly shied away from the dark side and hastened to return to the safer ground of lesser crimes.

What is disturbing about the movie is its morality about drugs, reflected not only in Auntie Jane’s voiceover recommending misuse of prescription drugs but also in the reckoning at the end. Watch out who gets punished and who gets away. And perhaps you shouldn’t follow Auntie Jane’s advice.

It appears the film went straight to DVD in Europe, and deservedly so.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

layers of gold and plastics

In the round-up of German pieces published in March / April we find structures folded and intertwined, deposits of gold and plastics, and reflections on a chemistry-related movie.

Pop-up im Mikromaßstab
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 2, page 94, April 2015
Abstract and limited access to full text

Hauptsache, die Chemie stimmt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 433-434
review of "Better living through chemistry", English version here.

Was macht der Müll im Meer?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 443-444

Ausgeforscht: Eine Hölle mit goldenem Boden
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 503

Molekularer Drudenfuß und Davidstern
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 3, 10-12
first paragraphs of the article and limited access to full text

... oh, and a new Wikipedia entry as well.

macro-scale origami birds (own photo)

Monday, March 30, 2015

robot march

It may be an age thing, but I am getting increasingly skeptical of the general direction that technology is evolving towards. I was very happy with the tech we had until 2006 or so, and then came the unstoppable rise of facebook, smartphones that broadcast your every move, search engines trying to read your mind, drones, self-driving cars, and e-readers that tell their corporate motherships what pages you've read and which passages you've highlighted. I'm beginning to think that a dystopia of the Brave New World kind has already sucked us in.

After reading The Filter Bubble and filter-feeding on all the robotic news that comes in on a daily basis now, I've written another feature about all this, which is out today. Health warning: the content may frighten you.

The unstoppable march of the machines
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 7, pR255–R258, 30 March 2015
Open access

(own photo, taken at an innovation event at Said Business School last year)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

rondo from Beethoven duo No 2

Here comes a new chamber music score we've prepared for cello (grade 7+) and flute (hopeless, i.e. me). It's the third movement of the second duet from Beethoven's three duets which I think were originally written for clarinet and bassoon.

PS (July 2015): We've now performed this at a street party and made a tentative recording - not good enough for sharing yet but getting there. Meanwhile, here is a clarinet/cello duo playing the piece exactly twice as fast as we do (as a listener I prefer our speed, it allows me to actually understand what's going on in the music).

Monday, March 16, 2015

marine megafauna

One of the wonders of marine biology is that the oceans still host megafauna with a size distribution similar to what it was in the pleistocene, while here on land there are hardly any big animals left, thanks to the relentless destruction caused by a certain species known as Homo sapiens.

In recent decades, large whale species have been pulled back from the brink of being hunted to extinction, but large parts of the marine fauna could again be at risk if industrialisation and overexploitation of the marine environment continues. Essentially, we can still avoid doing to the oceans what we did to the land, but the time to change our ways is right about now.

This is the gist of my latest feature which appeared in Current Biology today:

Can we avert marine mass extinctions?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 6 March 16, 2015
Open access

A whale shark (Photo: Zac Wolf/Wikipedia.)

Friday, March 13, 2015

migrating miners

When I investigated the possible Huguenot origins of my Bondame ancestors in the Palatinate region, I looked at a map of Huguenot settlements in German-speaking areas, which also showed one in Markirch / Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines in Alsace. As one of my ancestors in the Palatinate came from that little town, I was intrigued and wondered whether some of his folks may have also been Huguenots or other refugees for religious reasons.

The guy who left Markirch to settle at Böchingen in the Palatinate was Paul Simon (1740-1813). The name Simon is completely useless for internet searches as it is a very common family name and also a widely used Christian name, and both these things across several European languages (never mind the famous namesake). Moreover, the male line only spent a few decades at Markirch. Before that, the Simons came from the Hunsrück area (where in a separate Simon lineage we have seen the name become a family name based on the Christian name of the founding father).

Thus, I really needed to look at Paul Simon’s mother and grandmothers. His mother was called Maria Susanna Trimbach (1713-1752). So I did a search on “Trimbach Markirch” and on the first page of ten results there were three separate items of interest. First I learned that there is a Trimbach winery in that area to this day. This is the third name in that small part of my family tree that is being printed on wine labels as we speak, along with Klundt and Minges, but I’ll rave about this another day. Second, a gravestone still exists of a Jacob Trimbach who died in September 1649. I still need to work out how he relates to my Trimbachs.

And third, there was a whole research paper on migration of miners across Europe, with Fischbach and Markirch being the focal points, and migration routes leading onwards to France. Paul’s father Johann Christoph Simon was among the miners who migrated from Fischbach to Markirch, and as his marriage to Maria Susanna Trimbach is mentioned in the text, this document turned up in my search. I would never have been able to find it based on his name.

So that migration of the miners, broadly westbound, is in addition to the eastbound flight of the Huguenots who also settled at Markirch, as the map suggested. The town, which allegedly was the third-largest in upper Alsace (today’s department Haut-Rhin) until the 19th century, must have been an interesting place to be at the time. Here’s the potted history of the town, adapted from the French Wikipedia article:

From the 14th century through to the French revolution, the town was split in two parts, with the small river Lièpvre representing the frontier between separate territories, and after the reformation, between confessions. The right bank of the river was part of Alsace, German speaking, and under the rule of the lords of Rappolstein (Ribeaupierre). On the left bank it was ruled by the dukes of Lorraine, French speaking, and would remain catholic after the reformation.

The mining which gave the town its post-reunification name of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines has been an important activity since the 10th century, but it was the rise of silver mining in the 16th century that brought affluence to the town, with its peak activity from around 1545 to 1580. However, mining ceased during the 30-years war (1618-1648) and was only revived in 1710-1711.

At that time, the counts of Rappolstein, who owned the German side of the town, had close links to the Hunsrück area through marriages with the house of the Wild and Rheingrafen who ruled there. As a result, there were close political connections between the areas from 1673 to 1776, which may explain the very lively migration of miners from the Hunsrück to Markirch, including my ancestor Johann Christoph Simon (1707-1756) and his brother Johann Jakob Simon (1703-1761).

This was part of a larger pattern of westwards migration of skilled workers often originating in the eastern German regions like Harz and Erzgebirge, and leading as far west as southwest France. The historians Hans-Eugen Bühler und H. Peter Brandt have analysed this phenomenon in a detailed study published in 2003: “Muster europäischer Migration im Bergbau des frühen 18. Jahrhunderts: Fischbach/Nahe und Markirch/Elsaß als Drehscheiben des Austauschs” which also features the Simon family, who must have arrived at Markirch before 1732 (the date of Johann Christoph’s first marriage there).

Those typically Lutheran miners arriving from Fischbach will have found an interesting multicultural scene at Markirch where there were five different religious affiliations to choose from, including Anabaptist, Lutheran, German Reformed (Calvinist), French Reformed (Huguenot), and Catholic (NB that’s only on the German side of town, there was a separate Catholic parish on the French side). I understand the Amish also have their roots at Markirch, resulting from a schism in the local Anabaptist community that occurred in 1693.

The origins of this diversity go back to 1566, when the count of Rappolstein, Eguenolf III, introduced the Lutheran creed (although he was officially subject of the catholic Habsburg empire). Soon after, the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France brought a wave of Huguenot refugees, joined by Calvinists expelled from Lorraine by the duke Charles III in 1585, and the complete parish of Badonviller in Alsace, fleeing the count of Salm in 1625. It was a lively little refugee camp there, where worshippers were mainly divided by language. German services were held at a little chapel “in the fields” (Mattenkirch) and attended by refugees and miners alike, while the French-speaking protestants used Saint-Pierre-sur-l'Hâte.

The field chapel succumbed to arson in 1757 but was rebuilt three years later and served until 1867. It was there that a tombstone was discovered with the name of Jacob Trimbach, who died on September 3rd 1649.

In 1768, Paul married Anna Christine Jungbluth in Böchingen in the Palatinate and settled there. By that time, there wasn’t much opportunity left in mining at Markirch. The new game in town was textiles, which were to become the dominant industry in the 19th century.

Bühler and Brandt note in their paper the surprising mobility of skilled miners in the 18th century. Not only did they migrate half-way across Europe to find opportunities in new or reviving mining regions. They often stayed mobile over several generations, with Fischbach and Markirch serving as relais stations for onward migrations that led second and third generations of mobile families as far afield as western France.

In the case of my ancestors, however, onward migration led Paul out of the whole mining business and into a wine growing area (not sure what he did for a living, but almost everybody in Böchingen has some connection to wine making!) – maybe this has something to do with the fact that his mother was a Trimbach? That’s the Alsatian wine connection which I need to unravel some other time. (Oh, and there still is the possibility that some of Paul's non-Simon ancestors in Markirch actually were Huguenots. Stay tuned.)

Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. Photo: Bernard Chenal / Wikipedia.

Monday, March 02, 2015

human smell is not so bad

Our sense of smell has the reputation of being the poor relative to the superior abilities of other mammals such as canines or rodents. However, recent research has shown that it does have some amazing capabilities thanks to the combinatorial power of its hundreds of different chemoreceptors. Moreover, if we're not very good at naming smells or remembering them, that may be due to cultural rather than biological reasons.

Read all about it in my latest feature which has just come out in Current Biology:

Our sense of smell at the crossroads

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 5, pR173–R176, 2 March 2015

Open access

Sweet osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans) is a plant appreciated for its fragrance across southern Asia, where it is also used as a food ingredient and in herbal teas. A recent study has identified 23 volatile substances in its odour. (Photo: Laitr Keiows/Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

can Pythagoras take a shower?

During a recent stay at a cosy little hotel in Germany, we had a shower cabin with a square footprint (ABCD) and a sliding door (ab) that operated such that its endpoints a and b slid along the sides of the square, so point a moved along AB, while point b moved along BC.

We wondered if a well-rounded hotel guest – let’s call him Pythagoras (hint, hint) - could fit into the shower cabin and close the door behind him. Specifically, if the side length of the square is 1 meter, what is the maximal radius of a rigid rotund guest that could fit in and close the door?

Answers on a postcard. (This really happened, and the young mathematician in the family worked it out. However, I suspect that somebody, eg Martin Gardner, must have come up with this riddle before.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

good bye to the Holocene?

The Holocene, which began around 11,700 years ago, has been an unusually stable and benign period in Earth's climate history, and with its equanimity it has enabled Homo sapiens to spread around the world and build our modern civilisation. Now, however, evidence suggests that our own economic activities have killed off this geological epoch that saw (and facilitated) the rise of our species to world domination.

As an official working group is pondering the case for declaring a new epoch, the Anthropocene, two separate assessments of the damage we have caused to the Earth system have been updated and improved.

All this is covered in detail in my latest feature in Current Biology, which came out on Monday:

Assessing humanity's global impact
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 4, pR131–R134, 16 February 2015
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.01.063

Open access.

Friday, February 13, 2015

a Huguenot connection?

Every self-respecting family tree needs a Huguenot ancestor. Our best bet for this is Johanna Bondam (Bodang, Bondamm, Pondam, Bontam), the mother of the emigrant Johannes Klundt, who left the Palatinate for the shores of the Black Sea and left descendants around the world.

Maria Johanna Bondam, protestant, was born in Mörlheim (today a part of Landau town) around 1735 as one of at least three children of Johannes Bondam and his wife Maria Sara, last name unknown. Her older sister Maria Eva Bondam (born at Mörlheim as well) went on to marry a Jacob Frary of Swiss descent and went on to have nine children. Her descendants are listed on GedBas. The younger brother Pierre Bondam was born in 1737 at Billigheim, a few kilometres south of Landau.

Now both Mörlheim and Billigheim are not just any old villages in the Southern Palatinate. Mörlheim was the first place in Germany where Waldensians from the Piedmont (then part of the Duchy of Savoy, now in the northwest of Italy) settled after they began to be expelled from their home region. There is a whole book about the trek of the Waldensians from the Alps to Germany with a big chapter about Mörlheim, complete with lists of inhabitants of the manor, which had been founded in 1148 as a subsidiary to the Cistercian abbey of Eußerthal.

There were originally only three or four families of peasants working there, but in 1655, 15 families of Waldensians arrived, with 60-70 people in total. In the privileges set out for them by the prince elector, it is specified that there should be at least 40, but no more than 1000 families of settlers. They moved into the abandoned buildings of the abbey, which had been dissolved with the reformation in 1560. The first list of settlers, consisting exclusively of Waldensians from the Piedmont, does not contain a Bondam person.

But further fugitives arrived, as the colony began to thrive. The settlers planted mulberry bushes and produced silk. By 1670, there were around 100 families represented by a council of 12.

However, most of these fled when French troops advanced in 1688/89, although the invadin troops ended up using the former abbey for storage and didn’t destroy it. In the spring of 1691 some of the refugees returned, along with a few new settlers, among them our Jean Bonnedame. He is listed among the group of 11 new arrivals as owning 1 Pflug (i.e. around 20 hectares) of land.

The next round-up, made in March 1699 on the occasion of a lawsuit against the lease holder of the land, who apparently tried to cheat the peasants out of their land and possessions, lists Jean Bonnedame among the group of “Walloons, Huguenots”, kept separately from the Piemontais. In 1697, a group referred to as “the Walloons” left the place due to the animosities surrounding the lawsuit. This group includes two from the five people named in the Walloon/Huguenot mixed list but not Jean Bonnedame, so we conclude that he was one of the Huguenots (of which there were only three left at most, after deducting those identified as Walloons).

Considering that Jean Bonnedame was listed as a grown-up in 1691, so must have been born no later than 1670, he will have been too old to be Johanna Maria’s father in 1735 and is likely to be her grandfather.

At the same time, Billigheim was also a place that hosted refugees persecuted for religious reasons. The church records from the 17th century are lost, but in 1699 there was also a Bonnedame person living there, so the family appears to have been split between these two locations, which might explain why Johannes Bondam’s family seems to have moved from Mörlheim to Billigheim before the birth of their son in 1737. Also, there is a Jakob Bondam who was born at Mörlheim in 1720, but his father was called Wilhelm, so the connection to our Bonnedames isn't very clear at all. (To confuse things further, there is a prominent Dutch historian called Peter Bondam (1727-1800), but I don't know where his ancestors came from either.)

So, we’re still not entirely clear what happened there, nor where the Bonnedame families came from prior to 1691, but I think the case for a Huguenot ancestry is growing stronger. As always, any hints appreciated.

Sources

Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Image source: Wikipedia

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