Monday, October 15, 2018

another COP coming up

Open Archive Day

As another climate conference is coming up in December, it's the numbering that really gets to me. COP24 means, above all, that we have now spent more than a quarter century not getting any better at averting catastrophic climate change. I usually write a climate-related feature ahead of the conference (watch this space), so here's one I prepared earlier, in the run-up to the Paris conference of 2015.

How nature copes with climate change





Tuesday, October 09, 2018

latest buzz

I've been covering bee problems for well over a decade now - since the crisis around colony collapse disorder in the mid-00s. Progress has been made in terms of recognising the subtle kinds of damage that neonicotinoids can do to pollinators. But the fundamental paradox remains - we depend on insects for our nutrition (never mind to maintain a residue of a natural environment), and yet we put tonnes of insecticides into the environment.

Three neonics are now being banned EU-wide, but one of the products that may replace them is now also implicated in (bumble)bee problems. One day we'll have to acknowledge that the problem isn't insects, it's monocultures. And we'll have to learn agriculture from scratch again as our ancestors did some 12,000 years ago.

Anyhow, my latest buzz on bees is out now:

Bee worries beyond neonicotinoids

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 19, 8 October 2018, Pages R1121-R1123

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
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(Own photo, taken at Chelsea Physics Garden, London.)

Monday, October 01, 2018

epic genomes

Open Archive Day

There are so many exciting discoveries coming out of the analyses of ancient DNA - ranging from recent history back to the times when Neanderthals, Denisovans and our sapiens sapiens ancestors coexisted - that one could easily write about these all the time. However, remembering that I write for a general biology journal, I make sure that stories about humans don't take over and that animals, plants and microbes also get their fair share.

While I can't catch everything, here's one ancient DNA story I did a year ago, and which is now on open access, covering the early civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean and providing some genetic context for sources like Homer and the Bible:


Roots of Mediterranean civilisations



Figurine of an ox and driver, from Phylakopi, a site on the island of Milos related to Mycenaean culture, which dominated mainland Greece and some Aegean islands in the Bronze Age. (Photo: Zde/Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 4.0.)of an ox and driver, from Phylakopi, a site on the island of Milos related to Mycenaean culture, which dominated mainland Greece and some Aegean islands in the Bronze Age. (Photo: Zde/Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

threads and patterns

O club de calceta
María Reimóndez
Edicions Xerais 2006

This book has been translated into Spanish, Italian and French, but apparently not into English. If it was, I would call it the knitting circle, rather than club, as I imagine the six protagonists sitting in a circle and knitting, but more importantly each telling the story of her life. As we go round the circle, the joint story also advances, as it becomes clearer what connects these women and how they can help each other, so while the movement is circular, it is also going forward. Like knitting a sock, I suspect. Threads and patterns are important, too.

The cast makes me think: Why hasn’t Almodóvar made the film yet? We have a prostitute fed up with the profession she inherited from her mum, a one-legged woman who wants to become a bus driver, a secretary with the ambition to be her own boss, a cleaner haunted by the ghost of her aunt, a political activist (communist?) in remission, and an old lady who spent her life looking after the local church (dressing the saints, as I think they say in Galicia).

Six women on the verge of a major breakthrough, because knitting does change the world. Six lovely stories with convincing voices that we would not normally hear. In the final chapter the whole thing is tied together maybe a little bit too neatly, but never mind. You don’t want to have any loose threads dangling when you’re knitting a masterpiece.

PS The Galician edition of Wikipedia tells me there has been a TV adaptation, but I still want to see Almodóvar’s take on this. Wiki also reveals that the story is set in the city of Vigo (whose literary fame was secured by Martin Codax in the 13th century).

Monday, September 24, 2018

botanic gardens

We're used to the thought that animal conservation is by and large a losing battle. Animal species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate in this man-made 6th mass extinction. Conservation efforts can save a few and slow the rate a little bit, but there is no chance whatsoever of stopping extinctions altogether.

It hadn't occurred to me that the situation is different for plants. We can preserve their seeds and grow them in botanic gardens, which led the authors of a paper I read recently to the claim that there is no reason any plant should go extinct. Which is to say, we could save every plant known to science if we put our mind to it. This hopeful message inspired me to write a feature about botanic gardens and their role in conservation (it also fills a gap as I have features about zoos and herbaria in my back catalogue already!), which is out now:

Can botanic gardens save all plants?

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 18, 24 September 2018, Pages R1075-R1078

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
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Own photo - some cannabis plants seen at Chelsea Physic Garden

Monday, September 17, 2018

online archaeology

Open Archive Day

Recent years with the Facebook revelations and the trumpocalyptic tweets that may start a nuclear war any day now have sucked most of the fun out of life on the internet. Even tumblr has taken to flooding me with fake followers - those troll factories must be working overtime these days.

So it's nice to step back in time and remember the happy days of 2013, when we (or I, at least) still naively believed that online communities could be a force for good.

So here's my 2013 feature raving about online cultures, clearly not expecting how it would turn out a few short years later:


What makes people click?



I had completely forgotten that I had used the Delacroix as an illustration with that article (Wikipedia edit wars were the excuse for that). (Artwork: Eugène Delacroix La Liberte Guidant Le Peuple (28 Juillet 1830) Musée du Louvre © 2007 Musée du Louvre/Angèle Dequier.)

Monday, September 10, 2018

tourist trails

Global tourism is growing so steeply that it is rapidly becoming a problem not just for popular destinations (like Oxford, for instance) but also for the environment. Driven by China's wealth explosion and innovations from budget airlines through to airbnb, it produces a carbon footprint that is scary and growing.

As part of today's special issue on migration, I had a closer look at the global impact on tourism in a feature which is out now:

Global tourism's growing footprint


Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 17, 10 September 2018, Pages R963-R965

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

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Own photo (2016)

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Erlebnis Wissenschaft

for more than a decade, from Was Biotronik alles kann (2002) to Invasion der Waschbären (2014), my books in German were published by Wiley-VCH, mostly in their general pop-science series Erlebnis Wissenschaft (not quite translatable, this suggests science is an exciting experience).

Since the publication of the raccoons’ book in 2014, I have had no luck with further proposals, and have been given to understand that the sales of the series weren’t as good as the publisher hoped. Checking up the programme this summer, I realised that the last new title was published in 2016. One that is listed in 2018 is in fact the paperback version of a book previously published in hardback. Coming from the main website, the list doesn’t even have a link, so I had to use search engines to find it here. So, reluctantly, I am having to switch back to hustle mode and try to find a new publisher.

I can accept that on a purely balance-based reckoning, the books may not have been very profitable, but then again, Wiley-VCH is a huge publisher with successful academic titles (the white and blue design inherited from the original Verlag Chemie) as well as the licence for the German version of the hugely successful “For Dummies” series, not to mention a vast array of academic journals. All of which surely could help to fund a bit of an effort to help the public understanding of science with a series of intermediate level popular science books.

Oh well. I may have written critical reviews of one or two of the titles shown below, but I surely will miss the series.




For this photo I rounded up my own titles in the series and a few from other authors. Since taking the photo I keep discovering others that I forgot (eg the biographies of Haber and Lynen and the memoir of Schatz – for the biographies alone it would be worthwhile keeping the series alive).

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Madame Robinson

Leïla Slimani
Dans le jardin de l’ogre


When Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt in 2016 for Chanson douce (English title: Lullaby), I really wanted to read her book but shied away from it because of the subject matter (as a parent, I am a bit squeamish about children being murdered). Then on my recent travel I stumbled across some kind of literary programme on TV5 Monde, where Slimani spoke about her most recent book (Sexe et mensonges : La vie sexuelle au Maroc), discussing the sex lives of Moroccan women with a panel of three blokes and looking as relaxed as if that was the most ordinary thing in the world to do.

So, looking up her oeuvre, I discovered her first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which looked less scary than the prize-winning one, so I read that. It’s in a way a Madame Bovary for the post-Catherine M. times. Which means, we have our medical doctor and his bored wife, but things get rather more out of hand than what I remember from Flaubert’s novel, and the move to rural Normandy (also the setting of Madame Bovary) comes as an attempt to fix things.

Slimani applies a cold psychiatric eye to report a case study of sex addiction – a condition only recognised as a mental health problem by the WHO last month, i.e. several years after her novel was published. She doesn’t spend much time on describing the external settings (Paris, Normandy, Boulogne sur Mer), and I kind of filled in from own memories what I missed there. But the internal landscapes are quite impressive and match the places. Hers, a city bustling with anonymous figures and existential angst, his, the yawning countryside and longing for steady normality, her parents’ the provincial small town of Boulogne (at some point, Napoleon planned to invade England from there, but I think he got side-tracked or something).

All of which reveals Slimani as a sharp and fearless writer, and one day I’ll even drum up the courage to read her other books.

An English translation of this book is scheduled to appear in February 2019 under the title of Adèle.



Available as a very lovely Collection Folio paperback, although I am not happy with the font they are now using for the author's name, which is the main difference between the current design and my collection of folios from the last century.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

plastic problems

Open Archive Day

This time last year, I had a feature on plastic pollution out (I think it was my third one on that topic). Since then, the amount of plastic waste swirling around in the oceans has kept growing, but so has public awareness of the issue. Since David Attenborough brought it up in his TV show, it has risen to a new level of prominence, although that doesn't necessarily mean we'll stop dumping the stuff.

My feature is now on open access:

Our planet wrapped in plastic



PS: a few days after I posted this, it was reported in the news that a device designed to collect plastic waste from the oceans is now afloat and being tested in California. Although nobody seems to have a clear answer as to what the biological bycatch will be.




Monday, August 27, 2018

a very lucky find

Open Archive Day

Last week brought a report of an extremely mindboggling discovery that perhaps got less coverage than it deserved (in the Guardian at least it was a very small story well hidden), namely the genome of an ancient human whose mother was a Neanderthal while her father was a Denisovan.

Just to briefly summarise the possibilities:

* If interbreeding between these two groups was common and successful in terms of viable and fertile offspring, this wouldn't be surprising, but in this case we should have come across other intermediate forms earlier, so not very likely.

* If interbreeding was common and successful in the first generation (but left the offspring infertile or perhaps with some other kind of fitness limitation) there might have been a few of those, but researchers would be very lucky to hit on one of them.

* If interbreeding was rarely successful, this would have to count as an extremely lucky find.

So in any case it is pretty mindboggling, and I trust that Svante Pääbo, who is a joint senior author on the paper, will have triple-checked everything before letting this out.

All of which is just an excuse for plugging my feature on human evolution which I wrote four years ago after attending a meeting with Svante Pääbo and everybody else who is anybody in human evolution:


The complicated origins of our species



Apart from last year's effort specifically on palaeoanthropology in China, this appears to be my most recent one with actual Neanderthals in it. Given how fast the field is moving, I should revisit it soon.

Oh, and what I did visit recently is the Neanderthal museum in the eponymous valley, which hasn't quite caught up with the Neanderthal genome revolution yet, but has this amusing scene of life in the stone age to offer:



(own photo)

Monday, August 20, 2018

like the sound of that

After so many years of writing about science, it can still happen that I bump into an entire field of studies that I somehow managed to miss, although it is really interesting and has been going on for many years. My most recent discovery of this type is soundscape ecology, which uses sound recordings to study the composition and health of ecosystems and can detect changes that happen over time, eg with the seasons, after natural diasters, or due to climate change.

As this was all new to me, I did a general feature explaining what it's all about and how it can help us better understand the natural environment. Although pioneers have been recording things for decades now, recent technology has of course made it easier to record, store and process massive amounts of audio data, providing an acoustic component to the general big data revolution in the life sciences.

Anyhow, my feature is out now:

Listening to the sounds of the biosphere

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 16, 20 August 2018, Pages R847–R850

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)


Magic link for free access

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Soundscape ecologists record ambient sound and analyse it for changes that may be linked to environmental change. (Photo: Bryan C. Pijanowski, Center for Global Soundscapes.)


Friday, August 17, 2018

summery smells

oooops, I've somehow lost track of tracking the publications in German, so there is a little gap in the record, but let's just carry on with July/August as if nothing happened ...

So in these two hot summer months we've had molecular wires, mysterious membranes, and the smells of summer:

Molekularer Draht von Hand gemacht
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume52, Issue4, August 2018, Pages 211-212
Access via Wiley Online Library
(molecular wire made by atomic manipulation - related content in English)

Merkwürdige Membranen

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 7-8, Pages 722-724, Juli ‐ August 2018
Access via Wiley Online Library
(why the membranes of archaea are so strange - related content in English)

Der Duft der Sommerferien
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 66, Issue 7-8, Page 811, Juli ‐ August 2018
Access via Wiley Online Library


PS: I've now updated my publications list, so the missing German pieces should be here.

Monday, August 13, 2018

food for evolution

Open Archive Day

I try to avoid the three notorious f-words that are already getting way too much attention (fashion, food, football), but this was one story about food that I actually found fascinating - how a certain kind of diet, based eg mainly on seafood, or on plant food, can over many generations shape human evolution, producing genetic variants that are still observable today.

Read all about it in my rare foody feature which is now on open access:

How our diet changed our evolution



Own photo. For the reasons mentioned above, I don't have many photos of food, but found some plant-based dessert option ...

Saturday, August 11, 2018

16,000 words

In a review of the book “vox” by Christina Dalcher I read the claim that people – men and women alike – speak an average of 16,000 words a day. The research, published in Science in 2007, was designed to debunk the myth that women talk three times as much as men, and it duly found that both talk the same amount within error.

Still, as somebody who prefers writing to talking, this strikes me as a huge amount. That must be around two hours of solid monologue, or four hours of conversation, if you allow the other person half the time. Longer, if you take time to reflect between your exchanges. Just to get a measure of how much text that is that people talk on average, consider this:

I typically write around 1000 words a day (I read a lot more, and I’d reckon I speak fewer). Just imagine I could come up with 16,000 meaningful words a day – which of course I would not dream of wasting on the fickle oscillations of air, but would rather write down for publication. At a fairly typical rate of 40p per word, these could theoretically earn £ 6400 in a day, or two million in a year.

Well the bug in that calculation is that I can’t come up with 16,000 words worth of meaningful content every day, nor can anybody else, which is why people tend to talk about the weather and repeat themselves all the time. Yes I do realise that all that small talk serves a social function, but why can’t people just rub each other’s backs instead? In that respect, chimps and bonobos are more civilised than we are. Failing that, playing music with people works for me. A way of communication as well, but with fewer words.

I appreciate that the 100-word limit imposed on women in Dalcher’s dystopian novel amounts to torture (the lowest word counts reported in the science paper were closer to 500), but 1000 words is probably a daily budget I could get along with. Add to that 1000 written words, and I’ll swap the rest of the 16,000 for wrong notes played at the wrong time. This blog entry contains 373 words, by the way.



PS: The Guardian reviewer doesn't like the book ...

Monday, August 06, 2018

shipping news

For some strange reasons I keep seeing adverts for Arctic cruises, which drive me up the wall. The fact that one can now steer a whopping big cruise ship through the Northwest Passage and around the top end of the Americas is of course a consequence of our tragic failure to do something about climate change. But instead of reading it as a sign and changing our ways, we send ships to the formerly pristine Arctic waters to pollute and melt them some more.

So, well, after seeing too many of those ads I didn't book a cruise, but I wrote a feature about the Arctic shipping craze, which is out now:


Arctic shipping threatens wildlife


Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 15, 06 August 2018, Pages R803–R805

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(will become open access one year after publication)


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The ice-strengthened passenger expedition vessel Marina Tsvetaeva is one of many vessels that can now travel through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic summer. Marine biologists predict the increase in shipping traffic will impact on vulnerable species including iconic marine mammals. (Photo: Allen Powell by a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.)

Monday, July 30, 2018

crunch time for crispr

Open Archive Day

The European Court of Justice has ruled that gene editing using crispr falls under the EU regulation for GM organisms.

This is a little bit surprising, as crispr is a lot more elegant and subtle than old-style GM, which means that a) it is less likely to produce harmful side-effects, and b) it is much harder if not impossible to detect, as a crispr-induced point mutation could just as well be a random mutation.

This is why, a year and a half ago, when I wrote a feature about gene-edited crops, I was fully expecting regulators to classify these new methods separately from old GM. Clearly, they didn't read my article, which is now openly accessible:

Harvest time for crispr-cas?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

arpeggione sonata

on my very slow crawl through the repertoire, I've spent almost six months with Schubert's arpeggione sonata. Although I'll never get it into a shape that would be presentable in public, I can play it along with Natalie Clein's version which I have on CD, and that's great fun too.

(Note for the non-cellists: the arpeggione was a string instrument half way between a guitar and a cello, which was invented in 1823 and only survived for a decade or so. Schubert's sonata, today a standard piece of the cello repertoire, is the only reason the instrument is still remembered.)

Next up, some Bach I found at Oxfam ...


Monday, July 23, 2018

bottom-up biology at Birkbeck

Way back in 2001, when I was switching to full-time writing but wanted to keep some kind of connection with the world of academia, I used to trek to London twice a week to reside at the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, as a science writer in residence. That was an interesting experience while it lasted, and I got some good articles out of it, but as the railway connection got worse and more expensive over time, it wasn't really sustainable in the long run. (In 1999 I had even applied for a few London-based jobs thinking the railways situation can't get worse but it did!) Moreover, as Birkbeck set up a joint Institute of Structural Molecular Biology (ISMB) with UCL in 2003 and turbo-charged its research in this field, the space I used to have just disappeared.

The ISMB hosts an international symposium every other year, and as I was there when the first one happened, I enjoy the nostalgia trip of attending the latest instalments if and when I'm organised enough to make it happen. This year I was lucky and got there for both days of the symposium. I was rewarded with an amazing meeting that covered both the distinguished history of BBK structural biology (Rosalind Franklin, Aaron Klug, JD Bernal ... ) and its very exciting present. And I got another article out of it which is out now:

Building blocks for bottom-up biology

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 14, 23 July 2018, Pages R761–R764

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The famously dilapidated pair of Georgian townhouses, 21 and 22 Torrington Square, where Rosalind Franklin worked for the last five years of her life, were later demolished and gave way to this, the Clore Management Centre, which is where the symposium was held (own photo).


PS and I got to test-ride the new rail line Oxford to Marylebone, with Chiltern Rail, which is indeed a bit better than what we had so far.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

9 years on twitter

twitter tells me I've been on there for 9 years now - hover over the line where it says "joined in July 2009" and it will reveal the precise date and time. So many things have changed since then, but one thing I found surprisingly constant is the ratio of posts to followers, i.e. how many tweets to I have to send out to increase the number of followers by one. This ratio has been around 15 for as long as I can remember. Checking today, it is 15.04 posts per follower.

More intriguing still, the number is very similar on tumblr (15.98) where I do very different things. Much bigger on blogspot though (47), where the culture of following people never really took off. And smaller on flickr (7.13).

Obviously, for people who are more famous than I am this twitter impact ratio will be smaller, for others it may be bigger - so maybe it's a useful parameter for sociologists to study the social media pecking order (both figures that go into it are public)?


Another thing worth noting is that, since I started obsessing about the Galician language and occasionally tweeting in Galician or linking to Galician sources, these relatively rare ventures tend to spread very widely. Whenever I look at my stats, there's a Galician tweet in the top three. See for instance, from yesterday:



Monday, July 16, 2018

two years on

Open Archive Day

We certainly live in interesting times now, in the sense of the famous Chinese curse. As I write this Brexit still means chaos and Trump says Russia didn't meddle with elections because Putin told him so. Oh well.

Not sure if it's much use to look back how it went wrong, but here's my first relevant feature written just after the Brexit referendum.

Angry voters may turn back the clocks

The feature warned of a possible Trump victory, so here's one of my photos from last Thursday's anti-Trump demo at Blenheim Palace:

Monday, July 09, 2018

sequence everything

It's three decades since the Human Genome Project was organised and 15 years since it published the draft sequence, so it may be worth asking what could be the next big thing for biology.

One possibility that is being looked at is to sequence the genomes of every single eukaryotic species known to science. The Earth BioGenome project, which promotes this idea, has calculated that this could be done within 10 years and would cost no more than the first human genome did.

A crazy idea? Find out in my latest feature which is out now:

The genome sequence of everything

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 13, 9 July 2018, Pages R719-R721

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


Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)



Beetles account for a substantial part of eukaryotic diversity and will keep genome sequencers busy for a while. (Photo: Tim Sackton/Flickr.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

chemistry stories

These days, I don't write as much about chemistry as I used to as the features for Current Biology keep me reasonably busy, but here's a couple of news stories I did for Chemistry World. The one that came out today involves Harry Anderson's lab at Oxford - I consulted him about something else and asked what he was up to these days, so I found out about this:

Most complex reaction ever triggered by atomic manipulation makes molecular wire
Chemistry World August 2018, vol 15, issue 8, page 32

And the other was something that Chemistry World commissioned while this one was sitting around waiting for the original paper to come out. This is about new ways of predicting how several elements may be combined to form new materials:


AI teaches itself to identify materials – and predict new ones too

Chemistry World August 2018, vol 15, issue 8, page 38






Image source

Monday, July 02, 2018

plight of the primates

Open Archive Day

We all know that orangutans are in trouble, and the other great apes are also having a rough time in the anthropocene. While these are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, our extended family, the order primates, is endangered across the board, with over 60% of the species listed as threatened.

In a paper based on literature review and modelling of land use until the end of the century, researchers from the German Primate Centre (Deutsches Primatenzentrum, DPZ) highlight the plight of the primates and paint an even darker future for them.

Which chimes with the take-home message of my feature from a year ago, which is now on open access (and which happens to have the same title as the DPZ press release, but I admit it wasn't a terribly original title anyway):

Primates in peril





a male mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz)
Image source: Wikipedia

Monday, June 25, 2018

knickers in a twist

Open Archive Day

I'm still struggling to understand the discussion about upskirting that's been raging around here - can't really imagine that any photos taken that way will be of a quality that could get anybody excited. Also, if a paraphilia focused on such pictures exists, it won't help to send the people affected by it to jail. (If anybody asked me, I'd just suggest to un-invent smartphones and selfie-sticks.)

Wikipedia seems to think that underwear fetishism is not in fact a paraphilia, which explains why it doesn't turn up in this list of paraphilias. (Which serves as a reminder that deviant desires can be a lot worse than the issue in question. There are more than 500 that have a name, and I spotted some that involve rape, cannibalism and other horrible things.)

Still, the whole area is still insufficiently understood, and our society, which only recently stopped regarding homosexuality as one of these perversions, is poorly prepared to deal with the issues which in some cases can become a life-and-death problem.

So I guess my 2014 feature on paraphilias may still be a useful starting point for those who want a scientific angle on these things:

Paraphilia or perversion?

For anybody who wants to spend more time on the issue I recommend the book that inspired the feature, namely

Perv - the sexual deviant in all of us, by Jesse Bering.




Detail of "The swing", by Fragonard - just paint a smartphone into the guy's hand and it's totally up to date ... (Still on view at the Wallace Collection, London, but who knows for how much longer?)


PS re. the title of this post - I love female-specific metaphors, so I'll take any excuse to let my hair down and get my knickers in a twist ...


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Najla Shami

We were treated to an amazing concert from the Palestinian/Galician singer-songwriter Najla Shami (with guitarist Sérgio Tannus) this week, organised by the university's Galician Studies Centre as part of this year's Forum for Iberian Studies.

I do love a bit of Arabic influences mixed into my music (see also: Shakira), and I may have lost count but I think I heard Najla singing in seven different languages that evening, so this hit all the right spots. Oh, and she's an amazing singer as well.

So, anyhow, here are some videos with the some of the songs she played here:


Camiño Branco official video

A lingua que eu falo live with Sérgio Tannus

Coração Estaladiço live with Sérgio Tannus

There's also lots of good stuff on her SoundCloud page.

And here are a couple of photos I took towards the end of the show:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

origins of Indo-European languages

I've always been obsessed with languages (Romance ones preferably, but will also consider others), so it's only natural to take any opportunity to write about science-language interface. There haven't been all that many (the 2012 feature on the evolution of writing and my ancient paper on the linguistics of protein folding spring to mind), but recent work on ancient DNA has yielded a good excuse to revisit the family tree of Indo-European languages, comparing results from archaeology, genetics, linguistics and cultural history.

The resulting feature is out now:

The Indo-European ancestors' tale

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 12, 18 June 2018, Pages R679–R682

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




Statistical analyses can show that ancient fairy tales have likely evolved from common ancestors of the Indo-European language groups or even from the culture that spoke the Proto-Indo-European language. (Image: From The Folktales of Bengal illustrated by Warwick Goble.)

Friday, June 15, 2018

desalinate this

When I prepared the blog entry for the fusion feature, I realised I forgot to toot my horn for the previous one which was about desalination of sea water. So without further ado, here goes:


A growing thirst

Chemistry & Industry 2018, vol 82, no 3, pp 30-33

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (members only)

I can send the PDF file, just drop me a line.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

fresh fusion

I really should go out more and explore more of the exciting science going on all around me, so it was a great opportunity when I was asked to write about new approaches to fusion energy, as there is a start-up company doing that up the road in Yarnton, called First Light Fusion.

So I visited them and marvelled at their huge supply of gunpowder (some seriously old technology used to facilitate the new ones) and at the workshops where they are building what could become a revolution in energy technology. We'll see.

The feature is out now:

A new dawn for fusion energy

Chemistry & Industry 2018, vol 82, no 4, pp 30-33

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (members only)

I can send the PDF file, just drop me a line.

and here's a sneaky preview of the first page:

Monday, June 11, 2018

virtual worlds

Open Archive Day

A year ago I immersed myself in virtual reality for my feature on the use of VR technology in science and medicine. While this was all very interesting and impressive, I haven't felt the desperate need to put the goggles back on in the twelve months since. Real reality is hard enough to keep up with ...

Anyhow, my VR feature is now in the open archives, so you can immerse yourself completely free and maybe get ideas for virtual realities you want to explore ...

Exploring virtual worlds






Life in tropical environments like the Amazon rainforests can also be experienced through VR. (Photo: Valdemir Cunha/Greenpeace.)

Monday, June 04, 2018

life in the city

Urbanisation may well be the most dramatic global change happening today, with obvious effects on environment and wildlife. One aspect that biologists are only beginning to appreciate is that this is a large scale pseudo-experiment with similar alterations of habitat happening in many places, across climate zones, so it makes sense to study how those species that don't disappear on impact cope with the change and adapt to life in the city.

Urban ecology as a steady state has been studied for a while, but the scale and evolutionary nature of the adaptation to city life is only beginning to be appreciated, and the field still has some catching up to do to make the most of this unprecedented global experiment that has already begun.

My feature covering all this is out now in today's issue of Current Biology:


Adapting to life in the city


Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 11, 4 June 2018, Pages R635–R638

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




Urban robin, own photo.



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

the science of Angélique

Trying to organise my book reviews, I came across this text I wrote in March 2016 after re-reading Angélique, which for some reason I didn't post then. As my recent reviews masterpost has a dramatic shortage of French novels, I'm now adding this as an almost review:

reasons to read Angélique

Each time my random path through life intersects with a copy of the historic novel Angélique by Anne and Serge Golon, I get asked why I would read that kind of nonsense. As it happens, I can think of a few good reasons, so here goes:

For the science – the first volume of the franchise revolves around a trial for sorcery, the pretext for which is the mining operation of the accused, which involves extraction of gold from minerals using lead as a solvent (cupellation). The argument why this is just chemistry and not the “transmutation” the mediaeval alchemists were after is a difficult one and handled competently. Serge Golon (1903-1972), who was probably more of a technical advisor than a co-author, was an engineer and geologist, so he would have known this sort of stuff.

For the social history – I don’t care what the courtiers were wearing for the wedding of Louis XIV, but the whole mining story also involves skilled miners immigrating from Germany. Plus there is the backdrop of the Huguenot persecution. Both issue figure prominently in my family history. Also fun to explore 17th century Paris – much of which disappeared when Napoleon III and Haussmann set to their grand-scale building project that created the city we know today.

For the literary merit – I wouldn’t vouch for the translations, but the original doesn’t quite deserve the trashy reputation it appears to have. One can certainly make out the author’s ambition to write a Dumas novel with a female lead, and I’m guessing that much of the stick she’s been getting over the year was simply sexism – a historic novel by a woman about a woman can’t be any good. Of note, for a book written in the 1950s, it is remarkably fearless in dealing with issues that were unmentionable back then, such as rape.

Incidentally, I only found out recently that Anne Golon has re-published the series to correct some mutilations that the original publishers made without her knowledge. Think I might just invest in a copy of that version.

-----

Update 2018

Checking the facts for this post, I just found out that Anne Golon died on Bastille Day last year, aged 95. I was travelling at that time and must have missed the news.

It looks like those "restored" versions of at least four of the Angélique novels have been published as "version augmentée", swiftly followed by a new edition billed as "version originale" to confuse readers completely. So the restored / augmented version looks like this, but sadly volume 1 doesn't seem to be available right now, although the following ones are:



Oh and from today, the tag for French books is livres en français



Monday, May 28, 2018

nitrogen issues

Open Archive Day

The Haber process is the place where textbook chemistry meets global food security and lots of environmental concerns, so it's a very satisfying topic for me to write about, as I can expand from molecules to global issues, and even recycle some of the things I learned during my studies. I've recently done a C&I feature on modern attempts to improve on Haber and dreams of an ammonia economy, and also reviewed more Haber biographies than I care to remember (eg this one), but the big nitrogen feature taking the whole environmental and food security problems was this one in 2012, which is in the open archives:

We need to talk about nitrogen



Until the advent of the Haber–Bosch synthesis 100 years ago, guano was the main source of nitrogen fertiliser, ensuring that reactive nitrogen ran in closed natural cycles. (Photo: Joan Thirlaway.)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

book reviews reviewed

I'm trying to find some way of organising my literary book reviews published here, which are currently in the same tag (bookreview) as non-fiction and indeed as the reviews of science books that I write for Chemistry & Industry magazine. Plus, in the early days I also had some entries just pointing to other people's reviews of books I hadn't read. With 147 entries, that tag is getting a bit unwieldy.

So let's start with a master post sorting reviews by language (and maybe I'll introduce a new tag for each language, as I have already done for Galician), starting with the Romance languages which I am more interested in than in the Germanic ones:


Galician
(tagged biblioteca galega)

Anxos Sumai: Así nacen as baleas, Galaxia 2007

Santiago Lopo: Hora Zulu, Galaxia 2012

Santiago Lopo: A arte de trobar, Xerais 2017


Spanish

Gioconda Belli: El país de las mujeres (2010)

Almudena Grandes: Castillos de cartón

Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del Celta

Elvira Valgañón: Luna cornata Sobrelamesa Ediciones 2007

Gioconda Belli: La mujer habitada

Gioconda Belli: El pergamino de la seduccion

Alicia Yanez Cossio: El Cristo feo


French
(livres en français)

Anne Golon: Angélique, Marquise des Anges

Jean-Yves Ferri, Didier Conrad: Asterix - Le papyrus de César 2015

Anna Gavalda: Ensemble, c'est tout

Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé


English

Laila Lalami: The Moor’s account

Esther Freud: Lucky break

Sefi Atta: Swallow Interlink 2010

Jennifer L. Rohn: The Honest Look Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press 2010

Weam Namou: The feminine art Hermiz Publishing 2004

Jennifer L. Rohn: Experimental heart Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press 2009

Esther Freud: Love Falls 2007

Salman Rushdie: The enchantress of Florence Jonathan Cape 2008

Belle de Jour: The intimate adventures of a London call girl Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005

Megan Clark: Seduce me Kensington Books 2008


German

Daniel Kehlmann: Die Vermessung der Welt


Translations from other languages

Hong Ying: K - the art of love



Oh well that is an eclectic old list. And I should definitely review more French novels ...


In the meantime, here's my little Galician library:




PS I added a couple of links to more recent reviews just after I posted this list but will now leave it alone, lest it grows to become unmanageable. Instead I will try and do a reviews master post at the end of every calendar year. Watch this space.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

the trouble with whales

Así nacen as baleas
by Anxos Sumai
Galaxia 2007

English edition, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales:
That’s how whales are born, Small Stations Press, Sept. 2017

This short novel presents a triptych, with the outer parts set in a recognisably 21st century present and narrated by the nameless female protagonist, and the core in 1984, around her third birthday, with a detached narrator referring to her as “a Nena”, the girl.

The girl is grown up now and has an obsessive interest in the whales that serve as the leitmotiv, which she has managed to channel into a budding career as a marine biologist. Just now, however, her family has summoned her away from her field research in Baja California, Mexico, to attend to the family business built by her mother, which has created considerable wealth, with considerable strings attached.

The apparent conflict between her ambition as a scientist and the family expectations for her to take care of the business appears to be her big problem initially, but the look back into her childhood reveals a whole cupboard full of (whale-sized) skeletons and stray emotional baggage. In comparison, the present human resources problem appears eminently solvable. After all, working out who should run a thriving chain of hardware stores, that’s not the worst imaginable problem a family can have.

In the present, our marine biologist struggles in her dealings with the various females from her bed-ridden, possibly malade imaginaire, mother through to the girlfriend she left behind with the whales of the Pacific. Men tend to be mysteriously absent, such as her sea-faring father who never returned since she was born, and her brother whose room is preserved as a shrine and who only appears in the central 1984 narrative, or barely visible, like her uncle.

There is poetry in the way objects, animals and plants play important roles when the human communications fail in the claustrophobic environment of the family home where most of the novel is set. In spite of all the trauma involved, it manages, as the whale mascot with its 400-kg heart suggests, to remain very warm-hearted and optimistic.




Monday, May 21, 2018

punk turtle and friends

When that Australian turtle with the green mohawk (Mary River turtle, Elusor macrurus) became a media sensation, I realised that there was a fairly big conservation story behind it, namely an advance enabling researchers to classify endangered reptiles on the basis of both their threat level and their uniqueness in evolutionary terms. The acronym EDGE combines these two criteria, Evolutionary Distinctiveness and Global Endangerment.

The EDGE of existence project at the Zoological Society London, which has previously published EDGE rankings for mammals and birds, has now released one for reptiles, so I've written a feature covering both the metholodical progress that made this possible and a few prominent examples from the new list. My feature is out now:


Reptiles on the EDGE



Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 10, 21 May 2018, Pages R581–R584


Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)




The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a fish-eating crocodilian found in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, is among the 20 highest-priority reptile species in a ranking based on evolutionary distinctiveness and global endangerment. (Image: © Shivapratap Gopakumar/Flickr by a CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

reading in Galician

So this week saw the annual Dia das letras galegas (Galician Literature Day, May 17), about which I have obsessed here and here, and also in the twitter hashtag #Euleoengalego (I read in Galician).

But why do I? One obvious reason is that I need to learn the language so I understand the naughty bits in the songs we sing at the Galician sessions, and reading novels has served me well as a learning strategy for English, French and Spanish, so why not. (Also, there is a special deal with Romance languages, you buy two and get the third one free.)

There are additional motivating factors, however, which I am only beginning to discover. All other languages I have learned before were languages of empires at some point, and were aggressively inflicted on the less-well armed people. Galician, by contrast, only had a modest kingdom for a few decades in the Middle Ages, and has since then been a minoritized language, suppressed over centuries by the Castilian-speaking imperialists. So helping to keep it afloat is among other things also an anti-imperialist statement.

Then there is the familiar and related problem that everything published in English is overrated by default and spread around half the globe even if it has no merit whatsoever. Given this language privilege, all sorts of shady people publish books in English for political or commercial motives, regardless of whether they are any good.

The resulting problem for me as a reader is that not only there is way too much stuff being published in English to keep up even with the reviews, let alone the books, but also there is a substantial risk of picking up something that is downright rotten.

My impression is that this doesn't happen in a minoritized language. Especially in the Spanish situation where anybody who is literate enough to write a book in one of the co-official languages could just as well write it in Spanish instead and reach a potential market more than 100 times larger. So people who do write in Galician, I suspect, do it because they love the language and want to make a contribution to keeping it alive. (Incidentally, the author featured in this year's Dia das letras galegas, Maria Victoria Moreno, learned Galician as an adult and describes her relation with the language as a love affair - one that was downright dangerous under Franco.) And that, according to my theory, explains why, five novels into the Galician reading experience, I haven't yet found a book I didn't like. Prove me wrong.

Here's book No. 5 (almost finished):

Monday, May 14, 2018

regulate drugs

Open Archive Day

Back in 2013 I wrote a feature on the collateral damage of the global prohibition on drugs. It came out within days of the death of Oxford teenager Martha Fernback from an accidental overdose, which could have been avoided if drugs were sold with proper controls and labels like other products. Martha' mother, Marie Cockburn went on to campaign to legalise and regulate drugs, follow her progress on twitter.

Things are moving very slowly, but the understanding that the war on drugs isn't working and has killed millions over the last 100 years is gaining ground.

My feature is in the open archives here:


Drugs prohibition is criminals’ gain, neuroscience’s loss

Monday, May 07, 2018

two faces of facebook

Cambridge Analytica has now thrown in the towel, but the important questions of the recent facebook crisis remain unresolved. The network connecting and observing more than two billion people is a typical dual use technology, it can do a lot of good and also help psychological studies, but the possibilities of manipulation and misuse for political or financial gain are also endless.

My feature on this weighs both uses and asks how science should handle this dangerous tool in the future:


Watching two billion people


Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 9, 7 May 2018, Pages R527–R530


Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)




Monday, April 30, 2018

it's complicated

Open Archive Day

The evolutionary history of our species used to be simple due to the scarcity of data. We had about seven data points and drew a squiggly line to connect them and that was that (maybe I'm simplifying this slightly). Now we have genomes of modern and archaic humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans, increasingly documenting migrations and admixture, so it's getting more complicated as there are so many dots to connect. Plus, finds in Asia could still undermine the whole out of Africa thing.

A year ago, I had a closer look at fresh palaeoanthropology from China, but I suspect things are changing so fast I may have to rewrite this account pretty soon. Anyhow, here it is again, on open access, enjoy it while it is still more or less true:

A new continent for human evolution




A collection of 47 human teeth discovered at Daoxian is anatomically modern yet surprisingly old. (Photo: S. Xing and X-J. Wu.)

Monday, April 23, 2018

weird membranes

Today's issue of Current Biology contains a special section on membranes, and my contribution to that is a feature investigating why the membranes of archaea are so weird (sorry, different from all other membranes). Back in the 90s, I did my PhD work next door to Karl Otto Stetter's Archaea Centre at Regensburg, so it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, but I also learned lots of new things about their evolution.


Archaea cloaked in mystery


Current Biology Volume 28, pages R372-R374, April 23, 2018



Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)




Archaea represent a unique life form whose complexities science is only beginning to understand. Researchers in Regensburg and Munich, Germany, are studying the functions of cellular appendages such as the flagella-like archaella of Methanocaldococcus villosus. (Image: Gerhard Wanner, Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich.)

Friday, April 20, 2018

romance of wikipedia

I've been slightly obsessed with Galician and some other Romance languages recently, which must have been a side effect of being exposed to and then inheriting the admin of the amazing Galician Session Oxford. I discovered that the Galician version of Wikipedia is quite amazing (considering the number of speakers of the language), so I looked up some other Wiki versions in Romance languages with a view to use one or the other as study aids, and found that their sizes don't necessarily scale with the numbers of speakers:

1 000 000 +

Français 1 975 000+ articles

Italiano 1 430 000+ voci

Español 1 404 000+ artículos

100 000+

Português 997 000+ artigos

Català 577.879 articles.

Română 385.164

Galego 147 109 artigos.

Latina 128 288 paginarum


10 000+


Occitan 84 312 articles
Asturianu 74 671 artículos
Piemontèis 64 327 artìcoj
Aragonés 32 946 articlos
Sicilianu 25 949 vuci
Nnapulitano 14 516 artícule
Vèneto 11 145 voxe

1 000+

Corsu
Emigliàn–Rumagnòl
Lìgure
Malti*
Mirandés
Picard
Rumantsch
Sardu

* NB: I realise Maltese is a semitic language, but half its vocabulary is of romance origin.



Image: Wikipedia

Monday, April 16, 2018

zoo research by numbers

Open Archive Day

A recent paper claims to be the first to have quantified the scientific output of zoos and aquariums:

Quantifying the contribution of zoos and aquariums to peer-reviewed scientific research



which reminded me of my own more qualitative effort from 2015, which is now in the open archives:

Can zoos offer more than entertainment?



Zoos and aquariums are facing criticism for keeping animals in captivity under conditions that might not always match their requirements. (Photograph: Mike Peel www.mikepeel.net.)










Monday, April 09, 2018

seven years

Open Archive Day

From around 2000 until early 2011, I used to write occasional short to mid-length "news focus" or "news feature" pieces for the front pages of Current Biology. After a slight revamp of those pages in early 2011, the editors asked me if I could do a full length (2000 words) feature for every isssue, i.e. two per month, and I accepted the challenge.

If I have got my maths right, I have now published 167 of these features, so I must have been getting some things right. I only missed 3 issues I think, in 7 years. Here's the first one that appeared in the new format, seven years ago, covering a topic I have dealt with multiple times before and after, and like everything else from the first six years, it's in the open archives):

New fears over bee declines




(Own photo.)

Monday, April 02, 2018

mind Africa's genomes

Africa has been left behind by much of modern biomedical science and biotechnology, so it is always good to see when new initiatives aim to spread the benefits to this continent, as the newly launched NeuroGAP and NeuroDEV programmes for psychiatric genetics do. However, one also has to watch out very carefully, not to create the impression that Western scientists extract samples and scientific insights from the continent in a one-way system. Empowering local scientists and building capacity in situ have to be important parts of any such projects.

I've tried to gain a balanced perspective of all this in my latest feature, which is out now:

Mind the genome diversity gap

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 7, 2 April 2018, Pages R293–R295

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




Sites in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are involved in the projects.
Credit : Susanna M. Hamilton, Broad Communications


Monday, March 26, 2018

robot revolution

As the dangers of internet bots and self-driving cars have been in the news, the mechanical robots with arms that move around things are almost looking oldfashioned, but it is all part of a big technology move that creates independently acting beings, and we will have to think about how they fit in (without running over pedestrians). This is the topic of my third feature on robots, which is now on open access:

How will robots integrate into our world?

My previous efforts (also in the open archives) are here (2015) and here (2013).




Own photo, taken at the robots exhibition at the Science Museum, London, in Feb 2017.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

time interrupted

review of

Hora zulú
by Santiago Lopo
Editorial Galaxia 2016 (in Galician)
Mar Maior 2016 (Spanish)

In January 2000, a man is washed up on the coast of Galicia and is referred to a psychiatric hospital, as he appears to have lost his memory. Known as “the professor”, he is going to spend the rest of his life there although we are increasingly suspecting that he isn’t quite as mad as we thought, and maybe he hasn’t lost his memory either.

After his death, Ana, who was one of the psychiatrists at the hospital at the time of his referral, pieces together the mysteries of the professor’s previous life from a set of five stories that he had written and hidden in different places. Ana reports the progress of her quest in emails to a former colleague and love interest, but we don’t know whether he ever reads her emails – she never refers to anything he might have said in reply, so it’s a strong possibility that the ex, now living in New York and married to somebody else, deletes her messages unread.

The novel intersperses these emails with the professor’s writings and the psychiatrists’ case notes to create a jigsaw puzzle that remains mysterious to the last. We begin to suspect that the mad professor may have been a sane man in a mad world, as becomes clear from the questionnaire he designs to test the sanity of his doctors. He is thinking about the mysteries of time in a quest to stop the man-made destruction of the environment. (Hora Zulú (Zulu Time), by the way, which occurs at the end of each of his texts, is just a navy / aviation code for Greenwich Mean Time.)

Meanwhile, Ana has her own problem with time. She wants to wind back the clock to be back with her ex (or was he just an almost lover?). As the personality of the patient is gradually beginning to make more sense, that of the psychiatrist is becoming a shade crazier, although her voice, emailing into the void with the mixture of exciting discoveries and the mourning for lost love, (to me) really was the main attraction of the book. I’d happily read more of her emails any time.

The whole tackles some big questions, including:
* what is the nature of time, and can it be stopped or reversed? and:
* am I crazy or is the world around me going crazy? speaking of which:
* can dogs read our minds?
The answers, however, remain a mystery.



(cover of the Galician edition, although Amazon Spain seems to think it is in Spanish).




Wednesday, March 21, 2018

radium girls

My review of

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

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

Death watch

restricted access via SCI (premium content).

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

snippet:

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


Monday, March 19, 2018

forest family

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

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


The rise and fall of global forests


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


Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)


Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)




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

Thursday, March 08, 2018

a cellist lost

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, March 05, 2018

regeneration lessons

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

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

Meanwhile, read the story here:

Regeneration lessons from the axolotl

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


Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)




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