Monday, December 31, 2007

back from my time travel

... having spent some time in the 17th century and beyond, I'll now return to the present and future ...

Have discovered lots of exciting things in the murky old swamps of history, for details click here. In particular, I was surprised how mobile people were in that time (mostly against their wishes, I suspect!) A year ago I thought that all my ancestors were German, and now I have a dozen people from Italy, Switzerland, and France on my records. A nice 1595 picture of two suspected swiss relatives is here. Unfortunately, these two haven't let me enter their website yet, am awaiting response to find out if and how they are related ...

Anyways, I've updated the website, hoping it will work for me while I'm busy with science writing and all that.

happy new year to all !

Sunday, December 30, 2007

playing dumb

There is an interesting comment on women playing dumb when trying to snare a man:

Men want us lobotomised
In speed dating I did a lot better as a simpering, giggly florist than as a dazzlingly literate lawyer
Tanya Gold
Saturday December 29, 2007

As you can see from the 321 responses, it must have hit a sensitive spot. (many are from offended blokes!)

I largely agree with the sentiment expressed in the piece, and have observed this kind of dumbing down myself on occasions.

The fundamental flaw in this "investigation" is, however, that sensible men who appreciate women in the bright-to-brilliant range of the spectrum will most definitely never ever attend a speed dating session. Or any other kind of meat market. So if the author really wants a man to discuss Heidegger with (which I somehow doubt) she should drop by the nearest university's philosophy department rather than any seedy bars.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

earthwatch expeditions

It's the best time to plan adventures for the new year ... The Earthwatch Expedition Guide 2008 has just appeared, and as always there are lots (around 120) fascinating research projects that you can support by taking part as a fee-paying volunteer (or with luck, on a bursary).

The projects, some of which I have covered in my articles, range from archaeology to biology and conservation. They are based on 6 continents and offer all kinds of excitement from scuba-diving through to mountain hiking. There are 10 new projects, including one studying biodiversity in the vineyards of the Bordeaux region. I'm sure participants will get to study the products of those vineyards as well.

You can order a copy of the guide from the Earthwatch office closest to you (UK, US, Australia or Japan) which you can find via the central Earthwatch website.

Friday, December 28, 2007

bacterial hair styles

... well, ok, let's return to some science for a change.

Many pathogenic bacteria, e.g. those that cause infections of the urinary tract, have very thin "hairs" allowing them to stick to cells of their host. Thanks to these hairs, bacteria can invade the urinary tract and avoid being flushed out with the urine. These are known as pili, and their protein subunits are stuck together like lego bricks, i.e. one end has a binding pocket, and the other has a spare bit of protein chain that fits in there, and contributes one strand to the beta-sheet fold.

Before they get assembled into this pile of lego bricks, the subunits are bound to molecular chaperones in the periplasm, which use the same binding mechanism. So how does the subunit get handed over from the chaperone to the neighbouring chaperone? Emanuele Paci and co-workers at Leeds and Gabriel Waksman's group at Birkbeck college London have now presented molecular dynamics simulation that support the so called zip-in zip-out mechanism, which involves one beta sheet opening up like a zip, and the other starting to zip up in a coordinated fashion. Which is just beautiful molecular ballet.

But it is also useful, as potential drugs that can stop pili from growing may soon become an attractive alternative to antibiotics. As they disarm bacteria rather than killing them, the hope is that they will not favour the evolution of resistant strains quite as much as antibiotics do, plus they give the immune system a better chance to train its forces against the bacteria.

The paper comes out in Journal of Molecular Biology, and with luck you may be able to read it via
Science Direct.

I've also written a full-length feature on this topic in German, which is due to appear in February.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I try to be like Grace Kelly ...

I try to be like Grace Kelly
But all her looks were too sad ...

... well not really.

But if you want to check whether you're related to Grace Kelly, you can do it here.

I am, as I just found out. Our common ancestor is her no. 1822., Leonhard Treusch. Wonder what he looked like :)

PS (2019): I had no luck with the (100% German) ancestry of Doris Day (real name: Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff) though. Update 2021: link wasn't working any more, I put in a different one that works. More about my relevant ancestors here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

spending xmas with the family

I've spent xmas with my whole family, all 420 of them. And by the end of the day there were 20 more. Magic.

The explanation is I spent a few hours googling some of my "orphaned" ancestors, i.e. those whose parents I don't know, I found some possible links, sent a grand total of 2 emails to check, and bingo, by the end of the day I had confirmation that I now have 20 people more ... plus a couple of new living (though rather distant) relatives.

One of them has a really nice website. Our most recent common ancestors are his no. 64 and 65. Hey, that's only 6 generations away.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

white robe

For all who have heard "Do they know it's Xmas" a million times too often (it's on the radio right now!), here is a special present, a new video from t.A.T.u..

The title translates to white robe, but I'll need a dictionary and a lot of time to work out what the lyrics mean. The video is intriguing and stylish, as most of theirs are. They remind me of European cinema (Kieslowski etc.) more than of US/UK music videos. See, for instance: 30 minutes, all about us, not gonna get us -- all available on t.A.T.u.'s MySpace.


PS -- those were the days:

Monday, December 24, 2007

no trains at xmas

One of the questions that have also bugged me since comming to live in Britain has finally been answered: Why can't we have trains at Christmas?

Apparently, the last time a passenger train ran on Christmas day in this country was in 1964. Why? People seem to be forgetting that not all of us believe in Santa Claus. There are lots of muslims, jews, and atheists living in this country who might want to go somewhere on Tue Dec. 25th. If they started trains again, I'd use them just for the heck of it. (A few years ago I had to see a dentist on xmas day, and was really happy with the experience -- happy to see that at least one person was doing something useful, while the rest of the country was stuffing themselves.)

But as things are going rather the other way, we can look forward to a future where there are no trains on Sundays either.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

meet the family

This has been an amazing year for my little family: there are about 100 new direct ancestors on my records, which now go back to 1448 in one line, and to the early 17th century in many more. That's mostly due to the fact that my father is now retired, geographically close to the relevant places, and getting the hang of it. On top of that, my family history website has also helped to create new contacts with distant relatives who provided valuable information.

So over the holiday season I'll be busy updating the 120-pages tome that is our official family history, and the website which presents some extracts from that. To begin with, I have added some of the new family members to the list of last known ancestors. By and by, I will also edit / add to the other pages. Watch this space.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

matters of the heart

Peter Houghton, I learned from his obituary this week, lived 7 1/2 years with an artificial heart, and is thus the longest surviving patient with this device. Love the story of how a thief tried to steal his bag with the battery pack, but got scared off by the alarm (built in to avoid accidental unplugging, not theft!).

They don't mention what he died of, though. Nor which factors limit the survival times.

Friday, December 21, 2007

schengen land expands

"End of passport control as east meets west in EU without borders", according to today's Guardian.

The nine new members of the passport-less travel zone are: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia, and Malta.

It's not quite the end of pass port control in Europe, though. We can travel from Talinn to Porto without a passport, but still not from Dover to Calais.

There is still no word on whether the UK will ever join the Schengen land, or indeed the Euro, or any other significant EU activity. I think British governments (and their puppet masters in the tabloid press) are content with their role of operating the brakes on anything European.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

trust me on the sunscreen

I'm a huge fan of the "Sunscreen" speech which secured a UK no.1 hit for film director Baz Luhrmann in 1999. If I'd been asked to write a speech addressed to high school or college graduates, it would have probably ended up very similar.

Favourite lines include:

Do one thing every day that scares you.
[although I only do that about once a year!]

Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.

I didn't know anything about the history of this recording though. Only this week I found out that the thing has its own Wikipedia entry where the whole back story is explained. Fascinating stuff. I'll put that on my "I wish I'd written list", right next to Cien an~os de soledad and 99 Luftballons :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

counting citations

Once a year, typically around this time, I visit the science citation index to check up on my old research papers. So here is my updated list of citations. I have to say I'm really chuffed to see that people still cite nearly half of the papers, even though I haven't been involved with any of this stuff for almost 8 years. So I'm not travelling around the conferences to blow my own trumpet and all that. Considering they are out there on their own, the papers are managing quite well, I think.

PS I don't include the books in the stats, but they too get cited every once in a while.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

king and queen

I've added the track "King and Queen" (Wyclef Jean feat. Shakira) to my MySpace profile. I didn't expect much from it (as Wyclef rather ruined the finale of the OF DVD), but found to my surprise that I quite like it.

capturing carbon

I've written a news feature on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is out today in Current Biology.

Initially, I really liked the idea of running the CO2 in closed cycles, and I was also impressed by the work the Norwegian gas companies do to minimise the CO2 released from their gas production. But the rest of the field left me rather disillusioned, as it turned out to be championed by all those dinosaurs who would like to carry on burning fossil fuels regardless. I mean, anything that the OPEC and the US government agree on can't be right, can it?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

sliding shakira

As I've been posting lots of text and very few images recently, here's something to compensate (borrowed, again, from Adri's wonderful slide page):

Saturday, December 15, 2007

two headlines

... that made me laugh. The first is from Nature:

1) Fetal load and the evolution of lumbar lordosis in bipedal hominins

clear as mud ? If you haven't figured out what it means, try the Guardian's version:

2) How women keep upright while pregnant

Friday, December 14, 2007

books for kids

If you're still wondering what present to buy for the bright young things in your life, Nature magazine has very helpfully reviewed stacks of children's books in yesterday's issue:

overview by Harriet Coles

101 ways to save the Earth -- and other books reviewed by Tom Standage and Ella (7 1/2)

Hawking for kids

... well, there's lots more, see for yourself. The web pages carry a label saying that you'd have to pay for full text access, but as far as I can see, the pages linked to above do give the full text for free.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

modelling the immune system

I heard an interesting seminar this week, on the efforts to better understand our immune system by modelling its function with computer programs. There is an EU-sponsored project underway, called Immunogrid (because it uses computer grids to model the immune system).

The web portal also provides access to educational resources where you (teachers, students, pupils, anybody, really) can have a play with the computer programs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

2007 reviewed

This time last year I did a review of research news of 2006, and as that turned out to be great fun, I did it again this year.

On page 26 of the current issue of Chemistry + Industry, you'll find my take on:

* genomes ranging from those of Watson and Venter through to the grapevine;

* chemistry in outer space;

* nanofluids;

* winding back the development clock;

* ... and immortality, of course.

Also, in the same issue, a book review of the tome: Nanoscopic Materials -- size-dependent phenomena. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Methane eaters from the gates of hell

Cows produce lots of methane, but our planet itself exhales large amounts of the greenhouse gas, too. Certain bacteria can use the geologically produced methane as a fuel and turn much of it into biomass – a very laudable contribution to our current concern of minimising greenhouse gas emissions. Soils in volcanic areas are often hot and acidic, so any bacteria gobbling up methane in those areas would have to be adapted to these extremes. Decades of research have failed to identify any species that can thrive on methane under such conditions, but now two independent research groups have simultaneously found two of them, and hints that there may be many more.

Researchers from Nijmegen in the Netherlands and Naples, found Acidomethylosilex fumarolicum in hot, acidic volcano mudpots in Italy. This bacterium can thrive in extremely acidic conditions, down to pH 0.8, and its preferred temperature is around 55 deg. C. Surprisingly, it is unrelated to any of the known methanotrophic bacteria, which are all found in one of two large phylogenetics groups, the alpha and the gamma proteobacteria. A. fumarolicum appears to belong to the phylum verrucomicrobia, only very distantly related to proteobacteria. The microbe hunters tracked it down by looking for a key enzyme of methane metabolism, methane mono-oxygenase. Eventually they found three copies of the corresponding gene in A. fumarolicum, but they were quite different from the ones in known methane eaters, explaining why the extreme bug hasn’t been found before.

Conversely, microbiologists from New Zealand, Hawaii, and China, using samples from a geothermal area known as Hell’s Gate in New Zealand, cultivated a microbial strain first, which they baptised Methylokorus infernorum, and which can metabolise methane at pH as low as 1.5. Being unable to identify the methane mono-oxygenase enzyme in this species, they went on to sequence its genome (as you do, these days) and found three copies, again. Like A. fumarolicum, this new methane eater is classified off the beaten track of methanotrophs, in the phylum of Verrucomicrobia.

Now that we know what acid-loving methane eaters look like (genetically speaking), there may be many more new species to follow. The Dutch group has already looked at unrelated samples from Yellowstone National Park (US) and found evidence that similar extremophiles live there, as well. Although they have failed to be discovered for decades, these bugs may in fact be widespread.

A. Pol et al., Nature 2007, 450, 874.
P. F. Dunfield et al., Nature 2007, 450, 879.

Related books:
Life on the Edge: Amazing creatures thriving in extreme environments
Astrobiology: a brief introduction

NB: This story is a blog-exclusive one. From now on, I'll label such stories with the tag "sciencenews", while those published elsewhere have the tag "sciencejournalism".

Sunday, December 09, 2007

embedding slide shows

I don't know much about slide, but I'm wondering, if I embed this code I found in Adri's slide page into my blog, will I really get a copy of her slide show?

Let's try it out:

PS woo-hoo, it works ! now I'll see whether I can do that in myspace too :)

a US general in the family ?

Way back in the early 80s, when Ronald Reagan kindly offered to station lots of Pershing II missiles in Germany, and we were involved in the movement trying to stop that from happening, we used to joke that the general John Joseph Pershing after whom the missiles were named, might be a relative of mine, as my great-grandmother was born Pfersching.

Now I've had a closer look at this, and while I can't quite prove it, the possibility appears to be quite real. The general, like most of the thousands of Pershings in America, is a descendant of Frederick Pershing (1724-1794), born Friedrich Pfersching in Alsace, who sailed from Amsterdam to Pennsylvania on the ship "Jacob" in 1749. While there is lots of information on the lives of Frederick and his descendants, I have found nothing whatsoever on his ancestors. Except that family traditions say they were French Huguenots (as the name Pfershing is definitely German, this tradition may refer to maternal lines?!)

My eponymous ancestor in that generation is Johann Leonhard Pfersching, who married Margaretha NN in Flehingen, Baden (just across the Rhine from Alsace!) in 1759. His father Johannes Pfersching was a cartwright, but I have no further information about him.

So beyond the name and geographic proximity, evidence for any link remains to be found ...

Update 2022: many years later I discovered in my possessions a French postage stamp showing General Pershing:

Friday, December 07, 2007

is heme a hormone ?

Well, the short answer is: probably not.

But this is a long story, and an intriguing one (at least for people interested in protein biochemistry). I spent much of this week researching, writing, rewriting etc. the news item which is based on a paper in Nature Structural Biology, this press release, and communications with five different experts in the relevant fields. Essentially, the researchers found that heme (or haem), the cofactor in haemoglobin and other important proteins, binds to the receptors REV-ERBalpha and REV-ERBbeta, which were known to influence circadian rhythm, but were "orphan" receptors, meaning that nobody knows which hormone controls them.

In the paper, the researchers just report that heme binds the receptors, suggesting it may have a signalling role linking metabolism and the biological clock. No objections so far. In the significantly sexed-up press release, however, heme is referred to as a "hormone" and all kinds of wonderful medical applications are promised. The trouble is, hormones normally travel around and convey information from one cell type to another, and there is no evidence of heme doing that. This aspect is discussed in detail in my news piece.

After the piece was finished I hit on another fly in the ointment. I found out that there are two crystal structures of the REV-ERBbeta ligand binding domain in the Protein Data Bank, which the authors of the NSB paper hadn't mentioned to me. According to the crystallographers, these structures include the hormone binding site. Now the authors of the heme paper say that the crystal structures don't include the heme binding site which they confirmed by mutagenesis.

So if heme binds in a place that is distant from the hormone binding site, to me that says loud and clear that heme is not the hormone that regulates REV-ERBbeta. If anything, it is a co-regulator, and the receptors are still semi-orphaned.

Oh, and the claim for medical applications isn't much better. I wouldn't want to take a drug that competes for heme binding sites. I guess the take-home lesson is never to trust a press release ...

PS, the whole heme story reminded me of a classic Irving Geis illustration, where heme is shown as the light source illuminating the protein cytochrome c from within. The picture is shown here as Fig. 2.

found in translation

Not many books, it appears, get translated into Arabic, or out of Arabic, for that matter. Now, the Kalima project aims to get 100 books each year translated from Western languages into Arabic by providing grants to pay for translation work and rights. I think a quarter of those books will be about science, but I don't think they'll bother with mine. In the long term, the project will also improve the success of works written in Arabic by getting them translated to other world languages.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

local authors

Writers in Oxford, our local writers' club, has about 200 members I think. Until recently, there were three of us living in my street. Mary, who interviews authors for the local newspaper, Tilly who writes erotic fiction, and myself. Here is Mary interviewing Tilly in full swing.

The most prominent member of our club right now is Philip Pullman, of course. The new movie "The Golden Compass" is based on his book "Northern Lights", and interviews with him are currently practically everywhere.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

all things german

here's the monthly roundup of publications in German. This time I made fun of the people inventing pointless new names for companies (they are practically asking for it!) and covered the Nobel prize for knockout mice:

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 12, 1185
Kreativität und Selbsterneuerung

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 12, 20-22
K.o.-sieg für Mäuse und Menschen

Also, a reminder that my German blog on the WissensLogs site is here:

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

flash memory stacked higher

To me, the introduction of the USB stick (flash drive) was the point where the boundaries between technology and magic started to blur. How on Earth do you squeeze a 2 Gbyte memory into that ?

Now, scientists in Korea have developed a way of multiplying the capacity of flash memory devices, using stacked layers of nanoparticles. Read my story


The story also gave me a chance to catch up with the fast-moving technology/magic boundary and to understand (for a fleeting moment) what a flash memory is and how it works. Don't ask me now, though, the moment has passed and I have a new story to write up.

Monday, December 03, 2007

drugs and mental illness

deutsche Version

I can get quite furious about certain parts of the media that want us to believe that drugs (e.g. cannabis) cause mental illness (e.g.schizophrenia), when there is absolutely no evidence at all that the observed statistical link is causal in this direction. There are at least two other interpretations of the same data, namely

1) that an as yet undiagnosed, early stage mental illness makes people more likely to try and enjoy mind-altering drugs, and

2) that both the mental illness and the drug addiction are consequences of the same or similar neural disorders.

A paper in Behavioral Neuroscience, published by the American
Psychological Association (APA), now presents evidence that -- at least in rats -- damage to the amygdala has effects that support explanation no. 2.

Wouldn't it be nice if this could put an end to the headlines screaming that drug X "causes" mental disease Y ? Sadly, I guess that this will be largely ignored by the press. (I proposed a news item on this but was turned down!)

Saturday, December 01, 2007


One of the perks of living in Oxford is the fact that the headquarters of Earthwatch Europe are here. Over the last few years I did a few nice stories about Earthwatch in general and about specific research projects.

Yesterday I popped round to the office to talk to Mark Huxham about his mangrove studies in Kenya and in Sri Lanka. See whether I can get a story out of that, too.

PS I forgot to mention that mangroves are a nice example of life under extreme conditions (high salt concentrations in tidal swamps) that I was unaware of when I wrote Life on the Edge. One day I'll need to write a sequel to that, to incorporate all the things I've learned since it appeared. "Life on the Edge and Beyond" would be a catchy title for that ....

Thursday, November 29, 2007

live rock is on a roll

We've never had it so good. Old concert halls to reopen amid live music boom.

Even Oxford now has a "Carling Academy" where people appear whom I might actually want to see. Even though I admit that the 4 gigs I went to see in the last 18 months were all by Shakira. I think over the last 5 years I saw 12 major concerts (of which no more than 6 were Shakira's, so come on, it's not that bad!). The other six headliners were Kelis, Jem, Xtina, Alanis, Avril, oops, either I'm forgetting one or there were only 5 others.

Well, anyhow, it is exciting to have so much live music going on around here, even if I tend to pick only a very small set of artists from the broad spectrum offered ...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

a prize for bad writing

Britain has about a zillion literary awards, ranging from the best novel set in the village of XYZ, up to the prestigious Booker, Orange, etc. awards. To my knowledge there are only two "razzie" style awards, including one for the worst opening line (the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in "honour" of the author of the opening line "It was a dark and stormy night ..."), and the notorious bad sex award, which gets acres of press coverage each year.

Now I wonder what this might be telling us ... I mean, in Spain there is a prestigious prize for good erotic writing, la sonrisa vertical. But British writers are still not allowed to write about the most natural thing in the world. (Seriously -- I have read opinion pieces in the press that effectively said, this topic should not be written about at all.) Though censorship battles have moved on to TV and watershed issues, I think ridicule might be nearly as effective as censorship.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

el amor en los tiempos del colera

Shakira contributed three songs to the soundtrack of the film "Love in the times of cholera":

La despedida

Hay amores (with lyrics)

Pienso en ti (live from Las Vegas)

The last one is from Pies Descalzos, the other two are new songs.

all at sea

My great-grandfather, Julius Düsselmann, was a bit of an adventurer, but eventually settled down to have a family (lucky for me!). Apparently his cousin Walter never did. He sailed the seas all his life and survived some dangerous adventures. Here is what we know about him so far.

CV Walter Düsselmann

22.12.1882 born at Krefeld , parents: August Düsselmann (*1844) and Anna Josephine Hagermes

1904 Stewart on the ship Elfrieda, from Rotterdam to Portland, Oregon, arrival 21.5.

1913 11.10. Third officer on the Volturno, which burns out in the North Atlantic.
Even though 9 other ships come to help, the heavy weather makes any rescue efforts dangerous. Of 657 people on board, 136 die. See Volturno pages for a full account of the disaster.

1916 Second officer on the Libau, which is trying (but failing) to deliver arms to Ireland’s Easter revolution. The captain of the ship, Karl Spindler, writes a book about the adventure a few years later.

1921 Christmas. Dedication from Walter to his cousin Josephine Bender (1881-1966) in a copy of Spindler’s book he gave her for christmas.

17.10.1943 died in the war, not clear where.


Arthur Spurgeon: The burning of the Volturno, Cassell and Company Ltd. London, 1913.
Karl Spindler: Das geheimnisvolle Schiff. Die Fahrt der Libau zur irischen Revolution, August Scherl Verlag, Berlin, year?.
Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del Celta

PS (Jan 2012): A new(ish) blog dealing with the Volturno has come to my attention: Fire on the ocean
PS (Sept 2013): A page about the wreck of the Libau / Aud is here PS (Aug 2014): An English translation of Spindler's book, Gun running for Casement in the Easter rebellion, is freely accessible on Google Books.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I'm afraid I've developed an addiction to Nena's album of covers, Cover Me.
(to the non-German part of my audience I need to explain that Nena, of 99 red balloons fame, was anything but a one hit wonder in Germany and has recorded lots of albums with her own music, too).

The fact that I like Nena is a bit odd, as I hate 80s music and I didn't like German pop all that much until the new wave of Silbermond / Juli etc. came up. So Nena is the one exception to both rules.

The Cover me album has one disk with covers of German songs, and another one with English covers (and one in French). I don't care much for the German disk, but the English one has lots of tracks that take me right back to my childhood -- the Dylan / Stones / Neil Young kind of mix that could have come straight from one of the tapes my mother used to listen to when I was maybe 10 or so. And amazingly, these songs work very well with Nena's voice. It's the kind of longing encapsulated in these songs (After the goldrush, it's all over now baby blue, she's a rainbow, the last time, ... ) that her voice fits so well with. Intriguing.

science on film

If any biomedical scientists out there are dreaming of making a documentary about a scientific topic, try the Wellcome Trust's new initiative Science on film.

As I understand it, winning applicants will get to do their dream documentary with lots of professional help and get it screened, too. Deadline is Dec. 10th.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

new look bookshelf

I've dusted down the book shelf on my home page,, a bit. Apologies to anyone who was confronted with a messed-up page yesterday, as I started off on the wrong foot ...

blogging in German

I've joined the Wissenslogs family of blogs run on the website of Spektrum der Wissenschaft. I've committed to blogging there (in German) at least once a month. My first entry is here. Discussing three remarkable career changes that I've mentioned here before, namely of Matt Ridley and Paul Drayson away from science, and of Queen guitarist Brian May who came back ...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

vintage book review

My MySpace buddy and fellow science writer Paul Halpern discovered a page where our 1997 books are reviewed together: Lebensformen unter extremen Bedingungen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

an excellent initiative ?

Science in Germany has received a huge confidence boost this autumn, with 2 Nobel prizes and six new "elite" universities. Read my story here.

However, once the champagne has been mopped up, it is far from clear how the broad base -- which you need to sustain a high peak -- is going to benefit from all this. Lecture theatres are still overcrowded, and word in the street is that the country doesn't even produce as many academics as it will need in a modern world ...

Monday, November 19, 2007

platypus pix

... busy sorting out the illustrations for the platypus book this week ...

Have also seen a draft of the cover design. Looks funny. In a good way, I hope. To me, that's always the point when I start to believe it's really going to happen, there will be a real book. It feels more real when I've seen the cover.

Friday, November 16, 2007

links and labels

blog entries related to the topics of my books

Life on the Edge
Light and Life
Travels to the Nanoworld

can now be easily retrieved using the labels:


respectively. Plus they are also linked to from the news pages of my website, so I never have to update those again ...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

around the world in 397 days

Now, well, that DVD:
love the concert recording, it's just perfect. Filmed beautifully, without too many gimmicks.

Also very pleased to see the bonus track with Obtener un Si -- wonder whether they recorded that in Spain, as I believe it was dropped from the setlist later.

Very happy to see the bollywood dancers and Alejandro Sanz included. Very happy with the language mix as well, I think it probably reflects the composition of her audience (both in Miami and globally) quite nicely.

Shame about the CD though, why not put the whole soundtrack on the CD, as in GreenDay's bullet in a bible, to name a random example ?

And the "Around the world in 397 days" (or whatever number it was, I wouldn't trust Shakira with the counting anyway!) docu was much too short of course, covering only India, Egypt, and the US. Should have covered all countries ! And then they nicked the "Guten Abend Frankfurt ... etc." soundclip from the previous DVD!

And isn't it amazing how many details one can spot for the first time on seeing the concert for the 5th and 6th time ? Need to watch the DVD another 100+ times to make up for the gigs I missed ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

being fidel

There is a very nice review of Fidel Castro's My Life by Seumas Milne, who used to edit the Guardian Comment pages in times when they were about the only hope for sanity in this world.
See whether I can find a Spanish edition of that around here ...

Oh, and the DVD I mentioned a couple of times before arrived yesterday, review to follow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

the blog's the answer

in over 10 years of running my website, I've always had the problem of trying to keep up simultaneous "news" pages in various parts of the page, e.g. news on each of my different books and book projects, on journalism, research, etc., and somehow, the news always ended up looking embarrassingly old.

Now I've figured out what I should have realised 5 years ago -- I can use specific links to keyword searches in my blog. So on my books page, there is now a link to my new book, which simply gives you the relevant blog entries.

Similarly, on my science journalism page, there is a link to science journalism related blog entries. Within the next few days, I'll adapt the cob-webbed "news" pages of the book pages accordingly.

Friday, November 09, 2007

going nuts

Recently I mentioned the science writer colleague who tried to run a bank. To continue the informal series "crazy career moves":

Earlier this year I interviewed Powderject cofounder Brian Bellhouse for a feature in Oxford Today about Biomedical Engineering. He mentioned his company co-founder and son in law, Paul Drayson, telling me in an amused tone that Paul, now Lord Drayson, left the Biotech revolution in order to buy battleships and aircraft carriers for the government. And I thought that was crazy.

Yesterday, Drayson was reported to have resigned from his government post in order to develop his motor racing career and try to win the 24 hours of Le Mans. Oh, and he wants to do that using biofuel, too. Here's his resignation letter and the report in the Guardian, and the relevant wikipedia page.

Now that leaves me feeling really frustrated and way too normal. But then again it is easier to go nuts when you have a nice fortune to fall back on ...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

live dvd on the horizon

The oral fixation live DVD will be out in less than a week (France: 12., US: 13., Germany: 16., UK 19.11.). Sony UK seem to be dragging their feet as always, but I ordered my copy from France, hoping to beat them.

There will be advance screenings in cinemas across the US on the 12th, and there are extracts available on MySpace and at I just watched the La Tortura clip on MySpace, and it's quite fantastic, of course. The clip is now on my MySpace profile, too.

green fuel turning black

Further insights into the problems caused by the rush for biofuels produced from specially grown crops are to be found in George Monbiot's latest column.

As I understand it, all efforts should be directed towards gaining biofuels from abundant agricultural waste material (straw in Canada, sawdust in Sweden, sugar cane bagasse in Cuba). The current government-promoted gold-rush into fuel crops is inefficient at best and quite probably damaging in lots of ways.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

platypus update

Pleased to report that the entire text manuscript of my next book,

The birds, the bees, and the platypuses

is now with the publishers, as are the figure legends, and some versions of most figures.

The book will be 65,000 words long (just over 200 pages), and it is due to be published by Wiley-VCH in May 2008.

I'll post more details and some reading samples a bit closer to the publication date (and after sorting out with the publishers how much they will allow me to post!).

Watch this space !

Monday, November 05, 2007

German stuff

In the monthly round-up of German stuff, we have a knockout mouse insensitive to moderate cold (more about knockout mice next month!) and the Encode project, which aims to understand the intergenic DNA:

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 11, 1101
Einblick in die Funktion der Nicht-Gene

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 11, 19-21
Die Maus, die in die Kälte ging

Thursday, November 01, 2007

mademoiselle curie

Eve Curie, the author of one of the most popular biographies ever written of a scientist, Madame Curie, has died at the age of 102 years.

I guess there are lots of lessons to be learnt from this, such as:

* working with radiation can halve your life expectancy (even though Nobel prizes are said to increase life expectancy!)

* whatever radiation Eve was exposed to in utero and as a child, seems to have had no ill effect.

I have no idea why the Guardian hasn't published an obituary yet, but there is one in the New York Times

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

lucky escape

some time in spring 2006 I was approached by a TV production company looking for a boffin to take part in a new "science" show, largely modelled on MTV's Jackass. (no, really!) I did a few trial recordings, and then the TV people just stopped calling, so I just assumed the project had died a natural death.

Now I've found out, though, that they actually managed to make the program and sell it, and the second of 8 episodes was broadcast on Five yesterday. It really is at least as stupid as Jackass, and there is a boffin (they found someone looking more boffinesque than me, so that must be why they stopped calling!) mentioning some science in between the stunts, but on the whole I don't think they are making a worthwhile contribution to the public understanding of science.

Having said that, I admit that my ten-year-old enjoyed the show.

Anyhow, I figure I had a lucky escape ...

Monday, October 29, 2007


I am pleased to report that researchers actually followed up on my suggestion published in the paperback edition of Life on the Edge, 2001, and sent tardigrades to space. The TARDIS (Tardigrades in Space) experiment was part of the FOTON M-3 mission, that launched on 14 September 2007 and returned safely on the 26th, after 189 orbits. Right now the tardigrade passengers are awaiting detailed analyses that will surely reveal how well they are suited to withstand space conditions.
TARDIS home page

Friday, October 26, 2007

platypus news

final panic for my book manuscript, "The birds, the bees, and the platypuses." More details next week when I'm done.

Also, there is a German blog on the horizon, watch this space !

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

science writer crashes bank

When Northern Rock building society crashed a few weeks ago and was saved by emergency measures by the government, I noticed for a split second that its chairman had the same name as one of my science writers colleagues, Matt Ridley.
Only yesterday I found out from George Monbiot's column that the author of books like The Red Queen, and Genome, and the crash-landed Northern Rock chairman are actually the same person.

How deeply embarrassing for the community of science writers ... First of all, if you have the intelligence and education to deal with the wonders of the physical world, why would you want to deal with something as profane as running a bank? Secondly, if you have to run a bank, driving it into a ditch might give all of us a bad name. I mean who will leave a science writer in charge of a business ever again, after this 16 billion pound disaster?

And to all those who like to diss Wikipedia, George Monbiot's column appeared yesterday, and I checked Ridley's entry in Wikipedia today at 10am and found that it had already been updated based on yesterday's paper.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

replacement, refinement, reduction

... are the three Rs relating to animal experiments. The UK has a national council for these three Rs, which has recently handed out a significant amount of funding to projects that promise to reduce animal suffering in one way or the other.

Read my report here.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Another depressing fact I learned this weekend about the depths our greed-fuelled society has sunk to:

"Vulture funds buy up sovereign debt issued by poor countries at a fraction of its face value, then sue the countries in courts - usually in London, New York or Paris - for their full face value plus interest."

And apparently it's very respectable London law firms that help these vultures to get their pound of flesh out of starving African nations.


more vulture news

I think that words like "evil" and "terrorist" are becoming entirely meaningless if they don't include the guys in smart suits that do these kinds of things and probably pick up honours from the queen for their services to finance.

Friday, October 19, 2007

diamond is a queen's best friend

The Queen is officially opening the Diamond Synchrotron today, which has generated a lot of publicity at least locally, on BBC radio Oxford etc.

I'm slightly uncomfortable with this though. Why do we need the queen to add a bit of glamour to an opening of which she will probably understand next to nothing ? I think this country has a sufficient number of Nobel laureates, one should have been able to find somebody who is famous _and_ knows something about science. and that way, the reflected sparkle of Diamond (the biggest science facility to be built here in 40 years or so) would have fallen back on science, as opposed to royalty.

And as for those people who only listened because the queen was mentioned, well by tomorrow they will have forgotten everything about Diamond and focus on whatever public library or motorway junction she opens tomorrow.

For those of us who are actually interested in the science of it, Diamond has been in routine operation since January, and I wrote a piece about it last year:
Gross M:
Current Biology 16, No 15 (8.8.), R565-66
Crystal clear

Thursday, October 18, 2007

25 days

Shakira's oral fixation tour DVD is now available to pre-order at and at (though only as import -- probably that's Sony UK being hopeless again!)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

wellcome collection

went to the Birkbeck crystallography seminar on Monday and tried to visit the wellcome collection on my way back, but found the exhibitions are closed on Mondays ... Building with cafe, bookshop and art on display in the entrance hall looks nice though.

And the brand new head quarters are impressive too. They have neon art of five protein structures in their ground floor windows. I guess you can't promote structural biology to a broader audience than the random people walking down Euston Road.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


I bought 4 new cds yesterday but got stuck on the first one, which is playing on closed loop ... It's coco, by Colbie Caillat.

I'm kind of wondering why all these MySpace miracles never cross my path when I am actually in MySpace, only when they get out into the real world and get a proper recording contract and PR person. Apparently millions of people heard Colbie's songs in MySpace while she was yet unsigned, but I missed that !

Anyhow, I bought the CD on the strength of the single Bubbly and a couple of lines I had read about it somewhere. But essentially, what sold the cd to me were the lines:

cause every time i see your bubbly face
i get the tinglies in a silly place
It starts in my toes
makes me crinkle my nose

which just make me smile every time. But the rest of the album is great feel-good stuff as well ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

imaging autism

The Oxford Oxford Neurodevelopmental Magnetoencephalography Centre, which focuses on autism research is opened officially today, complete with royal visitor.

It is led by Professor Anthony Bailey, whose work and ambitions for the future of autism research I've described in a feature a couple of years ago.

only connect

In less than a month, London will finally be connected to the European high speed rail network. (Until now, the Eurostar had to crawl between the tunnel and Waterloo station!)

With the opening of the new Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras station and the proper high speed track, Paris will be only two hours and a quarter away from London. Including transfer and checkin times that's 4 1/2 hours from Oxford. Taking into account the transfer time from CDG airport into Paris city, the door to door travel time will be about the same for train and plane.

Will have to try that some time soon ...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

one man and his genome

Following the various press offerings emanating from Craig Venter has been huge fun these days. First he publishes his own genome, then his autobiography, and now he's promising a "new life form". Give him a couple of years more, and he'll be breeding Daleks to colonize our galaxy.

To bring him back down to Earth, here is a response from a biologist who appears to be a bit fed up with him ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

the birds, the bees, and the platypuses

Now that I've finalised 2/3 of the manuscript for my new book, I'll reveal the title of the book (well at least the title I have suggested, there is always the risk that some marketing guru decides we need to use a different one!):


The birds, the bees, and the platypuses

and it comes from a story about the sex chromosomes of the duck-billed platypus (obviously), which will also be featured in the book. The story does mention birds and bees as well, so I didn't make up the title just for the fun of it ...

More details when I've finished the last third ...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

fresh blood

Researchers have found that over-generous blood transfusions can do more harm than good. Ironically, the measure which is supposed to improve oxygen provision to the patient's organs, can have the opposite effect.

Now there is an explanation to this paradox. It appears that the oxygen transport depends on a signalling process by which the red blood cells help to widen the blood vessels, and this involves nitric oxide bound to hemoglobin. Donor blood for transfusion can be legally stored for 42 days, but the nitric oxide disappears within the first few hours of storage, so virtually all stored blood samples are deficient in that respect.

While this sounds quite scary, there is a silver lining in that the NO content can be restored.

Read my story here:

Blood transfusion risk explained

Monday, October 08, 2007

I've been tangoed

Have seen a performance by tango fire last week, but I'm still wondering why this dance doesn't work for me. At it's best it's ice dancing without skates, but most of the times it's just two people swirling around and throwing their legs about. I'm sure tango is exciting for people who dance it, but for me as a spectator, dance is more exciting when dancers can use the whole body from the toes to the finger tips, and don't have to cling to a partner most of the time ? I guess that must be the main reason. Plus, they could have explained a little bit what they were trying to do. The band was great, though, and some of the group choreography was interesting as well.

tango fire are still tangoing the UK until the end of this month ...

censorship ????

... thankfully, no censorship involved, as the two missing entries have now reappeared ...

Friday, October 05, 2007

jean-baptiste loeillet

who the f***, you may be thinking, and so was I at first. The story is that I got myself the book & CD with grade 5 exam pieces for flute from the ABRSM. Not that I'm planning to do the exams, but now that the young flautist in my family prefers to practice on her own, I need to get my act together to make sure I actually move forwards, rather than playing the same pieces for the rest of my life.

So I got the book and listened to the CD and fell in love with the first piece, which is a sonata by jean baptiste loeillet. In fact all of the A list pieces on the CD are quite lovely, but the loeillet is something special.

A week later, I can kind of bluff my way through the piece (leaving out the optional ornamentation, and breathing in all the wrong places!) And it is beginning to sound like music ...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

hirsch index

The Hirsch index is increasingly being used to compare research achievements, and it has been reported in Nature and discussed in the correspondence pages of Nature and the Nautilus blog.

Essentially, h is the number of papers that somebody has published that have been cited at least h times. So if you have a ranking of papers by citation numbers, you go down the list, rank number increases while citation number decreases. The last rank number which is equal to or smaller than the corresponding citation number is the h index.

I'm all in favour of the h-index as it has rewarded me
for doing nothing. I left research in 2000, when my
h-index (determined retrospectively) stood at 10.
Since then it has increased by one unit every year
without any input from me (not even self-citations)
and it is now 16, as you can see here.

But I think people whose career prospects depend on this kind of measure, should think very carefully about this ...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

40 days

... till the anticipated release date of the oral fixation tour dvd.

Track lists have been rumoured, discussed, dismissed at

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

all things deutsch

here's the monthly round-up of my publications in German, we have pluripotent (non-embryonic) stem cells, the personal genome, and a liquid mirror on the moon:

Groß M:
Chemie in unserer Zeit 41, Nr 5, 359
Ionische Flüssigkeiten: Ein chemischer Spiegel für den Mond?

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 410, 961
Das ultimative Statussymbol

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 10, 995
Zellen mit zurückgedrehter Uhr

Monday, October 01, 2007

the natural philosophy of greed

More insights from Naomi Klein, as to why greed has become the only game in town:

Thanks a million, Ayn Rand, for setting the greedy free
The trickle-down theory beloved of Greenspan and his ilk is less a philosophy than a handy excuse for avarice

Now she should talk that greed thing through with her agent and publisher, because I would have bought her book if it wasn't so bloody expensive ... :) Oh well, I'll just wait for the paperback.

PS (July 2010) Seeing that this page seems to pop up frequently when people google for the terms "philosphy + greed", I'm thinking of adding some value to it. While I haven't studied the philosophy of greed as such, I have written a (tongue in cheek) piece about the thermodynamics of greed. Specifically, I find it puzzling that, while the third law of thermodynamics states that overall disorder must increase, so all "sorting" activities must be paid for by creating random mixtures elsewhere, the economy tends to be driven by forces that make rich people richer and poor people poorer, so reduces entropy. That piece was published in German in Nachrichten aus der Chemie in April 2007 and will feature in my next German book due to appear in 2011. Might do an English version for the blog, watch this space.

Friday, September 28, 2007


... and talking about creative people from Germany, photographer Uwe Ommer has handed over his camera to his models, and produced a volume of self-portraits entitled

Do it yourself.

Much as I would love to show the cover of the book here, I don't want to get into trouble with the puritan web authorities again ...

PS The ads I'm getting from amazon on this page are really funny, all from DIY stores, although "screwfix direct" almost sounds as if it wasn't.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

fatih akin

One of the most exciting movie directors in Germany right now, Fatih Akin has a new film out, apparently:
Auf der anderen Seite / The Edge of Heaven
I'm a huge fan of Gegen die Wand / Head On, and apparently this new film is supposed to be the second in a trilogy "Liebe, Tod und Teufel" (Love, death, and the devil), of which Head On was the first.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

teaching parrots

I've been wondering for a while what excactly is wrong with the secondary schools here, and this comment:
This education system fails children by teaching them to parrot, not think

explains it quite nicely. Not that I care all that much about the Oxbridge statistics, but we are having huge trouble fighting the "we are not supposed to think, we just need to give the answers in the mark scheme" kind of philosophy, which seems to be endemic in the system.

Monday, September 24, 2007

science on show

I learned from this week's issue of Nature that not only is the MIT opening up a new science museum, but also I know the director:

Real science on show p283
The revamped museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will offer the public access to science in action, as more museums should, argues director John Durant.

John Durant


In fact, John Durant was one of the popular science gurus I talked to at the crucial point in my life when I was wondering whether to stick with research or to switch to writing full time, as I then did. I had contacted him at the Science Museum, London, as I was also wondering whether I could get into some kind of interactive science communication work, as they do there.

His advice was to either stick in there, and reach out; or to write a bestseller to be independent enough to continue writing full time.

Well, I tried the second route, with Light and Life being my potential best seller, but it didn't sell any better than the previous two books ...

Anyways, the new museum opens on Sept. 29 and I'm sure that whatever he's set up at MIT will be exciting ...

Friday, September 21, 2007

sifting through the junk

there was a time, not so long ago, when we believed that most of our genome is made up of junk DNA which has no information content whatsoever. Kind of rings true in this day and age, when most of our email is spam, and most of our post is junk mail.

However, it is now getting clearer that much of the presumed junk contains functions that we simply don't understand. The ENCODE project has been sifting through the junk DNA with all methods imaginable and in June they presented a pilot study based on just 1 % of the genome, suggesting that there is loads of interesting stuff hidden in the junk.

Am doing something about this, and have just finished reading their Nature paper (vol 447, p. 799), which was one of the most difficult papers I've ever managed to read. 18 pages of TSSs, TxFrags, Un.TexFrags, etc. (Well, it is nicely organised, but if you throw one hundred methods of molecular biology at 30 million basepairs, the results are bound to be complex.)

Fascinating stuff, but I think I will skip the 28 companion papers published simultaneously in Genome Research :)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

great interviews

The Guardian is running a series of brochures this week with "the greatest interviews of the 20th century". So far I failed to see the point of the exercise, but I think I'll read and keep today's interview.

And talking about interviews, I came across this author who interviewed more than 100 inspirational women, trying to work out their "secret". Most of them can claim to be the first woman to be one thing or do some other thing. Not sure there is a secret though, but I reckon the interviews should be interesting.

secrets of inspirational women

I hate the first title of the book, though. Someone should have noticed that the concept of "serial" is included in the word "womaniser", and most people will overlook that it's confessions to, rather than of.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

54 days

... until the Oral Fixation tour DVD is released ... hopefully! you know these latinas they never arrive on time :D

For details and discussion check Shakira Rules

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

wild stories

I've just sent off the first third of the manuscript for my next book, so I'll use this milestone as an excuse to reveal a little bit about it.

It is essentially a remix of my favourite science stories from the last 14 years. In the words of my proposal:

"Science is fun! After seven years as a hobby reporter, and another seven as a full-time free-lance science writer, I have accumulated dozens of stories which I still remember fondly, because they were so much fun to write (and hopefully just as much fun to read). These are the stories that still tempt me to waste my time rereading them for the n-th time if I stumble across them in my archives. These are the stories that I have used and reused over the years, cited as examples or attached to my CV. These are the stories that -- in my eyes, at least -- demonstrate that science is a cultural activity just as rich and varied as literature and music, and just as rewarding."

In fact, I've been carrying around the idea of a "wild stories" collection for a while, but could never quite think of a good excuse to actually indulge in this. This spring, I sprang into action for two reasons:

1) I attached my all-time favourite story title to the project, on the grounds that it would be crazy not to make a book with this title (which I'm not revealing yet)

2) I realised that, if I failed to sell the project (quite a likely outcome, as many publishers don't like potpourri volumes), I could always run the collection as a series on my blog, so the effort would not go to waste.

But fortunately it did work out, so I'm now fixing up the manuscript for publication next May.

More news in 3 weeks time when I will hopefully have finished the second third.

Monday, September 17, 2007

shocking stuff

I raved about Naomi Klein's book The shock doctrine last week. Now here's a review of the book:

The end of the world as we know it.

Very depressing stuff all that.

Friday, September 14, 2007

story of my life

back in 2002, I was asked to outline my career path for Science magazine's web site, Next Wave. I just noticed that Next Wave no longer exists and my piece seems to have disappeared with it. So I'm posting my draft version of that story here:

Science writer in residence

I love my new job title - it intrigues people and always stimulates the conversation. How do you become an SWIR, what do you do? Well, it’s a long story of a gradual transition from research scientist to full time writer, but if you bear with me for a few minutes, I’ll try to explain as briefly as possible how it all evolved.

I guess I’m a chemist more by genetic determinism than by choice (more scientists in the family than I can count on my fingers, even if I exclude my inquisitive kids). Nevertheless, I have always been torn between sciences and languages, feeling the rift between the two cultures going right through me somewhere in the middle. So it wasn’t that surprising that, at the end of my PhD thesis at the University of Regensburg, Germany, I rediscovered writing, which had taken a back seat during the rather intensive years of studies. Unlike most fellow graduate students, I actually enjoyed writing up my first research papers and the PhD thesis, so I started wondering what it would be like to write for an audience somewhat bigger than the typical 500 people who might see my research papers if I’m lucky.

Strictly speaking, I first became a freelance translator before I became a writer. Following an unsolicited application, I translated around a dozen full-length articles for Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German edition of Scientific American during the 90s. In late 1992, as the end of my graduate days was looming, I considered doing a short spell in journalism before going abroad for a postdoc fellowship. I had heard that one of the national newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung offered internships for 6 or 8 weeks to people who can write two printable sample pieces for their science pages.

So I wrote two pieces for them, which were duly printed, and another 30-odd more over the following years. But somehow, with a post-doc fellowship at Oxford approved by EMBO, and a household of three people and three thousand books to move accross the Channel, there wasn’t enough time left to take the editors up on the internship offer. However, I kept on writing journalism as a night-time hobby, to relax from the stresses of post-doc research in a cutting edge lab that aimed at publishing in Nature or Science (which only worked once for me!). Those topics that were deemed too specialized by the newspaper editors, I placed in the front section of Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

By the summer of 1994, the triple time split between daytime research, family duties, and night time writing was well established, and a list of more than 20 journalistic publications had accumulated over time. I considered bundling them to a book, making use of the fact that most of them dealt with nanometer scale systems derived either from biology or from technology. So I bundled up the biological topics to make one section of the book, juxtaposed them to another section with the chemical/physical/technical things, and sandwiched them between an introduction and an outlook section on the potential uses of nanotechnology, both specifically written for this book and from scratch, and that was my first real book. Expeditionen in den Nanokosmos came out with Birkhäuser in the autumn of 1995. Which was probably too early, because this was way before nanotech really took off, and so it went out of print in 1999, having sold only a desastrous 750 copies. On the plus side, however, is the English translation (Travels to the nanoworld) which I prepared in 1998, and which is still available in paperback. And the fact that I can claim to have given the German language the word “Nanokosmos”, which I made up for the occasion, but which has cropped up in other places since.

In case you didn’t know, writing is addictive, so as soon as I had finished the Nanokosmos manuscript, I felt this enormous crave to write another book, and knowing that it can be done, I didn’t need the crutch of reusing existing manuscripts any more. I found a new topic in my own scientific research. All my research had been in some way connected to the biological adaptation to extreme conditions and to stress response. In other words, how can organisms resist pressures of a thousand atmospheres, temperatures near boiling or freezing point, or saturated salt brines? This area made both a new focus for my shorter writings, and the topic for my second book, Exzentriker des Lebens which came out with Spektrum Verlag in the spring of 1997. The licence for an English translation was swiftly snapped up by the London representatives of the American publishing house Plenum, such that I could start working on the English version almost immediately after finishing the original. Life on the Edge came out in the spring of 1998 and is still available in paperback from Perseus Press. With more than 5000 copies (compared to 2100 for the German original) sold so far, it is my personal bestseller.

In the meantime, my postdoc supervisor (Sheena Radford) had left the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences, and I spent my working days setting up my own project with a David Phillips research fellowship provided by the BBSRC (1996-1999). I still followed the same scheduling of doing research by day and writing by night, even though the email correspondence attached to the writing business was beginning to gnaw a hole into the research time budget. On the other hand, I’ve never been someone to believe in long holidays, so in working hours per year I’ve probably done as much research as the average research worker.

Still, I was hoping to be able to continue the balancing trick of journalism vs. research with the help of a budding research group. But for some reason (my reluctance to go begging for money may have had something to do with it!) the group failed to materialize, and the few undergraduates whom I employed on my project weren’t really that talented that I mourned their loss. In the spring of 1999, the BBSRC summoned me along with their other research fellows to a conference to present our results. The committee wasn’t very happy with the progress of my research project, nor did they seem to have any inclination to give me brownie points for my activities in public understanding (even though the BBSRC statutes and fellowship guidelines emphasize the importance of this).

Thus, my research council funding came to an end with the end of 1999, and the University (which initially hadn’t realized they had to fire me) stopped payments in April 2000. My former boss, Chris Dobson, however, was generous enough to allow me to stay on in my old office and to earn my living as a science writer from there. I had applied for a couple of editorial jobs in 1999, without too much success (typically I ended up in the last two or three, at which point the candidate with a proper editorial experience was preferred to my bid for a side-entrance). Thus, finding myself without a regular salary in May 2000, I decided to give full-time freelance writing a serious stab. Just before that, I had finished a new book manuscript, Light and Life, which is now due to be published by Oxford University Press in the autumn of 2002. For a year and a half, I was writing full time from OCMS, mainly contributing to Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Chemistry in Britain, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the Guardian.

The first year of freelancing was quite desastrous financially (I earned roughly half of what I needed to keep the family afloat), but in the second year some new contacts and a consulting agreement with BTG plc brought me back into black figures. In my second business year (ending April 2002), I will probably have earned around 2.5 times what I earned in the first. The books make up only around 10% of the required income, so until they sell five figures rather than four, I will depend on the magazine pieces for my living.

Now comes the residence question. In September 2001, Chris Dobson moved his lab to Cambridge and resigned from his OCMS directorship, so I had to find a new home too. I sent out a round robin to a dozen heads of departments in Oxford re. whether they would take me on board as a science writer in residence, i.e. offer me deskspace, an academic address, and computer access in exchange for some help with PR for their research. “Try again in 2 years” was the best result I got, most of the others clearly didn’t see the point of having science writers. At this point, I mentioned my academic homelessness problem to my PhD supervisor, Rainer Jaenicke, who pointed me in the direction of Birkbeck College. Arrangements with the then head of the school of crystallography, Julia Goodfellow, were swiftly sorted out, and since October 2001 I am residing at Birkbeck for two days per week (working from home the rest of the week). For the first six months of 2002, I am even on the Birkbeck payroll as a 40 % employee, helping out with the departmental website and with a course taught via internet. This 2/5 job very nicely complements the amount of freelance work I can get easily, but on the other hand I also know that I can survive on writing alone if I have to. Which is a very good feeling.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


thanks to a faithful reader of my blog, I am now listed in wikipedia:

Not to be confused with the swimmer, the actor, the artist, the medical ethicist, or most dangerously, the author of books about models, Bob Dylan, and a NY appartment block, I come equipped with the job title "science writer".

In the spirit of wikipedia, of course, you can add whatever you consider relevant.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why Cubans live longer

There is a detailed investigation of why the results obtained by the Cuban health system (e.g. in terms of life expectancy, or cancer survival rates) are better than in the US and at least as good as in the UK.

First world results on a third world budget

Prevention seems to be a key issue. I haven't been really ill in the last 10 years or so, but recently visited our family doctor to suggest she might want to check whether my old heart's still beating. Over in Germany, at my ripe old age, I would be bullied into taking part in regular cancer screening. But here, nothing. The doctor looked at me as though I'd landed from another planet. Next door was a private clinic, offering a general health check for 500 pounds, she suggested, while measuring my blood pressure.

The way things are going here, I reckon Cuba will overtake us, too. Recently, the UK came out in the bottom third of a European league table of cancer survival rates, surrounded by countries from the former Soviet union or Yugoslavia.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

new book project

I have just signed contracts for a new book of mine due to appear next May. Which means that over the next couple of months I may be busier than usual and may not blog every day, but I'm trying to keep things going as normal.

I'll reveal more details about the book soon ...

Monday, September 10, 2007

calling all wikipedians

... this glaring omission has now been fixed (see above!):

I have noticed that I'm not yet included in wikipedia, while other science writers of comparable production are. Now I'm not desperately keen on fame, but I think it would be helpful if people who come across some random piece of mine somewhere had the opportunity of looking up my name without ending up reading about the German swimming star or the US music/fashion writer who both share my name.

I hope that doesn't create the impression of terminal vanity. I've looked up the criteria of wikipedia, re. "notability" and the main thing is that there should be non trivial things being written about the person or their work in trusted sources, so I figure that the book reviews in Nature, New Scientist, etc. fulfil that criterion.

shock doctrine

I've read an interesting extract from Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine. Her thesis is that the current brand of neoliberal / globalized capitalism thrives not so much on freedom but on disasters which create a "clean slate" and often suspend democratic process and human rights, giving the swift commercial operator a unique chance to move in.

Click Shock Doctrine for extracts, an interview with the author, and more.

PS: In other news, while I was looking for the shock doctrine page, I found the Guardian headline: "Buying sex could become a crime"

I couldn't help thinking that this would make a large number of marriages illegal ...

Friday, September 07, 2007

nanotechnology update

I occasionally write for Education in Chemistry in an attempt to support chemistry education while it's still there.

This month I have a "nanotechnology update" in issue 5, pages 139-141, although for some reason it doesn't show up in the online version.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


I've been wondering for a while why this new type of capitalism we see eating away our public services and infrastructures is spreading so aggressively now (while it wasn't happening, say, in the 60s and 70s). Last week George Monbiot published a comment that answered some of my questions:

How the neoliberals stitched up the wealth of nations for themselves

And this week he showed a nice example of how a private/public funding initiative (PFI) wrecked a hospital that would have needed 30 million pounds of public money for refurbishment. Now it needs 30 million pounds every year to service the debt to the private investors. Madness or what ?

This great free-market experiment is more like a corporate welfare scheme

Oh well. I'm wondering how long this whole bubble will last before it all ends in tears ...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


In this month's Spektrum der Wissenschaft, I have:

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 9, 19-21
Monte Carlo in der Membran

... a shorter account of which is also available in English here:

Gross M:
Chemistry World 4, No 8, 31 (online: 06.07.)
Predicting how proteins fold

It's all about membrane proteins and predicting their folding using computer models.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Back in the 20th century, they were known as colloids, but nowadays, if you suspend nanoparticles in a fluid, the result has to be a nanofluid. The rebranding also served to advertise the effect that the thermal conductivity of some colloids appears to be greatly enhanced for reasons not entirely understood so far.

Cooling applications where minimal size and weight are an issue (cooling computers, aircraft) will surely benefit. I'm rather sceptical about heating applications and any context where the size of the radiator doesn't really matter.

I've done a feature article on this which is out in Chemistry&Industry issue 16 (27.8.), p. 19.

It should turn up on their website, but as of today it hasn't been updated yet.

Monday, September 03, 2007

venetian pix


traffic jam
me again
a plasterer's dream

Friday, August 31, 2007

isotopes saga continued

Back in March I reported how researchers think that a diet enriched in heavy isotopes could fend off aging:

This made a bit of a splash in the general media. But the discussion is also going on in the scientific journals, see the latest issue of Trends in Biotechnology:

Heavy isotopes to avert ageing?
Vadim V. Demidov
Center for Advanced Biotechnology, Boston University, 36 Cummington St., Boston, MA 02215, USA
Oxidative modifications of cellular components by free
radicals are thought to be the cause of ageing and ageassociated
diseases. Extensive prior research has aimed
to lessen such damage by counteracting the free-radical
oxidizers with antioxidants, but there have been no
attempts to protect the oxidizer-targeted biomolecules
by making them more stable against oxidation. A recent
paper describes an original and promising method based
on the use of non-radioactive heavy isotopes, which
might enable living cells to resist the free-radical oxidation
and consequently allow us to live a healthier,
longer life.

TRENDS in Biotechnology
Vol.25 No.9, p. 371-375

Thursday, August 30, 2007

ghost bikes

a couple of months ago, a student cycling right in the heart of Oxford, outside the Bodleian Library, was killed in a collision with a garbage truck. A couple of days later a bicycle spraypainted entirely in white turned up by the roadside, chained to a post. While I immediately made the connection with the accident, I didn't quite figure out who put it there and why -- whether it was some kind of religious tradition to paint an object relating to the death and use it as a memorial.

Now I've come across a mention of the group visual resistance which has been putting up such ghost bikes in New York for a couple of years:

"Beginning in June 2005, members of Visual Resistance have been creating small and somber memorials for New York City bicyclists killed by automobiles. Each time a biker is killed, a bicycle painted all white is locked to a street sign and a small stenciled plaque is bolted in place above it.

The installations are meant as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of bikers’ right to safe travel. It was inspired by Ghost Bike Pittsburgh, which was in turn inspired by a similar effort in St. Louis. In recent months, Ghost Bikes have appeared in cities across the country, as well as in the UK."

The Oxford ghost bike doesn't have a plaque, though. At least I haven't found any.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

heard it on the grapevine

As you slurp your well-deserved bordeaux or beaujolais, spare a thought for the complex genetics giving your wine that rich taste. A consortium of genome researchers from France and Italy has now presented a draft version of the genome of the grapevine. Among interesting insights into the evolution of flowering plants, they also discovered that the genes responsible for health-beneficial compounds such as resveratrol, and those responsible for flavours, are massively overrepresented in comparison with the genomes of other plants.

Read my story here.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Herr der Diebe

Trying to treat my Venice withdrawal symptoms, I've watched "The Thief Lord" today, which is an English language adaptation of a German children's book (by Cornelia Funke) set in Venice. I don't normally watch children's movies these days (I have my people for that) but this one was actually quite nice, and you do get a lot of Venice. Shot on location, with real vaporetti, real canals and real tourists ...

IMDB details

Friday, August 24, 2007

ecos magazine

In Germany, there is a magazine in easy Spanish for people learning the language, called ECOS (from spotlight publishers, who also publish magazines in English, French, Italian ... ). In February this year they ran a 6-page feature about Shakira, complete with cover (and a wild mix of pix from different photoshoots).

I've been waiting for this for years, and of course I missed it when it finally happened, so now I ordered the issue from the publishers, and they sent it without problems. You can order your own copy

It costs Eur. 5.50 plus postage.

The magazines are actually quite good, generally (we have a subscription of the French one, ecoute, and buy ECOS whenever someone happens to be in Germany and finds one). Explanations and vocabulary are given in German, though, so the mags are less useful for readers coming from a different language background. Shame this kind of thing doesn't seem to exist for English speaking people learning other languages ...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

(solar) power to the people

Way back when in the eighties, when I was young and green, Germany's Green Party, untainted by real government responsibility, had lots of nice policies in their programs, including the one that people who produce renewable energy small scale, e.g. with a solar panel on their roof, should be entitled to sell any spare electricity back to the providers. Very simple, very obvious, though we never really believed we'd get through with this in a capitalist world.

When the red-green coalition came to power, it very sneakily introduced this idea into a new law governing energy provision (living abroad by then, I actually missed it when it happened), without creating the storm I would have expected.

These so-called feed-in tariffs have since then become a major success story, as they have made private photovoltaic cells economically attractive, plus the idea has been copied by legislators in many other countries -- as I found out to my surprise when I researched a news feature for Current Biology.

Read my story here:

Current Biology 17, No 16 (21.08.), R616
Germany goes for solar

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

changing lives

... oh, and I should mention that the whole venetian adventure would not have been possible without the help of the Newman Trust, a charity that took my son, who has autism, on a one-week holiday. So a big thank you to them and all their volunteer helpers. They really do change lives.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

canal grande

Did I mention that Venice's vaporetti (water buses) are the best public transport ever? OK, they may be as crowded as the London underground or any other busy transport system. But the sights are so much nicer. We did an (almost) complete round on one of the circular lines, which takes 2 hours (imagine going round London on the circle line!) and have been up and down the grand canal countless times, discovering new sights each time. Oh, and very reassuringly they actually stop people from boarding when the boat is packed. I expected them to just keep pushing ...

so here's to the hours spent on board:

(image borrowed from Wikipedia while the digital camera containing our pix is still travelling elsewhere ... )

Oh, and while we were there, the newspapers reported that Stonehenge, Eiffel Tower, and the pyramids were among the most disappointing tourist attractions, according to polls on site. Canal Grande was mentioned among those that did not disappoint.

think with the senses

... science coverage will return soon, but here's a round-up of other Biennale impressions:

Leon Ferrari from Buenos Aires, Argentina, exhibited a series of collages, combining real (I think) headlines from the catholic paper Observatore romano (such as "Pope stresses importance of the family") with historic depictions of violence pepretated by or in the name of the church, such as crusades, inquisition, etc. Not a new topic of course, but very hard-hitting and sadly still relevant.

Oscar Mun~oz, from Cali, Colombia, showed three portraits in statu nascendi, very simple black ink paintings on grey background, painted in two or three minutes, so you get your art while you wait. except that the screen goes blank again afterwards and the process starts again. To avoid boredom, we get 3 portraits on 3 parallel screens.

Several US artists have visualised in one form or the other the fates and/or number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A somewhat more original view on war is presented by Nedko Solakov from Bulgaria, who explored the patent dispute between Bulgaria (which continues to produce Kalashnikov machine guns without paying royalties) and the Russians who claim patent rights to the design. As the artist points out, the Russians have used the cyrillic alphabet, invented by a Bulgarian, and lactobacillus bulgaricus for centuries without paying royalties ....

Hiroharu Moru (Japan) made people hold a huge helium-filled balloon with a question mark on it on a line such that the question floated ca. 5 m above their heads. No answers provided, though.

El Anatsui (Ghana) produced two large (6m*3m ?) golden vlies like tapestries by recycling metal tops and screw caps from bottles of wine and other alcoholic beverages. Boy that must have taken a lot of drinking. But it looks nice too. And I can relate to it as I also keep things like corks, you never know what you might be able to use them for.

In the Australian Pavilion, Daniel von Sturmer presented video installations of some very simple but clever experiments involving gravity and cubes. In one, which took me a couple of minutes to figure out, you see a dozen small wooden cubes tumbling around in a large hollow cube in rather unpredictable way. My theory is that the large box is rocked around in all directions on a movable support, but that we cannot see this movement because camera and lighting are connected rigidly to the box. So what looks like random forces pulling the blocks in this or that direction, piling them up or knocking them down, is in fact gravity.

In Thailand's pavilion, one gets a sensual experience of the Buddhist saying that we should be unsticky like the sand -- which doesn't care whether an emperor walked over it or whether a dog excreted on it. The sand is real, the dog is thankfully only a video installation.