Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Now that I've calmed down a little bit re. last
Friday's cannabis story and the way it was reported in
the media, can I just try to un-muddy the waters by
clarifying that:

1) the relevant paper in the Lancet did not contain
any new data. It was a meta-study, i.e. the authors
did nothing but review existing studies of cases where
mental illness coincides with a history of cannabis
use. Considering this, I thought that The Lancet was
guilty of fuelling hype when they flagged this paper
up with not one but two accompanying commentaries (and
probably a press release!).

2) if for a second we choose to believe the claim
(still based on a rather small number of cases, with
no systematic epidemiology!) that people who have used
cannabis are a bit more likely to develop
schizophrenia than people who haven't, the serious
newspapers (like most disappointingly, The Guardian)
which reported this study uncritically, should have
clarified that this observation does not prove a
causal connection.

3) ... and even if there was a causal connection, any
serious report should have clarified that the
connection can go two different directions. Unlike in
smoking / lung disease, where the cause-effect route
goes one way, mental illness changes the way people
behave. Thus, somebody who is harbouring a disposition
to develop schizophrenia (or depression, or any other
mental illness) may be more likely to try and even
enjoy mind-altering drugs.

Personally I think that if there is a causal
connection behind these stats, it is much more likely
to go in that direction, in that disposition to mental
illness causes drug use, not the other way round.
That is of course a matter of opinion. But the claim
that there is a proven causal connection as reported
in the media, that is just bad science.

I've also sent a letter to the Guardian on this matter, which got published

Monday, July 30, 2007

complex and beautiful

If I had the time (or if I could read as fast as my 10-year-old daughter) I would definitely want to read:

Dr. Euler's Fabulous Formula: Cures Many Mathematical Ills

by Paul Nahin

Considering the huge pile of books waiting to be read (and a few of them to be reviewed as well!), I've only read the dedication, which is one of the nicest I've ever seen:

"For Patricia Ann, who (like Euler's formula) is both complex and beautiful."

aaaaah. somebody found the formula for love there

Sunday, July 29, 2007

marie claire

had a lucky day -- my son dragged me into a newsagent to buy sweets, and I discovered the August issue of Marie Claire (Spanish edition) with a lovely Shakira cover & interview. Well, yes I know it's an old photo, I have the issue of Blender with the same photo, but still. It's a great photo, and she doesn't turn up at the newsagent so often that we can be picky ...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

pop rock made in Germany

recently I reported that dance act Cascada -- somewhat surprisingly -- had become the biggest pop export from Germany in this decade. However, this may soon change, as teenage phenomenon Tokio Hotel, who have played pop-rock in German so far, have released their first English language video (ready, set, go) in the UK. In the last couple of days, it has popped up on B4 several times, and apparently it is at the top of the MTV Flux charts (though I have no idea who fluxes these charts.

Anyhow, lock up your teenagers, or they might end up copying that hairstyle ...

Here's the band's MySpace page:


Oh, the music is OK, by the way. I was slightly disappointed in the beginning when I found out that the singer was a boy, but other than that, if they are going to conquer the world, it's fine by me.

Friday, July 27, 2007

miscellaneous press clippings

I found myself in total agreement with this comment that appeared today:
The least useful reaction to terrorism is to dismiss it as an inscrutable evil
A blind faith in the moral superiority of our own way of life will only hinder efforts to tackle violent extremism Jenni Russell Friday July 27, 2007 The Guardian
Full text:
but the most depressing thing is that it actually needs spelling out and writing down. I find it blindingly obvious and always have (at least since growing up in the no less hysterical situation of 1970s terrorism in Germany!).
Then, something completely unrelated but uplifting:
Eight Americans graduate in boost for Cuban health care
· Students plan to use skills to treat poor people · Public relations coup for Castro government Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent Thursday July 26, 2007 The Guardian
Eight US medical students pose for a graduation picture at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba. Photograph: Javier Galeano/AP
Eight American students have graduated from a Cuban medical school after six years of free tuition, giving a fresh boost to the reputation of the communist government's health care system.
Full story:

... and finally, I've spent the day hopping up and down in rage about the Lancet story re. the alleged link between cannabis and schizophrenia. Have fired off a letter to the Guardian about that, but should that fail to appear I will rage on some more about this in the next few days.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

mmmmm ... pi !!!!

Al Jean, executive producer of The Simpsons and Harvard graduate in maths is interviewed in today's issue of Nature
(appears to be open access)
Complete with a list of the top 10 science moments in the series (overlapping with those chosen in Paul Halpern's new book (What's Science ever done for us?), and in my Guardian piece:
http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/research/story/0,,1073542,00.html )
Interesting explanation of some maths jokes, too. The Simpsons also feature in the Nature podcast, if you can handle this kind of technology ...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

life in the deep sea

I've always said that the Deep Sea is the most amazing biotope we have on this planet (you can look it up, it's in my thesis from way back when! and Captain Nemo probably said it before me), but now there is a coffee-table book with photos to prove it:


water everywhere

well, almost. This time our little river, the Cherwell, wasn't among the worst. It spread out across the fields but very sensibly stopped at the bottom of our road without causing much harm here.

The other side of Oxford, by the Thames, is looking much worse though:
Oxford residents evacuated as flood waters rise
and as the big wave travels down the Thames, we can expect to hear further bad news from Henley, Reading, Windsor, London ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

goat milk v. chemical weapons

human Butyrylcholinesterase is a promising antidote against chemical weapons like sarin, but its production from human serum is of course not a viable route to reasonable amounts. Researchers have now succeeded in breeding transgenic goats that provide large amountes of the antidote in their milk.
Read my story here:


Thursday, July 19, 2007

biomedical engineering

Earlier this year I interviewed lots of engineers and one medic to find out what the heck "biomedical engineering" might be, and really interesting it turned out to be as well.
The result is a feature in the alumni magazine Oxford Today, with the title:
From Bench to Bedside,
which you can now read here:
(although strangely with a wrong title right now, I'll ask them to fix that!)


Tuesday, July 17, 2007


If like me you are on the wrong side of 30 and happen to think you have a reasonably good memory, try playing the game Memory against a 10-year-old. It will cure you of any illusions ...
I've played some two dozen rounds against my daughter and I think the best result was a draw, which I achieved once or twice. Put it this way, if I concentrate and she doesn't, I may achieve a draw with luck on my side and the wind from behind. If any of these factors is missing, I haven't got a chance in hell.

Our set is a good old-fashioned one dating from my childhood, with lots of nature photographs. Part of the problem is that there are 10 different kinds of trees which I don't know by name, so remembering that there was a tree in the corner over there is no use whatsoever.

The game is interesting for what it reveals about the workings of memory, too. I find for my own crumbling memory that it's better to trust the subconscious than the conscious part. If I start thinking "where did I see this card before?" I have less of a chance than if I just reach out without thinking.

Now if someone could take a Tardis and fetch my own 10-year-old self to play against my daughter, that might be interesting ...

Monday, July 16, 2007

Max Perutz

I mentioned Georgina Ferry's upcoming biography of Max Perutz before. While I haven't seen it yet myself, the Guardian has published an advance review:
To everybody involved with protein research, Perutz is a household name, of course, but it is to be hoped that the book will spread his fame to a wider audience.

Oh, and I would have very nearly done a blog about Rihanna's umbrella, and how it's spending it's 9th week at the top of the UK charts while we are enjoying the 9th week of rain, but others got there first, for instance:
and, yes, I too still love the song after nine weeks, even if the link with the weather conjures up the irrational fear that JayZee may be producing more than just music ...

Friday, July 13, 2007


well, the title of this program is a little bit wishful thinking -- popular music from Germany doesn't export all that well. But the nice people at Deutsche Welle TV aren't giving up all that easily, so every 2 weeks they broadcast half an hour of what's hip between Hamburg and Munich to a global audience, both in German, and in a strange mid-Atlantic version of English.
And after 14 years abroad, I have to say I do rely on this service to retain at least a vague idea of what's going on over there.
Plus, occasionally, there is a real success story to report -- some act taking off to the million-selling stratosphere without warning (and sometimes without any notable success in the home market).
So, wanna guess who the biggest German pop export of the last years is ?
have a look at the CD below (and no, I don't own it, it's not quite my style, but I do like some of the videos!)


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Rigoberta Menchu

My mum has translated a little book by Rigoberta Menchu (the 1992 Nobel peace laureate from Guatemala, see: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1992/ ), which comes out in German next month, so I've updated her website:


Friday, July 06, 2007

taking the gamble out of membrane protein folding

... yet another story in Chemistry World, this time it's simulation of the folding of membrane proteins:


on the cover of the Rolling Stone ...

... well not quite, but in all those years of writing about the weird and wonderful world of science, every now and again a friendly editor has given one of my stories a lift by choosing it as the motif for the main cover illustration of their magazine.
I've never collected these covers in any systematic way, and only recently started putting thumbnails into my publications list. But a little while ago I realised I could collect them all in a photo album in MySpace, so here they are:
I was quite surprised and chuffed to see that there is a grand total of 14 of them and I may have missed one or two). They do tend to come like London buses, nothing for a year and then 3 in a row. So watch out for the next triplet ...

interstellar chemistry

Interstellar clouds, I learned within the last two days, contain over 130 different kinds of molecules. Chemists trying to figure out how molecules can form at the extremely low temperatures of space have now developed a combination of theoretical and experimental methods allowing them to predict which reactions will still run at 20 K (in defiance of Arrhenius' Law which wants reactions to go slower at lower temperatures).
Read my story here:

of vaguely related interest is my recent book, Astrobiology:


Thursday, July 05, 2007

publications in German (July)

here's the monthly round-up of pieces published in German. We have a chemical way of deleting memories (complete with reference to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), redox-regulated phosphatases, and the bacteria that feed the characteristic tube worms of the black smoker biotopes:

Groß M:Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 7/8, 730
Chemie? Nie gehört!
Groß M:Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 7/8, 752
Redox-regulierte Phosphatasen
Groß M:Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 7, 20-22
Überraschungen aus dem Fress-Sack

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

danger from the deep

the biology of the bugs living under extreme physical conditions in the deep sea, around black smokers and hot springs, has always been a bit of an eccentric border of science. But now it appears from the first two genomes of such bacteria that some of the very common pathogens troubling our tummies owe some of their crucial virulence factors exactly to those eccentric deep sea organisms. (after all, our stomach is an extreme environment, too!)
Read my story here: http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2007/July/03070701.asp

for more info on extremophiles in the deep sea and indeed in our stomachs, consult my book,
Life on the Edge:

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

EU tube

Apparently an EU-sponsored YouTube video advertising European Cinema (and EU support for it) has caused a bit of a stir ...
So don't click on
if you can't handle the bits that earn many European movies 18 certificates in the UK.
There is also a slightly less scandalous clip on offer here:
and lots more at: http://www.youtube.com/user/eutube

a new type of biosensor ?

Researchers in Germany claim to have laid the foundation for a new type of biosensor, based on living cells coupled to transistors, but other experts I consulted remained sceptical. Judge for yourself:

Monday, July 02, 2007

Henry Wellcome's pockets

Right next to the tube station which I use when I go to Birkbeck College in London, there is the head quarters of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest funders of biomedical research (and also, as I recall, one of the world's most dreaded producers of endless grant application forms to be filled in in 10 copies).
That is, it used to be next to the tube station, but now they have built a brand new building right on top of the station. And they have turned the old building next door into a museum to display the Trust's collection of bits and pieces on three floors:
Haven't been yet, but what struck me during a brief visit to the website was the content of Henry Wellcome's pockets when he died: his glasses, a watch, and about $ 1.50 in cash. Now seeing that his estate is now worth gazillions, that is slightly ironic.

german stuff

... I think I forgot to post the usual roundup of things published in German in June. This month we have the chemistry of immortality (not quite serious), the molecular causes of autism (very serious), and my adventures in MySpace:
Groß M:Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 6, 621
Chemie des Jungbrunnens
Groß M:Nachrichten aus der Chemie 55, Nr 6, 647
Molekulare Ursachen des Autismus
Groß M:Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 6, 17
Angemerkt: Abenteuer im Welt-Raum http://www.spektrum.de/artikel/874846&_z=798888

faraway worlds

Science fiction has bombarded us with so much detail about putative planetary worlds beyond our solar system that many people may not be aware of the novelty of extrasolar planets.
In fact, it was only 12 years ago that Mayor and Queloz found the first conclusive evidence for the existence of _any_ extrasolar planet. Since then, researchers have found over 100 more.
My MySpace buddy Paul Halpern has written a children's book about these "faraway worlds", which is lavishly illustrated by Lynette Cook. I reckon it must be difficult to sell the hard little biscuit of the actual facts in competition to the abundance of fiction and fantasy confectionery that is everywhere. While Halpern's text sticks with the facts and vivid explanations, Cook has compensated for reality's handicap with artistic licence, making up the bits that we don't know yet about those worlds.
So if you and/or your children are wondering what landscapes might greet the space traveller on planet HD 209458b, check this out.