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