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 Amazon.com and at Amazon.co.uk (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.