Wednesday, December 31, 2008

favourite books of 2008

As everybody's end-of-year recommendation lists seem to be different from my experience, here is what I most enjoyed reading this year:


Deadly companions

The drunkard's walk


Fiction (not brand new but reasonably recent):

El pergamino de la seduccion
K - the art of love
El cristo feo

Oh, and I also enjoyed Germany's No. 1 Bestseller of the year, Feuchtgebiete, a fictionalised exploration of the humid areas of the female anatomy. I haven't reviewed this one, but was intrigued by the thought that the author is originally from England (High Wycombe? or somewhere similarly implausible and not too far from here!) and moved to Germany as a child. So I wondered what her take on the taboos she smashed with this book would have been, had she grown up here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

a drop in the ocean's pH

In my final journalistic piece to appear in 2008, I covered the scariest news I heard all year, namely that the pH of the oceans is decreasing a lot faster than expected, due to all that CO2 we put into the air. One of the papers that came out in December in PNAS quantifies the trend as 0.04 units per year, which would mean a whole unit in around 25 years. As the pH is a logarithmic scale, that would mean 10 times more H+ ions in the oceans, and it would turn the entire marine biosphere upside down.

Gross M:
Current Biology 18, No 24 (23.12.), R1112
Acid tests

Abstract and restricted access to full text here.

nickel in nature

I have a short book review in the last edition of Chemistry and Industry of 2008:

Gross M:
Chemistry & Industry No 24 (22.12.), 29
review of "Nickel and its surprising impact in Nature" by A. Sigel, H. Sigel, and R.K.O. Sigel, eds.

Here's a snippet:
"The biological role of nickel isn’t one of the boxes that science gets filed into; I suppose there aren’t any departments dedicated to nickel biochemistry. All the more interesting then, to use this metal to slice across the established classifications and think outside the box for a while. "

Monday, December 29, 2008

summing up

one of my end-of-year rituals is checking the citation counts of my papers, and as in previous years I have been pleasantly surprised to see that all but two (no.2,3) of the 18 papers listed here have acquired new citations this year. Even the earliest one, which is now 18 years old !

New on the list is the review:
Groß M (2000)
Current Protein and Peptide Science 1, 339-347
Proteins that convert from alpha helix to beta sheet: Implications for folding and disease
10 (9;6;5)

which has been a bit of a sleeper but may still rise to fame ...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

extrasolar moons

I am not exactly sure I believe the claim, but according to this report astrobiologists are now seriously looking for Earth-like moons orbiting the hundreds of extrasolar planets known so far.

The trouble with those extrasolar planets is that, due to the limitations of the methods of spotting them, all that have been found are closer to Jupiter than to Earth in size, so non-habitable if only because of the crushing gravity. So it makes sense to look for Earth-sized moons orbiting those gas giants. Except that you're looking for an ultratiny wobble in the orbit of the planet, which itself is only detectable as a tiny wobble in the position of the star or as an even tinier partial occultation. My gut feeling would be that this second degree wobble would be so deep in the noise as to be undetectable. But good luck to them, anyway.

Friday, December 19, 2008

happy birthday to ...

cellist Steven Isserlis, who is the patron of our local music venue, the Jacqueline du Pre building, and thus turns up here at least once a year. He does a lot of work for children, including books and family concerts. (I remember one occasion when he introduced himself to the children thus: "I am the most famous cellist living in my flat.") Oh, and he plays the cello quite well, too. And has a great hair style (as you can see here). And he's 50 today.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

see how they shake

There is a very clever paper coming out in tomorrow’s issue of Science magazine using Raman [1] scattering (in which light not only changes direction but also its wavelength) to image the distribution of specific molecules such as a fatty acid, or a drug, within living cells. The beauty of it is that one can use the vibrational motion (which is quantized) of the target molecule, rather than having to add some marker or dye. With a pair of lasers and some clever pulse technology, one can detect the presence of the molecule of interest at a given time in a given location, and even quantitatively measure its concentration. And the method is sensitive enough to image physiological concentrations of metabolites in living cells.

Medical applications that Sunney Xie and coworkers have demonstrated include the monitoring of the uptake and distribution of omega-3 fatty acids in living cells, the imaging of skin and brain tissue sections, and the monitoring of drug delivery.

[1] Historical footnotes: Raman scattering was first described by Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970, Nobel prize 1930) 80 years ago, but it had to await the arrival of advanced laser technology before it could become really useful. Raman also studied the vibrations of larger units, such as musical instruments. The authors cite another historic paper that is even older than Raman’s, a 1917 publication on the phenomenon of stimulated emission, by a certain A. Einstein.

Reference: C. W. Freudiger et al., Science 2008, 322, 1857.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

soft machines

... blowing the dust off another old book review originally published in Chemistry World -- this title is now available as paperback, and I vaguely remember I really liked it.

Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life
by Richard A. L. Jones
Oxford University Press 2004

There are two different approaches to overcoming the gap between science and the general public. Many scientists, myself included, have been trying to popularise what they think people should know about science, building their bridge from the science side of the canyon. Fewer, but much more successful in terms of bestsellers lists are the examples of non-scientists like Bill Bryson or scientists converted to populism, who build the bridge from the other shore, starting from what non-scientists actually want to read.

Soft machines is a beautiful example of the former school of thinking, a nicely written account of what a physicist thinks the public should know about nanotechnology. Richard Jones, a polymer researcher and professor of physics at the University of Sheffield, leads us into the nanoworld from the physics entry, starting with imaging and fabrication methods, then explaining what makes nanoscale mechanics so different from the world we know. He then comes to the core of the book, two chapters on the “soft machines” of the title, and another two on computing and electronics on the nanoscale. He rounds off the book with a very short chapter on future opportunities and risks.

The book serves up a fair amount of real science, made palatable with original metaphors and a light sprinkling of anecdote. Thus, it is ideally suited for us chemists, as we are close enough to physics to understand the odd equation that Jones throws in, and distant enough to benefit from this change of perspective. But for the non-scientists whose scientific education is on the level of “A short history of nearly everything”, this book is probably too hard. I wish the general public would make an effort to read such books, but my royalty statements tell me loud and clear that they don’t.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

oh what a lovely war

Saw a school production of Oh, What a Lovely War! which was quite interesting. The stage musical is as old as I am, so a bit dodgy and embarrassing, but still standing. I wasn't aware of the piece beforehand, but apparently it was very popular in the 60s (like me) and there was a film version directed by Richard Attenborough with an impossibly stellar cast.

It's World War I treated with equal measures of reportage, satire, and surrealism. Which may be what the subject matter deserves. For me, the serious and surreal parts worked better than the jokes which were mainly based on nationality stereotyping.

Most of all, I admire the energy of all people involved. Getting 200 kids to act in a coordinated way that is even vaguely recognisable as a play would look like an impossible task to me ...

PS a couple of years ago they played Red Demon by Hideki Noda.

Friday, December 12, 2008

open verdict

looks like the inquest into the shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes has ended with an open verdict. Not that the jury had many options to choose from.

I reckon if some common or garden criminal had shot the guy after mistaking him for somebody else, that would still count as murder, wouldn't it?

very depressing all this.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Down syndrome

If you've been fooled by the news going around a couple of weeks ago that more children are born with Down syndrome, hence fewer must be aborted, hence we must be a more caring society than we used to be, read Ben Goldacre's debunking of the story here.

It's blindingly obvious, of course: as women are older on average when they conceive, more Down embryos are produced, and more are aborted -- compared to that increase the increase in live births with the syndrome is minimal. Very depressing how many media echoed the story without thinking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Haber reviewed

as I'm currently reading another book about Fritz Haber (whose name is basically written on half the nitrogen atoms in your body), and also organising my old book reviews to make sure they don't get lost, I've dug out my previous effort on Haber, published in Chemistry World, Dec. 2005:

Book review

Between genius and genocide
Daniel Charles
London, UK: Jonathan Cape 2005 313pp £20 (HB) ISBN 0224064444

Nitrogen from the air can enter the chemical cycles of the living world via two processes that globally turn over similar amounts. One is bacterial nitrogen fixation; the other is the synthesis of ammonia from the elements under high pressure, invented by Fritz Haber.

Apart from the process that literally feeds today's world, Haber is also known for his enthusiastic services to the Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm during the first world war, particularly in the development of chemical warfare. With the arrival of the Third Reich, however, Haber found that his Jewish origins outweighed his achievements and services. Soon he found himself exiled, and he died before he could find a new home.

The moral complexity and tragic conclusion of his life make Haber a tricky subject. His former assistant Johannes Jaenicke spent decades collecting materials for a biography, but never got it written. His collection is the archive from which biographers feed, including Dietrich Stoltzenberg (whose epic effort recently appeared in a shortened translation, reviewed in Chemistry World, February 2005, p55) and now Daniel Charles.

Charles' advantage is that he sees Haber with the fresh eyes of an outsider, who admits that he once visited the Haber institute without knowing who it was named after. Since then, he has certainly done his homework at the Jaenicke archive, and manages to tell the story in a compelling and fascinating, yet compact and accessible form. His strength is the witty summary that often introduces a new section of his story (eg 'Haber didn't immediately volunteer for this epic quest. He had to be goaded into it with offers of money and insults to his pride.'). The only blemish is the title of the book, which demonises the creator of one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

give bees a chance

last month, British beekeepers demonstrated in London to ask the government for research funding adequate to the problems and the huge economic importance of bees. Haven't heard any response from the government. My story on the beekeepers is out in Current Biology today: Limited Access

Monday, December 08, 2008

checking up on Tycho Brahe

I really like the story of the astronomers who have measured details of the supernova explosion which Tycho Brahe observed in 1572. They didn't travel back in time to look over his shoulder, though. They just used light from the very same event that got scattered by some cloud. With an object so ridiculously far away (though still in our galaxy), a slight deviation in the light path can be enough to delay the arrival by 436 years so we can see it.

The conclusion is rather boring (the supernova is now officially classified as a type Ia, which is what people suspected it to be anyway), but the idea that you can see light from the same flash observed by a Renaissance astronomer, that is just brilliant.

This is published in the current issue of Nature, page 617, with a very readable News and Views piece on page 587.

Friday, December 05, 2008

culture clash

book review

K – The art of love, by Hong Ying

K is the story of a strange encounter between two cultures. At the surface, it’s about Chinese and English culture, and also about the very Martian culture of a man and the Venusian one of a woman. But it soon becomes clear that the protagonists aren’t representing these cultures. If anything, they struggle to define an identity within small subcultures at the margins of their respective societies.

The Englishman, Julian Bell, is like his eponymous real-life model a product of the Bloomsbury Group which had a set of values quite radically different from what was considered normal at the time. Son of the painter Vanessa Bell (who had an open marriage with a bisexual man) and nephew of Virginia Woolf, he tends to judge everything with the measure of the intellectual cult he grew up in, and initially sneers at the idea that Chinese poets may be producing anything comparable.

The Chinese woman, called Lin Cheng in the novel, but based on the biography of the writer Ling Shuhua, is also associated with an intellectual circle, the New Moon Society. Her contradiction is that she believes in the Daoist “Art of Love”, which to her intellectual peers is just a feudal old nonsense. The arrival of the Englishman gives her the opportunity to put this theory into practice.

And practice they do, quite a bit, and it’s sensitively and sensuously described in the novel, even in the English translation I read, which is by Nicky Harman and the author’s husband Henry Zhao. The eroticism is, of course, a problem for some people in China and in the UK, and so it came to pass that Ling Shuhua’s daughter sued the author for libel in Chinese courts for defamation of the dead, and eventually succeeded in having the book banned in mainland China.

It hasn’t quite been banned in the UK, but I’m getting the impression that it has been ignored on purpose. I find it quite shocking that I couldn’t find a single review of the book. The English edition was published in 2002, so if it has been reviewed, the reviews should be on the web. Probably people perceived it like the subject’s nephew, whose name is also Julian Bell, who didn’t object to its publication but compared it to “black lace” type genre fiction.

Maybe it takes readers with intercultural sensitivity to appreciate this, but this is definitely not black lace material (and unlike Julian Bell, I have read black lace novels, I even know somebody who writes them). K really has something to tell us about what happens when cultures collide. The culture clash proves a bit too much for the English protagonist, who concludes towards the end of the book:
“The fanatical love of this Chinese woman, like the violence of the Revolution, and everything else Chinese, was simply too alien for him to comprehend or accept.”

I’m worried that this may be true for the British readers as well. I discovered the book in a charity shop, clearly unread. Somebody missed out on an amazing intercultural experience.

Publishers website re. the libel case

PS: A new paperback edition has appeared on Jan 27th, 2011:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

ethics of science journalism

My recent piece in the journal Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics has now received distinguished company in the shape of an article by Nature veteran Maxine Clark:

Ethics of science communication on the web

Full text of both our articles is freely accessible here.

Monday, December 01, 2008

december roundup

The roundup of German pieces published in December includes a blue protein and a green fluorescent one, along with surprising news about viruses and reflections on hilarious book titles:

Groß M:
Chemie in unserer Zeit 42, Nr 6,
Ein schlumpfblaues Protein

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 12, 1227
Ausgeforscht: Moleküle, Chemiker, Sensationen

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 12, 1256
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Neues aus dem Reich der Viren

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 12, 14-15
Grünes Licht für Biologen

Friday, November 28, 2008

a little place I know

I've only recently discovered Turrill Sculpture Garden in north Oxford, even though it's been there since 2000, apparently. Really nice idea to have a little garden behind the library as an exhibition space for sculptures, mostly by local artists. Lots of benches as well, so one can go there for a quiet lunch time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

buy more books!

Back in the early days of worrying about the environment we looked at paper and pitied the poor trees that were sacrificed for it, hence the drive towards paper recycling and all that.

Now, however, with the urgent need to do something about CO2, there is an entirely new perspective: I can consider the 5000+ books in my household as a significant contribution to carbon sequestration. As long as our house doesn't go up in flames, there are tons of carbon safely locked away in our books, old magazines, papers, and all that.

People of the world, buy more books ! (Even if you don't read them, just keep them safe from fire and rot.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

the drunkard's walk

I've reviewed

The Drunkard’s Walk: How randomness rules our lives
By Leonard Mlodinow
Allen Lane 2008
ISBN 978-0-713-99922-8

for Chemistry & Industry, and my full-page review is in issue 22, page 31, which is out this week.

Here's a snippet:

For me, the highlight of his book is the short biography of the gambler, medic, inventor, and arguably father of statistics, Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576). He published 131 books, invented a part that you will find in every car on the roads today, and made a living from applying statistical analysis to gambling at a time when everybody else considered the outcome of chance events as determined by the will of God. With the spellbinding lives of Cardano, and subsequent luminaries including Pascal (with his famous triangle), the Bernoulli clan, and Thomas Bayes, Mlodinow manages to make the normally boring science of statistics an interesting read. Not to become bogged down in history, he intersperses these parts with many examples of misuse of statistics and probability in modern life.

PS: To avoid confusion in navigating this blog, I've now separated blog entries referring to reviews of my books from those referring to reviews of other people's books:
booksreviewed: my books (passive indicates I'm at the receiving end of reviewing)
bookreview: reviews that I have written (or occasionally, reviews that I've read and appreciated)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

going loco

Book review

El pergamino de la seduccion (The scroll of seduction) by Gioconda Belli

“Juana la loca,” or Queen Joanna of Castile (1479-1555) never reigned because her father, her husband, and her son consecutively declared her insane and unfit to govern, claiming her political role for themselves. According to Gioconda Belli’s rehabilitation dressed up as a quite marvellous novel, the poor woman wasn’t insane at all, just squeezed between three males who had much bigger political ambitions and instincts, and whom she had the misfortune to love. (The men in question were Ferdinand II of Aragon, her father, Philip the Handsome, her husband, and her son Charles I of Spain and V. of Germany, in whose empire the sun never set.)

Gioconda Belli (born 1948) brings Joanna back to life using Lucia, a young woman in 1960s Madrid (so she’s vaguely of the author’s generation, who also went to boarding school in Madrid in the 60s) who plays her role in a game of history re-enactment that allows her to go through at least some of the experiences (love, vulnerability, imprisonment, bereavement) that Joanna went through in the 16th century. The role play artifice bridging a gap of 450 years works surprisingly well, bringing both the unfortunate queen and her modern day interpreter to life. The male history prof who sets the situation up and manipulates Lucia as the three men in her life manipulated Joanna remains more enigmatic. The spooky old house where much of the story is set is almost a character of the story and reminded me of the modern classic Nada by Carmen Laforet.

Does the author convince us that Joanna wasn’t mad after all? In her afterword she argues that while historians tend to label her as schizophrenic, none of the psychiatrists she consulted agreed with this diagnosis. Most tellingly, Joanna only went “mad” when she was treated badly, e.g. locked up, forcefully separated from her children, etc., but appeared perfectly sane under normal conditions. Which suggests that she wasn’t psychotic at all.

What appears to have been her real problem, however, was a lack of political instinct, which turned out to be catastrophic for somebody thrown into the political arena simply by virtue of her royal descent and her robust health – everybody else with higher ranking claims to the throne died young. Yes she was kicked around by the men in her life, but one can’t help thinking that the queen gene skipped a generation. Her mother, Isabella of Castile, described as cold-hearted in the novel, but famous for the Reconquista (the expulsion of the Arabs from the Iberian peninsula) and for sponsoring Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic, would have asserted herself in a similar situation, while Joanna just drowned in it and went “mad”.

Her gift appears to have been in a different domain – she is described as a passionate lover (the safe hands of an author who is also known for her erotic poetry are a definite bonus in that domain) and managed to produce six healthy children who all went on to become monarchs. The mad world of political power-struggle just wasn’t for her.

Picture from Wikimedia

Friday, November 21, 2008

a hairy beast

Genome sequences of animals seem to come cheaper by the dozen these days, but yesterday's issue of Nature contains one that is special nonetheless. It's the first sequence of an extinct animal, namely the woolly mammoth (p. 387, comment on p 330). There's also a news feature on what it would take to bring the species back to life. At least it would make a nice change from our usual activity of wiping out species at the highest rate ever, if we could bring back one.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

rock chicks

Listening to the CDs of Within Temptation (a lot) I've been thinking -- musically it makes a lot more sense to have female singers in metal. You have all this infernal grumbling going on in the guitars/bass/drums section and you really want a soprano voice to cut through this, to be distinctively audible on top of all the grumbling.

Traditionally there have been two solutions:

1) the extended guitar solo
2) male singers who can't sing very well, but who can emit high-pitched screams (the name Ozzy Osbourne springs to mind for some reason)

I am intrigued that so few bands have hit on the obvious solution of hiring a female singer. Well, in many cases it may have to do with the fact that a band owes its existence to the inflated ego of the frontman = singer. But still. I think this is a field where an end to the gender discrimination would improve the quality of the product. A lot.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the rocks are alive

as living organisms tend to produce minerals, I am not terribly surprised to read in Astrobiology magazine that the diversity of rocks has increased along with the diversity of of species. And if rocks evolve, does that mean they are alive ? well, ok, probably not. but worth looking into.

Monday, November 17, 2008

advance to mayfair

I really liked the story of the squatters who took over a 30-bedroom place in Mayfair, one of London's poshest parts (and the most expensive street on the London-based Monopoly board): £6m house, 30 rooms, one careful anarchist collective: inside Britain's poshest squat.

Hope that the publicity doesn't alert the owners -- but then again, anybody rich enough to forget they have a property like this standing around unattended will not read the Guardian. It is a remarkable thing about the British legal system that it is very friendly to squatters. The owners will have to get a court order to get them evicted, and if they don't do so within 12 years, the squatters will officially own the place. And yes, that has actually happened in the past. So good luck to them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

good news at last

Yesterday's issue of Nature carries an essay on the question of why intelligent people live longer. Apparently, the correlation is stronger than that between mortality and BMI or blood pressure. I'm not surprised that the correlation is there, but maybe a bit surprised that it is so strong. After all it might be offset by really bright people getting so depressed over the stupid ways of the world that they commit suicide at an early age.

The author seems to think this correlation is a mystery, but I suspect that may be related to the fact that his job depends on research in this area, and if there's no mystery, there are no research grants. I think that even a combination of two of the 4 possible reasons he mentions will be sufficient to explain the effect, namely stupid people doing stupid things (reason 2, paraphrased slightly) and intelligent people getting higher education levels and thus healthier work environments (1). If on top of that, one adds a bit of his reason 4, namely intelligence being an indicator of general "system integrity", i.e. the wiring of the body during development has worked well, I think there isn't anything left to explain.

Oh, and I just had an idea that isn't mentioned in his essay -- maybe the view often found in traditional societies that the elders of a tribe, village, population are the "wise ones" reflects not just their experience but also their higher than average intelligence, in which case the phenomenon isn't a product of modern life styles (reason 1), which leaves 2 and 4.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

what I always wanted to know about ...

I have a short book review in the current issue of C&I:

Gross M:
Chemistry & Industry No 21 (10.11.), 30
review of "The ubiquitous roles of cytochrome P450 proteins" by A. Sigel, H. Sigel, and R.K.O. Sigel, eds.

While this is a technical and horrendously expensive book (not to mention part of a series), I really enjoyed reading parts of it. This is because as a protein researcher I've often come across P450s but never understood a thing about them, so here at last all the questions I never dared to ask were answered in a comprehensive fashion.

Essentially, the secret behind their confusing multitude and variability is that the reaction they catalyse leaves a "spare" oxygen atom, with which the different members of the family can do all sorts of different oxidation reactions, so this is why there are thousands of them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

catalysing a greener future

Earlier this year, fellow science writer Nina Morgan organised a very interesting visit to the Oxford spinout company Oxford Catalysts, which is developing clever solutions for all kinds of problems, from the production of second-generation biofuels down to the removal of chewing gum from pavements.*

My impressions are now online in the latest edition of Oxford Today.

* read the box "steaming ahead" to find out how catalysts can help with the chewing gum problem!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

alexander calvelli

The painter Alexander Calvelli, who specializes in industrial structures (working and decaying ones), has a new exhibition, which opened at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum at Bremerhaven last Sunday. It's called Werften, Schiffe, Häfen, so supposedly it's all about shipyards, ships and harbours. The exhibition will remain there until spring 2009.

His work isn't all that well represented on the web, but there is a small gallery of his previous work.

Friday, November 07, 2008

piccard obituary

not sure why it took the Guardian 5 days, but here is an obituary to deep sea explorer Jacques Piccard, eventually:

Piccard's obituary in The Guardian

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Earthwatch expedition guide

The 2009 expedition guide from Earthwatch -- the organisation that sends fee-paying volunteers out to support many different research projects around the world -- has just arrived in the post.

You can order your own copy here (Europe)

or here (Americas).

Full details of all expeditions are of course on their website.

As it happens I am preparing another Earthwatch-related story right now, so watch this space!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Caotica Ana

Julio Medem's 6th dramatic film is a feminist travelogue in time and space. As the heroine travels away from the cave on an island (features reminiscent of Lucia) where she grew up, she becomes aware of a connection to other women who lived before her and died a violent death.

A review in epd-film this month calls the movie "a dream as described by a mathematician". As usual Medem brings his very own geometry of time and space, with multiple layers of philosophy that one has to peel apart by repeated viewing.

What's new here is the strong presence of art. Ana's paintings in the film are in reality those of the director's sister, Ana Medem, who died in an accident in 2000. Over 50 other artists have contributed work that can be seen in the film.

Another revelation is the lead actress Manuela Velles, with her debut performance. Celebrated by the spanish press as "Medem's new muse", she does have the quiet radiance of a typical Medem heroine and reminded me very much of Emma Suarez who appeared in his first three films.

Links related to the movie can be found in its Wikipedia entry

Monday, November 03, 2008

ups and downs

As a former high pressure biochemist, I have to note the passing of a great pioneer in deep sea research. Jacques Piccard, who died on Saturday aged 86, was one of only two men who reached the very bottom of the oceans, the Challenger deep, Mariana Trench, some 11 km below sea level. The hydrostatic pressure down there is around 1,100 bar (rule of thumb: 1 bar for every 10 meters), so you want to be extra sure that your equipment is pressure-proof. It has often been remarked (and is probably still true today) that we know more about the far side of the moon than about the bottom of the ocean. So it is fitting that a lot more people have visited the moon than the mariana trench.

Trivia alert: Jacques Piccard's father, Auguste Piccard, who also went very deep into the oceans and very high into the atmosphere, is believed to have been the inspiration for the character of Professor Calculus (Prof. Tournesol in the French original) in the Tintin cartoons.

Friday, October 31, 2008

happy birthday to ...

deutsche Version -- this entry in German

November marks the 30th birthday of Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German daughter of Scientific American. I’m just about old enough to remember the first issue (from the outside) which appeared in November 1978, and I’ve been a reader since 1985. As I have hardly ever learned biology or biochemistry (only one term at uni), much of my knowledge foundation in the life sciences comes from Spektrum. In 1992 I started occasional translation work for the magazine, and in March 1993, my first short feature appeared, which was about the structure of the enzyme nitrogenase. I still write for the magazine, on average about every other month. Next one to appear will be in the December issue …

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

saving Humboldt's ideals

I was quite surprised to see a position paper put out by a group of 20 universities including Oxford and Cambridge, defending the traditional idealism of European universities, which goes back to a memo written by Wilhelm von Humboldt, against the current onslaught of efficient management and all that. My story about this is now out in Current Biology.

The paper is published on the LERU site.

Monday, October 27, 2008

children of the world

The guardian has interviewed a child from every country of the world living in Britain today -- well, all but 3 or 4 countries. Which together makes an interesting panorama of life stories, and a different take on migration in today's world:

Interactive version -- click on a country to see the story.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

julio medem

I'm a huge fan of the small but exquisite oeuvre of spanish writer/director Julio Medem, so I was a bit pissed off to find out this week that his latest movie, Caotica Ana, doesn't seem to be getting a UK release. It's been released in Spain in August 07 and in various countries since (Germany due for November), but the IMDB has no release date for the UK. :(

Looks like this country is getting more insular by the minute ... When Le Clezio got the Nobel prize for literature a couple of weeks ago, it emerged that none of his books are in print in the UK at the moment. We've got American TV on 900 channels, what do we need European books and movies for ?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

ethics of science journalism

The academic journal ETHICS IN SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS is running a theme section on the ethics of science journalism, to which I have contributed an opinion piece:

Is science reporting turning into fast food?

which is freely accessible.

Monday, October 20, 2008

scientists' lives

In an essay accompanying Nature's autumn books section, science writer and biographer Georgina Ferry deplores the lack of interest in biographies of scientists:

A scientist's life for me
Georgina Ferry
Forty years after the publication of James Watson's The Double Helix, Georgina Ferry asks why the life stories of so few scientists make it into the bookshops.
Nature 455, 871-872 (16 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/455871a; Published online 15 October 2008

which is probably true. I've been pondering related questions, as I've written 24 short biographies of scientists in the last three weeks (only two bios still to do!). There are many deserving subjects out there who don't have a printed biography, and some don't even have a decent wikipedia entry.

But hey, it's the same as with other popular science books -- we scientists feel that people should read them, but most people just choose not to. Not much we can do about it (short of radical dumbing down, which in my opinion doesn't help, as it throws exactly those things over board that you want people to know about!)

Exciting new angles at scientists' lives may be a way out, as may be shorter formats. Or more eccentric scientists -- there's never a shortage of books about Einstein or Feynman.


Some of the full length scientists lives I found inspiring are those of:

Niko Tinbergen (Hans Kruuk)
Marie Curie (Eve Curie)
JD Bernal (Andrew Brown)
Darwin (Desmond/Moore)
Erdos (Hoffman)
Dorothy Hodgkin (Ferry)

Friday, October 17, 2008

platypuses reviewed

... pleased to report that my platypuses book is reviewed in Nachrichten aus der Chemie, No. 10, p. 1063.

Other than that, I've been very busy this week with the biographies (having left the hardest ones till last!). Normal service should resume some time next week (maybe not Monday).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

painting postcards

there is an intriguing business model to be admired in this short piece in the Guardian. Artist Julian Merrow-Smith paints a postcard (oil on gesso card) every day, which takes him about three hours, and puts it up for auction on his blog, selling for hundreds of dollars.

I guess it helps a lot that he happens to be located in Provence: Postcards from Provence. But hey, Postcards from Oxford has a ring to it, too, doesn't it ? I could paint piles of dusty books, crumpled up gowns, and the odd spire dreaming in the mist ... now where did I put those paintbrushs ?

Monday, October 13, 2008

watching us from high above

The European Space Agency, ESA, makes regular observations of planet Earth using its Venus Express probe, currently in orbit around Venus, I've just learned.

To Venus Express, Earth is just a single pixel on its detectors, much like an extrasolar planet would appear to some of our most advanced space telescopes. So the idea is to learn how to observe a living planet under such unfavourable circumstances. And then, of course apply this to the search for living planets elsewhere in the Universe.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

roundup of German pieces

In October we have red hot chili peppers, salt-loving bacteria, and reflections on names. sorry can't find a unifying motif in these three either. Just random stuff I happen to write about.

Chemie in unserer Zeit, p. 307: Warum Chilischoten scharf sind

Nachrichten aus der Chemie, p. 1032: Leben im Salzstress

Nachrichten aus der Chemie, p. 998: Ausgeforscht

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

cannabis news

well, it's not news really, as we've known for decades that prohibition isn't working, but it's always nice to see it reiterated by some official report, even though we know that politicians aren't listening to reason:

Report urges regulated market for cannabis to replace prohibition

Thursday, October 02, 2008

microbial mining

There's an intriguing piece in Nature's journal club column today, on microbes drilling (or more likely, etching?) microscopic mining shafts into basalt rocks in Hawaii. Apparently, the preference for one component mineral over the other suggests they are after the metals, rather than just creating a cave for protection.

Original paper: A. W. Walton, Geobiology, Volume 6 Issue 4, Pages 351 - 364

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

cracking cellulose

Combining two known approaches, solid acids and ionic liquids as solvents, Ferdi Schueth's group at MPI Muelheim has succeeded in depolymerizing cellulose even from wood, an important first step in the production of so-called second generation biofuels from inedible plant materials such as agricultural waste and wood.

Read my story in Chemistry World.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

10 years miami 5

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the arrest of the Miami Five, and there have been whole-page ads in the papers to draw attention to their plight. Essentially, they were arrested for spying on the Cuban exiles in Miami hatching plots to overthrow the Cuban regime. Various sources including Amnesty International and the UN have concluded that they did not have a fair trial. article in today's Guardian

The case has a very high profile in Cuba, I've seen posters and calendars with the pictures of the Miami Five everywhere, but I have hardly ever heard it mentioned elsewhere, so it's definitely a good thing if all the Nobel laureates and other celebrities can raise some awareness. I reckon this is one thing the next US president may want to look at.

Monday, September 29, 2008

divine chocolate

I don't normally read chocolate wrapping papers, but last week I did, and I found that the inside of my chocolate paper had an interesting story to tell:

The story of how small-scale cocoa growers in Ghana got to own a chocolate company in the UK . . .

In autumn 1998, Divine, the first ever Fairtrade chocolate bar aimed at the mass market was launched onto the UK confectionery market. In an exciting new business model, the co-operative of cocoa farmers in Ghana own shares in the company making the chocolate bar. Two farmers' representatives came to London to celebrate at the most Divine launch party in town. Here's how it all happened . . . . .

Getting it Together
In the early 1990's, the structural adjustment program involved the liberalisation of the cocoa market in Ghana. A number of leading farmers, including a visionary farmer representative on the Ghana Cocoa Board, Nana Frimpong Abrebrese, came to realise that they had the opportunity to organize farmers, to take on the internal marketing function. This would mean that they could set up a company, to sell their own cocoa to the Cocoa Marketing Company (CMC), the state-owned company that would continue to be the single exporter of Ghana cocoa.

These farmers pooled resources to set up Kuapa Kokoo, a farmers' co-op, which would trade its own cocoa, and thus manage the selling process more efficiently than the government cocoa agents. Kuapa Kokoo - which means good cocoa growers - has a mission to empower farmers in their efforts to gain a dignified livelihood, to increase women's participation in all of Kuapa's activities, and to develop environmentally friendly cultivation of cocoa. The farmers who set up Kuapa Kokoo, were supported by Twin Trading, the fair trade company that puts the coffee into Cafédirect and SNV a Dutch NGO.

Doing the Decent Thing
Kuapa Kokoo weighs, bags and transports the cocoa to market and carries out all the necessary legal paperwork for its members. Kuapa strives to ensure that all its activities are transparent, accountable and democratic.
It doesn't cheat the farmers by using inaccurate weighing scales, as other buying agents often do, and because it operates so efficiently, it can pass on the savings to its members. After seeing the benefits Kuapa gains for its members, more and more farmers want to join and the association now has upwards of 40,000 members organised in approximately 1300 village societies.

Pa Pa Paa - The Best of the Best
Cocoa from Ghana is of a high quality and trades at a premium on the world market. Kuapa Kokoo's motto is pa pa paa - which means the best of the best in the local Twi language. Kuapa's premium quality cocoa is now sold to chocolate companies around the world.

A Choc of One's Own
The cocoa farmers, who were already getting a Fairtrade price from some international customers, voted at their 1997 AGM to invest in a chocolate bar of their own. They decided that rather than aiming for the niche market where most Fairtrade products were placed, they would aim to produce a mainstream chocolate bar to compete with other major brands in UK.

A Brand New Day
Together with Twin, Kuapa helped set up The Day Chocolate Company in 1998, with the enthusiastic support of The Body Shop, Christian Aid and Comic Relief. The company was named in memory of Richard Day, a key member of the team at Twin that had helped Kuapa Kokoo develop its organisation.
The Department for International Development pulled out all the stops to guarantee Day's business loan, and NatWest offered sympathetic banking facilities.

Simply Divine
Divine Fairtrade milk chocolate, made from Kuapa's best of the best fairly traded cocoa beans was launched in October 1998 and by Christmas 1998, had made it onto the supermarket shelves . . .

A first for Fairtrade
The farmers' ownership stake in The Day Chocolate Company a first in the fair trade world, means that Kuapa Kokoo has a meaningful input into decisions about how Divine is produced and sold. Two representatives from Kuapa Kokoo are Directors on the company's Board, and one out of four Board Meetings every year is held in Ghana. As shareholders, the farmers also receive a share of the profits from the sale of Divine. This innovative company structure was recognised when Divine was awarded Millennium Product status.

Beans mean Business
In a ferociously competitive chocolate market worth almost £4 billion in the UK alone, being the new bar on the block can be a daunting prospect. But as so many people adore delicious chocolate, the potential for Divine's success is huge. There are hundreds of chocolate brands available in the UK, and the biggest companies spend up to 10% of their profit margins - tens of millions of pounds - in their fight to retain their brands' positions in the Chocolate Top Ten.

Divine has been developed to appeal to the British public's palate, and it tests favourably against all the market leaders. The UK has one of the highest per capita levels of consumption of chocolate in the world and therefore, even capturing a small proportion of this market translates into real benefits for cocoa farmers.

The latest news
In 2006, original Day Chocolate founder The Body Shop made the brilliant decision to donate its shares in the Company to Kuapa Kokoo - so now the farmers' cooperative has an even bigger stake in Divine. On 1st January 2007, Day Chocolate changed its name to Divine Chocolate Ltd to more closely align the company with our flagship brand, and the brand itself experienced a major redesign. Then on February 14th 2007 the launch of Divine Chocolate Inc in the USA was announced... Another big year in the life of Divine!


OK, the version on the wrapping was a little shorter, but essentially the same story. And the chocolate is good, too.

Divine Chocolate

Thursday, September 25, 2008

blogs advance science

... according to Oxford University's latest press release.

Couldn't agree more, but the estimate of 1200 science blogs worldwide strikes me as ridiculously small. If it's true, science has a lot of catching up to do in the blogosphere.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

chemical deconstructivism

The idea of using chain reactions to create polymers in the test tube is almost a century old (I'm guessing!), so it's intriguing that until recently nobody thought of turning the idea around and producing lots of monomers by a chain reaction deconstructing a polymer. This approach has been pioneered by Doron Shabat at Tel Aviv, and recent progress is discussed in a highlight in Angewandte Chemie. Apparently there are lots of ideas for applications from drug transporters through to sensor signal amplification. One has to be careful though to make sure that the polymer doesn't self-destruct before it is told to do so. Falsely triggered reactions will probably be a worry if this ever reaches real-world applications.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

natalie clein

Cellist Natalie Clein has recorded the Elgar concerto, part of which you can hear on her MySpace profile. The CD is out now:

and available from, for example. I'm a great fan of her "Romantic Cello" compilation, so I'll probably complete our Clein collection at some point.

PS Here's the Indy on Sunday on Natalie's first busking experience earlier this year.

Monday, September 22, 2008

platypuses reviews

A few reviews of The birds the bees and the platypuses are beginning to appear: SciTech Book News (hope this one is ok, haven't bothered signing up for a free trial in order to read the text)

Paul Halpern's review on (also appeared on his MySpace blog

well, err, that's all I've spotted so far, apart from the texts by the publisher and various book chains. hope to be able to expand this list soon ...

Friday, September 19, 2008

going green as if it was 1993

I don't want to engage in any flag waving, but I need to get rid of this rant before the year is out, so here it goes:

We moved from Germany to the UK in 1993, and with all the "going green" discussion happening here in the UK now in 2008, it has struck us that the state of progress on green awareness here and now is very much like Germany 1993. Councils collecting plastic for recycling, shops offering multi-use cloth bags to buy instead of handing out plastic bags automatically, occasional appearance of solar panels on private houses, acknowledgement of green issues by leading politicians, all these things have only become noticable here in the last months, and all of these happened in Germany before we moved away in May 1993.

So I now declare the UK to be 15 years behind on green issues, and if any politician here claims leadership in this field again I'll knock him over the head with a solar panel ... just kidding. Rant over now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

a new name for LHC?

The German research ministry refers to the Large Hadron Collider as Weltmaschine (world machine), but the Royal Society of Chemistry now suggested "halo", see their press release below for the runners up. Personally I can cope with LHC, though it does beg the question, voiced by a letter to the guardian, what a small hadron collider might look like.

RSC press release:

After massive, worldwide public response, with its media office deluged by thousands of entries, the RSC has chosen the winner of its competition to suggest a new, inspiring name for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.


Fed up with the contrived acronyms that plague the world of science, the RSC picked a suggestion which is simple, memorable, and brings to mind the deserved grandeur of perhaps the most important experiment ever built.

Halo conjures visions of radiant beauty, power and wisdom. The circle of light reflects the collider’s form; it is a crowning achievement of science and engineering. It also gives more than a nod to the experiment’s importance to religious debate.

It was by far the most popular entry, with hundreds of people suggesting the name. The winner of the competition was chosen at random from those who suggested Halo; this was Aaron Borges of Rhode Island , USA , who wins $892 (£500).

The RSC will be formally suggesting the new name to CERN and the Institute of Physics.

Some reports say that the RSC is suffering from “professional jealousy”; far from it. The RSC congratulates the physics community with nothing but admiration for their amazing project – it just has a very boring name.

Several other entries to the competition were popular. Colliderscope garnered many votes, with members of the public revelling in the pun on “kaleidoscope” – and some apparently oblivious to it.

Black Mesa, the name of an ill-fated research facility in the computer game franchise Half-life, was particularly well represented by gamers who Dugg media coverage of the competition on the social bookmarking site Digg.

Lots suggested that to find the answer to life, the universe, and everything, we should name the experiment after the computer designed to do just that in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought.

Other favourites were The Particrasher, E=M25, The Big Banger and Big Bang Two Point Oh.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Asperger rocks

There was an interesting piece in the guardian last week about an emerging pop musician who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Her stage name is Ladyhawke, and she’s from New Zealand. Album released in the UK next week.

Guardian piece

You can check out her music on her MySpace profile too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

space bears

A year ago, researchers sent two species of tardigrades (microscopic animals also known as water-bears) into a low Earth orbit, around 280 km above sea level for 10 days, to see how they cope. Tardigrades are remarkable for their resistance to extreme desiccation, so the idea is that they might be the only animals capable of surviving the high vacuum in space.

Now Ingemar Jönsson et al. from Kristianstad University in Sweden have reported the results of this space mission. It turns out that both species cope with space vacuum very well as long as they are protected from radiation, with survival rates close to 100 %. One species (M.tardigradum) also had a reasonable survival rate after exposure to space vacuum and UV radiation in the UVA and UVB range. Only three specimens of M. tardigradum survived the full unfiltered radiation spectrum typical of Earth orbit.

Tardigrades have now joined bacterial spores and lichens in the very small group of organisms that can survive space conditions. Mechanisms remain to be elucidated, but one may speculate that sophisticated ways of DNA packaging during desiccation and DNA repair afterwards play a role, as has been shown for the radiation resistance of Deinococcus radiodurans.

Current Biology 2008, 18, R729-R731

There’s more about the remarkable stress-resistance of tardigrades in the following chapter from my new book, The birds, the bees, and the platypuses:

Squeezy little bears

The crazy creatures at the extreme ends of life on Earth have fascinated me for many years. As both my PhD thesis and one of my books dealt with life under extreme conditions, I’m no longer that easily impressed by tales of life in boiling water, sizzling deserts, or permanent ice. However, the following story (which unfortunately came up too late for the original edition of “Life on the Edge”) beats them all. If anybody wants to send animals to Mars, I suggest they try the “little bears” or tardigrades. The following text is adapted from a postscript included in the paperback edition of “Life on the Edge.”

Tardigrades are microscopically small animals reminiscent of downsized bears, at most half a millimetre long. They live in water droplets suspended in moss and lichens and can be found on all continents. Now if you’re such a tiny little bear exposed to the elements, you need some very special survivial skills.

Tardigrades have at least two major emergency routines. If their habitat is flooded and there is a risk of oxygen shortage, they inflate to a balloon-like passive state that can float around on the water for days. If, however, the threat comes from a lack of water, they shrink to form the so-called tun state (because it looks like a barrel), which could be described as the animal equivalent of a spore. Researchers have managed to resuscitate tardigrades by rehydrating moss samples after up to 100 years of storage on museum shelves, which proves the quite remarkable long-term stability of this state.

It was this tun state that Kunihiro Seki and Masato Toyoshima (Kanagawa University, Japan) used in their studies of resistance against high pressures. As the presence of water would have converted the animals back to the active state, the researchers suspended the tuns in a perfluorocarbon solvent before they applied pressures of up to 6,000 atmospheres (more than five-fold the pressure found in the deepest trenches of the oceans). While active tardigrade populations in water are are killed off by 2000 atmospheres (already an implausibly high threshold for an animal), the tun state allowed 95 % of the individuals of one species and 80 % of another to survive the maximal pressure of 6,000 atmospheres.

This observation is unprecedented for any animal species. Only some bacterial spores and lichens could hope to compete with that. Still, tardigrade experts may have been only mildly surprised, as they knew already that the tuns can be revived after freezing in liquid helium -- they are frost resistant down to 0.5 Kelvin. Detailed mechanistic explanations for these record-breaking achievements are not yet available. One thing that is known for sure is that the tuns contain high concentrations of the sugar trehalose, which is known to improve the stress resistance of baker’s yeast.

The phenomenal shelf life of the tuns has aroused the interest of researchers in medical technology. Some are trying to copy the tardigrades’ recipe to achieve similar long-term stability for human organs to be used in transplantation.


Further reading

M. Gross, Life on the Edge

What happened next

I am pleased to report that researchers actually followed up on my suggestion 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. At the time of writing, the tardigrade passengers were awaiting detailed analyses that will surely reveal how well they are suited to withstand space conditions.

Monday, September 15, 2008

periodic table of videos

I only found out yesterday that there is a "periodic table of videos", where each of the currently known 117 elements has its own little clip. You just click on the relevant square in the periodic table and you get the 3-minute introduction to the element. Genius. The structure of the clips I've seen is quite elementary as well, though. Basically they cut back and forth between Professor Martyn Poliakoff sitting behind his desk with a periodic-table themed tie (and matching mug), waving his hands and explaining the more academic side of the topic, and a younger scientist in the lab doing something with the element in question and giving additional explanations.

So maybe I wouldn't want to sacrifice five hours to sit through all 117 elements, but it's well worth checking out a few.

PS People in the UK may recognise the name Poliakoff -- his brother Stephen has written lots of stuff for stage and TV.

Friday, September 12, 2008

blue as a smurf

Malaysian frogs of the species Polypedates leucomystax protect their spawn by secreting a protective liquid and whipping it up to a foam which turns blue after a while. Researchers have now identified the cause of this colour as a highly unusual protein which they named after the similarly coloured cartoon heroes: ranasmurfin (where rana is latin for frog).

Ranasmurfin crystallizes so nicely (forming deep blue crystals) that the researchers didn’t even need to solve the sequence to figure out what they were looking at. They found a novel fold (very rare these days) and a novel cross-link between the two subunits, namely an indophenol group which has never before been observed in a stable protein structure. This group is also the source of the characteristic blue colour. Much like the chromophore in Green Fluorescent Protein, it arises from a chemical reaction between amino acids of the protein chain that occurs after the synthesis is finished. Thus one would not have been able to predict this feature from sequencing the gene.

Unusual Chromophore and Cross-Links in Ranasmurfin: A Blue Protein from the Foam Nests of a Tropical Frog
Muse Oke, Rosalind Tan Yan Ching, Lester G. Carter, Kenneth A. Johnson, Huanting Liu, Stephen A. McMahon, Malcolm F. White, Carlos Bloch Jr., Catherine H. Botting, Martin A. Walsh, Aishah A. Latiff, Malcolm W. Kennedy, Alan Cooper, James H. Naismith
Angewandte Chemie International Edition
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200802901

Thursday, September 11, 2008

children of latin america

Webcast: The Children of Latin American: A Future Without Poverty

On September 24th, The Earth Institute at Columbia University and América Latina en Acción Solidaria (ALAS) present "The Children of Latin America: A Future Without Poverty. Creating equity through early childhood development programs". World leaders from Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador and Panama join Jeffrey D. Sachs and Shakira to discuss the importance of comprehensive early childhood development in Latin America.

The event will be streamed live on Alas Foundation Website

To see the event, simply register on Alas' website.

Participants -- Latin American Leaders:

Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa, President, Republic of Mexico
Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner, President, Argentine Republic
Elias Antonio Saca González, President, Republic of El Salvador
Martín Erasto Torrijos Espino, President, Republic of Panama

Participants -- Experts and Activists:

Shakira, Advocate, ALAS
Alejandro Sanz, Advocate, ALAS
James J. Heckman, Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, University of Chicago
Luis Alberto Moreno, President, Inter-American Development Bank
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director, The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Alejandro Santo Domingo Dávila, President, ALAS Board

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

a place in the sun

Germany's Max Planck society seeks to expand its operations around the globe and has now secured funding for its first institute in the US, due to open in Palm Beach County, Florida, next year. Read my story in today's issue of Current Biology (limited access).

Of course, all envious university employees who have always thought that Max Planck people were enjoying a place on the sunny side of life, won't change their mind based on this piece of news ...

Monday, September 08, 2008

activist to fructivist

you know it's harvest time when George Monbiot, who regularly implores us to save the world, goes all domestic and fruity and raves about old-fashioned apple varieties. I broadly agree with him on this fructivist manifesto, but have two moans. firstly, no quinces in his orchard ? and secondly, how could he move from Oxford to the middle of nowhere, sorry , middle of Wales? I'm wondering whether the allotment he left behind will get a blue plaque one day. "George Monbiot planted these carefully chosen apple trees before retiring to Wales."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

when computers were female

Timed to coincide with google's 10th birthday, Nature is running a special issue with lots of pieces on "big data" this week. One thing that I found particularly intriguing, and that was completely new to me, is the story of the women hired as data crunchers between the middle of the 19th and the middle of the 20th century, who were referred to as "computers", as described by Sue Nelson on page 36 of the issue.

There's a wonderful quote in this paragraph of the essay:

In 1901, William Elkin, the director of Yale Observatory, expressed a view typical of the time as to who was best suited for this work. "I am thoroughly in favour of employing women as measurers and computers," he said. "Not only are women available at smaller salaries than are men, but for routine work they have important advantages. Men are more likely to grow impatient after the novelty of the work has worn off and would be harder to retain for that reason."

Even though the computers' work was mainly dull routine, the author also cites examples of women who made original contributions and built successful scientific careers on this occupation.

Full text is here, and appears to be open access.

Full reference:
Big data: The Harvard computers p36
The first mass data crunchers were people, not machines. Sue Nelson looks at the discoveries and legacy of the remarkable women of Harvard's Observatory.
Sue Nelson

Friday, September 05, 2008

oddest title ever

... and the Diagram of Diagrams, i.e. the award for the oddest title ever (or at least in the last 30 years) goes to:

Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers.

published by the Greek Hellenic Philatelic Society of Great Britain, which "exists to encourage the collection of Greek stamps and to promote their study".


In celebration, the Guardian has put up a gallery of 30 odd titles.

Glad to see none of my weird books was picked. It's always a question of perspective, I guess. Most of the authors concerned probably considered their title perfectly reasonable.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

magnetic liquids

In Angewandte Chem. early view, there is a nice little paper reporting the first ionic liquid that is both magnetic and fluorescent. So one could have a drop of it in tube, with another, immiscible liquid, and move it around with magnetic field, and watch it glow. And once that becomes boring, I am almost sure there is a brilliant application for this just waiting to be discovered. Just need to find my thinking hat and put it on ...

Hm, how about some new display technology. A new kind of lava lamp. Or for spooky floating aquarium lighting? Still looking for that hat!

Dysprosium Room-Temperature Ionic Liquids with Strong Luminescence and Response to Magnetic Fields
Bert Mallick, Benjamin Balke, Claudia Felser, Anja-Verena Mudring
Published Online: Aug 29 2008 6:45AM
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200802390

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

more couscous

I found a slide show with pix of Hafsia Herzi, the star of the recent movie Couscous (La graine et le mulet), so without further ado I'll embed it here:

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

van Gogh's ear

I'm pleased to report that Spanish band La Oreja de Van Gogh appear to have survived the departure of their singer, Amaia Montero. The new album A las cinco en el astoria, recorded with a brand new singer, is available in Spain from today, and in the rest of the world from Sept. 30th.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

quince festival

I have a thing about quinces, if only because they are so rare nowadays, and in my grandparents' garden there used to be tons of them. Have just found out that there is a quince festival at Norton Priory (near Liverpool) coming up on October 4th and 5th. Their website also offers some background on quinces, plus recipes. I might just try one of these with the 8 quinces that my little tree is bearing this year (100 % increase over last year!).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

what an odd title

I've been a fan of the "oddest book title of the year award" (now known as the Diagram prize) for years, so I'm chuffed to see a feature in the Guardian about this most entertaining of competitions in the literary world. Sadly my personal favourite "Procrastination and task avoidance, a practical guide" (shortlisted some time in the late 90s) isn't among the covers shown, but I trust it will feature in the book due out September 5th: How to avoid huge ships, and other implausibly titled books.

This book, like any other titles you may now be pondering, doesn't qualify for the award, though. The key condition is that the title must be unintentionally funny, so the prize committee will weed out anybody under suspicion of creating a weird title on purpose.

Friday, August 29, 2008

imprinting autism

Also in yesterday's issue of Nature there is an interesting hypothesis regarding the causes of autism. While several genetic factors have been identified that cause a small proportion of the cases of autism, the large majority is still unaccounted for.

Badcock and Crespi discuss here (Nature vol 454, p 1054) their hypothesis (originally published in 2006 but I missed it) that autism might be due to a problem in imprinting, a process which ensures that of certain genes only the paternal copy is used, and of others only the maternal one. As has been discussed before, this can create a battle of the sexes, whereby paternal genes favour a big, demanding fetus (and child) at the expense of the mother's fitness, while maternal genes would tend to minimise this trend. Imprinting affects at least 63 human genes, possibly several hundred.

Badcock and Crespi suggest that autism is due to an imbalance in favour of paternal genes. They go further and say that neurotic disorders (schizophrenia etc.), which in some respects are the exact opposite of autism may be symmetrically caused by an imbalance favouring maternal genes. (Although the authors seem to be unaware of it, the symmetry between symptoms of autism and neurosis have already been discussed in the autism literature. Essentially, if you're autistic you don't care what other people think, and if you're neurotic you care way too much.)

Linking a whole catalogue of mental disorders to imprinting is a bold hypothesis, but it is clearly testable, so within a year or two somebody should be able to work out whether it holds up in practice. If it does, it also suggests treatment options that may become available in the long term.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

deep sea viruses

We all know about tube worms and black smokers of course, but today I found out from an article in Nature (page 1084 and cover illustration) that viruses play a major role in the biological cycles beyond 1000 m depth. Rather than being eaten by other organisms, the deep sea microbes (which by the way are more likely to be archaea than eubacteria) are most likely to die by viral infection, with the result that they spill their biomolecules into the sea to be eaten by others.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

astrobiology -- coming to a course near you

My distinguished coauthor tells me that Astrobiology: a brief introduction has been adopted as a textbook for courses at the following universities:

University of Maryland
Missouri University of Science and Technology
Cal Poly SLO
New Mexico Tech
UC Merced
Arizona State
Sonoma State
University of Central Lancaster
Sacramento State
Stockholms Universitet

... as well as in his own astrobiology course at the UC Santa Barbara, which completes the dozen.

But of course you can always read it just for the heck of it !

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

save the bees

While the large scale loss of bees in the US is still an unsolved mystery, a smaller die-off in Germany has been quickly linked to a specific pesticide. Read my story in today's Current Biology (limited access).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

53 years, seven months and eleven days

At last I got to see Love in the time of cholera, on DVD as I missed it in the cinema. I was a bit worried, as it had crap reviews around here, but then again, British critics can be relied upon to trash any movie that includes images of women’s nipples.

My main gripe is that it’s in the wrong language. To me, the international cast speaking English with a mock hispanic accent sounds like they’re taking the mickey, even though I’m sure they mean well. The mock accent combined with the wealth of exotic detail (parrots, cock fights, the lot), gives the movie a flair of caricature that I had to consciously ignore in order to enjoy it.

The director (Mike Newell of Harry Potter fame) and producers claim they had to do it in English, or else it would have been “only an art movie”and wouldn’t have reached a wide audience. Don’t know about the US box office, but I think here it didn’t do better than it would have done in Spanish.

Other than that I thought it was quite impressive how they managed to cover the huge time span, those famous 53 years, seven months and eleven days, including the nights, and make the (external) aging of the characters credible. Also very pleased to see Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (from Maria llena de gracias) in a small role here. In fact, I think she should have been given the female lead.

But what really makes the film special is that they actually shot it in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, which is just a magical place. I understand from the interviews that this wasn’t planned originally. And of course the three songs by Shakira. They should have called it Best Of Colombia, really.

A nice touch of sarcasm is the use of the old French song “Le fiacre” in the opening scenes. The link with the subject matter of the film will have escaped most viewers’ attention, but the song involves a couple making suspicious noises behind closed curtains in a horse-drawn carriage going at full speed. When the carriage runs over and kills a man who tried to cross the road, the woman looks out of the window, then addresses her companion: “Good news, Leon, that was my husband.” (lyrics and further details about the song) Well, I did warn you that it was a sarcastic touch. Especially as Fermina’s husband dies as soon as the song fades out. And isn’t it ironic they inflicted that (in French!) on an audience that they wouldn’t trouble with dialogue in Spanish?

Friday, August 22, 2008

slideshow widget

... moving on to somewhat more sophisticated widgets:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

testing widgets

Now, let's see if I can get my head round these widgets. I copy over the code and you should be able to order my book from

or from

or from

or from

and I get the referral fee. Plus the stats of how many people actually did click on that link. At least that's how it worked back in 2000, when the system was much easier.

PS assure me that the old-style links that I have all over my website should still work. So I'm relieved to know that I don't have to replace all of them with widgets.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I really liked Jem's first album, Finally Woken, and enjoyed her gig at London's Shepherds Bush Empire, so I am looking forward to the second one due out in September:

The new album is now available to preorder from:
(one of these days I'll figure out how these freaking newfangled widgets work. I could actually be earning money with such links -- and actually did in the early days of amazon, when the system was still simple and userfriendly!)

Her music is hard to put into boxes, just check her MySpace profile which has old and new tracks (in the box "Sounds like" she puts the answer "Me", and quite right too). One of them from the Sex and the City movie soundtrack, but I won't hold that against her ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

romero de torres

In 2005, I spent a few days in Cordoba and found out about the painter Julio Romero de Torres (1874-1930), who barely ever left his home town and is thus very famous there and quite unknown in the rest of the world.

Until recently, he didn't even have a Wikipedia entry, but now somebody (not me) fixed this, so he's now here.

Sadly, Wikimedia has no free images of his paintings, but you can easily find them using Google images. The picture of the topless lady carrying four oranges adorned our hotel room, but I reckon that it was a (painted) copy, not the original.

Apart from the very characteristic mood of his paintings, I was also intrigued by the faces. People in the area still look a lot like his models did. In the streets of Cordoba I often had the impression of seeing somebody who just stepped out of a painting by Romero de Torres.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

platypuses as a summer read

Just a reminder that my new book The birds, the bees and the platypuses should be available from every good bookshop around the (English-speaking) world by now. With its emphasis on the fun side of science it's definitely suitable as a holiday read, even if I say so myself.

you can order it, for example, from (Which reminds me that I need to get my head round the new(ish) system of amazon links. I don't think that the tag included in this link earns me any money, but at least the link works.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

a DNA muscle

There are lots of different nanomachines built from DNA these days, but I really liked this example from Angewandte where Lubrich et al. used the "DNA fuel" approach to create a long contractile fibre, much like a muscle fibre. Add one kind of DNA strand, and it contracts, add the complementary strand and it detaches the first strand allowing the fibre to return to the start (and the waste double strand can presumably be separated and recycled as well).

A Contractile DNA Machine
Daniel Lubrich, Jie Lin, Jie Yan
Published Online: Aug 4 2008 2:34AM
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200800476

Thursday, August 14, 2008

deadly companions

I've reviewed the book Deadly Companions: how microbes shaped our history in the current issue of Chemistry & Industry, No 15, p 29.

Here's a snippet from the review:
"Dorothy Crawford, a professor of medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, has taken a sabbatical year to explore our history from this angle – an all too rare example of an established scientist taking time to popularise science. Her book is an excellent explanation of what went wrong for most of human history, what went very briefly right in the 20th century, and why microbes have now wrongfooted us again, at the beginning of the 21st. As microbes are everywhere around us, most of this “deadly companionship” can be explained in terms of human activities and lifestyle changes offering pathogens from other animals new opportunities to invade."

Full text should turn up online here, but it's often late.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

why chili peppers are hot

J. Tewksbury and coworkers have reported direct evidence that the hot stuff in chili peppers evolved to deter fungi. Read my story in Chemistry World

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

in with the new

... and out with the old, it seems.

Oxford has a shiny new Chemistry Research Lab:

When that opened, the New Chemistry Lab, where I used to work from 1993 to 2001, was renamed to Central Chemistry Lab. And now it appears they are knocking it down:

What a shame. I was so looking forward to having a blue plaque next to that door :D

too bad. The real trouble with the Science Area is not the mixed quality of the individual buildings but the fact that for decades everybody was allowed to build and extend whatever they wanted, without a master plan. So the whole area looks more like a cancerous growth than like a campus. A couple of years ago, the University noticed that and did come up with a master plan. Wondering whether they will now stick to that when replacing the poor old new chemistry building.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Vermeer's hat

I read an intriguing book review recently, of a book called Vermeer's hat. The book looks at all the objects (clothes, china, etc.) seen in Vermeer's paintings and explores their contexts and likely origin, illuminating global trade routes and politics in his time. Sounds like a brilliant idea to me.

Since the runaway success of "Girl with a pearl earring" we are of course aware that Vermeer's very slim oeuvre is a perfect laboratory for exploration and imagination. Most of his 30-something paintings appear to have been painted in the same room, which can be basically reconstructed (see: Philip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera).

But stepping outside Vermeer's room and finding out what his chamber pieces tell us about his world, and its already globalised trade, that's genius.

Vermeer's Hat : The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook 288pp, Profile, £18.99

Friday, August 08, 2008


One of the things I visited at Boulogne last week was Nausicaa, a "National Sea Experience Centre". With 30 or so tanks that you can view from all sides, below, and even from bubbles inside, it's quite amazing. (especially if you look from above at the people viewing from the bubbles, portholes, etc. below -- it can give the impression that they have added a few aquatic humans to their collection!)

It takes an hour just to walk around and look at all the animals from all sides. If you want to read the educational posters and watch the movies you could easily spend all day.

I had trouble remembering the name at first though, as I was unaware that they pinched it from a character from the Odyssey. According to Wikipedia, it means "burner of ships" in Greek. I wonder whether there is a political program behind that naming ... ?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

how many kisses

For anybody who spends some time in France, of course, the deepest of all mysteries is: how many kisses am I supposed to exchange on greeting someone?

Now, at last, there is at least a geographical map, showing the preferred number of kisses for each departement. There are of course additional levels of complexity (according to social factors, occasion, time, fashion, sheer random chaos ... ) but this map is a start. Wonder how long it takes before it is reprinted in the guidebooks.

I tend to do two, and rely on people to tell me if they need more :)

I found this link in an amusing Guardian feature about how Brits struggle with the shift towards more intimate greetings ...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

German pieces in August

This month, the German publications are all driven by light, it seems, as we have the light-driven molecular motor and photodynamic therapy:

Groß M:
Chemie in unserer Zeit 42, Nr 4, 254
Energieumwandlung: Lichtgetriebener Molekülmotor

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 8, 16-17
Laserskalpell mit Tiefenwirkung

Oops, I nearly forgot, we also have conservation issues in Africa:

Michael Groß
Biologie in unserer Zeit Nr 4, 221
Neue Wege für den Artenschutz in Afrika
Published Online: Aug 4 2008 5:35AM
DOI: 10.1002/biuz.200890063


(Both pdf links have restricted access, but they do work within Oxford University, even though these are German magazines!)

And finally, the magazine of Austrian pharmacists has reprinted my story on bacterial hairs, or pili:
Bakterien am Schopf gepackt
Österreichische Apotheker-Zeitung 62, Nr 15, 778-9 (21.7.2008)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

a plodding life

During my week off, I read Georgina Ferry's biography of Max Perutz, who solved the crystal structure of haemoglobin in an epic quest lasting over 3 decades, and who set up the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, which I understand has produced more Nobel laureates than France or Canada in the time since it opened.

All this makes for an exciting story, even though the protagonist is anything but a glittering star. Perutz was a very patient and persistent "plodder" who, while eager for success and recognition, was never seen as a genius and never had the over-sized ego that often comes with such a label. The persistent plodding won him the haemoglobin structure and the Nobel prize, while his modesty allowed him to quietly run a world-leading institute where he had to handle primadonnas like Francis Crick.

Obviously, the book is a must for anybody interested in proteins. For everybody else, I was worried a bit that it might turn out a bit boring as I knew that Max was a less than glittering person. But I think the author has managed the trick to turn his plodding life into a compelling story, which should be interesting for non-specialist readers as well. The main lesson for the general public is, of course, that one doesn't have to be a towering genius of stature of a Crick or Bernal in order to be a successful scientist. Relatively ordinary people can make an impact too.

Monday, August 04, 2008

gliding on air

I spent a week at Boulogne and the adjacent resort of Le Portel.

Way back in the 70s there was a Hovercraft connection linking Dover to Boulogne in 30 minutes. Walking along the beach in Le Portel on July 31st, I came across the old Hoverport and terminal buildings. Essentially a tarmac ramp leading up to a few hangars and an five-storey building on stilts. The whole of it abandoned and left to the elements.

Later that day, reading the local newspaper, I found out that I had just visited the facility on its 40th birthday: It was officially opened by Princess Margaret on July 31 1968. It's quite spooky to see a technology so recently hailed as "the future" going the way of the Zeppelins.

What happened, I guess, is that the hovering technology was less fuel efficient (though still faster) than competing fast ferry services (such as the "seacat" catamaran, which is now run by, which we used to get there), and with the arrival of the Eurostar and chunnel services, it was ultimately doomed. Hovercraft services on the English channel were abandoned in 2000 according to the wikipedia entry, though the Dover Boulogne route and the Le Portel terminal were already given up in 1993 by the company Hoverspeed.

Speedferries's Speed 1 (the plural in the name is an exaggeration, they only run 1 ship on this route, which I think is their only one?!) takes 50 mins, by the way, was more than half an hour late on both legs of our journey, and every time I saw the ship on the days in between it was running late. Plus, as foot passengers, we got treated to the most inefficient travel procedure I've experienced in my life They ferry a minibus back and forth just for a maximum of 16 people, and one should not bring luggage, there is space for about 4 suitcases in total, 2 of which were actually blocking the exit for the 8 passengers in the back of the van.

So, maybe we should have kept the hovercrafts after all ?

Friday, July 25, 2008

IVF and all that

I understand that today is Louise Brown's 30th birthday. Not sure what happened to her, but people my age and above will remember that she was the first ever baby conceived by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) -- millions were to follow.

Maybe more significant for today's debates, however, is that the UK was very lucky to have been host to the pioneering IVF work more than three decades ago. The discussions around this work led to pioneering legislation and to the regulatory authority HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority), which meant that 20 years later, when issues like stem cells and therapeutic cloning came up, the UK was well-prepared and had structures in place to enable new pioneering work to be permitted on its merits, while in places like Germany the debates still rage on. Blind luck for the government of the day, of course, as nobody would have predicted that issues under the remit of the HFEA would become so big so quickly.

So this anniversary offers reason to celebrate not just for people with fertility problems, but also for biomedical scientists.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

la graine et le mulet

Saw La graine et le mulet (Couscous) yesterday, and am completely blown away. So many great things about it that I wouldn't know where to start, but one of the keys to its success is
Hafsia Herzi who deservedly won the Cesar for "meilleur espoir feminin" (best female newcomer) at the Cesars.

Here's an interview clip with Hafsia Herzi:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

9 lives

I'm playing Kat de Luna's debut album "9 lives" on closed loop rather loudly, and before the neighbours turn up and remove some of my 9 lives, I should try to write something sensible about it.

While not quite perfect (it's quite clear which tracks are killers, and which are fillers), I think it is remarkable as a debut. Imagine Christina Aguilera skipping the "genie in a bottle" phase and doing "stripped" with Daddy Yankee providing the rhythm section. There's an interesting mix of various musical styles from the caribbean and further afield, and Kat's got first writing credit on all tracks but one. Here's definitely somebody to watch.

I usually skip the cringe-worthy spoken intro, though, which also reminded me of Stripped, and which I don't really want to hear 10 times a day (do I hear somebody banging on the door with a sledgehammer ?)