Monday, March 31, 2008

all things apocalyptic

I'm shocked that George Monbiot has another book out -- and I haven't even managed to catch up with the last three. I do read his weekly column though, and I usually agree with everything he says, so I feel I don't have to read the books. Although they are important, of course.

Well, anyhow, the new one is called:

Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice

and available via amazon or Guardian books.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

20 min sport

I have decided that if I have to follow some kind of sport, watching the Oxford v Cambridge boat race is the most efficient way of doing it, as it takes only 20 minutes -- per year! So I watched it today (only the second time) and we (oxford) won. (Oxford also won the first time I watched, which i think was two years ago.) So that's an undeserved success for the day, and enough sport for a year ...

Friday, March 28, 2008

discovering ecuador

Could you name a writer from Ecuador? Well, until a few weeks ago, I couldn't, even though I have shelves full of Latin American literature. But now, thanks to a few recommendations from Adri, an Ecuadorian friend, I am discovering a whole new country. Currently reading El Cristo Feo, by Alicia Yanez Cossio and loving it. More raving surely to follow in due course.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

dolphins in the Mediterranean

There's an Earthwatch lecture on at The Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London, tonight at 7 pm, on two dolphin projects.

Ricardo Sagarminaga van Buitan is going to talk about the dolphins in the Alboran Sea (off the Spanish coast). Ric will also mention his sea turtles project which is featured at the site

Joan Gonzalvo Villegas will talk about dolphin research and conservation in Greece, and his outreach work with the local communities and schools.

I've seen the rehearsals, so I can promise you that the talks will be very interesting ...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

antarctic art

Artist Chris Drury has spent some time in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey. An exhibition of his antarctic art will go on show at the Beaux Art, London, in April.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

rob the poor to fuel the rich

biofuels have fallen from grace with alarming speed. What looked like the future of transport a year ago is now seen as a threat to food provision and the environment alike. Today's issue of Current Biology contains a few news features on these problems, and I've written the one on the impact of biofuels on African countries. Apologies for the title which I didn't choose or approve.

Monday, March 24, 2008


... no, that's not my social security number, it's a jupiter-sized planet which does us the favour of circling its sun in a plane that also includes us, i.e. it passes in front of its star once in every complete orbit. Therefore, scientists can use spectroscopic methods to find out which parts of the star's spectrum the planet atmosphere swallows up more effectively than others, and from this conclude what kinds of molecules form the atmosphere.

With this kind of measurements, performed with the Hubble space telescope, Mark Swain et al. have now for the first time presented evidence for carbon molecules in the atmosphere of any extrasolar planet (Nature 2008, 452, 329). Their spectroscopic results reveal methane as a component of HD189733b's atmosphere, and confirm the presence of water vapour. Indirect evidence suggests there might be carbon monoxide as well.

While HD189733b itself is not a very promising candidate for extraterrestrial life (way too hot), it is really exciting that detailed analysis of the atmospheres of extrasolar planets is now possible. In theory, the same kind of technology could be used to detect signs of disequilibrium, i.e. life, on more suitable planets.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

measuring the world

Finally, I got round to reading "Die Vermessung der Welt" (Measuring the World), by Daniel Kehlmann. This is a somewhat fictionalised double biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. In their parallel lives, both did indeed measure parts of the world, one as a mathematician and surveyor on home ground, the other as an explorer and naturalist.

The book is very readable and follows in the tradition of books like "longitude" -- this "mid-brow" terrain is still relatively new to German literature; until recently there was a wide canyon separating the U and the E literature, i.e. the popular and the literary fiction. Novels bridging this gap, possibly starting with Patrick Suesskind's "Perfume" have been rewarded with successful translation deals, and Kehlmann's book is now available in English too.

While it was very entertaining to read, and useful in terms of organising a number of household names of the 19th century into a network of who knew whom (they didn't have facebook back then!), I felt slightly unsure about the fine line between biography and fiction, I mean did Gauss really make that promise to learn Russian as a favour to a Russian prostitute? I'll need to read a proper biography at some point.

Friday, March 21, 2008

the last cubist

I really enjoyed watching Sidney Pollack's documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry earlier this week. Beforehand, I only knew two things about Gehry, namely that he built the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, and that he's featured in a Simpsons episode (the Springfielders send him a letter asking him to build an opera house for them, he scrunches the sheet together to throw it away, then looks at the paper ball, has an inspiration, and builds the opera house in the image of the crumpled paper).

I've always been a sucker for anything that appears to give some kind of insight into the nature of creativity, and there is no bigger challenge to the creative mind than to shape spaces the size of theatres and sports venues, so this was bound to appeal. In addition, I also enjoyed it because Gehry's work is so close to modern sculpture and cubist painters. I think somebody in the docu calls him the last cubist or something similar.

And of course, as always, the Simpsons episode managed to capture the spirit of Gehry's creativity in a few minutes just as well as the documentary in 83 minutes.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

five years on

Five years of war and mayhem in Iraq, what a depressing anniversary. Around this time in 2003, I ran a preliminary kind of blog (without the proper tools) called "Cassandra's Diary" raging against all this, just as a way of stopping myself from pulling my hair out.

Oh well. let's look at the bright side -- if this invasion had worked, they would have invaded two or three other countries by now. Iraq is bearing the cross to save the world from the neocons, if I am allowed a seasonal metaphor ...

PS in those days, 2001 through to 2003, Seumas Milne was the editor of the comments pages in the Guardian, which more than once were the last island of sanity in a mad world. He's no longer in charge, but he's written a commentary on the anniversary.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

a special duchess

Generally I don't believe that there is anything special about the people who call themselves aristocrats, but I might make an exception for this Spanish duchess, known as La Duquesa Roja. At least her obituary sounds very interesting, and there was an additional appreciation in the paper a few days later. plus, of course a Wikipedia entry.

Oh, and she's written novels as well. I should check those out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mor Karbasi

Back in January, I was raving about Yasmin Levy and her Ladino / Flamenco music. Thanks to this and the magic of MySpace I found a "friend request" this morning from Mor Karbasi, a London-based singer who does very similar things, and I like the four songs on her MySpace profile a lot.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

the importance of being chiral

chiral catalysis is a topic I like to come back to from time to time, and just now my excuse for rambling on about enantiomers is a book review:

Gross M:
Chemistry & Industry No 5 (10.3.),
Not a mirror image (review of "Asymmetric synthesis: the essentials" by M. Christmann, S. Bräse, eds.)

This is a rather dense and difficult monograph though. I'm sure there must be several pop science books on the importance of being chiral, but right now I can't remember any. (except for one written in German, by Henri Brunner, who used to be my inorganic chemistry prof, way back when).

hm. maybe I should put that on my shortlist of potential book projects.

Friday, March 14, 2008

around the world in 80 cosmo covers

... or very nearly. In February/March Shakira has appeared on the covers of Cosmopolitan editions in lots of countries, including:

-Czech Republic
-US Español

So far I've only managed to find the edition from Spain.

Here's a montage of some of the covers created by ShakiLaTortura on the Shakira Rules Forum:

PS on closer inspection I think that the covers left of the middle aren't from this year, some of them look quite old.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

breaking the ice

In the International Polar Year, the German ice breaker / research vessel Polarstern is as busy as ever. I've written a news feature on its recent activities in Antarctica, which has just come out in Current Biology (limited access).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

a molecular hub

This almost looked like a breakthrough in molecular computing, but after a lot of thinking I've come to the conclusion that it's probably just a molecular hub, i.e. a device that can distribute an input signal to eight output channels.

But then again, I may be wrong, and this may really be a work of staggering genius :) Judge for yourself.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Moebius with a twist

Just one article in German out this month, and it's about a chemical compound that can be switched between Moebius and straight topology:

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 3, 19-20
Molekulares Möbiusband mit Kippschalter

Saturday, March 08, 2008

happy birthday myoglobin

I wasn't around yet, but I am told that 50 years ago today a paper by J.C.Kendrew et al. appeared in Nature describing the first ever crystal structure of a protein, which was of course myoglobin.

This was made possible by more than three decades of research by Max Perutz and others at the LMB in Cambridge. Perutz himself had his sights set on haemoglobin, which is larger and more difficult and took a few years longer.

Today, of course, there are tens of thousands of crystal structures of proteins in the protein data bank (which today lists 41,915 Xray structures of proteins and nucleic acids), and some papers contain structures of several proteins or of huge assembly systems, sometimes only attached as one of several ways of characterizing the system in question.

Oh well. What I find most remarkable in this story is that it took 36 years or so from Perutz's start to the first structure. Try explaining to your funding agency today, if you don't have final results after 2 years, that it may take another 34 years to get there.

Friday, March 07, 2008

in praise of sea cucumbers

I have to admit that I wasn't aware of the amazing abilities of sea cucumbers until this story came up. Their skin is normally flexible, but in response to a stimulus it can get very stiff within a second.* Recent findings suggest it's the interaction between collagen fibres that is switched on and off.

Researchers in the US have now succeeded in mimicking this behaviour in a new material. Read my news story here (free access).

* Chinese traditional medicine has drawn the obvious conclusion from this and uses dried sea cucumber as an aphrodisiac! (according to the Wikipedia entry)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

a world of books

Happy World Book Day to all !

An interesting comment on the present and future of book publishing to mark the occasion appeared here. Executive summary: The book is dead, long live the book!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

methanol fuel cells

I did a news story on new catalysts for methanol fuel cells -- which could end up in small electronic devices such as mobile phones. Researchers in China decorated nitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes with platinum nanoparticles and found catalytic activity that makes these tubes suitable for fuel cells.

Read the full story here (free access).

Monday, March 03, 2008

the oddest prize

in the UK, around 100,000 books are published each year, and a similar number of prizes is conferred on them. Think of the weirdest award you can imagine, and it probably exists already. While some of them are plain depressing, the

diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year

always cheers me up. I remember some titles that were shortlisted many years ago, such as:

"Procrastination and task avoidance: a practical guide"

which goes to show, it's better to have an odd title than a boring one, at least it will be memorable.
This year, my favourite title on the shortlist is:

"How to write a how to write book"

You can vote for the award on the website of the booksellers magazine.
By the way, the titles are all meant to be genuine, i.e. without any irony or being odd on purpose. I am told the people who pick the shortlist are very careful to exclude all titles which they suspect of having been oddified on purpose, with an eye on the extra publicity the diagram prize can bring.

While the prize doesn't appear to have a proper website of its own, the Wikipedia entry has a list of all the winners from the last 30 years.

PS it's all a question of perspective, of course. I am sure that the authors of books like "Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers" will find my book titles obscure and theirs perfectly normal ...