Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Why are Virago paperbacks green? -- just one of the many questions answered in this short memoir by Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago. Above all, I found it intriguing to be reminded how revolutionary the idea of rescuing women writers from obscurity was at the time -- it has so quickly become something we take completely for granted. "Green" authors on our shelves include Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Atwood, Willa Cather, Janet Frame ...

Monday, April 28, 2008

what's in a domain name

I remember when I first bought my domain name (way back in the 1990s) how excited I was that any email directed to any address ending in @michaelgross.co.uk would find me. Not that anybody did ever email me under "Iwannashout@michaelgross.co.uk" or similar.

Now I'm having second thoughts as the domain name attracts more than 30 spams per hour (and that's only the ones that get past the Yahoo spam guard, which used to be nearly perfect a couple of years ago!). After wasting a lot of time deleting spam I've been forced to filter the @michaelgross.co.uk mail to a separate folder, where I let it accumulate so I can admire the numbers going astronomical.

oh well. another internet dream gone bust. But the good news is that my proper email address is pretty clean since I fixed that problem.

Friday, April 25, 2008

blood transfusion risks

Many blood transfusions may increase risks, doctors warn, the Guardian reports, apparently based on a story in New Scientist. Well, I agree completely, but then the piece goes on rambling about how boffins don't understand why blood that has been stored is often doing more harm than good.

In fact, last October, two independent and very convincing papers (one was actually commissioned to check the findings of the other, because of the enormous importance of the issue!) showed that there is a very simple reason, and a very simple way to fix the problem.

Fresh blood contains nitric oxide (NO) bound to hemoglobin, which it loses within hours of storage. NO is needed as a signal to widen the blood vessels. So old blood without NO will lack the vessel-dilating effect and thus the oxygen provision may be no better than or even worse than what the patients could achieve with their own blood. The problem is easy to fix, as NO can be added to the stored blood before transfusion, making it good as new.

I reported all that in Chemistry World and in this blog entry, back in October. Naively, I would have hoped that by now medics would have made moves to implement the fix, rather than scratching their heads over a question that has already been answered.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

platypuses: the countdown

Exactly 20 days left to the release date of my new book, The birds, the bees, and the platypuses, in Europe (US release 2 months later, I'm afraid, on July 14).

Thus I'll now start posting a few snippets of the book on my blogs. Let's start with the introduction:

Science is fun! In seven years as a hobby reporter, and almost eight as a full-time free-lance science writer, I have accumulated dozens of stories which I still remember fondly, because they were so much fun to write (and hopefully just as much fun to read). These are the stories that still tempt me to waste my time rereading them for the n-th time if I stumble across them in my archives. These are the stories that I have used and reused over the years, cited as examples or attached to my CV. These are the stories that -- in my eyes, at least -- demonstrate that science is a cultural activity just as rich and varied as literature and music, and just as rewarding.

What makes these stories stand out among the ~1000 others I have written over the years? I have identified three defining criteria, of which my favorite science stories may display one or more. Borrowing a title from TLC, I sorted them into a table with the headings crazy, sexy, and cool. Crazy stories include the weird, the unexpected, and the plain crazy stuff that scientists come across, and quite often discover to be actually useful. My favorite example of this kind are the wildly unorthodox antibodies found in camels and llamas, which have turned out extremely useful for biotechnology. There are also some stories of challenges so daunting that only crazy scientists would take them on. The genome sequence of our Neanderthal cousins springs to mind. Sexy stories are sometimes about sex (from attraction through to reproduction), but sometimes about other obsessions and characteristics of our race. Some of them just tell us what makes us human. Cool stories are mostly about cool inventions, devices, gizmos and gimmicks. Many of them were invented by scientists, but there are also a few that were invented by evolution.

For each of these stories, I have started from a manuscript I wrote for publication (in a magazine or newspaper), revised and/or expanded it, and added an introductory paragraph explaining what makes this particular story special. Where appropriate, I also attached an epilogue summarizing further developments. Within each of the three main sections, stories are arranged more or less chronologically, so one also gets a feel of how science has progressed in the years I’ve covered. At the bottom of each piece, the year of its first publication is given in brackets.

Many of these stories appeared originally in Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry, or in its predecessor, Chemistry in Britain. A few articles from Nachrichten aus der Chemie (magazine of the German Chemical Society, GDCh), and Spektrum der Wissenschaft (German edition of Scientific American), however, were published in German only, so I’ve translated them for this book. A couple of old Spektrum pieces reached this book via reflection by the earlier books Life on the Edge, and Travels to the Nanoworld. So it’s all a big hall of mirrors, like the Y chromosome (page XXX).

Some of these stories have also appeared in Bioforum Europe, Bio-IT World, Current Biology, The Guardian, New Scientist, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Chemie in unserer Zeit. I am grateful to all the editors who have commissioned my work over the years. Some of them developed the ability to read my mind, which can speed up the process and make life easier for me. But even when they ask challenging or really silly questions they help me to share my excitement with the readers.

Fifteen years are an extremely long time in scientific research, as I realized when editing the stories from the 1990s, some of which already had a somewhat historic, pre-genomic feel to them. Some of the things that I found exciting back then (and still do) appear to have fallen from fashion, while others have blossomed spectacularly. Some of the researchers involved have now got a Nobel prize to their name, others appear to have disappeared from the radar. Such is life, even in science.

Above all, however, I am hoping to convey the impression that science in the last decade and a half was never boring, and that with every new answer that researchers work out, a host of new, even more exciting questions are likely to pop up, providing an endless supply of crazy, sexy and cool findings.

For further details of the book and amazon buy links, click here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

an american in oxford

There is an amusing blog by John Kelly, a Washington Post journalist who for some reason moved to Oxford and is now struggling to understand how this parallel universe works. (Obviously, he hasn't managed to read Philip Pullman yet, that would help him to come to terms with the general oxonian weirdness.) Check out http://voxford.blogspot.com/.

He also did a comment in the guardian, on the search words that people used who ended up on his blog. Weird and wonderful, but I think I'll remain blissfully ignorant of how people find mine.

Talking about blogs, German readers may enjoy the blog http://tagwerke.twoday.net/ which accompanies the current exhibition about diaries and blogs at the Communications Museum Frankfurt: @bsolut privat! Vom Tagebuch zum Weblog.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

DNA cranes

Another German piece that came out this month, it's about DNA nanotechnology:

DNA-Kräne und -Baumaterial, Chemie in unserer Zeit, vol 42, issue 2, p70 (limited access, amazingly it works from within Oxford University).

Monday, April 21, 2008

Jim's genome

catching up with two week's worth of Nature, I spotted James Watson's genome in the current (April 17) issue. No genes for scientific brilliance or misogyny spotted yet, though. I guess the important bit of progress here is that the genome was sequenced in 2 months at a cost of 1 million dollars, two orders of magnitude faster and cheaper than previous efforts, including Craig Venter's genome. However, the assembly of Watson's genome did depend on the human genome sequence being known already, so comparisons with the first sequencing efforts are slightly unfair.

Plus, in the April 10 issue, the important piece of news that Richard Dawkins is going to follow in the footsteps of his wife, Lalla Ward, and appear in Dr Who. Imagine the dialogue: "I'm the doctor." "Delighted to meet you. I'm the Charles Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

any relatives of Rudolf Winderlich out there?

One of the perks of family history is that it washes up random bits and pieces that turn out to be quite amazing. We bought an old photo album from ebay to give our old family photos an appropriate home, but when the album arrived, it turned out to have photos in it already. As we don't want to throw away photos that might be valuable for someone, I started googling the names of the people shown. It turns out to be the family of a renowned scholar of the history and didactics of chemistry, Rudolf Winderlich (1876 - 1951). There are photos of him, his children, their spouses etc. If there's any Winderlich relative out there who can prove their connection by giving three of the names mentioned in the album, I'll be happy to send them the photos. (or indeed the album too, if they refund what we paid for it. The album does carry a dedication which might be of interest to the family.) Just leave a comment here. PS after checking the date of the dedication at the front of the album, I have come to the conclusion that the young persons in the album are more likely to be his siblings than his children.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

time out

I thought I'd be able to carry on blogging during my hols, but with one thing coming to another, I think realistically I may be off until April 20th. But hey, there are over 200 blog entries here already that you could browse ...

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

a dying art ?

The latest issue of "Chemistry & Industry" contains my book review of the tome "Chemistry of Photography". This is mostly about old-fashioned wet chemistry photography, which I enjoyed a a lot in my years in the dark room, but the book left me a bit puzzled as to why one would need a new book about an old, and rapidly disappearing technology.

Monday, April 07, 2008

the artist inside

Michelangelo famously stated that his statues were already present in the marble a priori, and the hand of the sculptor did nothing but to liberate them. Although the author doesn’t mention it directly, this may well have been the inspiration behind “El cristo feo” by Alicia Yanez Cossio (Quito, 1929). All the main figures in this novel, namely a statue and three living persons, get re-sculpted in different ways.

This is the story of the poor maid Ordalisa who works for a zombie-esque elderly couple. She has inherited an excruciatingly ugly crucifix from her mother, which one day starts talking to her. It (or Christ, or whoever is talking, it might just be within her head!) has a refreshingly unorthodox take on christian values, reminiscent of the 1970s cult hit “Mr God this is Anna”. Thus, even if the story is superficially about a crucifix, it’s never preachy.

Instructed by the Voice (who is and isn’t inside the crucifix, as s/he is and isn’t everywhere), Ordalisa starts chiselling out a beautiful (and movable) christ from inside the ugly crucifix. In doing this, she also liberates the artist within herself, and a living person within one of her employers (although the other gets resculpted in a less commendable way).

Told laconically with a minimal cast and setting, this enchanting story would work just as well as a chamber piece for a small theatre. Michelangelo would have loved it, as will anybody who has a bit of an artist hidden somewhere underneath their marble surface.

PS the only one of her books that found some attention in the English speaking world seems to be the pot-bellied virgin, which is reviewed here:


Friday, April 04, 2008

health checks

A few months ago, when I came to realise (belatedly) that I had arrived at the wrong side of 40, I asked our family doctor (whom I've troubled only once before in 15 years) whether there were any health checks on offer for people of 40+. Maybe she could check whether my heart was still beating and the blood vessels weren't clogging up and things like that, I suggested.

She looked at me as though I had just landed from a different planet, so by way of explanation I offered that these checks are quite common in countries like Germany and France (where, as I have learned, a lot more people live to 100 than here). She then explained to me that British doctors don't believe in this kind of thing, and if I wanted to spend money on it, I could do a full check-up at the private clinic next door for 500 pounds.

So I was more than a bit chuffed to read in yesterday's paper that the government is introducing free health checks for all people over 40, once every 5 years. This must be the first time in years (since the downgrading of cannabis?) that HM government said something that I actually approved of.

What I still don't understand is that the medical association protested against the move. As a biochemist I believe in testing and measuring things, and even more so if it can help to avert disease and death. Why the medics prefer to let people get a heart attack first before they are willing to deal with them is absolutely beyond me.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

German publications in April

in the monthly round-up of German publications, this time there is a rant about the unstoppable rankings epidemic and the Hirsch index, a feature about red blood cells, and a more medically oriented treatment of the recent gecko adhesive stories:

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 4, 410
Ausgeforscht: Am Fuß der Ranking-Leiter

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 4, 447
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Rund ums rote Blutkörperchen

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 4, 19-20
Gecko im Operationssaal

The last one appears to be available as podcast as well. Haven't dared to listen to these as yet -- the idea of somebody reading my texts to me is a bit scary and needs getting used to.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

boosting vaccines

aluminium compounds are widely used as an empirical way of enhancing vaccine performance, without much of an understanding what happens. New research now suggests a signalling chain that involves necrosis (cell death), uric acid, and dendritic cells (a group of white blood cells). Skipping the first step of this chain, medics may eventually be able to make some vaccines less painful.

Read my story here (free access).

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

spiders on the web

I have a piece on spider silk in the current issue of Oxford Today (OU's alumni magazine), together with a box on the centenary of our engineering department. Both pieces have (finally) appeared here (free access for all).

Further information:

Oxford Silk Group

Engineering Science Centenary