Friday, June 27, 2008

cuban cancer vaccine

Cuba has approved a therapeutic cancer vaccine developed by the Centro de inmunologia molecular in Havana. The general idea, pursued by many research groups, is to teach the immune system to recognise and attack an existing cancer. So unlike vaccines against infectious diseases, this one doesn't prevent the disease, but it may help to cure it. The breakthrough, believed to be a world first, is reported in yesterday's edition of the Guardian.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


There is rain forecast for the next 4 days, so it must be Glastonbury time (and Wimbledon too). The full lineup is here but again there is very little that would tempt me to go. Too many old blokes on the stages, and not enough young women for my tastes. Remarkably, tickets are not sold out yet ...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

france, ghana

Four years ago, French politicians managed to drive the country's science community up the wall and into a large scale grassroots revolt, about which I have written on various occasions. Now with a new president, any lessons from that tumultuous past appear to have been forgotten, so they are stepping on people's toes again. Read my story in today's issue of Current Biology:

French research split (page R495).

In the same issue, on page R498, I also have a news feature on an alternative approach to wildlife conservation in Africa, as pioneered by Ghana's CNRC. The idea is that rather than governments imposing national parks and similar features, conservation measures should work from the bottom up, involving local communities and taking their needs into account:

Cocoa solid (page R498).

Both pdf files are limited access, should work from within most universities, though.

Monday, June 23, 2008


For the last two years, the Guardian has published a weekly column called Living With Teenagers (also published as a book, I'm afraid), which has now stopped, as the teenagers in questions have found out that their mum was giving them a bad name. The paper invited comments from readers, so here is mine:

I heroically bit my tongue for two years, but since you asked: I hated the column with a passion. I have 3 children (17, 14, 11), I can remember what it was like being a teenager (I kept my diaries), and I am even in touch with a few current teenagers.

In my view and experience, teenagers are a lot more interesting than the “human beings” that the author is so keen for them to turn into. Teenagers learn new things every day, they develop consciousness for the world around them, they discover literature, try creative photography, play guitar, care about music, write poetry, want to save the world or failing that become a rock star, upload 2 million photos to MySpace … whatever they do there is a lot of exciting stuff going on, and they are alive in a sense in which many people over 30 aren’t any more. Of all the positive things I associate with the teenage years, I’ve never seen a single one being credited in the column.

Instead, it was all trivial arguments, dirty laundry, lost keys, and the like. Yes, my children lose keys and scatter dirty clothes as well, but next to the things going on inside their heads, I consider these problems so infinitely trivial that I would never mention them to an outsider, let alone the readership of a newspaper.

And dishing out all this negativity behind the children’s back is downright mean. As a punishment I suggest you hand over the column to “Jack” and let him dish the dirt on his parents for the next two years. He seems quite all right, and his column I’d really like to read.

Part of this appeared in the paper and here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

a fine frenzy

Have received the CD of A Fine Frenzy (in real life a young woman called Alison Sudol), and love it to bits. Spine-tingling, under the skin, and all that. Intriguing lyrics, too. Still haven't worked out where the title, One cell in the sea, comes from. Sounds like marine biology to me.

All thanks to MySpace, of course -- if I check out new artists there and find I like the 4 or 5 samples on their profile a lot, then it's definitely safe to order the CD. Just on the strength of the single (almost lover) I might not have taken the risk.

Not quite so enthusiastic about the new opus from Alanis (flavors of entanglement), but it's listenable all right, and I guess it will grow on me over time.

Really looking forward to the Kat de Luna album, 9 lives, due out this summer. Oh, and the Rihanna Live DVD is out as well, which is great fun to watch. I'm kicking myself for missing her tour. The DVD was recorded at Manchester (or Man-Chester as Rihanna likes to say), and the docu at Ischgl, where we used to go skiing back in the days.

Friday, June 20, 2008

rain woman

Sandrine Bonnaire is of course a household name for anybody interested in French films, but what I didn't know until now is that she has a sister with autism. She has made a documentary about her sister, Elle s'appelle Sabine (Her name is Sabine), which is now on release in the UK and reviewed here.

Appearing with the well-known statistical pattern of London buses, here are two other French films that promise to be interesting:

Couscous (La graine et le mulet)

Les femmes de l'ombre -- about the women fighting in the Résistance. Never mind the politics, it has Sophie Marceau and Marie Gillain, that's reason enough to see it :)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

pineapple and saturn

I only looked at this paper because the image with Saturn and the pineapple was so intriguing, but the story behind these molecules turned out to be quite interesting too.

For fullerenes (vulgo: buckyballs), there are rules governing the distribution of pentagons within the shape otherwise made of hexagons. There must be exactly 12 pentagons, to make sure the shell closes properly (and in the case of closed nanotubes, there can be any number of hexagons!), and the pentagons should be flanked by hexagons, i.e. no two pentagons should share an edge.

In chemistry, such rules are an open invitation for clever synthetic chemists to try and break them. The saturn- and pineapple shaped molecules are in fact two successful breakers of the pentagon rule, where the chlorine atoms sticking out from the roundish shape help to compensate for the instability produced by the "wrong" geometry.

The relevant paper by Xiao Han et al. is in Angewandte Chemie Int. Ed.
Published Online: Jun 11 2008
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200800338

Monday, June 16, 2008

martin gardner

When I was about 30 years younger than today, I enjoyed reading the popular mathematics books by Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner, so I was pleased to rediscover him in this recent magazine feature about him and his legacy. I was surprised to learn that he's still alive (he's only 93), and there were a few other things I didn't know, such as the fact that there are regular gatherings in his honor, and that he wasn't even a mathematician.

There's also a very impressive Wikipedia entry.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

platypus book news

I'm pleased to report that there will be a German version of "The birds, the bees and the platypuses", to be published around the same time next year.

In an interview this week, I was asked the straightforward question how many books I've published, but the answer is less straightforward, it's more like a countdown.

On my shelf there are

13 different books with my name on the spine, where "different" means different looking and different ISBN. However, two of these are identical paperback reprints of the corresponding hardbacks, namely Nanoworld and Astrobiology, which brings us to

11 books with different content. Of these I'll have to discount two more, in which the new text from me is only a few pages, namely the preface in La vie extreme (translated by Véronique Receveur Bréchot), and the afterword in Life on the Edge paperback (which is otherwise a corrected reprint), leaving us with

9 books of which I have newly written (or compiled from non-book publications) substantial parts. (6 whole, 2 * 1/2, and one 1/4, so it's 7 1/4 if you calculate the fractions). Discounting from this the parallel publications in English and German, I end up with

6 different "stories". Or 4 and 2/2 if you insist on doing the fractions, so the smallest residue would be

5. But I guess I'll stick with counting the ISBN numbers with my name on the back, which means the German platypuses will be the 14th book published in 14 years, and I'm quite happy with that result. If I can stick to that speed for another 30 years or so ...

Friday, June 13, 2008

solar motor

Researchers in Japan have built an extremely cool motor, driven purely by the effect that light has on certain molecules, but turning wheels of visible size.

Read my story here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

six weeks without charge

we're all shocked that the UK government actually got through with the "42 days detention without charge" thing. The police said they don't need it, the members of parliament don't want it and had to be arm-twisted, bribed, etc. to vote for it, and nobody understands the point of giving up the most fundamental freedom we have, the freedom of not being locked up without charge, for no good reason.

Shadow home secretary David Davis resigned from his seat, with this speech. Which really says it all -- if we need the tories to defend the most elementary human rights, we're in deep trouble.

There is also a comment by Timothy Garton Ash.

PS I was so busy jumping up and down pulling my hair out that I forgot to mention the comment by Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty.

Also, the time limits for detention without charge appear to be increasing exponentially with time:

2000 -- 7 days
2003 -- 14 days
2006 -- 28 days

So it's easy to work out that by 2036 we can be locked up for a lifetime (80 years) without being charged with anything. As the prisons are overcrowded already, one might have to build camps for that ...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

save the honeybees

When I wrote a news feature on colony collapse disorder (CCD) last year (Current Biology 17, No 11 (05.06.), R389), I didn't realise just how perverted the beekeeping practices in the US are, so this feature, an edited extract from Alison Benjamin's book "A world without bees" was an eye opener.

I mean, seeing how bee hives are shipped across the continent to work double shifts in monocultural areas stretching over hundreds of miles, one wouldn't be surprised to find that the mystery behind CCD was mass suicide. CCD is less endemic in Europe, where beekeeping is less industrialised, so that supports my theory :)

To find out what a bee-friendly world would look like, read this expose from the NRDC.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

max at 150

a belated happy 150th birthday to the reluctant founder of quantum mechanics, Max Planck. In fact, his name has been so ubiquitous in the 60 years since his death, that we (or I at least) used to take him for granted and never think much about him. He used to be on the 2DM coins when I grew up (and back then, 2 DM was a lot of money ! :) and there were high schools in his name all over the place, not to mention the Max Planck Society which runs prestigious research institutes, and his prominent role in physics textbooks.

However, looking up his Wikipedia entry today, I realised I knew nothing about his life (and haven't got a biography of him, either). For instance, I didn't know that one of his sons was executed in the context of the 20. July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler (of which, incidentally the "last survivor" died recently).

Anyways, here is the great man, reduced to the size of a postage stamp:

Monday, June 09, 2008

random walks

I was shocked to find out from the paper featured on the cover of Nature this week that we (humans) don't just walk around randomly. Analysis of the movements of 100,000 mobile phone users revealed that there is some order in their movement. Presumably they go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, if I may have an educated guess.

They should have restricted the analysis to people who don't have a regular job (like e.g. home-based freelancers like myself, or the unemployed, homeless,pensioners, etc.) I'd reckon that those of us who live life off the commuter's treadmill are closer to a random walk model than the research suggest. And I, for one, really do walk randomly when I get the chance to explore an unfamiliar city ...

Friday, June 06, 2008

all things German

In the almost monthly round-up of publications in German (there weren't any in May!) we have spider silk, robots, DNA nanotech, and self-healing rubber:

Groß M:
Chemie in unserer Zeit 42, Nr 3, 189
Naturmaterialien: Spinnenseide durch Mikrofluidik?
restricted access

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 6, 634
Ausgeforscht: Werden wir bald entbehrlich?

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 6, 659-61
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Desoxyribonucleinsäre auf der Molekübaustelle

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 6, 19-20
Selbstheilendes Gummi

Thursday, June 05, 2008

autism on the brain

Last weekend, I visited the new MEG centre here, which opened last year and aims to study brain function in people with autism. MEG stands for magnetoencephalography, and the idea is that you pick up the very weak magnetic fields that arise from the currents flowing in the brain when you're thinking. Unlike EEG (electroencephalography) you don't have to have electrodes stuck to your skin (although researchers stick a few "signposts" to the subject's head), and unlike MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) you don't have to lie inside a tube and suffer excruciating noise.

In MEG, the subject sits on a comfortable chair (my son tried it and seemed to like it!) with their head under what looks like a ginormous hair drier (although I am told it was a bit more expensive than a hair drier). Part of the special appeal to use this technique in autism, of course, is that it can be used with subjects who would not tolerate the "side effects" of either EEG or MRI. Thus, the building had to be designed to be both magnetic-studies-friendly (restricting the use of metal and the placing of electric cables!) and autism-friendly, which seems to have worked out well, as my son seemed to like the environment.

The research is led by Professor Anthony Bailey, who came to Oxford 3 years ago and did similar research in collaboration with an MEG facility in Finland before. I wrote a feature about his work for Oxford Today, which is here.

Further pieces on autism:

Gross M: Current Biology 12, No 2, R42
Battling through autism confusion
(about the 2001 MRC report)

Gross M: Current Biology 12, No 20, R679
Pursuing the puzzle of autism
A photographic exhibition at the Wellcome Trust for Autism Awareness Year highlights the continuing scientific uncertainty.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

maths challenge

I've been moaning about the maths education in secondary schools here (England & Wales) for a while, which essentially teaches children to avoid thinking at all cost and replicate solution schemes just with different numbers.

Now here's Oxford mathematician and pop science writer Marcus du Sautoy with a comment on this problem. As a true mathematician, he puts numbers to the economic problem created by the lack of a proper maths education. While for me it's mainly a cultural thing.

And here's the news story about the report which he refers to. Very depressing stuff all that.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

fuel from waste

While some politicians are still struggling to understand that biofuels derived from purpose-grown crops such as corn are a bad idea, a company in Germany, Choren Industries, has already finished building a refinery for second-generation biofuels, which will be made from agricultural waste.

Intriguing thing about this story is that it is based on technology that the GDR developed for entirely different purpose (turning coal into fuel to be independent of oil imports), but which comes in extremely handy today.

My news feature about this appears in today's issue of Current Biology (limited access).

Monday, June 02, 2008

light therapy

Photodynamic therapy is a rather clever way of activating drugs by laser light, such that they only become effective at the precise location where you want them to act. It is routinely used in treatment of age-dependent macular degeneration and some cancers, but there could be additional benefits in cancer therapy, if only the light could penetrate deeper into tissues.

Oxford chemist Harry Anderson and his team have now demonstrated a new approach that promises to improve the method significantly and broaden the range of its applications. Read my story here.