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 ?