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 amazon.co.uk, 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:

Highbeam.com: 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 Amazon.com (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.