Friday, October 31, 2008

happy birthday to ...

deutsche Version -- this entry in German

November marks the 30th birthday of Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German daughter of Scientific American. I’m just about old enough to remember the first issue (from the outside) which appeared in November 1978, and I’ve been a reader since 1985. As I have hardly ever learned biology or biochemistry (only one term at uni), much of my knowledge foundation in the life sciences comes from Spektrum. In 1992 I started occasional translation work for the magazine, and in March 1993, my first short feature appeared, which was about the structure of the enzyme nitrogenase. I still write for the magazine, on average about every other month. Next one to appear will be in the December issue …

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

saving Humboldt's ideals

I was quite surprised to see a position paper put out by a group of 20 universities including Oxford and Cambridge, defending the traditional idealism of European universities, which goes back to a memo written by Wilhelm von Humboldt, against the current onslaught of efficient management and all that. My story about this is now out in Current Biology.

The paper is published on the LERU site.

Monday, October 27, 2008

children of the world

The guardian has interviewed a child from every country of the world living in Britain today -- well, all but 3 or 4 countries. Which together makes an interesting panorama of life stories, and a different take on migration in today's world:

Interactive version -- click on a country to see the story.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

julio medem

I'm a huge fan of the small but exquisite oeuvre of spanish writer/director Julio Medem, so I was a bit pissed off to find out this week that his latest movie, Caotica Ana, doesn't seem to be getting a UK release. It's been released in Spain in August 07 and in various countries since (Germany due for November), but the IMDB has no release date for the UK. :(

Looks like this country is getting more insular by the minute ... When Le Clezio got the Nobel prize for literature a couple of weeks ago, it emerged that none of his books are in print in the UK at the moment. We've got American TV on 900 channels, what do we need European books and movies for ?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

ethics of science journalism

The academic journal ETHICS IN SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS is running a theme section on the ethics of science journalism, to which I have contributed an opinion piece:

Is science reporting turning into fast food?

which is freely accessible.

Monday, October 20, 2008

scientists' lives

In an essay accompanying Nature's autumn books section, science writer and biographer Georgina Ferry deplores the lack of interest in biographies of scientists:

A scientist's life for me
Georgina Ferry
Forty years after the publication of James Watson's The Double Helix, Georgina Ferry asks why the life stories of so few scientists make it into the bookshops.
Nature 455, 871-872 (16 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/455871a; Published online 15 October 2008

which is probably true. I've been pondering related questions, as I've written 24 short biographies of scientists in the last three weeks (only two bios still to do!). There are many deserving subjects out there who don't have a printed biography, and some don't even have a decent wikipedia entry.

But hey, it's the same as with other popular science books -- we scientists feel that people should read them, but most people just choose not to. Not much we can do about it (short of radical dumbing down, which in my opinion doesn't help, as it throws exactly those things over board that you want people to know about!)

Exciting new angles at scientists' lives may be a way out, as may be shorter formats. Or more eccentric scientists -- there's never a shortage of books about Einstein or Feynman.


Some of the full length scientists lives I found inspiring are those of:

Niko Tinbergen (Hans Kruuk)
Marie Curie (Eve Curie)
JD Bernal (Andrew Brown)
Darwin (Desmond/Moore)
Erdos (Hoffman)
Dorothy Hodgkin (Ferry)

Friday, October 17, 2008

platypuses reviewed

... pleased to report that my platypuses book is reviewed in Nachrichten aus der Chemie, No. 10, p. 1063.

Other than that, I've been very busy this week with the biographies (having left the hardest ones till last!). Normal service should resume some time next week (maybe not Monday).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

painting postcards

there is an intriguing business model to be admired in this short piece in the Guardian. Artist Julian Merrow-Smith paints a postcard (oil on gesso card) every day, which takes him about three hours, and puts it up for auction on his blog, selling for hundreds of dollars.

I guess it helps a lot that he happens to be located in Provence: Postcards from Provence. But hey, Postcards from Oxford has a ring to it, too, doesn't it ? I could paint piles of dusty books, crumpled up gowns, and the odd spire dreaming in the mist ... now where did I put those paintbrushs ?

Monday, October 13, 2008

watching us from high above

The European Space Agency, ESA, makes regular observations of planet Earth using its Venus Express probe, currently in orbit around Venus, I've just learned.

To Venus Express, Earth is just a single pixel on its detectors, much like an extrasolar planet would appear to some of our most advanced space telescopes. So the idea is to learn how to observe a living planet under such unfavourable circumstances. And then, of course apply this to the search for living planets elsewhere in the Universe.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

roundup of German pieces

In October we have red hot chili peppers, salt-loving bacteria, and reflections on names. sorry can't find a unifying motif in these three either. Just random stuff I happen to write about.

Chemie in unserer Zeit, p. 307: Warum Chilischoten scharf sind

Nachrichten aus der Chemie, p. 1032: Leben im Salzstress

Nachrichten aus der Chemie, p. 998: Ausgeforscht

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

cannabis news

well, it's not news really, as we've known for decades that prohibition isn't working, but it's always nice to see it reiterated by some official report, even though we know that politicians aren't listening to reason:

Report urges regulated market for cannabis to replace prohibition

Thursday, October 02, 2008

microbial mining

There's an intriguing piece in Nature's journal club column today, on microbes drilling (or more likely, etching?) microscopic mining shafts into basalt rocks in Hawaii. Apparently, the preference for one component mineral over the other suggests they are after the metals, rather than just creating a cave for protection.

Original paper: A. W. Walton, Geobiology, Volume 6 Issue 4, Pages 351 - 364

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

cracking cellulose

Combining two known approaches, solid acids and ionic liquids as solvents, Ferdi Schueth's group at MPI Muelheim has succeeded in depolymerizing cellulose even from wood, an important first step in the production of so-called second generation biofuels from inedible plant materials such as agricultural waste and wood.

Read my story in Chemistry World.