Friday, November 28, 2008

a little place I know

I've only recently discovered Turrill Sculpture Garden in north Oxford, even though it's been there since 2000, apparently. Really nice idea to have a little garden behind the library as an exhibition space for sculptures, mostly by local artists. Lots of benches as well, so one can go there for a quiet lunch time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

buy more books!

Back in the early days of worrying about the environment we looked at paper and pitied the poor trees that were sacrificed for it, hence the drive towards paper recycling and all that.

Now, however, with the urgent need to do something about CO2, there is an entirely new perspective: I can consider the 5000+ books in my household as a significant contribution to carbon sequestration. As long as our house doesn't go up in flames, there are tons of carbon safely locked away in our books, old magazines, papers, and all that.

People of the world, buy more books ! (Even if you don't read them, just keep them safe from fire and rot.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

the drunkard's walk

I've reviewed

The Drunkard’s Walk: How randomness rules our lives
By Leonard Mlodinow
Allen Lane 2008
ISBN 978-0-713-99922-8

for Chemistry & Industry, and my full-page review is in issue 22, page 31, which is out this week.

Here's a snippet:

For me, the highlight of his book is the short biography of the gambler, medic, inventor, and arguably father of statistics, Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576). He published 131 books, invented a part that you will find in every car on the roads today, and made a living from applying statistical analysis to gambling at a time when everybody else considered the outcome of chance events as determined by the will of God. With the spellbinding lives of Cardano, and subsequent luminaries including Pascal (with his famous triangle), the Bernoulli clan, and Thomas Bayes, Mlodinow manages to make the normally boring science of statistics an interesting read. Not to become bogged down in history, he intersperses these parts with many examples of misuse of statistics and probability in modern life.

PS: To avoid confusion in navigating this blog, I've now separated blog entries referring to reviews of my books from those referring to reviews of other people's books:
booksreviewed: my books (passive indicates I'm at the receiving end of reviewing)
bookreview: reviews that I have written (or occasionally, reviews that I've read and appreciated)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

going loco

Book review

El pergamino de la seduccion (The scroll of seduction) by Gioconda Belli

“Juana la loca,” or Queen Joanna of Castile (1479-1555) never reigned because her father, her husband, and her son consecutively declared her insane and unfit to govern, claiming her political role for themselves. According to Gioconda Belli’s rehabilitation dressed up as a quite marvellous novel, the poor woman wasn’t insane at all, just squeezed between three males who had much bigger political ambitions and instincts, and whom she had the misfortune to love. (The men in question were Ferdinand II of Aragon, her father, Philip the Handsome, her husband, and her son Charles I of Spain and V. of Germany, in whose empire the sun never set.)

Gioconda Belli (born 1948) brings Joanna back to life using Lucia, a young woman in 1960s Madrid (so she’s vaguely of the author’s generation, who also went to boarding school in Madrid in the 60s) who plays her role in a game of history re-enactment that allows her to go through at least some of the experiences (love, vulnerability, imprisonment, bereavement) that Joanna went through in the 16th century. The role play artifice bridging a gap of 450 years works surprisingly well, bringing both the unfortunate queen and her modern day interpreter to life. The male history prof who sets the situation up and manipulates Lucia as the three men in her life manipulated Joanna remains more enigmatic. The spooky old house where much of the story is set is almost a character of the story and reminded me of the modern classic Nada by Carmen Laforet.

Does the author convince us that Joanna wasn’t mad after all? In her afterword she argues that while historians tend to label her as schizophrenic, none of the psychiatrists she consulted agreed with this diagnosis. Most tellingly, Joanna only went “mad” when she was treated badly, e.g. locked up, forcefully separated from her children, etc., but appeared perfectly sane under normal conditions. Which suggests that she wasn’t psychotic at all.

What appears to have been her real problem, however, was a lack of political instinct, which turned out to be catastrophic for somebody thrown into the political arena simply by virtue of her royal descent and her robust health – everybody else with higher ranking claims to the throne died young. Yes she was kicked around by the men in her life, but one can’t help thinking that the queen gene skipped a generation. Her mother, Isabella of Castile, described as cold-hearted in the novel, but famous for the Reconquista (the expulsion of the Arabs from the Iberian peninsula) and for sponsoring Columbus’ crossing of the Atlantic, would have asserted herself in a similar situation, while Joanna just drowned in it and went “mad”.

Her gift appears to have been in a different domain – she is described as a passionate lover (the safe hands of an author who is also known for her erotic poetry are a definite bonus in that domain) and managed to produce six healthy children who all went on to become monarchs. The mad world of political power-struggle just wasn’t for her.

Picture from Wikimedia

Friday, November 21, 2008

a hairy beast

Genome sequences of animals seem to come cheaper by the dozen these days, but yesterday's issue of Nature contains one that is special nonetheless. It's the first sequence of an extinct animal, namely the woolly mammoth (p. 387, comment on p 330). There's also a news feature on what it would take to bring the species back to life. At least it would make a nice change from our usual activity of wiping out species at the highest rate ever, if we could bring back one.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

rock chicks

Listening to the CDs of Within Temptation (a lot) I've been thinking -- musically it makes a lot more sense to have female singers in metal. You have all this infernal grumbling going on in the guitars/bass/drums section and you really want a soprano voice to cut through this, to be distinctively audible on top of all the grumbling.

Traditionally there have been two solutions:

1) the extended guitar solo
2) male singers who can't sing very well, but who can emit high-pitched screams (the name Ozzy Osbourne springs to mind for some reason)

I am intrigued that so few bands have hit on the obvious solution of hiring a female singer. Well, in many cases it may have to do with the fact that a band owes its existence to the inflated ego of the frontman = singer. But still. I think this is a field where an end to the gender discrimination would improve the quality of the product. A lot.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the rocks are alive

as living organisms tend to produce minerals, I am not terribly surprised to read in Astrobiology magazine that the diversity of rocks has increased along with the diversity of of species. And if rocks evolve, does that mean they are alive ? well, ok, probably not. but worth looking into.

Monday, November 17, 2008

advance to mayfair

I really liked the story of the squatters who took over a 30-bedroom place in Mayfair, one of London's poshest parts (and the most expensive street on the London-based Monopoly board): £6m house, 30 rooms, one careful anarchist collective: inside Britain's poshest squat.

Hope that the publicity doesn't alert the owners -- but then again, anybody rich enough to forget they have a property like this standing around unattended will not read the Guardian. It is a remarkable thing about the British legal system that it is very friendly to squatters. The owners will have to get a court order to get them evicted, and if they don't do so within 12 years, the squatters will officially own the place. And yes, that has actually happened in the past. So good luck to them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

good news at last

Yesterday's issue of Nature carries an essay on the question of why intelligent people live longer. Apparently, the correlation is stronger than that between mortality and BMI or blood pressure. I'm not surprised that the correlation is there, but maybe a bit surprised that it is so strong. After all it might be offset by really bright people getting so depressed over the stupid ways of the world that they commit suicide at an early age.

The author seems to think this correlation is a mystery, but I suspect that may be related to the fact that his job depends on research in this area, and if there's no mystery, there are no research grants. I think that even a combination of two of the 4 possible reasons he mentions will be sufficient to explain the effect, namely stupid people doing stupid things (reason 2, paraphrased slightly) and intelligent people getting higher education levels and thus healthier work environments (1). If on top of that, one adds a bit of his reason 4, namely intelligence being an indicator of general "system integrity", i.e. the wiring of the body during development has worked well, I think there isn't anything left to explain.

Oh, and I just had an idea that isn't mentioned in his essay -- maybe the view often found in traditional societies that the elders of a tribe, village, population are the "wise ones" reflects not just their experience but also their higher than average intelligence, in which case the phenomenon isn't a product of modern life styles (reason 1), which leaves 2 and 4.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

what I always wanted to know about ...

I have a short book review in the current issue of C&I:

Gross M:
Chemistry & Industry No 21 (10.11.), 30
review of "The ubiquitous roles of cytochrome P450 proteins" by A. Sigel, H. Sigel, and R.K.O. Sigel, eds.

While this is a technical and horrendously expensive book (not to mention part of a series), I really enjoyed reading parts of it. This is because as a protein researcher I've often come across P450s but never understood a thing about them, so here at last all the questions I never dared to ask were answered in a comprehensive fashion.

Essentially, the secret behind their confusing multitude and variability is that the reaction they catalyse leaves a "spare" oxygen atom, with which the different members of the family can do all sorts of different oxidation reactions, so this is why there are thousands of them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

catalysing a greener future

Earlier this year, fellow science writer Nina Morgan organised a very interesting visit to the Oxford spinout company Oxford Catalysts, which is developing clever solutions for all kinds of problems, from the production of second-generation biofuels down to the removal of chewing gum from pavements.*

My impressions are now online in the latest edition of Oxford Today.

* read the box "steaming ahead" to find out how catalysts can help with the chewing gum problem!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

alexander calvelli

The painter Alexander Calvelli, who specializes in industrial structures (working and decaying ones), has a new exhibition, which opened at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum at Bremerhaven last Sunday. It's called Werften, Schiffe, Häfen, so supposedly it's all about shipyards, ships and harbours. The exhibition will remain there until spring 2009.

His work isn't all that well represented on the web, but there is a small gallery of his previous work.

Friday, November 07, 2008

piccard obituary

not sure why it took the Guardian 5 days, but here is an obituary to deep sea explorer Jacques Piccard, eventually:

Piccard's obituary in The Guardian

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Earthwatch expedition guide

The 2009 expedition guide from Earthwatch -- the organisation that sends fee-paying volunteers out to support many different research projects around the world -- has just arrived in the post.

You can order your own copy here (Europe)

or here (Americas).

Full details of all expeditions are of course on their website.

As it happens I am preparing another Earthwatch-related story right now, so watch this space!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Caotica Ana

Julio Medem's 6th dramatic film is a feminist travelogue in time and space. As the heroine travels away from the cave on an island (features reminiscent of Lucia) where she grew up, she becomes aware of a connection to other women who lived before her and died a violent death.

A review in epd-film this month calls the movie "a dream as described by a mathematician". As usual Medem brings his very own geometry of time and space, with multiple layers of philosophy that one has to peel apart by repeated viewing.

What's new here is the strong presence of art. Ana's paintings in the film are in reality those of the director's sister, Ana Medem, who died in an accident in 2000. Over 50 other artists have contributed work that can be seen in the film.

Another revelation is the lead actress Manuela Velles, with her debut performance. Celebrated by the spanish press as "Medem's new muse", she does have the quiet radiance of a typical Medem heroine and reminded me very much of Emma Suarez who appeared in his first three films.

Links related to the movie can be found in its Wikipedia entry

Monday, November 03, 2008

ups and downs

As a former high pressure biochemist, I have to note the passing of a great pioneer in deep sea research. Jacques Piccard, who died on Saturday aged 86, was one of only two men who reached the very bottom of the oceans, the Challenger deep, Mariana Trench, some 11 km below sea level. The hydrostatic pressure down there is around 1,100 bar (rule of thumb: 1 bar for every 10 meters), so you want to be extra sure that your equipment is pressure-proof. It has often been remarked (and is probably still true today) that we know more about the far side of the moon than about the bottom of the ocean. So it is fitting that a lot more people have visited the moon than the mariana trench.

Trivia alert: Jacques Piccard's father, Auguste Piccard, who also went very deep into the oceans and very high into the atmosphere, is believed to have been the inspiration for the character of Professor Calculus (Prof. Tournesol in the French original) in the Tintin cartoons.