Wednesday, December 31, 2008

favourite books of 2008

As everybody's end-of-year recommendation lists seem to be different from my experience, here is what I most enjoyed reading this year:


Deadly companions

The drunkard's walk


Fiction (not brand new but reasonably recent):

El pergamino de la seduccion
K - the art of love
El cristo feo

Oh, and I also enjoyed Germany's No. 1 Bestseller of the year, Feuchtgebiete, a fictionalised exploration of the humid areas of the female anatomy. I haven't reviewed this one, but was intrigued by the thought that the author is originally from England (High Wycombe? or somewhere similarly implausible and not too far from here!) and moved to Germany as a child. So I wondered what her take on the taboos she smashed with this book would have been, had she grown up here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

a drop in the ocean's pH

In my final journalistic piece to appear in 2008, I covered the scariest news I heard all year, namely that the pH of the oceans is decreasing a lot faster than expected, due to all that CO2 we put into the air. One of the papers that came out in December in PNAS quantifies the trend as 0.04 units per year, which would mean a whole unit in around 25 years. As the pH is a logarithmic scale, that would mean 10 times more H+ ions in the oceans, and it would turn the entire marine biosphere upside down.

Gross M:
Current Biology 18, No 24 (23.12.), R1112
Acid tests

Abstract and restricted access to full text here.

nickel in nature

I have a short book review in the last edition of Chemistry and Industry of 2008:

Gross M:
Chemistry & Industry No 24 (22.12.), 29
review of "Nickel and its surprising impact in Nature" by A. Sigel, H. Sigel, and R.K.O. Sigel, eds.

Here's a snippet:
"The biological role of nickel isn’t one of the boxes that science gets filed into; I suppose there aren’t any departments dedicated to nickel biochemistry. All the more interesting then, to use this metal to slice across the established classifications and think outside the box for a while. "

Monday, December 29, 2008

summing up

one of my end-of-year rituals is checking the citation counts of my papers, and as in previous years I have been pleasantly surprised to see that all but two (no.2,3) of the 18 papers listed here have acquired new citations this year. Even the earliest one, which is now 18 years old !

New on the list is the review:
Groß M (2000)
Current Protein and Peptide Science 1, 339-347
Proteins that convert from alpha helix to beta sheet: Implications for folding and disease
10 (9;6;5)

which has been a bit of a sleeper but may still rise to fame ...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

extrasolar moons

I am not exactly sure I believe the claim, but according to this report astrobiologists are now seriously looking for Earth-like moons orbiting the hundreds of extrasolar planets known so far.

The trouble with those extrasolar planets is that, due to the limitations of the methods of spotting them, all that have been found are closer to Jupiter than to Earth in size, so non-habitable if only because of the crushing gravity. So it makes sense to look for Earth-sized moons orbiting those gas giants. Except that you're looking for an ultratiny wobble in the orbit of the planet, which itself is only detectable as a tiny wobble in the position of the star or as an even tinier partial occultation. My gut feeling would be that this second degree wobble would be so deep in the noise as to be undetectable. But good luck to them, anyway.

Friday, December 19, 2008

happy birthday to ...

cellist Steven Isserlis, who is the patron of our local music venue, the Jacqueline du Pre building, and thus turns up here at least once a year. He does a lot of work for children, including books and family concerts. (I remember one occasion when he introduced himself to the children thus: "I am the most famous cellist living in my flat.") Oh, and he plays the cello quite well, too. And has a great hair style (as you can see here). And he's 50 today.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

see how they shake

There is a very clever paper coming out in tomorrow’s issue of Science magazine using Raman [1] scattering (in which light not only changes direction but also its wavelength) to image the distribution of specific molecules such as a fatty acid, or a drug, within living cells. The beauty of it is that one can use the vibrational motion (which is quantized) of the target molecule, rather than having to add some marker or dye. With a pair of lasers and some clever pulse technology, one can detect the presence of the molecule of interest at a given time in a given location, and even quantitatively measure its concentration. And the method is sensitive enough to image physiological concentrations of metabolites in living cells.

Medical applications that Sunney Xie and coworkers have demonstrated include the monitoring of the uptake and distribution of omega-3 fatty acids in living cells, the imaging of skin and brain tissue sections, and the monitoring of drug delivery.

[1] Historical footnotes: Raman scattering was first described by Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970, Nobel prize 1930) 80 years ago, but it had to await the arrival of advanced laser technology before it could become really useful. Raman also studied the vibrations of larger units, such as musical instruments. The authors cite another historic paper that is even older than Raman’s, a 1917 publication on the phenomenon of stimulated emission, by a certain A. Einstein.

Reference: C. W. Freudiger et al., Science 2008, 322, 1857.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

soft machines

... blowing the dust off another old book review originally published in Chemistry World -- this title is now available as paperback, and I vaguely remember I really liked it.

Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life
by Richard A. L. Jones
Oxford University Press 2004

There are two different approaches to overcoming the gap between science and the general public. Many scientists, myself included, have been trying to popularise what they think people should know about science, building their bridge from the science side of the canyon. Fewer, but much more successful in terms of bestsellers lists are the examples of non-scientists like Bill Bryson or scientists converted to populism, who build the bridge from the other shore, starting from what non-scientists actually want to read.

Soft machines is a beautiful example of the former school of thinking, a nicely written account of what a physicist thinks the public should know about nanotechnology. Richard Jones, a polymer researcher and professor of physics at the University of Sheffield, leads us into the nanoworld from the physics entry, starting with imaging and fabrication methods, then explaining what makes nanoscale mechanics so different from the world we know. He then comes to the core of the book, two chapters on the “soft machines” of the title, and another two on computing and electronics on the nanoscale. He rounds off the book with a very short chapter on future opportunities and risks.

The book serves up a fair amount of real science, made palatable with original metaphors and a light sprinkling of anecdote. Thus, it is ideally suited for us chemists, as we are close enough to physics to understand the odd equation that Jones throws in, and distant enough to benefit from this change of perspective. But for the non-scientists whose scientific education is on the level of “A short history of nearly everything”, this book is probably too hard. I wish the general public would make an effort to read such books, but my royalty statements tell me loud and clear that they don’t.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

oh what a lovely war

Saw a school production of Oh, What a Lovely War! which was quite interesting. The stage musical is as old as I am, so a bit dodgy and embarrassing, but still standing. I wasn't aware of the piece beforehand, but apparently it was very popular in the 60s (like me) and there was a film version directed by Richard Attenborough with an impossibly stellar cast.

It's World War I treated with equal measures of reportage, satire, and surrealism. Which may be what the subject matter deserves. For me, the serious and surreal parts worked better than the jokes which were mainly based on nationality stereotyping.

Most of all, I admire the energy of all people involved. Getting 200 kids to act in a coordinated way that is even vaguely recognisable as a play would look like an impossible task to me ...

PS a couple of years ago they played Red Demon by Hideki Noda.

Friday, December 12, 2008

open verdict

looks like the inquest into the shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes has ended with an open verdict. Not that the jury had many options to choose from.

I reckon if some common or garden criminal had shot the guy after mistaking him for somebody else, that would still count as murder, wouldn't it?

very depressing all this.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Down syndrome

If you've been fooled by the news going around a couple of weeks ago that more children are born with Down syndrome, hence fewer must be aborted, hence we must be a more caring society than we used to be, read Ben Goldacre's debunking of the story here.

It's blindingly obvious, of course: as women are older on average when they conceive, more Down embryos are produced, and more are aborted -- compared to that increase the increase in live births with the syndrome is minimal. Very depressing how many media echoed the story without thinking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Haber reviewed

as I'm currently reading another book about Fritz Haber (whose name is basically written on half the nitrogen atoms in your body), and also organising my old book reviews to make sure they don't get lost, I've dug out my previous effort on Haber, published in Chemistry World, Dec. 2005:

Book review

Between genius and genocide
Daniel Charles
London, UK: Jonathan Cape 2005 313pp £20 (HB) ISBN 0224064444

Nitrogen from the air can enter the chemical cycles of the living world via two processes that globally turn over similar amounts. One is bacterial nitrogen fixation; the other is the synthesis of ammonia from the elements under high pressure, invented by Fritz Haber.

Apart from the process that literally feeds today's world, Haber is also known for his enthusiastic services to the Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm during the first world war, particularly in the development of chemical warfare. With the arrival of the Third Reich, however, Haber found that his Jewish origins outweighed his achievements and services. Soon he found himself exiled, and he died before he could find a new home.

The moral complexity and tragic conclusion of his life make Haber a tricky subject. His former assistant Johannes Jaenicke spent decades collecting materials for a biography, but never got it written. His collection is the archive from which biographers feed, including Dietrich Stoltzenberg (whose epic effort recently appeared in a shortened translation, reviewed in Chemistry World, February 2005, p55) and now Daniel Charles.

Charles' advantage is that he sees Haber with the fresh eyes of an outsider, who admits that he once visited the Haber institute without knowing who it was named after. Since then, he has certainly done his homework at the Jaenicke archive, and manages to tell the story in a compelling and fascinating, yet compact and accessible form. His strength is the witty summary that often introduces a new section of his story (eg 'Haber didn't immediately volunteer for this epic quest. He had to be goaded into it with offers of money and insults to his pride.'). The only blemish is the title of the book, which demonises the creator of one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

give bees a chance

last month, British beekeepers demonstrated in London to ask the government for research funding adequate to the problems and the huge economic importance of bees. Haven't heard any response from the government. My story on the beekeepers is out in Current Biology today: Limited Access

Monday, December 08, 2008

checking up on Tycho Brahe

I really like the story of the astronomers who have measured details of the supernova explosion which Tycho Brahe observed in 1572. They didn't travel back in time to look over his shoulder, though. They just used light from the very same event that got scattered by some cloud. With an object so ridiculously far away (though still in our galaxy), a slight deviation in the light path can be enough to delay the arrival by 436 years so we can see it.

The conclusion is rather boring (the supernova is now officially classified as a type Ia, which is what people suspected it to be anyway), but the idea that you can see light from the same flash observed by a Renaissance astronomer, that is just brilliant.

This is published in the current issue of Nature, page 617, with a very readable News and Views piece on page 587.

Friday, December 05, 2008

culture clash

book review

K – The art of love, by Hong Ying

K is the story of a strange encounter between two cultures. At the surface, it’s about Chinese and English culture, and also about the very Martian culture of a man and the Venusian one of a woman. But it soon becomes clear that the protagonists aren’t representing these cultures. If anything, they struggle to define an identity within small subcultures at the margins of their respective societies.

The Englishman, Julian Bell, is like his eponymous real-life model a product of the Bloomsbury Group which had a set of values quite radically different from what was considered normal at the time. Son of the painter Vanessa Bell (who had an open marriage with a bisexual man) and nephew of Virginia Woolf, he tends to judge everything with the measure of the intellectual cult he grew up in, and initially sneers at the idea that Chinese poets may be producing anything comparable.

The Chinese woman, called Lin Cheng in the novel, but based on the biography of the writer Ling Shuhua, is also associated with an intellectual circle, the New Moon Society. Her contradiction is that she believes in the Daoist “Art of Love”, which to her intellectual peers is just a feudal old nonsense. The arrival of the Englishman gives her the opportunity to put this theory into practice.

And practice they do, quite a bit, and it’s sensitively and sensuously described in the novel, even in the English translation I read, which is by Nicky Harman and the author’s husband Henry Zhao. The eroticism is, of course, a problem for some people in China and in the UK, and so it came to pass that Ling Shuhua’s daughter sued the author for libel in Chinese courts for defamation of the dead, and eventually succeeded in having the book banned in mainland China.

It hasn’t quite been banned in the UK, but I’m getting the impression that it has been ignored on purpose. I find it quite shocking that I couldn’t find a single review of the book. The English edition was published in 2002, so if it has been reviewed, the reviews should be on the web. Probably people perceived it like the subject’s nephew, whose name is also Julian Bell, who didn’t object to its publication but compared it to “black lace” type genre fiction.

Maybe it takes readers with intercultural sensitivity to appreciate this, but this is definitely not black lace material (and unlike Julian Bell, I have read black lace novels, I even know somebody who writes them). K really has something to tell us about what happens when cultures collide. The culture clash proves a bit too much for the English protagonist, who concludes towards the end of the book:
“The fanatical love of this Chinese woman, like the violence of the Revolution, and everything else Chinese, was simply too alien for him to comprehend or accept.”

I’m worried that this may be true for the British readers as well. I discovered the book in a charity shop, clearly unread. Somebody missed out on an amazing intercultural experience.

Publishers website re. the libel case

PS: A new paperback edition has appeared on Jan 27th, 2011:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

ethics of science journalism

My recent piece in the journal Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics has now received distinguished company in the shape of an article by Nature veteran Maxine Clark:

Ethics of science communication on the web

Full text of both our articles is freely accessible here.

Monday, December 01, 2008

december roundup

The roundup of German pieces published in December includes a blue protein and a green fluorescent one, along with surprising news about viruses and reflections on hilarious book titles:

Groß M:
Chemie in unserer Zeit 42, Nr 6,
Ein schlumpfblaues Protein

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 12, 1227
Ausgeforscht: Moleküle, Chemiker, Sensationen

Groß M:
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 56, Nr 12, 1256
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Neues aus dem Reich der Viren

Groß M:
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 12, 14-15
Grünes Licht für Biologen