Thursday, December 31, 2009

you've been pottered

I guess it wasn't surprising but I still get slightly depressed looking at Germany's top 20 bestsellers of the decade, published in the current issue of Der Spiegel.

In the fiction list we have Harry Potter in positions 1, 2, 3, 14, 16, and 18. Dan Brown in 5 and 15, Stephenie Meyer in 8, 9, and 20, and Germany's very own fantasy kidult fiction writer Cornelia Funke (Inkheart, etc.) in places 6, 11, 19 (which already counts as good news, I guess). Two German originals which I found mildly interesting (Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the world and Charlotte Roche's Wetlands) made 7 and 4, respectively.

There is the school of thinking that says that many of those millions reading Harry Potter wouldn't have read any book otherwise. But I tend to think if they only read fantasy and nothing else, they might as well read nothing, it wouldn't make much difference. What I am worried about is the other side of the spectrum. A phenomenon like the noughties fantasy tsunami pulls along people from all sides, including those who might otherwise have spent their time reading more intelligent books. So if people come along and say Rowling did great work for public literacy, I have to object and point out that pottermania may also have stopped people from reading more intelligent books and dealing with the real world.

The non-fiction side of the list (another 20 titles including one by the pope) is less easy to categorise but just as depressing. Suffice it to say that a "medicine for kids" title is the only thing that is coming anywhere near science.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

oxford by night

Last week's long, clear winter nights were perfect for a bit of after-dark photography:

Bath Place, access to the Turf Tavern, popular watering hole, but practically impossible to find if you don't know where it is.

Hythe Bridge Street

Xmas lights in Cornmarket Street

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

aromatase and cancer

There is a huge family of enzymes known as the Cytochrome P450 family, which I always used to find very confusing. Man species have hundreds of them, doing apparently unrelated things, so I never managed to remember anything about these proteins because whenever I came across a bit of information, it didn't seem to fit with the previous one.

Recently I've managed to figure out what it's about (the clue is in the spare oxygen atom left over after the reaction they all share -- with that they can do all kinds of chemistry) and written a couple of pieces about this field, pegged to the crystal structure of aromatase, an enzyme that plays a key role in a large number of breast tumours, and is thus a prime target for cancer therapy. Aromatase is also interesting for the chemist as it is so far the only known enzyme that can turn an aliphatic ring (such as cyclohexene) into an aromatic one (such as benzene), hence the name.

My latest musings on CytP450s, aromatase, and cancer appear in the January issue of Education in Chemistry (but not on their website, I'm afraid):

Aromatase: a target for cancer treatment.
Education in Chemistry 47, No 1, 22-24.

This is also my first publication of 2010, hooray!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

favourite films of 09

... looking back at the movies I've seen on the big screen this year, there are a few clear favourites (with links to blog entries):

Sin nombre (a rare case of a movie that I find both deeply depressing and still loveable. Most disturbing is the observation how close the violent gang is to what we call civilised society. We've just delegated the violence bit to the armed forces.)

Fish Tank Not all the movies I watch are in Spanish, you see ...

Broken embraces ... though around half of them are, in fact.

oh, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was great, too.

shall I dare to list favourites of the noughties as well ? too much trouble to check through systematically, but Almodovar's Volver would certainly feature in the top 10, as well as Medem's Lucia y el sexo. Cedric Klapisch's Auberge Espagnole is one of my all time favourites. Fatih Akin's Gegen die Wand (head-on) springs to mind, as do Good-bye Lenin and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and we mustn't forget Amelie, which I think came out just after the millennium ...

So I guess it's been a good year, and decade, if we leave aside all the politics and wars.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

crunching numbers

One of my xmas holiday traditions is that I check the science citation index to see whether anybody has bothered citing my old research papers. This year, my five earliest works have gone empty-handed, but most others have still received a fair number of citations. The top three in new citations are:

1. my proteins and pressure review, which is also at the top of the overall citation list (updated version now online).

2. Jaikaran et al. J. Mol. Biol. -- an amyloid paper that has risen steeply to no. 4 of my ranking and will probably reach no. 3 next year. From the same project comes:

3. Higham et al. FEBS Lett. (climbing to No. 9). Very pleased to see the amyloid papers are still finding attention. My own role in these was only a minor one, but the first authors definitely deserve the recognition.

My Hirsch index (number n of citations that have been cited at least n times) is stuck at 16 now, which is a shame. For six years after retiring from research I watched in amazement as it kept climbing without any input from me.

Anyhow. Always fun to do some statistics. More about this next year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

saving the trees

Just to let everybody know that I haven't written a single xmas card this year, so if you expected one and looked up the blog to see whether I'm still alive, please don't take it personally. xmas panic starts around a month too early for me and lasts a month too long, and with one thing coming to another, I just didn't get round to any mailings.

Enjoying long walks with my son now and the occasional glimpse at the web when I can get access. Also the quiet after the rush is always a good time to hatch new book projects and such like, so watch this space.

happy holidays to all, whatever you're celebrating ...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

freezing spiders

Spending hours out walking in the cold today, I noticed that spiders' webs are looking really strange these days. I saw lots of webs that were a quite a few threads short of the usual beautiful symmetry:

So I'm wondering whether the cold weather clogs up their spinning ducts, or dampens their motivation. "Can't be bothered with geometry today, it's too freaking cold" I hear them mutter. Just a random thought. May have to ask our local spider expert about this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

incompetence explained

As I'm grounded due to the Eurostar problems, it's a perfect time to think about incompetence in the workplace. This ubiquitous phenomenon was brilliantly explained 40 years ago in the book The Peter Principle by Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull.

The fundamental principle of the title states simply that:

"In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His [or Her] Level of Incompetence."

Now I like to think of this in terms of schools, where everybody has seen the principle in action. If a teacher is doing a good job at teaching s/he will get promoted to deputy head or head teacher, meaning they will do less of the teaching which they are good at, and more of the management work which they may not be so good at.

If a head teacher still does a good job at leading the school, they may be promoted to lead a larger school, which they might find more challenging. If they are still good at that, they may become school inspector or some sort of bureaucrat quite remote from everything they used to be good at.

The trouble is that in every step of the process, people who do well get removed from what they do well, while people who don't do quite as well, are stuck at what Peter calls their Level of Incompetence.

Note that it's nobody's fault in particular, it's just an in-built flaw of having a hierarchy where people get promoted on the basis of their performance.

The best way to avoid getting stuck at one's level of incompetence is to get out of the rat-race and do something that is outside of any hierarchical order. I seem to remember that in the book -- as it reflects 60s society -- the male employees can't refuse promotion or abandon the rat race, as their wives would object to the feared loss of social status. Hoping that men are more liberated today, they may find it easier to escape!

I hear that the original book got reprinted this year, so get a copy if you can. It really explains a lot of things that would otherwise remain forever mysterious. Like the fact that trains can be stopped by the wrong kind of leaves, or snow that's too fluffy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

orient meets occident

The enchantress of Florence
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape 2008

First up, I have to admit that this, Rushdie’s 10th novel, is the first one I’ve read, so I may end up saying things that are blatantly obvious to people more familiar with his work. I’m also quite happily ignorant of the work of most of his male, British-based contemporaries. So I’m in the fortunate position of reading the book purely on the merits of its contents.

What attracted me to the novel was the fact that it makes surprising connections between Orient and Occident, weaving history and magic realism into a very colourful pattern, which, I think, tells us something about our shared cultural heritage. The enchantress of the title is Qara Köz, (supposedly) an aunt of the Mughal emperor Akbar the great. While reading the book, I wasn’t sure whether she was among the historic or the fictional characters, but just now a google search for her name brought up only references to the novel, so I guess she’s an imaginary person (just like Akbar’s favourite wife is imaginary within the novel).

At the court of Akbar arrives a European traveller who claims to be her son, although he is obviously too young for this to be true. The stranger tells an elaborate story to back up his claim, leading Qara Köz from the Mughal empire to Persia, then to Florence, where she meets historical figures including Niccolo Machiavelli, Andrea Doria, and the Medici princes, then to the New World, where the story-teller is born, who completes her circumnavigation of the globe.

Orient and Occident in Rushdie’s historical fantasy are equally violent and Machiavellian places, where nobody can trust anybody else. Celebrated military leaders typically die from treason within their own ranks. Everybody has to watch their back constantly, and the “enchantress” has to switch her allegiance repeatedly and walk the very fine line between being enchanting and being persecuted as a witch.

It is fascinating to see a synopsis of the histories that are normally treated as though they had happened on different planets, even though there definitely were trade connections, and thus must have been people who moved between the different cultures flowering in distant parts of the world.

I generally think that Europeans tend to be in denial about the influence that oriental culture, promoted by the Arabs in Spain and by the Turks at the Eastern borders of Christian Europe, had on our cultural evolution. Too keen to define itself as the Christian Occident against the Islamic Orient, Europe failed to appreciate the good things the Islamic world had to offer, e.g. Islamic science in the Dark Ages, when there was not much European science happening at all.

Therefore, this tale of two cultures projects a very interesting light on renaissance history (familiar in the European part, and new to me in the Indian part). Of course one could also read it as a fable reflecting modern cultural conflicts.

Friday, December 18, 2009

beauty of fractals

... time to break up the series of text posts with a picture, here's in praise of natural fractals:

Oddly enough this tree stands in Oxford city centre (Jowett Walk), on a small patch of land that is probably a College garden and really to small for it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

a three-billion-year-old patch-up

[deutsche Version]

One of the areas of science that don't get any coverage in the general media concerns the evolution of the protein synthesis apparatus, which in my opinion holds the (as yet hidden) clue to the origin of the protein/RNA/DNA life we know today. It's incredibly important for our fundamental understanding of biology, but maybe it's too complicated to explain to lay people, so nobody bothers.

Paul Schimmel's work on tRNA synthesases (the enzymes that attach amino acids to transfer RNAs so they can be correctly incorporated into proteins) is a prime example. It's a highly complex system that has been around since the time of the last common ancestor of all living things (LUCA), but before that it clearly evolved out of a much simpler system, and understanding the details could open a window into the time before LUCA.

Now Schimmel's group has published in last week's issue of Nature (but without any accompanying fanfare on the front pages) an intriguing example of how evolution dealt with an severe weakness of the system. The tRNA synthetase for alanine (AlaRS) is prone to accept wrong amino acids, especially both the smaller glycine and the larger serine.

Obviously, all "attempts" to fix this by modifying the recognition site have failed, because the key residue in the recognition site is unchanged in all species anybody ever looked at. Having failed to solve the problem, nature developed a patch-up, in the shape of a second enzyme, derived from AlaRS, but working independently, in a secondary check-up stage. This enzyme, known as AlaXp (not sure what the Xp stands for, maybe the need for a patch reminded somebody of Windows?), is so widely distributed today that it also must have been around since the days of LUCA. In a whole series of crystal structures, Schimmel's group has now unraveled how this patch works.

So this, as well as the evolution of the tRNA synthetases, tells us something about how evolution developed the protein synthesis machinery that is universally used today, and specifically how it dealt with a problem that didn't yield to conventional improvements by mutation. But try explaining that to a newspaper editor ...


Min Guo, Yeeting E. Chong, Ryan Shapiro, Kirk Beebe, Xiang-Lei Yang & Paul Schimmel
Nature 2009, 462, 808

Paradox of mistranslation of serine for alanine caused by AlaRS recognition dilemma

Alanyl-tRNA synthetases (AlaRSs) may confuse glycine or serine with alanine, potentially causing mistranslation and thus profound functional consequences, with serine posing a bigger challenge than glycine. AlaXps — free-standing, genome-encoded editing proteins — represent one editing checkpoint to prevent this from occurring. Nine crystal structures, together with kinetic and mutational analysis, now show how AlaXps solve the serine misactivation problem.

full text (restricted access)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

decade of a domain

my first domain name,, is 10 years old today, so I'll take this as an excuse to post a brief history of my website, blog and associated activities. If nothing else, it shows how rapidly the online world has changed in the last 13 years.

History of Only Connect!

27.12.1996 learned HTML from a book.
30.12.1996 launched as Michael’s Home Page, then releasing a numbered issue every week. Main sections: Science; science communication; bilingual children. The site is hosted at the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences (
13.1.1997 issue 3 appears with title “Only Connect!” Fourth section: miscellaneous eccentric ideas. Front page essentially a list of 4 sections and 4-5 subsections each, linking to specific pages. E.g. under science communication, there were links for my first books Nanoworld and Life on the edge, and one to the science journalism list.
29.12.1997 Issue 35 has 43 active files. Updates not necessarily weekly.
9.11.1998 associate.
19.4.1999 New section about Oxford (gargoyles, local authors …)
16.12.1999 registered domain name
3.1.2000 New design: front page now has images and titles to link to eight second level pages (each branching out to multiple third-level pages!): Life on the Edge, Nanoworld, Molecular Computation, Light and Life, journalism, bilingual children, books & music, links. Later added research as ninth second-level page.
12.5.2000 google affiliate (earning a fraction of a cent each time someone used google from my page, but it never added up to a payout!).
Jan 2001 joined associate programs of, .fr,
Aut. 2001 moving out of Oxford University, site now hosted at Birkbeck crystallography (BBK).
18.10.2002 registered domain name
22.10.2002 backed up 150 html files, then redeveloped site with simplified structure and new style (using cascading style sheets). Front page now circle of eight icons (no text other than the “alt” text that appears when touching icon with mouse), rather than vertical list of icons plus text. Circle icons link to 4 books, plus pages called whoiam, journalism, research, prose and projects. The last one was soon replaced by a link to the Shakira page, developed Jan-Mar 2003. E.M.Forster quote now written across the top such that “the prose and the passion appears in the middle like a title.
Jan 2005 installed copy of site at geocities (main site still hosted at BBK).
10.4.2006 upgraded geocities to ad-free geocities-plus, pointed proseandpassion domain name at this.
Spring 2006 joined MySpace, started blogging there and on
10.5.2006 at yahoo 360.
11.5.2006 linked yahoo360 blog to geocities site, where it is mirrored in “red top version. Also joined and tried out blogger that month.
24.5.2006 moved domain to point at geocities site (stopped updating BBK site, which can still be seen here), pointed proseandpassion domain at yahoo360 blog.
10.7.2006 new front page with “book shelf” design. Slimmed down again, now only five second-level pages. ( for latest book and one for backlist, not one for every book). Title now “michael gross science writer”, with E.M.Forster quote in top right corner.
1.10.2006 all five second-level pages adapted to new structure.
28.2.2007 added family history page.
Summer 07 joined FaceBook.
2.7.2007 becomes the main blog, with the proseandpassion domain name pointed at it. Blog posts copied manually to MySpace, and mirrored automatically in FaceBook.
14.5.2008 last entry in Yahoo360 / red top blog, as this has begun to function erratically, accepting only a fraction of the entries posted. All red top entries are still online today, at
Aut.2008 developed somewhat decluttered style for “platypus” page and gradually spread this style over the pages of the other books, e.g. linking to relevant blog label instead of having dedicated (and always out-of-date) “news and events” page.
July 2009 joined twitter as @michaelgrr.
Nov. 2009 Forced to move website to yahoo web hosting and new domain following closure of geocities in October. Blog now has google page rank of 6/10 (when did that happen?) PR of website has dropped to 0 because of the move, though (it used to oscillate between 4 and 5 for the last few years).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

missing the target

One thing that New Labour governments here have been really good at is setting targets for everything. At one point, I seem to remember, the government even set a target for the maximal number of suicides that was going to be allowed to happen in a certain time frame (or was that in a dream?).

So the whole business of setting carbon reduction targets for timepoints well beyond the next elections really suits them, especially if they don't have to take any actual measures to start moving towards the targets.

This was the philosophy underlying the Climate Change Act 2008, which Gordon Brown has recently held up as a shining example to other nations. Now the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK has picked the Act apart and checked whether the UK can actually meet the targets specified in the Act, based on performance so far, manufacturing capacity, engineering and servicing workforce available, etc.

Obviously, the engineers have their own hidden agenda, namely the grudge that the manufacturing has moved away from the UK, so engineers are now no longer in demand here, so this is an opportunity to say "told you so", and "that's what you get when you train people to become accountants rather than engineers".

But still, the bottom line is that the government hasn't done much to actually meet the targets contained in the 2008 Act, and there is little chance it could meet the targets even if it started doing things now (and in fact, stopped expanding airports now).

Read my news feature in today's issue of Current Biology:

‘Failing’ claims on climate targets
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1054-R1055, 15 December 2009

Summary and restricted access to PDF file

Monday, December 14, 2009

archaeology of blogging

To my huge surprise, I've just discovered that the first incarnation of my blog (apart from the very first one on MySpace), which was hosted on the Yahoo360 / geocities network of sites has survived the demise of both yahoo360 and geocities. Apparently, blog entries have been moved, along with my website, to the new yahoo domain

I usually refer to it as the "red top" version of my blog, it ran from 10.5.2006 to 14.5.2008, with 503 entries, and the complete list of entries is here:

Prose and passion: the red-top version

So if any of my seven faithful readers should ever want to look up a vaguely remembered blog entry from the time before blogspot (i.e. older than summer 2007), that's where to find it. Please ignore the pedestrian design, though ...

PS one entry I just re-read is:

three reasons not to eat your partner

responsibility of chemists

This time of the year, 25 years ago, I was a first term chemistry student, and one morning our inorg. chemistry prof put the periodic table aside to give us a stern lecture on our future responsibility as chemists. That's about the only thing I remember of the Bhopal disaster, which remains to this day (luckily, in a way) the worst industrial accident ever.

Despite being a responsible chemist and all that, I never looked all that closely at what happened and why, until reading this piece on the 25th anniversary.

Bhopal: 25 years of poison, by Indra Sinha

Reading this, you're left wondering whether the event should have been prosecuted as manslaughter, murder, or genocide, but the fact of the matter is that nobody has been prosecuted to this day. (Essentially, an extremely labile and dangerous substance was stored in a large tank, and somebody decided to switch off the cooling for that tank, to save costs, then water accidentally entered the tank and started a reaction -- there are several outrageously wrong decisions in this story that must not be allowed to happen inside a chemical factory.) And people in the area still ingest the poison and get diseases and birth defects from it.

Chemistry aside, what most angers me about these things is the inherent racism assuming that it's no big deal if 20,000 people die in India from negligence of a US-owned factory, while the deaths of 3,000 people in the US are an outrage that can be used as an excuse to invade two countries (again at the cost of tens of thousands less important lives). Clearly, all men are not created equal ...

Friday, December 11, 2009

with apologies to MC Escher

Somebody very kindly put up a convex mirror in the old entrance hall of the Radcliffe Science Library, which now only gives access to the vending machines and a librarian's office. With its original floor tiles and arches, the setting looks very Escher-like in distorted reflection, so I couldn't resist the temptation to try an Escher-esque self portrait:

With sincere apologies to the master, whose reflections you can find on the official Escher website.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

collision course

The Large Hadron Collider is up and running now, after year-long repairs, and producing actual collisions and scientific measurements. And just on time, my review of Paul Halpern's book "Collider" has appeared in this week's edition of Chemistry & Industry (issue 23, p27, restricted online access).

Here's a snippet:

What I found most exciting in this book was the story how physicists came to build bigger and bigger accelerators, ending up with the LHC. There is much to be learned about the nature of human endeavours from this side of the book alone. For example, the fate of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was to be built from scratch in a remote part of Texas, until Congress pulled the plug, contrasts with the LHC which is based on using existing CERN infrastructure and recycling as much as possible from previous instruments, and thus could be financed without much pain.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

ribosome memories

In the monthly round-up of German pieces, we have my take on the Nobel prize for ribosome structure and function, why Ardi is neither chimp-like nor human, and how to adopt a chemist.

The nobel prize piece was a bit of a nostalgia trip as I was also working with ribosomes in the early 1990s, collaborating with Knud Nierhaus' group at the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics at Berlin, where Ada Yonath held a visiting professorship at the time. I attended one of the big biannual ribosome meetings in Berlin in 1992 (in the central district that used to be part of the capital of the GDR and in 1992 had more craters than the moon!). I came away with the impression of lots of very bright people feeling their way around in the dark. The crystal structures were really desperately needed, but at that time it was far from clear whether they would ever materialise. Fortunately, around 2000, they did, which is the achievement honoured by this year's Nobel prize in chemistry. And yes, this is chemistry, as the ribosome is nothing but a molecular machine. You can purify the molecular components and assemble a ribosome that has never seen a living cell (and may incorporate synthetic components, or isotope-labelled ones), and it will still work normally. No vital force here, just chemistry.

Anyhow, here are the references:

Adoptieren Sie einen Chemiker, Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, 1175.

Weder Mensch noch Affe Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, 1208-1210.

Detailansichten der zellulären Eiweißfabrik, Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 12, 16-18.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

education for all

It struck me as somewhat ironic that Shakira came to one of the most exclusive universities in the world last night to talk about providing education for all, but then again, the students here will in the future be the people with the power to change things, so I hope they did take the message in.

I didn't get access of course, but the full text of her lecture at the Oxford Union is online here:

The democratization of education.

Essentially, she was saying that the progress of civilisation throughout human history is due to education for more people, so it is in our best interest to make education accessible to all. (which is what her foundation Pies Descalzos is helping to do in Colombia)

Some snippets:

I’m still a student on all these issues, but I’ve come to learn that there are ways to change this. So no government can say that the challenge of bringing education to every child is an impossible task.

Now I want to be clear about this, this isn’t about charity. This is about investing in human potential. From an ethical point of view, from a moral point of view, it accomplishes a purpose. But also from an economic point of view, this could bring enormous benefits to all mankind. Universal education is the key to global security and economic growth.

That is how I want the youth of 2060 to see us. That our mission for global peace consisted of sending 30,000 educators to Afghanistan, not 30,000 soldiers. That in 2010, world education became more important than world domination.

Using my supernatural abilities, I managed to find her after the lecture and got to see her for about 20 seconds (while students took turns to be photographed with her) before she disappeared through the door you see on the right of the less then perfect picture below. Meanwhile, her partner, Antonio de la Rua, was lounging on a sofa just two metres from where I was standing. (I think this is the first time I saw him in RL.)

For better photos of the event, check, they have now set up a picture gallery.

PS there's also a report in the local newspaper, the Oxford Mail

PPS There is now a ten-minute video with key of the speech available for viewing via the official site.

Monday, December 07, 2009

world cup final

The climate change world cup final has started now, except that we don't get another chance every 4 years on this one.

Showing that international co-operation is possible, fifty newspapers including the Guardian have joined forces to co-publish a joint leader comment today (see this picture gallery).

You can follow the news from Copenhagen on twitter:

Meanwhile, our school has sent us an invitation for children to take part in a ski trip, by plane of course, and with snow guarantee in April 2011, i.e. if they don't have snow they'll make some. Looks like they want to teach the children how to maximise their carbon footprint ... Goes to show that people here in the UK just don't get it.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Isn't it reassuring to see that all these new-fangled communication technologies from email to twitter haven't managed to displace the good old-fashioned pigeon holes ? Here in Oxford, everybody needs one at their college plus one at their institute, so there must be many thousands of them. This set of PHs is on Parks Road:

Friday, December 04, 2009

huffing and puffing

A third of a century ago, H. McGurk and J. W. MacDonald published a landmark paper in Nature (Hearing lips and seeing voices, vol. 264, p 746) showing that speech perception is influenced by visual impressions as well, not just by the sound.

Back in 1997, I did an opinion piece for New Scientist exploring the implications of the McGurk effect (as it became known) for the unfortunate tradition of dubbing movies and thus mismatching the auditory and visual signals. In that piece I also mentioned some of the variations on the McGurk experiment done by other researchers, some of which were quite funny, e.g. perceiving speech from inverted faces. I'm still wondering whether the subjects of the study had to stand on their heads.

Last week, Nature published another spin-off, easily summarised as "McGurk effect in air-puffs." Briefly, the authors Bryan Gick And Donald Derrick show for air flow what McGurk and MacDonald showed for vision, namely that it can distort auditory perception. For instance there is a short sharp puff of air in saying "pa", but not in "ba". The paper is on page 502, and a short interview with the first author appears on page 388.

Fortunately, though, all this doesn't affect anybody's enjoyment of movies, unlike the original McGurk effect and the dubbing industry.

PS You can read a "director's cut" version of my 1997 McGurk piece either here or in my recent book The birds, the bees, and the platypuses.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

welcome to Hamburg ... errr ... Berlin

If you choose to fly to Germany with a certain orange-tinged budget carrier, you shouldn't be surprised to end up in Berlin when you booked Hamburg. Or in Hamburg when you booked Dortmund. Because the map of Germany that this company uses (at least in their ads, hopefully not for their pilots!) looks like this:

Four cities are definitely wrong, one may be right (hard to tell as Dusseldorf and Cologne are so close to each other, so the line indicating Cologne may be pointing to either), and Munich appears to be vaguely in the right area). I recommend to take the train instead.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

speaking at the Oxford Union

Shakira is due to speak to the Oxford Union (members only event) on Monday the seventh. The blurb to the event is basically a summary of her musical success, with no mention of her work in education. I may be wrong, but I'm quite sure that she will use the opportunity to talk about education and her foundations Pies Descalzos, and Alas (see for instance this recent Ibero-American summit). I will have to work it out from the local press though, as I'm not a member and can't get in.

Shakira visiting the Pies Descalzos’ school in Chocó (Colombia) - 2009 (

PS (3.12.) My prediction that she is going to talk about education has now been confirmed by the official website.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

copenhagen countdown

Six days to go until the big COP15 meeting at Copenhagen. Quite curious what will come of it, after so much debate beforehand.

In my view, the big problem is that people still don't understand that unlimited economic growth is not compatible with a planet of limited resources. So as long as governments give the environment with one hand and take away with the other in the name of stimulating the economy (UK government approved new runway for LHR airport while pretending care about CO2 emissions!), we're not going to be able to fix things. An economy that only works when it grows like a tumour isn't working at all.

Also, as Naomi Klein pointed out in Rolling Stone Magazine recently, there is much too little appreciation of the fact which she calls the "climate debt", i.e. that the rich countries caused most of the excess CO2 we have, while the poor countries will suffer most from its effects (on both sides of the equation, "most" means over 90%). So the billions due to be paid for climate mitigation aren't aid or charity, they are just fair compensation.

Anyhow. Time to stop ranting and sit back for the final show. In my last pre-Copenhagen piece on climate, out in today's issue of Current Biology, I've tried to make sense of the various political wrestlings surrounding the Barcelona negotiations in November:

Climate jostlings intensify
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 22, R1009-R1010, 1 December 2009
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dear Mr President

It's more than a year since that "historic vote" that made Barack Obama president, and I was shaken out of my illusion when I read that on October 28th the UN general assembly has for the 18th year running voted to condemn the US trade embargo against Cuba (187 votes for, 3 against lifting the embargo, two abstentions).

So hang on, he's been president for the best part of the year, he's due to pick up a Nobel peace prize next month, and that stupid embargo is still being upheld ? I mean by now even the nice people who financed hundreds of assassination attempts against Fidel Castro (which strangely isn't included in the US definition of terrorism) should have figured out that the embargo isn't getting them any nearer to their goal.

So what's taking Obama so long? This doesn't require him to find or print money, send troups, or twist arms, it only needs a signature. Why can't he just stop it before it turns 50 next October (surely that anniversary would be a nice PR opportunity for the Cuban government). Can't the Norwegians just withhold that Nobel certificate until he's called off the embargo ?

PS, ok, I know it's enshrined in law, but laws can be both changed and bypassed if they are manifestly stupid.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Intimate adventures of a scientist

Belle de Jour: The intimate adventures of a London call girl
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005

This book is a bit of a cause célèbre in the UK but readers elsewhere in the world may not know that it’s the intermediate between a very successful early noughties blog and a somewhat controversial TV series starring Billie Piper, a former teen pop star and Dr Who assistant. I found a copy at Oxfam a while ago and read the first 50 pages or so, but then something else must have been more urgent and I forgot all about it. I picked it up again after the revelation that the author is a working research scientist, Brooke Magnanti, with a PhD in cancer epidemiology.

Intrigued by the strange case of Dr Magnanti and Ms. Jour (presumably she must have had a third name for the agency work?), I finished the book off quite quickly, and found it was even more fascinating to read as “The intimate adventures of a London scientist” rather than as those of an anonymous call girl.

With hindsight, it really is quite obviously the work of a scientist. In a section about comforting an acquaintance over a breakup, she concludes: “… I felt for her. I’ve been on both sides of that equation.” Similar science-inspired expressions and observations are pop up repeatedly. She often refers to her university years, though she doesn’t quite tell us what she studied and where. Or does she?

In fact, one section that is quite hilarious to read post facto is a list of “Pub Games for Whores.” One such game, designed to confuse men who try to chat you up, is to invent an “implausible occupation.” The paragraph ends:

Extra points if he actually holds that job. ‘Really? You’re an epidemiologist? What a coincidence!’ (p187)

Coincidence, indeed. The truth is in there. Also, the tabloids needn’t have bothered to chase her poor old dad. It’s in the book:

Have I mentioned that my father is an embarrassing perv? Runs in the bloodline, I suppose. (p168)

Reading the book as the work of a fellow scientist makes it quite endearing. We have all shared the same career worries at some point in our lives, after all. Although there are very few scientists who can write as well as she does. Clearly, this woman has many talents – research experience, communicates well, can deal with people even in awkward situations – so, from a society point of view, I find it troubling that she was underappreciated and unemployed for long enough to even consider prostitution.

I was glad to hear that, having explored other career paths, she’s sticking with science although her publishing success alone would probably pay the bills quite nicely. “Working in science is important to me” Magnanti told New Scientist in an interview after coming out. So good luck to her, I’m sure she will do well, and I hope that one day she’ll write about science too.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Shakira's impact

Way back in the dark ages before MySpace even existed, I used to visit the "official" Shakira message board hosted by Sony. Among the perks were the posts from people who had been exposed to her presence without much accommodation time, e.g. "I was dragged along to the concert by my bf / gf, didn't know what to expect." and who got completely blown away and needed to talk about the experience. A lot. To the seasoned observer, it's always fun to witness the effect an impact has on the uninitiated.

Much the same happens when UK journalists get to interview her, as they have led a rather shielded life around here. I'm not sure whether to blame xenophobia of the public or hopelessness of Sony UK, but the fact is that anything she sings in Spanish doesn't register here at all (unlike, for instance, in Germany!), and only two of the English language singles were big hits here. So to the UK media, she's still a bit of an exotic unknown quantity, and even the music journalists don't know much about her background and her foundation "Pies Descalzos".

So here's the latest journo to be impacted by all this, not knowing quite what hit him, in last Sunday's Observer:

The making of Saint Shakira

Lots of lovely quotes (if you don't have time to read the whole thing):

... realising that she not only knows what she's talking about, but puts her money where her mouth is. It suddenly strikes me that she's Madonna gone right.

(I normally resent any mention of Madonna, but this one's spot on!)

Shakira doesn't just talk about it: she gets things done.

Shakira's Pies Descalzos [Bare Feet] Foundation, which she started at 19, has so far provided education and jobs for over 30,000 Colombians.

I have seldom met someone, especially in the music world, so sane

... and from the sane woman herself:

People get jaded in every profession, but for some reason I feel as passionate as when I was 13 years old and just released my first album, I feel the same amount of adrenalin in my blood, and the same amount of curiosity as well. Curiosity about why I'm different.

By the end of it I had even forgiven the author that he got the name wrong (I believe the last part of the quartet, i.e. her mother's name is Ripoll, not Ripoli).

"now who's the rock star here ?"

PS: Rolling Stone magazine with S. cover story is in the shops now, even in the UK !

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

in praise of placebos

The UK parliament's Science and Technology Sub-Committee debated homeopathy this morning, you can watch it here.

I have to admit I'm a bit softer on this point than many scientists. I think we should appreciate that the placebo effect is real. The belief that you are doing something to treat your malady can mobilise the body's defences and induce a real improvement in some people's condition, so if something "only works as well as placebo", that means it does something. And as medical doctors aren't allowed to give you a sugar pill and pretend it's a drug, we need people who can apply placebos and actually believe in them. Which is what homeopaths do. As long as they aren't stopping people from getting a better treatment where one exists, I don't mind them doing what they do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Darwin fatigue ?

It's the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the origin of species" today, but I'm not getting much of a celebratory vibe. OK, the display at the library is saying something about virtual Darwin day, and Nature has done the third special issue on Darwin in the year, but it's not even trending on twitter, so it can't really be happening. Or it's less important than New Moon and Christmas. Or everybody is suffering from Darwin fatigue after commemorating his work nearly all year long ? Time to move on to the 2010 anniversaries ?

Oh, hang on, not yet. My domain name is turning 10 next month, so I'll prepare something special for that. Be afraid ...

Monday, November 23, 2009

synthetic fuel revisited

There is a brilliant catalytic process that can turn almost anything, from natural gas through to biomass and waste, into liquid fuels that can be used in cars, for instance. The process was invented by Fischer and Tropsch in the 1920s, and there is only one thing wrong with it: fuel made from crude oil has been cheaper than synthetic fuel in most places, most of the time.

Therefore, the history of Fischer-Tropsch visits some unpopular regimes, including Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, and it perks up each time there is an oil shortage. The fact that it can be used with a very wide range of feedstocks, from stranded gas to solid waste, has now given the method a new lease of life, with green considerations (rather than political isolation) now being the main driving force.

I wrote a feature article about Fischer Tropsch revival for Chemistry & Industry, which is out today:

Catalysis: Liquid fuel revival
Chemistry & Industry No.22, 23 November 2009, pp 21-23

It should soon turn up online here -- not sure whether it will be open access, though.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

the fine art of surfacing

Fitting in with the Cupid theme of the week, I discovered this semi-submerged (emerging from the confinement of two-dimensionality? transferring between parallel universes?) galipette in the Turrill Sculpture Garden which hides behind the council library in Summertown and hosts temporary exhibitions of the work of local sculptors. I'm afraid I forgot to pick up a leaflet with the details of the sculptures, so I haven't got a clue who made this one.

Friday, November 20, 2009

how to beat the tabloids

amidst all the fall-out of the Belle de Jour story, I loved yesterday's report in the Guardian, saying that a fellow blogger alerted her when the Daily Mail got wind of it. The clever chap called Darren had figured out her identity from the fact that she appeared to be an experienced blogger even when she started blogging as BDJ, so he looked round the small circle of people in the UK blogging scene and found the right one. He set up a website which casually mentioned both her real name and her pseudonym. At the time this was of course the only website to do so (technically called a GoogleWhack), so anybody searching for both names would end up on his site and register in his visitor stats. So he could sound the alarm when the Daily Mail computers showed up, and Brooke Magnanti was able to out herself before becoming a trophy on the Mail's wall.

Which goes to show -- UK prime ministers past, present, and future take note! -- that one can beat the tabloid press if one is clever enough.

PS With hindsight, there is a clue in her publication list too. Four of the seven scientific papers she co-authored have a title starting with the word "sex". I admit that the papers are not about sex, but about sex-specific effects in cancer epidemiology, but she could have used the term gender-specific ?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

water crisis

Earthwatch is organising a public debate on water & drought today:

From Tsunami to Drought
Thursday 19th November 2009, 7pm-9pm (Doors/Cash Bar open from 6pm), The Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Chaired by award-winning broadcaster and radio and television presenter, Andrea Catherwood

full details

Comments by four of the speakers have appeared in the Guardian.

Two related article of mine (on Earthwatch-supported research re. water resources in Kenya) have appeared in Current Biology:

Ebb tidings (2006, about Lake Naivasha)

Mapping hidden resources (2007, about a project to map water supplies and thereby reduce human/wildlife conflict)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cupid in overdrive

It's been a crazy time for the interface of science and sex (which I tend to file under the label "Cupid's Chemistry" -- the preliminary title for the translation project that ended up being published as Lust and Love: is it more than chemistry?).

First everybody went batty over the fruity practices of fruit bats. Clearly, everybody else angling for next year's IgNobel prize in biology can stop trying now. There's not a chance in hell you can beat that.

Then "21st century Moll Flanders," blogger, and bestselling author Belle de Jour turns out to be a working ... scientist. On hearing the news I went looking for my copy of her first book (one of the treasures I found at Oxfam), and found I had already put it on my "Cupid's chemistry" shelf. Very prescient. Also found out she has just published her fourth one, will need catch up with the reading ... Which shouldn't be a problem, as she writes extremely well, for a scientist.

And now we have a "female viagra" which turns out not to be acting on the blood flow, but on the brain, so nothing like viagra really, except that it helps getting some action going. Flibanserin turns out to be a failed anti-depressant developed by Boehringer Ingelheim, which now was tested successfully for treatment of "hypoactive sexual desire disorder". Which leaves me wondering who (men or women) defines where the normal ends and the hypo starts. But anyhow, the drug should be around soonish. Watch out for the spams offering it cheaper.

PS -- re. comments: I'm sorry I have now been forced to add anti-spam measures to the comment handling, as the blog is attracting an increasing flow of spam comments. Word recognition will be required for all comments, and on older posts there will also be a moderation step.
And if you see any dodgy comments, _don't_ click on the links!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

enjoy your coffee

... while it's still available. I've learned from my research for the piece published in today's issue of Current Biology that coffee growers in central america would have to shift their plantations to higher altitudes at a rate of 3-4 metres per year -- which is physically impossible, as coffee grows slowly, and as they will be running out of suitable mountain surface area quite soon.

A stark reminder that climate change isn't something that's going to happen in 2050, it's happening now, and people are suffering the consequences already. For farmers in tropical countries, this means they may no longer be able to feed their families. For us, less catastrophically, it means we may not be able to drink as much tea and coffee as we used to. But maybe a few empty shelves in our supermarkets is what it takes to make people understand ?

anyhow, my article is here:

Coffee growers feel the heat
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 21, R965-R966, 17 November 2009
summary and restricted access to pdf file

Monday, November 16, 2009

european nations stirred and shaken

Well, it’s not quite le chateau de ma mère, but at Oppède in the Luberon region, in Provence, some 30 km east of Avignon, there is a ruined castle that just might have belonged to my mother’s ancestors, as I found out only recently.

My mitochondrial (i.e. purely maternal) blood line goes back to a woman called Catherine Elisabeth Obelode, born 1832 at Steinhagen, near Bielefeld. And that’s as far as it went, until Google came along. Two years ago, during the Xmas holidays, with a computer and not much to do, I systematically googled all the “orphans” in my family tree, and got lucky with Catherine Elisabeth Obelode. A nice and helpful Mr Obelode, who knows everything about every carrier of that name that was ever born (it is a rare name that only arose once, and is linked to a specific farm in the area where my mitochondrial ancestor was born), helped me out with data covering several generations.

Obviously, for every orphan I find the parents for, I create two new ones, and one of the new “last known ancestors”, which I then listed on my website was Anna Maria Dopheide. From the sound of that name I was very sure that it was from the northern German dialect, plattdeutsch. But it appears I was wrong.

Somebody involved with the clan of the Dopheide descendants found my website and managed to link up my ancestor to the data that they have. And I learned that the Dopheide descendants believe that the first carrier of that name in Germany (which, again, is a unique name), a Johann Dopheide showing up around 1535 in the Bielefeld area, was in fact Jean d’Oppède (*ca.1515), son of the baron Jean Maynier d’Oppède (1495-1558) from the town of Oppède in Provence, who was married to Louise de Vintimille. Legend has it that the younger Jean fled after converting to protestantism, while his father was a staunch defender of catholicism and is in fact held responsible for a massacre wiping out an entire protestant village.

Apparently there is no hard evidence that Johann Dopheide and Jean d’Oppède were in fact the same person, but if the story were true, I could add dozens of French ancestors to my family tree (in fact so many that the numbering system would become impractical, so I won’t actually put them in). The male line of the Mayniers alone goes back over several centuries, to a first mention in the 11th century, while the ancestry of Louise de Vintimille goes back to Guido (Guy I)Guerra, comte de Vintimille (954), marquis des Alpes-Maritimes et seigneur de Lunigiana et de Garfagnana (see this Wikipedia entry).

If Johann Dopheide really is an immigrant from France, his arrival is now one of 15 immigration events recorded among my ancestors before 1700. Which is intriguing, as they appeared all very settled and very German between 1700 and 1900, and only by digging deeper into the past did we find that there has been a lot of movement going on, and the idea of separate nations is undermined (more about my migrants). While many fled from persecution (mostly on religious grounds) there have also been positive stimulants, such as the resettlement of areas devastated by the 30-years war with migrants from Switzerland.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

life philosophy

after stumbling around randomly for over four decades, I have finally figured out my priorities in life / work, or mission statement, or philosophy, whatever you want to call it. My main reason to formulate this was that most people over 30 seem to divide their time into life and work, earning money in one part of their time, to waste it in the other, and that doesn't make any kind of sense to me. I tend to do exactly what I want to do, and then if I'm lucky I find someone who pays me for it (if not, never mind, I can always put it on my blog!).

So here's my mission statement, conveniently condensed to tweet format (at 133 characters there's even place for a hashtag, any suggestions?):

I’m a science writer aiming 1) to educate and entertain myself, enabling me to 2) educate and entertain others, thereby 3) encouraging people to pay for 1 and 2.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I'm writing lots of longer feature articles these days, which produces relatively little material for science news to be reported here ... watch this space, though, as at some point all will be revealed.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased to report that the German edition of "Birds, bees, platypuses" (Der Kuss des Schnabeltiers) is ranked within the top 60,000 books at, so keep it going, make sure everybody adopts a platypus for Xmas ...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

writers in oxford

Our local writers' club, Writers in Oxford has teamed up with the local Borders bookshop for an event promoting new books by members. Sadly, this arrived too late for my most recent book, but still the event looks interesting and I might pop round to see how it goes.

That's at Borders Oxford, 6:30 pm, Thu 12th November 2009.

PS talking about all things local, we also have a Cafe Scientifique around here, of which I missed the latest instalment yesterday. Ages ago I did an evening on nanotech and my book "Travels to the nanoworld" there: Nanotechnology comes naturally.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


... no time for meaningful blogging today, but do check my tweet feed. Had great fun on Twitter last week, thanks to the home secretary and his inspired decision to shoot the messenger when he didn't like the message. The #NuttSack affair rumbles on ...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Lo Hecho Está Hecho

love the new video: the colours, the bed-bouncing, everything.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

heating the planet

It is the year 2009 AD. The whole planet Earth is thinking about ways of averting catastrophic climate change. The whole planet ? Well, around here there seems to be a nest of hard-core planet heaters who are busy thinking of ways how they can heat the planet a bit more. Burn their rubbish, organise massive bonfires, buy a few patio heaters to to heat the garden, get a new SUV to drive down to the cornershop ...

watching various things going on here (not to mention at government level where airport expansion gets priority over carbon reduction), one would have to conclude it's 1970, not a few weeks before the COP15 meeting at Copenhagen.

Friday, November 06, 2009

ode to pay

among the few books left in the library room where I am sitting right now is the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911). I just love the slightly battered look of it, and the inadvertent poetry of its three-letter signposts on the spine, such as the "ode to pay":

Other examples include the boarding pass: EVA to FRA and the weapons commission: SUB to TOM. Oh, and if your mother gets ill, you'll need Vol. XVIII.: MED to MUM.

PS for an appreciation of the dramatic potential of full-word Britannica titles, type "Jirasek Lighthouses" into google, you'll find a piece by Alan Coren on google books. Thanks to Aidan for the hint.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

summing up the Nutt sack affair

(--> deutsche Version)

I don't know whether anybody outside the UK noticed, but we've had a big debate here over the head of the government's drugs advisory body, David Nutt, who was sacked by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, last Friday (30.10.). Essentially, he was fired because he had insisted that the real danger posed by drugs is completely unrelated to the ABC classification used for law enforcement. (e.g., both cannabis and ecstasy are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco). By firing him, Johnson unleashed a major science v. politics clash.

It was great fun watching this drama onfold on twitter -- the twitter-using science minister, Paul Drayson (@lorddrayson) was caught out by it on a visit to Japan, tweeted his support to the enraged scientists back home, but as soon as he was back in London and under cabinet control order, he fell silent.

Soon there was a petition on the gov. website to get Prof. Nutt reinstated, and the brilliant twitter-hashtag #NuttSack. The tabloid press went berserk: "Cannabis scandal expert admits: My children have taken drugs", but among the serious newspapers, even the conservative ones (Times, Telegraph) backed the scientists side. The collected stories in the Guardian are here.

I think it was ultimately a positive thing, as the scientific evidence about the real dangers of drugs got acres of media coverage rather than being swept under the rug by the government. Plus, the government will probably have to reorganise the way it commissions expert advice on drugs, and it will have to do so under public scrutiny. Thus in a political sense, this was a major own-goal for the home secretary (and Gordon Brown as well who backed him, rather than the science minister who tried to get the decision reversed).

Editorials summarising the whole affair are now appearing, e.g. by David Colquhoun in the British Medical Journal, and by David Nutt himself in New Scientist. Only trouble is that the Tories, who are likely to win the next elections, are just as blockheaded about this as the current home secretary. So scientists will have to vote Lib Dem next time ...

PS the most revealing contribution re. the misunderstanding of science was probably made by the Daily Mail columnist who called scientists (all of them) the "arrogant gods of certainty". Could someone pop down to Waterstones and get him a copy of Popper ? (more about risk and uncertainty in the Times)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

how to be bee-friendly

As the catastrophic losses of honey bee colonies around the world continue, I've done another piece on this topic, pegged to the recent "Plan Bee" initiative of the UK's "the cooperative" group of companies and the film The vanishing of the bees.

Bee screened
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 20, R921, 3 November 2009
The Co-operative Group of businesses in the UK has backed a film and a 10-point plan to raise awareness of the continuing losses of vital bee colonies.
abstract and restricted access to pdf file

Have also read the book "A world without bees" now (which I only knew in parts before) and am coming out of this with mixed feelings. Obviously, we do need to fix this problem, if we don't want to reduce our diet to rice and fish, but if you consider how large-scale monocultural farming and industrial bee-keeping have co-evolved in the US, following profit maximation with no regard for nature whatsoever, I can't help feeling that people in that industry get exactly what they deserve.

Biodiversity is not just for pretty postcards, it is essential to keep us alive. Replacing thousands of plant species and as many natural pollinators with just one clone of plant and one clone of pollinator has got to be a bad idea.

Oh, and maybe we should stop buying almonds, come to think of it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

website news

As geocities closed down in October, I've had to move my website to the yahoo webhosting service. As part of the service, I'm also getting a domain name, which means that, in addition to, I now also have the domain name
Forwarding of traffic from to the new site seems to work. The address auto-forwards to the new name for the moment (but that may stop at some point, so if anybody has any links to the geocities address, please update them). Links to secondary pages, e.g. will also auto-forward, but to the front page, and not to the specific page. So again, please adjust your links accordingly if you have any.

Oh, and in the brave new world of, my web address is: or

The blog is unaffected by all this, physical address still, and the domain name points at this.

While we are talking domain names, please note that I can not read email addressed to the domain names (such as ) as both domain names attract hundreds of spams per day and I have been forced to target this traffic directly to the trash folder.

Also, as a novelty, I am now putting up a new title photo every month, like a good, old-fashioned wall calendar ...

PS I just noticed (Nov 5th) that the front page of my blog now has a google ranking of 6 (that's out of 10). How on earth did that happen ? Thanks to everyone who linked here !

innovations by the isis

In the current issue of Oxford Today, there is my feature about technology transfer in Oxford, based on an interview with my former head of department, Graham Richards, and on the case study of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a spin-out company from the chemistry department aiming to develop single molecule electronic genome sequencers.

Read my feature here (open access for all).

Sunday, November 01, 2009

analysing art

Just one piece out in German this month, but one I really enjoyed a lot -- it's about Raman spectroscopy of ancient pieces of art and archaeological finds. I remember thinking when I wrote this that the guy who published the original paper must have the best job in the world. Imagine you can walk round a major museum and pick a microgram out of the most treasured pieces. You say "I want a piece of the Mona Lisa" and you get it ... And it's not just that he got to play with these invaluable materials, he also found out exciting things that really changed various aspects of what we think we know about our cultural history (this is why this paper got into PNAS, while his previous ones were in Journal of Raman Spectroscopy).

Anyhow, my take on all this is in

Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nov. 2009, page 16

summary and restricted access to pdf file

Madonna mit Schildlauslack
Eine spektroskopische Methode zum Nachweis organischer Farbstoffe in Geweben lässt sich jetzt auch auf mikroskopisch kleine Proben von wertvollen Gemälden und Skulpturen anwenden. Das Verfahren verhalf bereits zu interessanten kulturhistorischen Erkenntnissen.

Friday, October 30, 2009

architect honoured but not commissioned

Architect Santiago Calatrava was among those honoured by the University of Oxford this summer (along with local author Philip Pullman), but I reckon the University's enthusiasm for his work wouldn't extend to commissioning a building from him ?! There would be plenty of space at the Radcliffe Observatory site.

If you look at the world map of Calatrava's works, there is a suspicious white area just north of the English Channel. One might blame it on the heir to the throne who devours modern architects for breakfast, but I also have a nagging suspicion that those people handling big building budgets around here just don't have the courage to ask somebody like him, who would build something really special. Now I dream of a new Oxford spire ...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shingai Shoniwa

If you don't know who Shingai Shoniwa is, you're missing something. Ok, so I'm guilty too, I actually saw her perform last week without knowing her name. She's the face (and voice, bass player, and dancer) of UK trio The Noisettes.

Here's Shingai riding the crowds:

... mingling with the audience:

... caressing ...

... and walking on the audience:

She's also been playing the bass:

showing her legs:

... and bending over backwards to make everybody happy:

And guess what, it worked. Oh, and she can sing, too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

solar century

I reviewed "The solar century" by Jeremy Leggett (ed.) for Chemistry & Industry, a nicely illustrated plea for going solar, with all the arguments why we must and how we can. That's in issue 20, (26.10.2009), p 29. Probably premium content, but here's a snippet from the end of my review:

Alas, the solar century has had a rather sluggish start in some parts of the world, but it could still happen. And with the evidence for human-induced climate change piling up, it is becoming increasingly obvious that our century must become the solar century, or more widely defined, a renewable energy century, if it isn’t to become a different book title, namely our final century.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

science findings

today I was going to tell you all about my new articles that came out this week, but none of the magazines involved has updated their website so far, so there isn't much point as I can't post links.

In other science news, though, I attended a day of very interesting seminars on genomics organised by Oxford Nanopore Technologies and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. The event included a lab tour, which was a bit of a shock to the system -- last time I saw people sequencing genes, they cast their own gels and read out the bases by visual inspection. Reassuring to see that the centrifuges still look exactly the same. And the "lab culture" as revealed by the notes stuck to everything (one read "failure") was still pretty familiar as well.

Anyhow, I'm hoping to get a couple of stories (genome sequencing technology, epigenetics, etc.) out of this (not to mention lots of new contacts on twitter etc.), so watch this space.

Monday, October 26, 2009

the world's a stage

Third in my series "things I like the look / design of" is very much not a design but a look, namely the look of a messy stage overcrowded with the collected instruments and electronics of two bands, just before a concert. It's not just the anticipation, I really like to look at this. Which is just as well, as sometimes one stands there for two hours looking at it :)
This one is of the Noisettes, and their support act, Little Camels:

pix from the actual concert(last Thu at the Oxford O2 academy) to follow.


(last update: 18.4.2021)

Another batch of family history, this time the descendants of the Imig family (Wilhelm Imig and Regina Catharina Strack) from the Hunsrück area. His paternal lineage can be traced back to Peter Imig who was born in Fronhofen in 1620, and some other lineages go back even further (see below).

The Imigs are linked to a group of would-be migrants that left the palatinate in the 18th century but never made it to the New World. Some of them, including my ancestors, got stuck in the Simmern area, others at the lower rhine, where in 1820 a whole new village (Louisendorf) was founded as a new home for these migrants. The name Imig is still common in that area, though rare elsewhere. In spite of the failure of the 18th century emigration attempt, there are now also descendants of Peter Imig in the US.

Two of the seven children of Wilhelm Imig are my great-great-grandmothers (2. and 4.). Regarding the descendants of 3. Regina I know some details from an old letter where the family members are listed. Some descendants of 1. Julius Imig are found online. Of the descendants of the others I know only what my grandmother could remember, so if anybody can enlighten me on these, I’d grateful for hints.

I picked the couple of Wilhelm Imig and Regina Catharina Strack as a starting point, as they are the same generation as Wilhelm Düsselmann and Elisabetha de la Strada (see the Krefeld Clan), and for this generation we still have a reasonable chance to get all descendants together (as my grandmother knew most of her second cousins at least by name). Also, I think it is revealing to focus on this early 19th century generation which enjoyed a relatively stable life (mostly they stayed in one place and within the same profession for several generations around this time). The branches protruding both forward, and backward from these typically spread out both geographically (surprising amount of mobility in the 17th and 16th century!) and socially.

Regina Catharina Strack’s ancestry is linked to the Andres family, who were butchers, then innkeepers at Kirn, and in 1862 founded the family business that brews Kirner Pils to this day. Our ancestors shared with the brewers are documented at Kirn back to the 15th century. Ironically, the longest reasonably well-documented line in my family tree, after (or before) an absence of more than three hundred years spent trundling about in various parts of Germany (in the widest sense), leads back to my birthplace.

But now for the descendants:


Wilhelm Imig * 28. 7.1820 Simmern + 31. 6.1877 Simmern

} oo 12. 3.1844 Simmern

Regina Catharina Strack * 21. 1.1817 Simmern + 8. 5.1877 Simmern


had 7 children und ca. 40 grandchildren
(Details left in German are those my grandmother told me, so I didn't want them to get lost in translation. results of my later research are in English.):

1. Michael Julius Imig * 17.1.1845 Simmern + 15.2.1888 Viersen, Bauunternehmer
oo Anna Katharina Enders * 19.11.1850 Monzingen, + 1.1.1916 Mettmann
1.1. Katharina oo Steffan
1.2. Heinrich, Ingenieur bei Bayer Leverkusen
1.3. Regina Karolina (Lina) * 5.9.1876 Viersen + 27.1.1951 Mettmann oo Ernst Gustav Meyer (1863-1930) in Mettmann
1.3.1. Karl
1.3.2. Alfred
1.3.x. Ernst Meyer * 5.12.1902 Mettmann + 2.1987 Lahnstein oo Anna Helene Martin * 1902 Winterbach +1996 Lahnstein Tochter(
1.4. Julius (1879-1959), headteacher at Wülfrath, founder of the local history museum there , see his CV here. The town also has a street named after him.

2. Margarethe (1847-1930) oo Christoph Kauer (1845-1909)
2.1. Christoph Gottlieb Matthias *12.10.1875, + 11.11.1875
2.2. Johanna Sofia * 9.11.1876 Mühlhausen, + 26.11.1953 Hahnenbach
2.3. Auguste (1879-1952) oo (1900) Wilhelm Fuchs (1872-1963) Postinspektor Münster a.St.
2.3.1. Helene (1901-1965) oo Petz
2.3.2. Natalie “Nelly” (1906-1984) oo (1931) Christian Paust
2.4. Anna Katharina (1880-1965) oo Heinrich Thiebold (1877-1948) aus Brebach (Saar), Oberlehrer
2.4.1. Erwin * 1902, an Krupp gestorben
2.4.2. Martha (1907- ) oo Willi Helmer, Saarbrücken +1986
2.4.3. Robert * 1910 oo Aenne Schmidt
2.4.4. Herta * 1917
2.5. Louise Regina gen. Kätha (1883-1960)
2.6. Helene oo Julius Düsselmann
4.4.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
4.4.2. Werner (1911-1941)
4.4.3. Esther (1918-1983)
2.7. Karl (1888-1891) an den Masern gestorben

3. Regina Imig (1849-1900) oo Heinrich Herrmann (-1900), Gefängnisaufseher in Simmern, Koblenz
3.1. Gustav (1876-1917), Lehrer in Winningen
3.1.1. Reinhold
3.1.2. Walth
3.2. Heinrich (1878-), Polsterer, nach USA ausgewandert, dort oo
3.3. Luise (1879- ) Lippstadt
3.3.1. Luise
3.3.2. Auguste
3.3.3. Heini-Karl
3.4. Auguste (1880-1903)
3.5. Karl (1886- ) Köln-Nippes
3.5.1. Irene

4. Elisabeth = Nr. 37. (1851-1924) oo Karl Düsselmann (1841-1927)
4.1. Elise (1876-1944) oo Otto Finkensieper, Alkmaar, NL
4.1.1. Otto (1906-), Theologe
4.1.2. Kurt (1907-), Kaufmann in Scheveningen
4.1.3. Benjamin (1910-) Kaufmann in Scheveningen
4.2. Wilhelm (1878-) oo Hedwig (*1883) aus Wuppertaler Gegend. Wohnten zunächst in Neuß, 1924 nach USA emigriert
4.1. Willi *1909), Arzt in USA, kinderlos (laut Überlieferung) (=William 1909-1996, Collier, FL? oo Daisy Ethel ?) MD 1934, Univ. Rochester.
4.3. Auguste (1880-1968) oo Max Finke (1879-1914), Graveur
4.3.1. Martha (1907-) oo Friedrich Ernst Winkelmann (1905-1975) 4.3.2. Alfred (1908-1989) oo Gerda Reichenbach
4.3.3. Hilde (1910-1989) oo Christian Goetze (1908-1995)
4.3.4. Rudolf (1911-1982) oo Käthe
4.4. Julius (1883-1950) oo Helene Kauer (2.6. above)
4.4.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
4.4.2. Werner (1911-1941)
4.4.3. Esther (1918-1983)
4.5. Alwine oo Willi Esser, Sattlermeister, Neukirchen-Vluyn
4.5.1. Wilhelm (1911-) oo Gretchen
4.5.2. Juliane (1913-1925)
4.5.3. Otto
4.5.4. Margarete (1917-1964)
4.6. Hedwig oo ...
keine Kinder

5. Wilhelm Imig (1853-1901) Mörchingen, Bahnbeamter in Köln
oo Brigitte Meyer aus Metz
5.1. Rudolf (+1914)
4 Kinder
5.2. Karl (+1952)
5.2.1. Karl (1911-WW2) Gärtner in Essen
5.2.2. Elisabeth DDR
5.2.3. Helmut
5.2.4. Ilse DDR

6. Gottfried Imig (1856-1924) Anstreicher in Mörchingen 11 Kinder: Margarete, Auguste, Katharina, Karl, Josephine, Dina, Rudolf

7. Karl Imig (1860-1921) Bauunternehmer
oo Minna Hoch
His name is mentioned in the documents of two listed buildings at Viersen, one from 1905, the other from 1906 (same source but the link isn't recognised).
7.1. Karl (1890-1954) Studienrat Altphil. oo Aloisia Dietl * 1887 Oberndorf, Austria
7.1.1. Karl-Richard (1917-44) Kapitänleutnant (died on U173)
7.1.2. Renate, Ärztin in Mönchengladbach
7.1.3. Dieter, Kaufmann
7.2. Else
7.3. Johanna
7.4. Emilie oo Gillessen, Rheydt
1 Tochter, oo Oberschulrat P ..., Mainz
7.5. Martha Postbeamtin, Viersen

A note (2021) on the migration story here - given the colonies of Imig relatives in Pfalzdorf in the lower Rhine it strikes me that 5 of the 7 siblings migrated in that direction too, but not to the actual settlements. I'm assuming the oldest went to Viersen first, and may have helped the others to follow. Note that Julius died quite young in 1888, but his youngest brother followed him in the building sector, so they may have worked together at Viersen at one point. The buildings that have Carl's name attached were built long after Julius died.


key words: family history, genealogy, Genealogie, Ahnenforschung, Familienforschung, Vorfahren, Abstammung, Kirn, Nahe, Simmern, Hunsrück, Rheinland-Pfalz,

Friday, October 23, 2009

oxford enlightenment

nights are drawing in, so I can continue my series of photographs of Oxford by night:

this one, in case it isn't obvious, is of a builder's scaffolding where someone forgot to switch off the light ...

More pix on my view profile, and a smaller selection appears in larger format on fotocommunity.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

fish tank

just to mention an English language movie for a change, I saw Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank at our local picturehouse cinema last week and loved it. To save me the trouble of raving on about it, here is an excellent review by the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, and I agree with everything he says.

Haven't figured out where the title comes from. If it's relating to anything in the film, I missed that bit. Does it refer to the bloke's fish catching technique ?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

what DID the researchers find ?

In last Thursday's Guardian there is a full page in the main section on new research on the epigenome (i.e. the way the information in the genome is regulated). I read the whole page twice and still didn't know anything about what the new research was and what its results were.

The only useful information was that researchers at the Salk institute in California published something in Nature (even that was half wrong, it wasn't in the current issue of Nature, but only online in Nature's advanced online publications).

When the Guardian stopped publishing a weekly science supplement (to which I occasionally contributed), we were promised regular science coverage in the main pages instead. However, what is the use of this coverage if all meaningful content is removed from it? I mean, what is the point of spending a whole page on explaining what the epigenome is and that it may help to cure cancer and schizophrenia (which, by the way, I consider to be just hype, it may or may not do that, just as any fundamental research in the life sciences may help to find a cure for cancer), if we aren't actually told what the researchers did and what they found out?

This amounts to treating the readers as complete idiots, it's like telling them that storks deliver babies. I'll now open a new category in this blog, called storks+babies, dedicated to science reporting that has been simplified to death.

In a hurry, I only found one report that is more informative (even though it's shorter) here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

time for quinces

It's the season for picking quinces and doing something with them -- my infant quince tree has had 8 of them this year, so I made my notorious baked quince dessert the last two weekends. Here's one of the 8 before it got eaten:

Alternatively, people in the UK can also get all things quincy from this company set up by a fellow quince maniac as a retirement project.

PS my two citrus trees are also bearing fruit, but these are a little smaller than usual. lemons just one cm in diameter, oranges maybe 2 cm.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

the great bluff

From 1998 to 2002, an innocent-looking post-doc from Germany committed what probably amounts to the biggest fraud in physics in recent decades, publishing over 30 forged papers in high profile journals including Nature and Science. In her book "Plastic Fantastic", Eugenie Samuel Reich unravels the reasons why this could happen. I reviewed the book for C&I, using my 1200 words length limit to the last, as I believe that this is in fact a very important question, and the answers I have seen before reading this book haven't really been satisfactory.

The most worrying aspect of the story is that he could have gotten away with it, as I have explained in this snippet:

Had he acted in cold blood and considered his best path towards the Max-Planck directorship that he narrowly missed, he would have slowed down after six or seven papers in Nature and Science. He would have revolutionised fewer areas and backed up his first breakthroughs with some real research or at least with some more real-looking data. This way he would have committed fewer errors, his string of breakthroughs would have appeared less implausible and raised less suspicion. Critics would have taken a lot longer to figure out that there was something wrong with his work. And in that extra time, some of the breakthroughs that he anticipated might actually have happened, so he would have been vindicated by other researchers.

One aspect that in my opinion has been underappreciated is that the huge rewards on offer for publishing certain kinds of results in certain journals (namely Nature and Science) put a massive amount of pressure on people working in labs with this kind of ambition (as I know from experience). Much as societies with steep social inequality breed crime, this situation will always tempt some people to forge these results if they can't get them the regular way. After writing my review of the book, I checked the reviews published in both journals, and found that this issue was neatly swept under the rug in both of them. What a coincidence.

My review is in Chemistry & Industry No. 19, p 26 (restricted access).