Friday, February 27, 2009

missions to Europa, Ganymede

Just found out from today's issue of Science that NASA and ESA have decided to send the next outer solar system mission to Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede. Which is all very exciting, but it means there will be no ballooning on Titan in the next 30 years. And I was so looking forward to that one. Oh well let's hope these two missions come up with something to compensate that loss.

SPACE SCIENCE: NASA, ESA Choose King of Planets for Flagship Missions in 2020
Andrew Lawler
Science 27 February 2009: 1154.

Summary: The jovian satellites Europa and Ganymede were chosen by NASA and European Space Agency officials last week as the next major missions to explore the solar system beyond Mars, instead of Titan, an equally intriguing moon of Saturn.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

current protein and peptide science

In the old days, I used to be on the advisory board of the Journal

Current Protein and Peptide Science

and I also contributed two reviews to it. However, I never managed to get my access to the online journal working, so I am very pleased that I have now, at last, received pdf files of my reviews:

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

Gross M (2004): Current Protein and Peptide Science 5, No. 4, 213-223
Emergency services: An bird's eye perspective on the many different functions of stress proteins

They may be a bit dusty by now, but if anyone is still interested, I'll be happy to send the pdfs.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

woods and trees

Earthwatch has set up 5 "Regional Climate Centres" to study the effects of climate change on local biotopes in north and south america, europe, india and china, in corporate partnership with the bank HSBC. It just happens that the European centre is based at Wytham Woods, a patch of woodland owned by the University of Oxford and used for research, so I dropped by for a visit and wrote a feature for Oxford Today which is out tomorrow:

Seeing the trees for the woods
Oxford Today 21, No 2 (Hilary 2009), 17-19.

Erratum: In the box "Ancient woodland with a modern focus", on page 18, the reference to a forthcoming book by Chris Perrins and Peter Savill has erroneously been converted into a byline. Just to clarify that these two are not responsible for this box, it's entirely mine.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

fertile debates

The productivity of the southern oceans is typically limited by the lack of iron -- hence if an iceberg breaks off the Antarctic shelf and carries iron to the ocean, algal blooms are observed.

In an effort to understand these processes and to figure out whether and how they might help to slow down climate change, researchers from Germany and India using the research vessel Polarstern have started a comprehensive experiment (LOHAFEX), fertilising a well-defined eddy of the south atlantic with iron, and monitoring the effects in much more detail than ever before.

Still, the experiment has triggered intense debate in Germany. Amusingly, the chancellor and the research ministry support the experiment, while the environment minister is opposing it quite fiercely. Read my story in

Current Biology vol. 19, issue 4, pp R143-44

There is also a blog (in German) reporting directly from the ship: Polarstern unterwegs.

Monday, February 23, 2009

literary space

I am now officially famous in Australia, as Angela has kindly included a photo of my office in her "Literary Space" series on her brilliant blog Literary Minded. Here is a permanent link to my entry.

PS on a vaguely related note, there is a German painter called Kerstin Drechsel who made huge canvases of messy homes, you can watch a short video about her work here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

authors guild v. google

The newsletter of the UK Authors Licensing and Collecting Society has arrived, with all the details of the "Google Settlement" agreed between the US Authors Guild and Google regarding all those zillions of books that Google have had scanned to make them available and searchable online. Looks like we authors stand to earn some money for our out of print books, which is a nice surprise. So far I can see nothing wrong with the deal, and would certainly be grateful for my old books to be made more widely accessible, but would be interested in other authors' opinions. All details should be online at the settlement website.

I know from the German press that VG Wort, the German equivalent of the ALCS, is planning to collectively withdraw German books from the settlement. While every author can individually opt out of the settlement, I'm not sure yet whether I can opt out of that withdrawal for my German books.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

lift a leg

Tomorrow, the 3rd incarnation of Germany's Antarctic research station, Neumayer III will be officially opened. Staying safe and warm, the German research minister is planning to do the job remotely via phone connection from Berlin.

Replacing a structure that was under the ice, Neumayer III is revolutionary in that it is designed to stay on top of an ever-growing and ever-moving ice shield. For this purpose, the station has 16 extendable legs to stand on, which can be adjusted individually (the association of a 16-legged dog comes to mind) and collectively. As there is no precedence for such a design and a lack of data on the mechanical properties of the snow and ice it stands on, it will be exciting to see how the structure copes with the harsh reality down there. Break a leg, so to speak.

Like the research vessel and ice breaker Polarstern, currently engaged in a controversial iron fertilisation experiment (more on this next week!), Neumayer III is run by the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the man at the top

Oxford has a new sculpture overlooking broad street from the roof of the building housing Blackwell's Art bookshop. Created by Antony Gormley, who also made the "angel of the north", this is supposed to be part of a series, of which quite a few sculptures are standing around on the roofs of London. When I went to have a first look at it, nobody in the street actually bothered to look up at the thing.

It's hard to photograph from street level but you can see it here.

Now I'm wondering how long it will take before students get up there and put a traffic cone on the chap's head (as they traditionally do with the bearded philosophers outside the Sheldonian Theatre)? Art is a dialogue, after all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

top spy speaks out

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington is rocking the boat again:

Government accused of exploiting terrorism fear

love it. She did a similar interview in the Guardian last October, but it's worth reiterating, especially as the "war on terror" doctrine is still surviving in some parts of the media (as you can tell from the fact that her interviews make such a splash).

Monday, February 16, 2009

ride the elements

As Oxford is known as the seat of learning, you can sit down and take a ride on (or wrapped in) the periodic table:

PS It's not an education initiative, though. It's advertising the Oxford Science Park.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

for science lovers

Two days till Valentine's day - as a service to everybody who is still looking for a gift for their scientifically minded love interest, here's a reminder of the book I translated a couple of years ago:

Perfect present for science lovers. Available from Amazon around the world.Click here for details.

PS I do know that it's Darwin's birthday today, but as everybody and their dog have commented on that already, I don't feel I have anything to add.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

can you trust a biobank?

Well, we all know now not to trust investment banks and such like, but how about biobanks ? They deal with genetic and medical data more than with money (although they need some of the latter, too), but they also depend on the trust of the people who "pay in". In a news feature in Current Biology, out this week, I have compared three different kinds of biomedical databanks and looked at their trust issues.

Biobanks looking for trust. Current Biology 2009, 19, R90

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

actin filament untwirled

The molecules involved in muscle movement have been studied in great detail, zooming in from the microscopic detail of the sliding filament model to single molecule studies and crystal structures in the 1990s. One crucial piece was still missing, though – the structure of the actin filament which serves as the rail on which the myosin engine travels.

Even though Ken Holmes’s group reported the crystal structure of the soluble actin molecule (G actin) in 1990, it took nearly two decades to arrive at a high resolution model of the fibrillar form (F actin). Toshiro Oda and coworkers used a frightening array of expensive modern tools to get there, beginning by making the fibres in a very strong magnetic field created by a superconducting magnet, then firing extremely powerful synchrotron radiation at it, using the Spring-8 synchrotron run by RIKEN in Japan, and finally applying clever ways of molecular modelling to make the structure fit the data.

The resulting structure isn’t all that surprising, as it vaguely resembles previous, cruder models, and also the bacterial actin homologue, MreB. The key feature is that the two domains of the protein, which have a propeller-like twist in the globular version, are untwisted and more neatly stacked in the fibrillar protein. And then there is a single loop that is arranged in a different way, and that’s all the changes that are to be observed.

Still, it’s a valuable piece of information, as it was one of the last missing links in a molecular scale description of muscle movement.

T. Oda et al., Nature 2009, 457, 441.

Protein Data Bank entry
3D view of the structure

Monday, February 09, 2009

upstairs downstairs

As chemistry is all about energy levels, I thought this shot of the staircase of the new research lab provided a neat metaphor. And I like the look of it, too, even if I say so myself.

Further nightlife impressions are in my photoalbum on MySpace.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

a very old neighbour

Around 3/16 of my ancestors are from the Hunsrück area between the rivers Moselle, Rhine, and Nahe in Germany. Apart from beer, wine, gemstones and a few fossils, not much of note has emerged from there.

So I was very surprised to find the area mentioned in this week's issue of Science magazine. It turns out that a strange arthropod similar to those that were found in masses in the Burgess Shale in Canada has now been identified in a piece of slate from the quarry at Bundenbach (which is literally the next village up the creek from where my grandparents used to live and where my dad lives now). The beast, just under 10 cm long, looks like this:

Obviously, there are hundreds of similar fossils in the literature, but what got this one into Science is the fact that it is clearly in the wrong layer of geological time. Gabriele Kühl from the University of Bonn and her colleagues conclude that this fossil extends the life span of the Burgess Shale fauna (Mid Cambrian, i.e. around 500 million years old) by a cool 100 million years. That is quite spectacular, and it suggests that the lack of other fossils doesn't mean that the beasties died out very quickly. More likely, conditions weren't right for their preservation.

In a nod to local history, the researchers called the animal Schinderhannes bartelsi. Schinderhannes was a notorious outlaw in that area at the end of the 18th century. Very clever, as the little animal seems to have been a predator, too. Oh, and Christoph Bartels is a law-abiding expert on Hunsrück slate fossils.

One of the authors of the paper is Derek Briggs, who was among the original graduate students (with Simon Conway Morris) of Harry Blackmore Whittington, whose work made the Burgess Shale fauna famous. Its role in evolution has fuelled controversies between Stephen Jay Gould's school of thinking (evolution in leaps and bounds) and Richard Dawkins's camp (more gradual evolution).

Reference: G. Kühl et al. Science 2009, 323, 771

Friday, February 06, 2009

roundup of German pieces

There are three German pieces out in February, covering the pH of the oceans, synthetic biology, and woolly mammoths:

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Nr 2, 140
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften:
Was ist eigentlich synthetische Biologie?
Wissenschaftler erzeugen nun auch biologische Systeme.

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Nr 2, 119
Ausgeforscht: Mammut reloaded

Chemie in unserer Zeit 43 Nr 1, 7
Klimawandel: Dramatische pH-Änderung der Ozeane
PDF (restricted)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

united colours of biochemistry

I still haven't managed to visit the artworks inside the new biochemistry building here, but as I was wondering how those coloured panels look by night, I went to have a look. Here's the L-enantiomer (from the Left):

... and here's the R version:

Couldn't quite make up my mind which to show, as colours are nicer for R and composition is better with L.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Shakira's birthday was yesterday, actually, but hey, an unbirthday is good enough as an excuse to show this lovely mosaic which I pinched from the birthday thread on the official forum:

Monday, February 02, 2009

random old books

The saga continues. A month ago, we rescued 107 random old books from ending up in landfill, and I mean very old, very random books. Around 40 of them I've given to charity shops and sales, a dozen have made it onto our shelves, and the remaining 55 are for sale at There are quite a few first editions of works by people who were probably famous in the 1920s but are now forgotten, and we've learned a lot just by looking up the names of authors like Lascelles Abercrombie, Francesca Alexander, Herbert Asquith (son of the prime minister), George Meredith, Alida Monro ...
Most amazingly, I only found 2 titles that didn't have an entry already.