Thursday, April 30, 2009

naming pluto

There must be something special about young Oxford girls -- one inspired Alice in Wonderland, another named the planet Pluto according to this BBC news story about a documentary that was recently shown here.

Maybe it's something in the water of the river Isis (known as the Thames to the mere mortals living outside the city boundaries)?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

platypus news

During all those train travels in the Easter holidays, I checked the page proofs of the German edition of my platypuses, which is due to appear in September under the title:

Der Kuss des Schnabeltiers

Haven't got a cover design yet, but watch this space.

meanwhile, the publishers sent me a press release from Singapore, which apparently made it into the ADOI magazine in Malaysia. Here's the PR:

For Immediate Release

Media Contact:

Alina Boey

(+65) 96565580

Crazy, Sexy and Cool…Science? New book says it is so!

Singapore¾April 27, 2009¾ The words ‘sexy’ and ‘cool’ rarely go hand in hand with the discipline of science – a serious subject in itself. However, science has been given a new persona in Michael Gross’s new book, The Birds, the Bees and the Platypuses: Crazy, Sexy and Cool Stories from Science. Published by Wiley-VCH, this impressive collection of science stories proves that science is a cultural pursuit just as rich and varied as literature and music.

With his distinctive prose style and wit, author Michael Gross presents his favorite science stories from his seven years as a hobby reporter and eight as a science writer in this brilliant popular science book.

“It is the sheer craziness of unanticipated discoveries or grotesquely oversized challenges that still tempt me to revisit a topic and reread an article again and again. In other stories, there is a sexy element or an unexpected insight into the human condition. And sometimes, when reporting news and future technologies, I just can’t help thinking “Cooooool!””, Gross said.

As stated at the outset, The Birds, the Bees and the Platypuses: Crazy, Sexy and Cool Stories from Science assembles breathtaking scientific innovations and findings sorted under the headings of crazy, sexy and cool. Crazy stories include the weird, unexpected and simply crazy ideas that scientists come across- although quite often enough end up being useful. Sexy stories revolve around the topic of sex, but sometimes also about other human obsessions. Lastly, cool stories are mostly about cool inventions, devices, gizmos and gimmicks.

Relying on some of the best materials in the history of science, Gross accompanies each article with an introductory paragraph to explain the genius of the story and infuses his own brand of humor and character into this collection. He adds, “Science in the last decade has been anything but boring. With every new answer that researchers work out, a host of new questions are likely to arise, providing an endless supply of crazy, sexy and cool findings.”

Media wishing to receive a review copy should contact Alina Boey, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications at or phone 65-96565580.

About the book
The Birds, the Bees and the Platypuses: Crazy, Sexy and Cool Stories from Science

By Michael Gross

Cloth; ISBN: 798-3-527-32287-9; 259 pp.; S$61.95; May 2008

Additional information on the book is also available at

publisher's page

... and, of course, here

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

deseo y amor

Years ago I translated a book by Gabi and Rolf Froböse into English, which appeared in 2006 as Lust and Love: Is it more than chemistry?

I hear from the authors that since then the book has also been translated into Korean and into Spanish. The Spanish edition, Deseo y amor ¿sólo química? has now come out at Editorial Acribia.

Monday, April 27, 2009


On my recent trip to Germany I also spent two days at Cologne with my son, who likes to walk a lot, especially in cities and along rivers. Shame he doesn't like museums though. Thanks to him I've seen a lot more of Cologne than I have on previous visits. For instance I hadn't seen the lovers' padlocks on the Hohenzollern Bridge (the railway bridge directly adjacent to the main station) before -- there are hundreds of them and some have dates in the 1990s, so it must have been a while since I last crossed that bridge as a pedestrian:

For the nerdy among us, it is intriguing how the locks accumulate at places which are special points in the geometry of the bridge, e.g. under the maxima of the arches, and at the point where the two arches meet.

And here's the postcard view from the Deutzer Brücke:

For more pix visit my view profile. I do like view -- one of the pix I uploaded last week has clocked up nearly 800 page views by now!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

roundup of German pieces

My German pieces published in April cover the structures of fibrillar actin in muscles and of the cytochrome P450 enzyme aromatase, which is a target for cancer therapy, along with reflections on the effects of alcohol on the consumer's political views:

Chemie in unserer Zeit 42, Nr 2, 66
Wie Muskeln arbeiten: Actin-Puzzle (fast) gelöst
PDF (restricted access)

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, Nr 4, 409-10
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Vom Chemiebaukasten der Zelle zum Krebsmedikament

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, Nr 4, 378
Konservativ oder konserviert?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Haber-Bosch revisited

My most recent book review to appear in Chemistry & Industry (No 7, 13.4., page 30)is about another book about Fritz Haber:

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler
by Thomas Hager
Harmony books, New York, 2008
ISBN: 978-0307351784

Here's a snippet (including a paragraph that was omitted from the printed version):

It is difficult for writers to find the right way to approach this monumental complex of tragic lives, science and technology of the highest possible impact, and politics gone off the rails. Apart from the epic biography of Haber, I have on my shelves a few slimmer studies of smaller aspects. There is a biography of Haber’s first wife, Clara Immerwahr, for instance, and a master’s thesis on Haber’s quest to mine gold from the oceans. Plus a 1950s account of the history of IG Farben dressed up as a novel, and a volume with short biographies of Jewish scientists in Germany 1900-33.

Now a fresh generation of American writers seems to have discovered this topic for themselves, and they approach it fearlessly. A few years ago, there was a new, shorter biography of Haber by Daniel Charles, who delivered a straight and very readable narrative of Haber’s ambivalent character and his rise and fall.

Thomas Hager has taken a step back to glance at an even bigger picture, including the history of nitrogen fertiliser before it could be made synthetically, and the further development of Bosch’s ambitions after the success with nitrogen. Essentially, he follows the intertwined stories of three protagonists: Haber, Bosch, and nitrogen.

PS checking up on the C&I website (still being rebuilt), I found out that the recently deceased author JG Ballard was a former assistant editor of the magazine:

J G Ballard, author
Former assistant editor of Chemistry & Industry, J G Ballard died on 19 April 2009 aged 78. Best known as a writer of what he described as apocalyptic, rather than science, fiction, his first novel, The Drowned World, published in 1962, recorded the psychological breakdown of a group of scientists examining a London waterlogged by the melting of the polar icecaps. Later books, including The Wind from Nowhere and The Drought, also dealt with ecological disaster. He is probably best remembered for his semi-autobiographical novel of his childhood as a Japanese internee in Shangai, China, Empire of the Sun, which was made into a blockbuster film by Steven Spielberg.

PPS Oh, and my short review of Daniel Charles's Haber biography is here (open access, I believe).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

unboiling eggs

Helen Saibil's group at Birkbeck has a very interesting paper out in Molecular Cell this month:

Motor Mechanism for Protein Threading through Hsp104

Petra Wendler, James Shorter, David Snead, Celia Plisson, Daniel K. Clare, Susan Lindquist and Helen R. Saibil,

Molecular Cell Volume 34, Issue 1, 10 April 2009, Pages 81-92 PDF

Here's a press release I have helped to prepare:

How to unboil an egg

Scientists at Birkbeck College, London, working with colleagues in the US, have revealed how a cellular machine can “unboil an egg”.

The proteins that carry out a wide variety of essential tasks within our cells typically have to acquire a specific shape to be able to function properly. In the process known as protein folding, their long chain of amino acid building blocks is wound up and pleated into a complex pattern that is characteristic for each protein. This process can go off the rails, however, due to environmental stress or disease. Misfolding of proteins can cause them to clump together into aggregates, which is what happens when we boil an egg, or to into extended fibres, which are a hallmark of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and BSE. The formation of such aggregates or fibrils is normally irreversible.

Yeast cells, however, possess a remarkable protein known as heat shock protein 104 (HSP104), which is able to reverse aggregation, so it can, in principle, “unboil an egg.” This ability is of great medical interest as it may lead to ways of treating diseases like Alzheimer’s. While humans don’t have this protein, researchers hope that they will eventually be able to introduce something like it to fight disease.

The group of Helen Saibil at Birkbeck College, London, in collaboration with Susan Lindquist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has now used cryo electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to obtain detailed images of the unboiling machine in various phases of its function, allowing researchers get a first view of how it manages to dissolve aggregates. Lindquist was one of the first to discover that Hsp104 has this unique disaggregation activity.

The machine consists of six identical, elongated protein molecules arranged in a barrel shape. Each of the molecules consists of three distinct parts (domains), so the barrel can also be thought of as a stack of three rings, each consisting of six identical domains.

Any misfolded proteins to be processed by the machine will enter through a fairly narrow ring formed by the first domain of each protein. Then the middle ring of the machine springs into action, using the cellular fuel ATP to move the amino acid chain onwards, and to pull it further in, which helps to disentangle it from the aggregates it was trapped in. The domains forming the last ring also have an ATP-fuelled activity, so both rings work together to pull the thread through the barrel. The cryo-EM images reveal that the domains of the protein undergo surprisingly large movements directly linked to its binding and consumption of ATP. Cycles of repeated binding, movement and release drag the protein chain through the barrel.

When this process happens in the yeast cell, a folding helper protein will be ready at the far side of the complex to help restore the disentangled protein chain to its proper form and function.

Lead investigator Helen Saibil said: “It is very important to understand this disentangling machine in yeast, as there are so many human diseases now linked to protein aggregates, and understanding yeast may eventually help to cure human patients.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

happy centenary

Neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini turns 100 today, and I understand she's fighting fit and still working. According to a profile published in Nature a few weeks ago, she is the first Nobel laureate ever to live to 100 (which of course is partially due to the fact that there are so few women getting the prizes!)

Her autobiography In praise of imperfection sounds interesting and is available from various Amazon marketplace sellers in the US and the UK. Somebody could have thought of reprinting it on the occasion of this special birthday?!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


On my recent trip to Germany, I stopped over in Liege, which isn't all that pretty, but gets a lot better after dark:

and it has a spectacular new railway station by Santiago Calatrava under construction:

which looks even more stunning from the inside, with whe white scaffold viewed against a blue sky. I've uploaded a few photos of that to VIEW and to my MySpace photo album.

Monday, April 20, 2009

GM banned

Before the Easter break, I wrote a news story for Current Biology on how Germany is edging towards a ban of the GM maize MON810. As it takes over two weeks for these articles to come out, it was pure luck that the piece appeared on Tue 14th of April, which was the day when Germany's minister for agriculture, Ilse Aigner, made her move and banned the GM crop. Or maybe she read her copy of Current Biology in the morning and thought "damn, I knew there was something I wanted to do". :D

Anyhow. My story is here:

European dissent over GM crops. Current Biology vol. 19, No. 7, pp R268-R269

Friday, April 03, 2009

cell differentiation guided by light

Researchers in the US have developed a gel-like material whose structural and chemical properties can change in response to laser light, providing a highly adaptable environment for work in areas ranging from cell culture to tissue engineering.

Read my news story in Chemistry World.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

DNA nanotechnology

... my feature on DNA nanotech is out in Chemistry World this month

Is DNA nanotechnology coming of age?

DNA nanotechnology has moved a long way since its first public appearance in 1991 - and its first applications are already on the horizon, says Michael Gross

I'm afraid this piece is premium content, so access is restricted.