Tuesday, June 30, 2009

spinning around

What's the connection between bird migration, hydrogen storage materials, membrane protein structure, and quantum computation? Well, all these, and seven other topics are investigated at Oxford University with the help of Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) spectroscopy, thanks to the new(ish) interdisciplinary research centre CAESR. Read my feature in Oxford Today which should be freely accessible to all.

Also, a short piece on the bird migration research has appeared in German, in Chemie in unserer Zeit [PDF]

Monday, June 29, 2009

catching up

A round-up of pieces that appeared while I was travelling (and giving lectures) in Germany:

Fence protection progress Current Biology 19, No. 12, page R465 abstract and restricted access to pdf file
This one is about the electric fence protecting the Aberdare Reserve in Kenya -- originally built for rhinos and elephants, but now mainly protecting woods and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Spinout stories Chemistry & Industry No. 12, 22.6., page 29.
Review of the book Spin outs, by Graham Richards. A snippet:

In this little book, part memoir, part advice to future academic spin-out founders, he very briefly sketches his involvement with Oxford Molecular and with Oxford’s wider technology transfer activities, along with the briefest of mentions of related activities in the UK, such as the British Technology Group, later BTG.

Chemistry & Industry No. 12, 22.6., page 31
Review of the book Origin of life, by Piet Herdewijn and M. Volkan Kisakürek.

Maybe the most original and influential thinker on the origin of life over the last couple of decades is Günter Wächtershäuser, a patent attorney who came to the field as a hobby researcher drawing up new theories in his spare time. His chapter in the book is definitely worth reading, even if it leaves the reader with the frustrating thought that if Wächtershäuser can’t crack the conundrum, nobody can.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


All going well, I should be in Leipzig by the time this post goes online (oh the magic of electronic time-travel!), where I'm speaking at the GDCh colloquium about my experience as a chemist turned science writer. Maybe also about what I learned from the Copenhagen meeting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

sitting on the fence

If this is Tuesday, I'm in Jena today, speaking at the GDCh colloquium.

Today's issue of Current Biology (Volume 19, Issue 12) should contain my piece on the fence around Aberdare Reserve in Kenya, which is being completed this year and has been praised for reducing human-wildlife conflict and protecting not just rhinos and elephants, but also important water resources.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

a mathematician's tree

If mathematicians were to design trees, the result would probably look a bit like this sculpture:

which sits in the parks of Magdalen college, Oxford, and which I snapped from the River Cherwell on one of our canoe trips.

Friday, June 19, 2009

abrazos rotos

In theory, the UK premiere of the latest movie by Pedro Almodovar, abrazos rotos, at Somerset House, July 30th, should be open to the public, but I have been unable to buy tickets. Not sure whether that's just Ticketmaster being horrible again, or whether there were only a small number of tickets which actually sold out in a couple of days.

I may have to catch it in our local picturehouse cinema after all. Can't wait ...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

MySpace -- rise and fall

It's a cruel world, where yesterday's shooting stars are already today's ashes ... There was an interesting piece on the reversal of fortunes of MySpace and Bebo in last week's technology Guardian. I guess it's just the fashion. MySpace is soooo 2006, and I reckon Facebook and Twitter will go the same way once we're into a new decade and something new has come up to push them from their pedestal.

Personally, I would have happily stuck with the 2006 model (i.e. MySpace) which still is the best for music and for meeting people who I would not have encountered otherwise. And I am relieved to find that the friends-drain I have experienced in MySpace isn't due to something I said ...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

miscellaneous news

re-emerging from a phase where all my newspaper reading time was absorbed by trying to understand each day how the UK government survived the previous 24 hours, I'm rediscovering there is a world out there, though it hasn't changed all that much:

* the Miami 5 are still in jail

* Roman Abramovich is still obscenely rich, even with the financial crisis and all that. Btw, I completely missed that part of recent history after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when all those billions were handed out to those people we now call "Russian Oligarchs". Does anybody understand why and how that happened ?

* oh, and the heir to the throne is still making life hell for architects

very depressing all that. Maybe the recent political crisis with its duck houses and failed coup attempts was more entertaining after all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

legislating life sciences

It is always intriguing to compare and contrast how legislation and public debates on bioethics subjects like stem cells, cloning, etc. differ between countries, even between those that share similar outlooks on other policy issues. On the occasion of the ongoing revision of the groundbreaking Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) in the UK, I've had a look at the state of play in the UK, US, Germany, and Brazil:

Embryonic developments
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 11, R427-R428, 9 June 2009

abstract and restricted access to pdf file

PS I was about to use the phrase "debates on ethically sensitive issues" but then realised there are lots of things happening which I find unethical but which don't stir much debate in the Western world. Strange that.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I learned some very interesting things at Copenhagen last week, regarding how public debates can be distorted by "framing". As I am hoping to place a story or two about this, I won't reveal more for the time being, but watch this space.

My own contribution was a look back on the changes in science reporting I experienced in Germany and in the UK over the last 16 years or so. A version of these thoughts was published here.

With the short stay and appalling weather conditions in the middle of a low pressure system that seemed to be sweeping up all the humidity over the North Sea and Baltic and tipping it down on Copenhagen, I haven't seen much of the sights, and had to make do with a replica of the mermaid sitting at the airport:

Fortunately, there was enough time to explore the beer, which was very good:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

the true cost of smoking

The Guardian is the best paper we have here, but it still publishes the odd bit of rubbish dressed up as science. On Tuesday 9.6., it proclaimed "Smoking costs NHS £ 5bn a year" (page 11 of main section). If you think about this for a second, it certainly doesn't. Treating smokers may cost this amount, but if none of these people had ever smoked, they would still get ill and die, just with different diseases at later times. In a cradle-to-grave cost comparison, these people would surely cost the NHS a comparable amount of money if they had never smoked, possibly even more. Many smokers die of heart attacks (a comparatively cheap way to go), and even treatment for lung cancer must be less expensive than spending 10 years in a care home with dementia. My gut feeling is that smokers save the NHS money even before you take into account the extra tax they pay for their addiction.

The headline claim "smoking costs £ 5bn" is based on a comparison where giving up smoking makes you live forever and never get ill, which is clearly not the way it works in the real world.

Where is Ben Goldacre when we need him to stop bad science from being printed in the Guardian and dig out more meaningful figures ?!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

oxford laid bare

... or almost. The news today is that Oxford students have released a charity calendar with "nude" pictures of, well, Oxford students. Health warning: as always in this country, "nude" means that no specific anatomic details are visible. The rule is that children must not find out that women have nipples, or else civilisation will come to an end. So in this spirit, the students have shown as much as they can in their Oxford Undressed TravelAid Charity Calendar, but a few burning questions remain.

* Did they really take the outdoors pix in the locations shown, or did they shoot the locations and then photoshopped naked students in? I have a horrible suspicion that it may be the latter. Next time I want to be invited to the photoshoot to testify that the pix are for real.

* The woman holding the cello in the string quartett picture is anything but a cellist. I can spot about 10 mistakes in her posture and and the way she holds the instrument and the bow. My daughter's cello teacher would have a heart attack if any of her students sat down with a cello like that, let alone pretended to play it like that. (and believe me, I have seen a naked cellist before!)

* The library shot looks like the library where I often work, I wonder when they took that one ?

I think I'll survive without this calendar, for some better photos I recommend:
VIEW fotocommunity.

Monday, June 08, 2009

German pieces in June

this month we have all sorts of surprising finds including the compass of migrating birds, the magic of the number 7, NMR measured in living cells, and a "Burgess Shale" type fossil come to light in the land of my ancestors ...

Chemie in unserer Zeit 42, Nr 3, 126
Orientierungssinn: Ist der Kompass der Vögel eine chemische Reaktion?

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, Nr 6, 627
Chemie der Zahl 7

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, Nr 6, 660
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Proteinstrukturen in lebenden Zellen

Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 6, 16
Exotischer Fossilfund im Hunsrück

Friday, June 05, 2009

changing world of science reporting

Based on last year's opinion piece

Is science reporting turning into fast food?

I've been invited to speak at the forthcoming Danish Science Journalists Association Spring Conference 2009, Framing Research, to give comments on the landscape of science journalism.

The conference sounds interesting, and I do believe that it is important to discuss how the dramatic change in communications across society affects the communication and public understanding of science. I will report when I'm back.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

frogs whipping up foam

My feature on biofoams, and especially the intriguing protein-rich foam that tropical frogs whip up during mating to protect their spawn, is out in the june issue of Chemistry World, pp 40-44. It is accessible to all online:

Bubble-wrapped frogs

and it even made the cover:

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

kindle books

I still don't have an e-book reader, but for those who have, I've just noticed that 3 of my books are now available in kindle format:

Astrobiology: A brief introduction
Life on the Edge
Travels to the Nanoworld

Each available for $ 9.99 via wireless delivery if you have the right kind of hardware. If anybody has checked out one of these, I'd be keen to hear how the format worked for them.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

beware of orange trees

I got an orange tree for my birthday last year, and some time after that, seemingly unrelated, I started reading La mujer habitada by Gioconda Belli. I've had the book for 10 years, but only got round to reading this, her debut novel, now, after her other major works. It soon turned out that the heroine is becoming "inhabited" by the spirit of a native American from the time of the Spanish conquest, and that the spirit had previously inhabited the orange tree she put in her patio. The spirit gradually turns her into a guerilla fighter. So I am now being very careful not to get too close to that tree of mine. Maybe it already tricked me into reading the book.

But seriously, and leaving any irrational fears of citrus plants aside, I liked the novel a lot, and it was particularly intriguing to read it soon after her more recent novel, El pergamino de la seduccion (the scroll of seduction). Although the books are very different and set in different countries (Nicaragua and Spain, respectively), one could argue that they both feature as the main characters a young woman and a large house. In both books the young woman establishes a magical link to a woman who lived around 400 years earlier, via the orange tree in one case, and via the old house and its inhabitants in the other.

It's also interesting to read the book as a look back across time on the regime that the Sandinista movement swept away, knowing as we know now, that a few of the dashing young guerilla leaders eventually became corrupted by power.

What I really don't understand is why her work is so underappreciated in the English-speaking world. Maybe it doesn't translate well?

Monday, June 01, 2009

early start for life on Earth

In astrobiology news, there was a paper in Nature 10 days ago, suggesting that life on Earth may have survived through the late heavy bombardment period, and may thus be over 4 billion years old, rather than just 3.6 - 3.8 billion as most people assumed so far. This is based on computer modelling using some fairly reasonable sounding assumptions.

Microbial habitability of the Hadean Earth during the late heavy bombardment p419
Diverse Solar System materials indicate that a cataclysmic spike occurred in the number of impacts within the inner Solar System about 3.9 billion years ago. Here, numerical models probe the degree of thermal metamorphism there would have been during this period in the Earth's crust, and thus how habitable the near- and subsurface would have been for microbes; analysis shows no plausible scenario in which the habitable zone was fully sterilized.
Oleg Abramov & Stephen J. Mojzsis

There is also an excellent News and Views comment on this:

Earth science: Life battered but unbowed p335
Early in its history, Earth experienced a pounding from extraterrestrial impacts. But instead of sterilizing the planet, it allowed microbial life to persist, according to numerical models of Earth's crust.
Lynn J. Rothschild