Wednesday, September 30, 2009

things I like

Having drowned this blog in text, I need to offer some visual entertainment now, so I decided to start an occasional series of things I like the look / design of. Let's start with that eternal classic, the periodic table taxis -- here is one I caught from the front side, just before it ran me over (just kidding, the driver popped out for a chat with a colleague):

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

German elections

three weeks ago, I prepared a news feature about the German elections for Current Biology. Back then, the result seemed to be wide open, with polls predicting 48 % for both the CDU/CSU/FDP block on the right and the SPD/Green/Left block on the left of the spectrum. Accordingly, I had a good look at all options and at what the five parties had to offer for science and the environment.

Sunday night, though, the result turned out much clearer than anticipated. The rightwing block had 48.5 % in total, only slightly more than expected, but the leftwing block was down to 45.5 % (not sure where those 2 % went), leaving a clear majority for Merkel's preferred option, a coalition with the FDP.

Now I'm glad that I covered quite a few of the FDP's policies in my piece, mainly because they were in stark contrast to the emerging consensus between most of the other parties. My article is now out in

Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 18, R831-R832, 29 September 2009
Uncertainty principles
The general elections in Germany have been more open than ever, with five main parties likely to be in the new Bundestag. So what are their policies for science, and the environment?

abstract and limited access to PDF file

Monday, September 28, 2009

news from the nanoworld

in last week's Angewandte Chemie Early view release there is a paper by Achim Müller and colleagues, using his trademark inorganic molybdate capsules to assemble a well-defined hydrophobic aggregate (24 butyrate molecules) on the inside of the capsule, such that its interactions can be studied by NMR, trapped in a molecular test tube, so to speak. Achim Müller says: "I believe that the present paper really refers to new options for future basic research. The reason is that one can systematically study in the capsule hydrophobic effects in general, (different) chain-chain contacts under confined conditions as well as investigations in hydrophobic cavities, especially with the influence of included water."

A Spherical 24 Butyrate Aggregate with a Hydrophobic Cavity in a Capsule with Flexible Pores: Confinement Effects and Uptake-Release Equilibria at Elevated Temperatures (p NA)
Christian Schäffer, Hartmut Bögge, Alice Merca, Ira A. Weinstock, Dieter Rehder, Erhard T. K. Haupt, Achim Müller
Published Online: Sep 22 2009 2:46AM
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200903910

There was also a paper about assembling nanowires just one atom thick within carbon nanotubes, which looked very interesting:

High-Yield Synthesis of Ultrathin Metal Nanowires in Carbon Nanotubes (p NA)
R. Kitaura, R. Nakanishi, T. Saito, H. Yoshikawa, K. Awaga, H. Shinohara
Published Online: Sep 22 2009 1:32PM
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200902615

Friday, September 25, 2009

Krefeld Clan

(last edited 20.08.2022)

The marriage of Wilhelm Düselmann and Elisabetha de la Strada in 1826 is a pivotal point, as it brings together two very different traditions -- the catholic de la Stradas, with the male line presumed to have come from Italy (Capri?) a hundred years earlier, and the protestant Düselmanns presumed to originate from the Rhein/Ruhr area (the name may relate to the village of Düssel on the river Düssel, which joins the Rhine at Düsseldorf), but disappearing in the mist quite quickly. As both names are extremely rare in Germany, I am working on the assumption that everybody with one of these names is potentially related.

Many of the descendants stayed in the city of Krefeld for many generations. The town, then known as Crefeld, experienced a boom in silk manufacturing during that era (from the 1760s onwards), so many found work in silk weaving. The proliferation and disappearance of the name Düselmann probably mirrors the boom of the Krefeld silk weavers quite closely. Later (after the boom ended and the weavers were replaced by machines ?), there have also been a few Düselmanns who travelled around the world or emigrated to America.

Name variants: Düselmann, Düsselmann, Dusselmann ; de la Strada, della Strada, Dela Strather, de la Strata ...

My grandmother said that the couple made a deal to have all boys brought up protestants and the girls catholics. Being on the protestant side of the family I didn't know anything about the catholic descendants, until somebody from that side got in touch a couple of years ago. Combining our knowledge and efforts, we now know something about the descendants of 5 of the 13 children (in bold below), but where are the other 8 ??? Some may have died young, but at least 4 others married and had children, so if there are any descendants out there (I think there must be around 1000 of us!), I'd be grateful for any hint and additional information. In exchange, I can offer information going back to the great-great-grandparents of Wilhelm Düselmann and even one generation more for Elisabetha de la Strada (i.e. back to the early 17th century).

Here they are with all the children (13), grandchildren (39), and great-grandchildren (36 -- definitely not enough!) I know of so far:


Wilhelm Düselmann (Seidenweber) * 13. 8.1804 Krefeld + 17.12.1865 Krefeld

  } oo 21. 9.1826 Krefeld

Elisabetha de la Strada * 17.12.1804 Krefeld + 15.12.1882 Krefeld


hatten mindestens 13 Kinder und 38 Enkel:

1. Hermann Jacob Düselmann * 18.11.1826
oo Anna Margaretha Weyer
1.1. Friederike Wilhelmine ~ 9.2.1857 Krefeld

2. Wilhelm Düselmann *12.9.1828
oo Maria Helena Theodora Endling:
2.1. Wilhelm ~ 3.12.1854
2.2 Anna Elisabeth *21.09.1856 Krefeld
2.3. Catharina Bertha ~ 6.9.1858
2.4. Gustav Adolf *27.7.1860

3. Friedrich Heinrich Düselmann (?) * 26.10.1829 (falsches Datum oder vor 1835 verstorben)

4. Wilhelmine Düselmann * 9.5.1832 oo 22.6.1859 Wilhelm Puller (46) Seidenweber zu Krefeld
4.1. Carl Heinrich Puller * 27.1.1871
4.2. Wilhelm Puller * 13.10.1859
4.3 Friedrich Heinrich * 1.6.1864 Krefeld,
4.4. Wilhelmine Mathilde *5.10.1875 Krefeld

5. Anna Catharina Düselmann * 12.12.1833

6. Friedrich Heinrich * 17.10.1835 + 4.12.1911 Krefeld
oo 23.5.1862 Krefeld Catharina Wittig * 25.12.1834 Krefeld + 18.5.1907 Krefeld (To v. Johann Arnold W. und Margaretha Strasser)
6.1. Johann Wilhelm * 21.6.1862 ~ 14.9.1862 Krefeld
6.2. Elisabeth Margaretha D. *18.7.1863 Krefeld
6.3. Louise Catharine ~ 13.3.1865 Krefeld
6.4. Marie Augustine D. * 15.3.1866 Krefeld
6.5. Carl August D. *30.6.1870 Krefeld
6.6. August Heinrich D. *09.01.1873 Krefeld
6.7. Johanna Catharine ~ 20.9.1875 Krefeld + 19.9.1960
oo Friedrich Carl Schamberg * 16.4.1868 Krefeld + 3.1.1934 Krefeld
6.7.1. Laura Johanna Friedericke (1904-1983)
6.7.2. Helene Maria (1910-1910)
6.7.3. Maria Magdalena (1911-1984)
6.7.4. Hermann Friedrich Carl (1899-1949)
6.7.5. Friedrich Hermann Johann (1900-1944)
6.7.6. Paul (1908-1944)
6.8. Jean
6.9. Rudolf

7. Karl Düselmann ~ 11.3.1841 Krefeld
oo (1) Maria Schledorn (Schlehdorn)
7.1. Karl Düsselmann * 1868, Techniker in Seidenweberei, 1892 nach Amerika ausgewandert, oo Elisabeth (erst 1894 ausgewandert)
7.1.1. Carl * 1894 New York Designer
7.1.2. Frederick * 1900 New York Toolmaker
(sons and details from US immigration records)
oo (2) Elisabeth Catharina Imig (1851-1924) 7.2. Elise (1876-1944) oo Otto Finkensieper, Alkmaar, NL
7.2.1. Otto (1906-), Theologe
7.2.2. Kurt (1907-), Kaufmann in Scheveningen
7.2.3. Benjamin (1910-) Kaufmann in Scheveningen
7.3. Wilhelm (1878-) oo Hedwig (*1883) aus Wuppertaler Gegend. Wohnten zunächst in Neuß, 1924 nach USA emigriert
7.3.1. Willi *1909), Arzt in USA, kinderlos (laut Überlieferung) =William 1909-1996, MD from Rochester 1934, Collier, FL oo Daisy Ethel + 1994 ?
7.4. Auguste (1880-1968) oo Max Finke (1879-1914), Graveur
7.4.1. Martha (1907-) oo Friedrich Ernst Winkelmann (1905-1975)
7.4.2. Alfred (1908-1989) oo Gerda Reichenbach
7.4.3. Hilde (1910-1989) oo Christian Goetze (1908-1995)
7.4.4. Rudolf (1911-1982) oo Käthe
7.5. Julius (1883-1950) (see photo with his shop) oo Helene Kauer
7.5.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
7.5.2. Werner
7.5.3. Esther
7.6. Alwine oo Willi Esser, Sattlermeister (Sterbeurkunde 36.) Neukirchen-Vluyn
7.6.1. Wilhelm (1911-) oo Gretchen
7.6.2. Juliane (1913-1925)
7.6.3. Otto
7.6.4. Margarete (1917-1964)
7.7. Hedwig oo ... keine Kinder

8. Maria Düselmann ~ 11.3.1841 Krefeld, + 1932 Krefeld (Zwillingsschwester von Karl)
oo Heinrich Wilhelm Schürenberg
8.1. Johann Wilhelm Schürenberg * 17.4.1863
8.2. Anna Maria Sophia Schürenberg * 29.8.1865
8.3. Carl August Schürenberg * 14.10.1867
8.4. Christian Gustav Adolph Schürenberg * 9.4.1870
8.5. Dietrich Johann Schürenberg * 7.12.1872

9. Henriette Düselmann * 19.5.1843 Krefeld, + 2.2.1915 Krefeld
oo 1863 Joseph Hermann Bender, 1840-1912, Conditor zu Krefeld, Zuckerwarenfabrikant
9.1. Gertrud Bender * 16.2.1870 Krefeld + 2.4.1936 Krefeld
oo 15.11.1901 Krefeld Wilhelm Heinrich Habrich, Fabrikdirektor (1866-1945)
9.1.1. Gertrud Habrich (1902-1977)
9.1.2. Luise Philippina Henrietta Eugenie Habrich (1904-1984)
9.1.3. Johann Heinrich Habrich (1907-1980)
9.1.4. Klara Maria Josephine Habrich *12.1.1906 + 17.8.1972
9.2. Josephine Bender * 4.4.1881 Krefeld + 30.6.1966 Krefeld
oo Wilhelm Max Holler (1879-1941)
9.2.1. Max Friedrich Alfred Holler * 29.3.1909 Krefeld + 28.2.1997 Krefeld
oo Liselotte Margarete Wilhelmine Wieder (1910-1972)
9.2.2. Klara Holler (1910-2001)
9.2.3. Walter Holler (1912-1978)
oo Hilde Gilles, Köln,
9.2.4. Otto Holler (1914-1975)
oo Simone de Craene
9.3. Nicolas Joseph Bender * 22.4.1864 Krefeld
9.4. Klara Bender * Krefeld

10. August Düsselmann * 1844 + 1899 Malermeister, Branddirektor
oo Anna Josephine Hagermes (Hagemes) (Kath.)
10.1. Josephine Auguste ~ 22.5.1874 Krefeld
oo 6.4.1897 Manhattan (NY) Max Eibel
10.2. Hedwig ~ 23.6.1875 Krefeld
10.3. Walter * 22.12.1882 Krefeld, + 17.10.1943 Walter's seafaring adventures
10.4. Paula * 29.9.1884 Krefeld, + 7.10.1972; oo Heinrich Ernst Fischer (1883-1957)
10.4.1. Dorothea Josephine * 19.2.1915 + 1.9.2000
10.4.2. Charlotte Paula * 17.5.1916 oo Dietrich, lebt Casa Grande, Ariz.
10.4.3. Walter Otto * 21.10.1918 + 13.6.1978
10.4.4. Ernst August * 10.6.1920 oo Sue; leben in Anderson, S.C.
10.4.5. Eric Lothar * 15.7.1924 West New York (N.J.), + 20.4.2007 Anderson, South Carolina (obituary), oo Eloise B. NN

10.5. Wilhelm Düselmann * ? second officer on Hamburg-America Line + in road accident before 1913.

11. Maria Louise Düselmann * 8.1.1847 Krefeld

12. Johanna Caroline Düselmann * 28.4.1848 Krefeld

13. Gustav Heinrich Düselmann * 24.2.1850


Oh, and if we go one generation further up, we have a few more Düselmann people in the family of Wilhelm's parents, but as far as we know, none of Wilhelm's siblings had grandchildren called Düselmann, so all the 20th century Düsselmanns must descend from Wilhelm Düselmann and Elisabeth de la Strada, and the additional carriers of the name in the 19th century are limited to the following:


Georg Wilhelm Düsselmann * ... 5.1757 Dortmund + 8.10.1823 Krefeld

} oo 6. 4.1788 Krefeld

Margarete Wilsberg * 1765 Krefeld (NB -- she was the first to be born in Krefeld) + 22.4.1830 Krefeld


1. Friedrich Heinrich * 2.6.1789, ~ 7.6.1789, ev., Krefeld

2. Elisabeth * 24.9.1791, ~ 2.10.1791, ev. Krefeld

3. Anna Gertraut * 23.9.1795, ~ 26.9.1795, ev., Krefeld

4. Hermann Düsselmann * 17.1.1798, ~ 21.1.1798 ev, Krefeld, Seidenweber oo Anna Catharina Holz (Holtz) 4.1. Wilhelmina ~ 27.1.1821 Krefeld vermutlich diese Wilhelmine D oo 14.2.1846 Krefeld Johann Heinrich Schmitz
4.1.1. Maria Catharina Schmitz * 9.4.1856
4.1.2. Wilhelmine Schmitz * 20.11.1858
4.2. Johann ~18.10.1823 Krefeld
4.3. Conrad Wilhelm Düselmann oo Wilhelmina von Amelen (von Ameln) (* 20.3.1831 Rheydt)
4.3.1. Wilhelm Peter Düselmann * 15.11.1856 Krefeld
.3.2. Wilhelmine Düselmann * 19.10.1857 Krefeld
.3.3. August Wilhelm Düselmann * 25.8.1859 Krefeld
4.3.4. Heinrich Düselmann * 6.12.1860 Krefeld 4.4. Gertrud Düselmann oo 14.7.1860 Friedrich Wilhelm Groeters
4.4.1. Maria Catharina Groeters ~* 7.12.1862
4.5. Wilhelm Düsselmann, Seidenweber = the father of the large family listed at the top!
4.6. Margaretha Düselmann oo Peter Anton Ropertz

GWD's first marriage:
oo (1.) 17.11.1782 Krefeld m. Anna Christina Lohr

1. Johann Heinrich * 30.9.1783; ~ 5.10.1783 ev. Krefeld

2. Anna Catharina Elisabeth * 23.4.1786 Krefeld, ~ 30.4.1786 ev. Krefeld. oo Johann Heinrich Paulsen (* ca. 1780)
2.1. Hermann Paulsen 11. Oct 1818,
2.2. Louise Nanette Paulsen 25.Nov. 1820
2.3. Friedericka Paulsen 14. Juni 1822
2.4. Maximilian Joseph Heinrich Paulsen 11.Nov.1824
2.5. Carl Friedrich Paulsen 14.Mai 1828
2.6. Johanna Caroline Paulsen 23.Sept. 1831


... which leaves just one Düselmann person unaccounted for:

Anna Christina Düselmann, * 4.3.1804 Bochum


for the sake of completeness and symmetry, I'll also include the siblings and presumed siblings of Elisabetha de la Strada:

Jacob de la Strada * 1770/71 Krefeld + 28. 6.1814 Krefeld (43 J.a.)

} oo 17. 7.1796 Krefeld

Margaretha Giesen * 24. 5.1772 Krefeld + 6. 1.1831 Krefeld

hatten vermutlich 6-8 Kinder. Sechs Kinder sind urkundlich / standesamtlich belegt:

1. Maria Magdalena * 17.9.1796

2. Katharina Elisabeth * 23.3.1798

3. Marie * 1799/1800 =? Maria Catharina, die oo 21.9.1826 Jacob Joseph Nolden (Doppelhochzeit mit 5.)

4. Guilleaumine * 1802

5. Elisabeth Josephe * 17.12.1804 oo Wilhelm Düselmann

6. Heinrich *1809 oo Gertraud Peters
6.1. Anna Margaretha ~ 22.1.1839
6.2. Elisabeth Henriette ~ 22.11.1841
6.3. Catherina Henriette ~ 16.6.1843; oo 22.8.1863 Heinrich Norbert Hartings

Unter der Annahme, daß Jacob de la Strada der einzige Sohn von Philipp war, oder zumindest der einzige, der in Krefeld blieb und sich dort fortpflanzte, ordnen wir zusätzlich alle in Krefeld erwaehnten de la Stradas der folgenden Generation dem Jacob zu. In der Reihenfolge ihrer Hochzeitsdaten handelt es sich um:

1. Maria Theresia Dominica Josepha oo 18.5.1826 Johann Heinrich Fischer, Krefeld.

(2. Elisabetha oo 21.9.1826 Wilhelm Düsselmann)

3. Maria Catharina, oo 21.9.1826 (gleichzeitig mit 2.!) Jacob Joseph Nolden

4. Peter Matthias I. oo 11.2.1830 Christina Hormes;
II. oo 25.1.1850 Catharina Elisabeth Müller
4.1. Carl Friedrich Wilhelm ~ 21.6.1850 ev. ???!!!! Krefeld
4.2. Anna * 6.3.1853 Krefeld Bockum
4.3. Maria * 6.3.1853 Krefeld Bockum (Zwillinge)

Wenn entweder 1. Maria Theresia oder 3. Maria Catharina identisch ist mit der oben genannten “Marie” ergeben sich hier maximal 2 zusätzliche Kinder, also eine Gesamtzahl von 8.

Update 20.8.2022 I finally got round to actually visiting Krefeld, and meet an ancient silk weaver:

Own photo


key words: family history, genealogy, Genealogie, Ahnenforschung, Familienforschung, Vorfahren, Abstammung, Niederrhein, Rheinland, Ruhrgebiet,

Thursday, September 24, 2009

how civilisations disappear

Jared Diamond's occasional News & Views pieces in Nature are always worth reading. In today's issue he has one about how climate change affected the Maya and Khmer, but benefited the Inca. His not so surprising conclusion: climate change can help or harm a population, but using up your vital resources is always a bad idea.

Archaeology: Maya, Khmer and Inca p479

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

anybody out there ?

The current issue of Nature contains several pieces about astrobiology and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), in celebration of the 50th anniversary of a paper by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, which made the search for technologically advanced ETs by listening out to possible radio communications respectable. Frank Drake (who later introduced the Drake equation to estimate the probabilities involved) had started such research even earlier, but it had been kept secret for fear of ridicule and funding withdrawal.

Opinion piece by Fred Kaplan

Original paper by Cocconi and Morrison, Searching for Interstellar Communications, Nature 184, 844 - 846 (1959)

Editorial: Seti at 50

News story: Ear to the Universe starts listening

Monday, September 21, 2009

new earth sciences

... and talking of new buildings, this is the place where "my" lab once stood:

For comparison, see pictures from half a year ago here and from last summer here.

They are building a huge new complex for Earth Sciences, with a much larger footprint than the old buildings which were knocked down. However, it is certain that they will not be able to build higher than maybe 6 floors, as there are very tight restrictions concerning the Oxford skyline. Certain view lines, looking from the surrounding hills at the famous "dreaming spires" must not be crossed, which limits all new buildings to a very reasonable height.

The tree on the right hand side hides the corner of the former Dyson Perrins Laboratory (organic chemistry lab), an early 20th century brick building which has so far survived the general enthusiasm for knocking down old labs. It now houses something else, I think it's related to archaeology. The building carries a plaque sponsored by the RSC, highlighting it as a landmark of the history of chemistry.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Calatrava's new wave

I hear that the new railway station at Liege-Guillemins, which I saw under construction this April, see here, has been officially opened yesterday.

Here's the Guardian's Jonathan Glancey getting all lyrical about it. Quote from his concluding paragraph:

Britain aside, this is the age of the high-speed train in Europe – and Calatrava has provided one of the era's finest monuments, a station that is a destination in itself. It is worth taking the trip from St Pancras to Liège–Guillemins just to experience this building, which makes our own mess of a railway seem all the more maddening.

I agree with all of that -- will have to go back and see how it looks finished. Even though we may soon get direct high-speed trains from London to Cologne, it will still be worth stopping over to admire Santiago Calatrava's new wave. Will also have to check out his other buildings. I was about to say I haven't seen any of them, but looking them up on wikipedia I realised that I had seen the bridge he built at Sevilla for the 1992 world exposition.

PS: another Calatrava building I have seen in statu nascendi (without knowing) is the new footbridge linking Venice's railway station to the bus station, Ponte della Costituzione

here are some of my photos from April:

Friday, September 18, 2009

platypuses everywhere

The German edition of my latest book (Der Kuss des Schnabeltiers) should now be available everywhere, including and the other amazons (well, ok, maybe not at Aldi and Tesco stores).

Further info, sample chapter, and a podcast are on the publisher's page dedicated to the book.

Last year, when the English version came out, fellow Oxford writer Mary Zacaroli wrote a profile about me in the Oxford Times, which is still freely available here: Making science sexy. -- I take the title as a compliment :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

aptamers reviewed

My review of

Aptamers in bioanalysis
Marco Mascini, ed.
Wiley 2009

has appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Chemistry & Industry.

I'm afraid it's premium content (online access for SCI members & subscribers), but here's a snippet for you:

"The chapters appear thorough as scholarly overviews of the relevant fields, with instructive diagrams and very comprehensive references. What the book doesn’t achieve, however, is to communicate the importance of and the sheer excitement surrounding a new, rapidly growing field that has enormous promise in applications from medical diagnosis through to environmental analytics and security. "

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Every picture tells a story

review of Luna cornata by Elvira Valgañón

Sobrelamesa Ediciones 2007

I discovered this charming little book in an Oxfam shop. It is about two people dreaming up stories inspired by old photos they get from an antiquarian bookshop in Dublin. These days, as the traditional, chemical process of making photos via negatives is disappearing rapidly, it is especially poignant to immerse oneself in the time when monochrome photos were at the cutting edge of technology, and having your family portraits taken at the local photographer’s studio was an obligatory status symbol.

Making up life stories for the people portrayed in such photos opens a window into the social history of Dublin in the early 20th century, and, via migration, also to other parts of Europe. A certain distance is provided by the fact that the storytellers are foreigners in Dublin (she a photographer from Spain, he a visiting professor), looking at the Irish way of life with a degree of naïve admiration.

After reading this book, I noticed that there are in fact lots of old family portraits for sale on our local antiques market. Isn’t it a shame that these have become dissociated from the stories that led to their creation and those that may have followed it? Making up stories is fun, and in this case makes for an inspiring read. Did the author really buy these photos in Dublin, or did she invent them, I wonder.

However, it would be even better if such photos could be re-attached to their real-life stories. For every old photo ending up in a car boot sale, there may be a genealogist who has the matching story and who would be overjoyed to find the photos to go with it. (see for instance, the story of our Winderlich photos)

But I’m digressing. Nice little book. Wonder what the author did next.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

where have all the honeybees gone?

Three years after the first reports of a mysterious phenomenon of bee colonies disappearing without any apparent reason, termed colony collapse disorder (CCD), the causes are still as mysterious as ever. New research from the US, using DNA arrays and the known genome sequence of the honeybee has thrown up more questions than it answers. Meanwhile, UK beekeepers report unacceptably high losses for last winter, even though percentages are a bit less catastrophic than the year before.

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

Bee mystery continues
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 17, R718, 15 September 2009
Abstract and restricted access to PDF file

Monday, September 14, 2009

save the nanokosmos

PS -- panic over, an administrator has now removed the deletion notice ! --

I've posted a new entry for "Nanokosmos" on the German edition of Wikipedia, and it took all of 3 minutes until somebody kindly suggested it for deletion. Now it's on death row for 7 days, and then an administrator will decide whether to delete it or whether to remove the deletion notice.

German speaking readers can help to save the nanokosmos by contributing to the discussion or, indeed, by improving the article and making it less deletion-worthy.

I note that the english equivalent, nanoworld, although now widely used, is also lacking a wikipedia entry.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

a very old hand-axe

[ -- > deutsche Version ]

Back in 2003, my daughter and I took part in a palaeo-anthropological dig at Sima de las Palomas, in Southern Spain (as described in Birds/Bees/Platypuses, page 77), as volunteers to support the research efforts of Michael Walker, who runs excavations at two sites in the area. Just ahead of our arrival, a team at the other site, Cueva Negra de Estrecho del Rio Quipar (which we also visited on our day off), had discovered an ancient stone tool, a hand-axe, which we duly admired. I think it was the first stone tool from that site, and there was a great deal of excitement about it.

Imagine my surprise now to read in last week’s issue of Nature that researchers using magnetic field measurements have re-assessed the dating of the geological layers in Cueva Negra, and come to the conclusion that this hand-axe we admired 6 years ago, together with another tool found at the same site, must be by far the oldest bi-facial stone tools discovered in Europe so far. (I think “bi-facial” implies that bits were chipped off from both sides of a flat natural stone to produce a relatively sharp edge.)

Cueva Negra was previously estimated to be 200,000 years old. The new date is 900,000 years, moving these two tools into the Early Pleistocene. (Technically, the magnetic measurements would also fit an even older date, but that appears unlikely considering the finds at the site.) Bi-facial stone tools from that era had so far only been known from Africa. The only European stone tools that are even older are uni-facial Oldowan tools from around 1.2 million years ago. Not sure what the precise scientific classification of the original owners of those tools is. While at Sima de las Palomas we were digging for Neanderthal remains, the Cueva Negra inhabitants must have been Homo heidelbergensis or something like that.

Will have to check up the literature about our site, maybe there have been exciting developments there as well and I missed them.


G. R. Scott, L. Gibert, Nature 2009, 461, 82.
M. J. Walker et al. Eurasian Prehistory 2006, 4, 3.

PS Bi-facial hand-axes look like this example from the excellent article in the Spanish version of Wikipedia:

Friday, September 11, 2009

measuring single nanotubes

gradually coming back to the nanoworld after some time spent getting excited about other things, I really liked a paper from this week's Angewandte Early View release. The authors measure the electrochemical potentials and other parameters of individual carbon nanotubes with known chirality parameters, which wasn't possible so far. For applications in electronics, the differences between nanotubes wrapped in different directions are extremely important, and sorting them apart has been a challenge (but see here how it can be done with DNA). Understanding the single-molecule electronic properties, apart from being important for the fundamental understanding of these differences, may also be useful as a diagnostic or for the development of new ways of picking them apart, I reckon.


Experimentally Determined Redox Potentials of Individual (n,m) Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes
Yasuhiko Tanaka, Yasuhiko Hirana, Yasuro Niidome, Koichiro Kato, Susumu Saito, Naotoshi Nakashima

Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2009
Published Online: Sep 8 2009 12:17PM
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200902468

Thursday, September 10, 2009

broken glass

Seeing the funny side of failure

Review of Verre Cassé by Alain Mabanckou

Although officially labelled a novel, Verre Cassé is essentially an amalgam of the life stories of the people washed up in the bar “Le Crédit a voyagé”, somewhere in Congo (Brazzaville) as told by the most faithful customer, nick-named Verre Cassé (Broken Glass). Mimicking the unbridled speech flow of someone who had a few glasses and frustrations too many, Mabanckou writes without using a single full stop. Each chapter is a single rambling sentence, starting with a lower case and ending without any punctuation mark. This makes it a tad difficult to follow initially (as it would be difficult to follow the life story of a drunkard as told by himself down the pub past midnight), but I got used to it over time. I just had to adjust my attention span to the length of these uninterrupted rambles. (Note that I heroically resisted the temptation to write this review in the same style!)

While the book has its sad and depressing moments, on account of all the miscellaneous failures that led the characters to end up in this dump (and which they, to the last man, blame on the women in their lives), it can also be very funny a lot of the time. Early on, the scene where a committee of government officials searches for a catch-phrase for their boss, going through a whole dictionary of (unsuitable) citations, is quite hilarious, as are some of the events in and around the bar.

Citations occur not only in that scene, but throughout the book as a hallmark of our narrator. They come so thick and fast that I am wondering how on earth the translator of the English edition (which appeared a few months ago) got out of this problem. There are allusions to francophone literature en masse, both from France and from French-speaking Africa, but also to French chanson, from Brassens to modern times. You don’t have to have an education in French literature and culture to enjoy this book, but it would help enormously. Failing that, one can always read it for the drunken antics including a pissing contest.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Kuss des Schnabeltiers

From today, the German edition of "The birds, the bees, and the platypuses" should be in the shops, even though haven't updated the relevant page yet. As a taster for German readers, here's the manuscript version of the preface to the book:


Wissenschaft macht Spaß! Sieben Jahre lang habe ich als Hobbyreporter über naturwissenschaftliche Neuigkeiten berichtet, und seit Mai 2000 dann als hauptberuflicher Wissenschaftsautor. In diesen 15 Jahren haben sich Dutzende von Geschichten angesammelt, an die ich mich immer wieder gerne erinnere, weil sie mir beim Schreiben (und dem einen oder der anderen hoffentlich auch beim Lesen) so viel Freude bereitet haben.

Dies sind die Geschichten, die mich immer wieder in Versuchung führen, wenn ich sie beim Blättern in meinen Archiven sehe, sie zum x-ten Mal wieder zu lesen und damit meine Zeit zu vergeuden. Viele von diesen Geschichten habe ich mehrfach in verschiedenen Formaten und Sprachen verwendet, als Beispiele zitiert, oder an meinen Lebenslauf angehängt. Sie zeigen, zumindest meiner Ansicht nach, dass Naturwissenschaften ein Teil unserer Kultur sind, der ebenso bunt und vielfältig sein kann wie etwa Literatur oder Musik, und intellektuell ebenso bereichernd.

Was zeichnet diese meine “Lieblingsgeschichten” gegenüber den knapp 1000 anderen aus, die ich in all den Jahren verfasst habe? Ich habe drei wichtige Kriterien gefunden, von denen jede der Geschichten eines oder sogar mehrere erfüllt. In Anlehnung an den Titel eines Albums der Gruppe TLC habe ich meine Kategorien crazy, sexy, und cool genannt.

Die erste Kategorie stellt gleichzeitig den Nukleationskeim dar, um den sich dieses Buch kristallisierte. Die Idee, eine Sammlung verrückter Geschichten zusammenzustellen, trage ich schon seit etlichen Jahren mit mir herum. Die erste “verrückte” Geschichte war die mit den Kamelen, siehe Seite XXX. Unter “crazy” finden sich überraschende, außergewöhnliche, und oft ganz und gar verrückte Entdeckungen und Launen der Natur, die sich dann aber oftmals als nützlich erweisen, wie eben die verrückten Antikörper der Kamele. In dieser Abteilung finden sich auch Forschungsprojekte, die anfangs so aussichtslos erschienen, dass schon ein gewisses Maß an Verrücktheit dazugehörte, sie überhaupt erst in Angriff zu nehmen. Die Sequenzierung des Neandertaler-Genoms, beruhend auf weniger als einem Milligramm hochgradig kontaminierter DNA, zählt zweifellos dazu.

Sexy Geschichten handeln manchmal von Lust und Liebe, manchmal aber auch von anderen Obsessionen unserer Species, vom glitzernden Gold bis zum süffigen Wein. In meinem Gesamtwerk sind „menschelnde“ Geschichten eher die Ausnahme, doch aufgrund ihrer besseren Zugänglichkeit sind sie hier gleichberechtigt mit jenen über Bakterien oder Moleküle vertreten.

Coole Geschichten erzählen oft von pfiffigen Erfindungen, Werkzeugen, und Gimmicks. Viele davon wurden in den vergangenen Jahren von WissenschaftlerInnen erfunden, doch manche stammen auch aus dem Werkzeugkasten der Natur.

Beim Zusammenstellen dieser Texte ging ich jeweils von einem Manuskript für einen Zeitungs- oder Zeitschriftenbeitrag aus, überarbeitete dieses, und fügte eine Einführung hinzu, um zu erklären, was diese Geschichte interessant macht. Den älteren Texten habe ich zusätzlich auch ein Nachwort mit einer Zusammenfassung nachfolgender Entwicklungen angehängt. Innerhalb der drei Teile des Buchs sind die Kapitel grob chronologisch geordnet, so dass sie auch einen Eindruck davon vermitteln, wie sich die Wissenschaft in diesen 15 Jahren weiterentwickelt hat. Die Jahreszahl der Originalveröffentlichung ist am Ende jeder Geschichte in Klammern angegeben.

Die Mehrzahl dieser Geschichten erschien entweder in Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Nachrichten aus der Chemie, Chemie in unserer Zeit, oder Biologie in unserer Zeit. Einige lagen bisher nur in englischer Sprache vor (als Artikel in Chemistry World oder Chemistry in Britain, sowie in der englischen Fassung dieses Buchs. Zwei Geschichten sind nach der Zeitschriftenveröffentlichung auch in meinen inzwischen vergriffenen Büchern Expeditionen in den Nanokosmos bzw. Exzentriker des Lebens erschienen.

Mein Dank gilt all den Redakteurinnen und Redakteuren, die mir in all den Jahren Aufträge erteilt und meine Artikel in ihre Zeitungen und Zeitschriften aufgenommen haben. Einige von ihnen haben mit der Zeit die Fähigkeit erworben, meine Gedanken zu lesen, was meine Arbeit vereinfacht und beschleunigt. Doch auch dann, wenn sie kritische oder scheinbar dumme Fragen stellen, helfen sie mir, meine Begeisterung mit den LeserInnen zu teilen.

Fünfzehn Jahre sind eine außerordentlich lange Zeit in der modernen Wissenschaft – das fiel mir besonders auf, als ich die Artikel aus den 1990er Jahren überarbeitete. Einige von diesen muteten bereits historisch an, Erinnerungen an die längst verflossene Vor-Genom-Zeit, als man mit Untersuchungen an einzelnen Genen oder einzelnen Proteinen noch Lorbeeren erringen konnte. Einige der Themen, die ich damals spannend fand scheinen aus der Mode gekommen zu sein, während andere geradezu spektakulär erblüht sind und teilweise bereits nützliche Früchte tragen. Einige der erwähnten ForscherInnen haben inzwischen einen Nobelpreis erhalten, andere scheinen vom Radar verschwunden zu sein. So ist das Leben, auch in der Wissenschaft.

Vor allem aber hoffe ich, dass die ausgewählten Geschichten einen Eindruck von der Lebendigkeit der Wissenschaft der letzten eineinhalb Jahrzehnte vermitteln und dabei deutlich machen, dass jede Frage, welche die Forschung beantwortet, gleich mehrere neue, ebenso spannende Fragen aufwirft, und damit für einen unendlichen Strom von verrückten, sexy, und coolen Entdeckungen sorgt.

Oxford, Dezember 2008

Michael Groß

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

story of an old cello

(last updated 10.8.2021)

The young cellist in my family has recently moved up from the 3/4 size instrument to the full size one that my great-grandfather used to play many decades ago, so I’ll take this exciting coming-of-age moment as an excuse to write up the story of this instrument.

In fact, we don’t know when and how it came into the family. The violinmaker who restored it to its former glory, Helmut Pöser at Regensburg, Germany, said it is from Saxony, and was built at the beginning of the 20th century.

Max Heinrich Groß was born in 1882 and served as a military musician until 1918. His official job title was hoboist, but this doesn't mean that he played the oboe - in the infantry all musicians were classed as hoboists. In 1919 he took up a civilian job in the local council administration of Elberfeld (then a city of 157,000 inhabitants, which in 1929 became part of Wuppertal). So I reckon that at this point, missing the professional music-making, he may have started playing the string quartet, of which we know that it was an established habit in the 1920s and 30s (see photo below, dated 1927). He may have bought the cello second hand, as it probably dates from before WW1, and it is a nice instrument which he may not have been able to afford brand new.

Legend -- as I remembered it -- has it that one of the members of his string quartet was a Jew and was deported in 1939 or shortly after, and that our cellist wrapped up his instrument and never touched it again. Older family members tell me, though, that Max Heinrich's boss at the city administration admonished him in the mid-1930s already not to spend his free time with Jews, whereupon he sulked and said "If I can't play music with whom I want to play, I won't play at all." So we don't really know what happened to the Jewish musician. Max Heinrich put the cello on top of the cupboard in the living room at Wuppertal, where it remained until 1961, when his widow died (he had died three years earlier).

It ended up in the attic in my grandparents’ house, where we retrieved it in the summer of 1980 in a sorry state. There were gut strings on it (you can see two of them here), but the bridge was missing, there were two ugly cracks in the front of the body and one in the side, and part of the inlay around the edges was missing. For some reason the inside was stuffed with old newspapers. The bow didn’t have a single hair left.

At that point I felt inspired to learn the cello (not just because of the battered old instrument, I also was and still am a great fan of Dvorak's cello concerto), but during a visit to the local council music school, they persuaded us that at 16 I was too old to start such a difficult instrument, and that I should learn the double bass instead. (I later realised that this advice may also have been based on the fact that they had too many applicants for cello and not enough for double bass.)

But anyhow, I did learn the bass for a few years, although it soon became obvious that I couldn’t do much with it, as the bass normally serves the rhythm section (especially in jazz), and my timekeeping isn’t all that good. Starting at Marburg University in 1984, with a student room that was only marginally larger than a double bass, my musical career petered out.

Meanwhile, the cello had pride of place in my bedroom back home (with a bass, cello, and several guitars in the room, you couldn’t cough in this room without getting a resonance from some corner!) . Fast forward to 1991, when a new generation of my family made its arrival, and thus the hope for new musicians. At that point, we lived in the heart of the historic centre of Regensburg, and there was a violinmaker’s workshop on the opposite side of the square, so I took the cello over and asked whether it was worth restoring it, and Mr Pöser said yes, so with generous financial support from my father we had the instrument restored to perfect health.

Matching children to instruments requires some thought (think of how many unhappy pianists there are in this world!), and after some consideration we worked out that our firstborn didn’t have the temperament suited to a cello (as you can put quite some energy in and can get a big sound out, you want an assertive kind of person to play it). Being very attracted to all things that glitter, she was easily persuaded to learn the flute, though. Number two didn’t qualify due to his disability and associated problems, leaving number three who luckily did bring the temperament to match the instrument.

Using the beautifully restored old instrument as the carrot dangling before her nose, we enticed her to start learning the cello, even though she had to go through a sequence of “fractional” cellos, from the eighth up to the three-quarter size one. Apart from the temperament-matching, and the carrot-dangling, the fact that she really enjoys ensemble playing and that her services were much in demand in school orchestras has helped to keep the motivation going.

And now she really does get to bite that carrot that’s been dangling for over 7 years. In celebration, I have had the hairless old bow re-haired, which has a wonderful deep groove where Max Heinrich’s index finger used to go, wearing the wood down over decades. Although she may end up using a different bow, it is nice to see the old pair reunited. And it sounds just great.

Talking bows with her teacher, I was reminded of Harry Potter’s experience buying his wand. “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr Potter,” the shopkeeper said, if I remember correctly. Probably true for bows and cellists as well. And more generally for instruments and children. It’s just magic.

PS I haven't got a clue who the other musicians in the quartet were, so if anybody recognises any of them in the pictures, I'd be grateful for a hint! The complete set of three photos we have of the quartet is reunited here.

Update 2021: A book-length version of this story is taking shape here, and an appreciation of the city of Elberfeld, where Heinrich's quartet played, is here.

Monday, September 07, 2009

methanol fuel cells revisited

Back in February 2008, I wrote a news item about nitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes coated with platinum nanoparticles as electrodes in methanol fuel cells. Now the lead author, Zheng Hu, tells me that in the follow-up work, due to be published in Advanced Materials this week, the team at Nanjing University has made significant progress in three aspects:

* Instead of using pure platinum as the coating, the researchers can now work with Pt-Co alloys, which reduces the cost of the device.

* They can now also apply their electrocatalysts to the cathode reaction, so they could run an entire fuel cell based on this technology.

* They have developed a simple preparation process for the catalysts.

The authors hope that their material will be useful not just in fuel cells but also in other electrochemical applications.

PS the original research communication appears to have been delayed somewhat, but is now out:

Published Online: Sep 15 2009 8:49AM
DOI: 10.1002/adma.200900677

Saturday, September 05, 2009

how to make pharma proteins

If you want to start a business producing protein pharmaceuticals and haven't got a clue where to start, the book I reviewed for Chemistry & Industry is just perfect, it tells you everything you'll ever need to know about how that particular industry works. For all other readers, the book may come across as a tad boring, but hey, that's life. My not quite glowing review appears on page 28 of issue 16 (24.8.), and the book in question is called "Manufacturing of Pharmaceutical Proteins".

Friday, September 04, 2009

rising from the rubble

I'm pleased to learn from the Oxford Times that the University's plans for redeveloping the site of the former Radcliffe Infirmary are likely to get the go ahead very soon.

This is a major development in the heart of the city, and it was relief to see that the University has a master plan for this, which looks really good -- I attended a consultation meeting when it was first released. There is also a similar master plan for improvements of the adjacent Science Area.

Previously, a lot of the building work in both areas has followed the logic of tumour growth rather than any large scale planning. The Radcliffe Infirmary site (where I occasionally worked in the course of a collaborative project with biomedical researchers) was a textbook example to demonstrate what happens if you allow people to build whatever they feel like. I have a traumatic memory of a rickety first floor extension towering on stilts above an equally ramshackle (but apparently unrelated) shed. Whatever space was left between the extensions to extensions was crammed with pipes and looked more like a derelict chemical factory than like a hospital and research site.

So, well, most of it had to be knocked down, only two or three listed buildings survived, and the site now looks like this:

but we are promised a whole new university quarter, which will be open to the public as well, with through roads. And with buildings designed by real architects, not cobbled together by cowboys. Can't wait. Lots of modern architecture to take photos of ...

Thursday, September 03, 2009

spektrum september

... just one German piece out in September, investigating why people would want to catalogue millions of RNA fragments from flatworms:

Schnipseljagd beim Strudelwurm
Spektrum der Wissenschaft 09/09, p. 22

Beginning of the article and restricted access to PDF file

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

San Pedro

I saw the new Almodovar movie, Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces), last weekend, and it struck me that the director has reached a status resembling sainthood -- no matter what he does, we love it, well at least those of us who prefer hand-made movies to the stuff that's made in hollywood.

In abrazos rotos, Almodovar mainly talks about himself, even cites a mock version of his classic Mujeres al borde ... (now 20 years old, would you believe it). Note the contrast between the 2008 colour scheme (red and other primary colours) and the orange-infested one of 1988! As the movie is mainly about himself, it is a bit more bloke-ish than Volver (which is probably my all-time favourite Pedro movie -- I remember coming out of the cinema and being tempted to join the queue to watch it again straight away), but as I say, he's a saint, so he can get away with anything. Doesn't harm to have Penelope Cruz in the movie, as she is pretty close to sainthood herself.

anyhow, it's been an amazing 2 decades since Mujeres al borde. Just one of San Pedro's movies from this era that I haven't seen yet (Kika), and I just ordered the dvd ...

PS oh, and IMDB tells me it's Salma Hayek's birthday today -- I think I have yet to see a recent Mexican movie that doesn't reference her :)