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.