Wednesday, March 31, 2010

the dark energy of William Shakespeare

Literary types around here are falling over themselves to assert that the guy from Stratford really did write those plays. There is a new book out that ridicules all other theories, and it's got glowing reviews everywhere.

Not knowing much about this whole debate (or non-debate, as the Stratfordians hasten to call it), I am getting the impression that they do protest too much. The fact is that we know far too little about the biography of the Stratford man to be sure about how the plays came into being. And as with scientific problems, where there is an embarrassing lack of information, the field is open to wild speculation. Someone on "The Review Show" compared the Shakespeare "non-debate" to the evolution debates in the US. This comparison is outrageous, as we have tons of data confirming evolution, but virtually no data about Shakespeare's intellectual life.

If we're looking for an analogy in science, I would suggest the dark matter / dark energy conundrum. Current knowledge very clearly tells us (via several independent lines of evidence) that we know nothing about some 97 % of the mass-energy content of the Universe, and scientists have come up with a whole zoo of hypothetical exotic particles and other tweaks to the known laws of physics (eg modified versions of Newton's laws) to address this problem. All are speculative, but they can guide research that may one day find the missing bits.

Similarly, we have a > 90% knowledge vacuum concerning the inner life of Shakespeare and where he may have found inspiration for his works. So I, as a literary-minded scientist find it quite natural that this vacuum gives rise to wild speculation, which may inspire research that may one day resolve some of the mysteries surrounding the bard.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

obscure composers

The young cellist in my family is currently playing pieces by two composers I had never heard of before, so I did a little research and found that neither of them has a Wikipedia entry - even though their music is in print, and obviously being played today. They are the New Zealander Arnold Trowell, and the Frenchman Benoit Guillemant.

Trowell, at least has a minor role in the wikipedia entry on Katherine Mansfield:

She became enamoured with a cellist, Arnold Trowell (Mansfield herself was an accomplished cellist, having received lessons from Trowell's father),[2] in 1902, although the feelings were largely unreciprocated.[4]
Back in London in 1908, Mansfield quickly fell into the bohemian way of life lived by many artists and writers of that era (although she only published one story and one poem during her first 15 months there).[3] Mansfield sought out the Trowell family for companionship, and whilst Arnold was involved with another woman, Mansfield embarked on a passionate affair with his brother, Garnet.[4] By early 1909, she had become impregnated with his child, though Trowell's parents disapproved of the relationship, and the two broke up. She hastily entered into a marriage, with a singing teacher 11 years her elder,[6] George Bowden, on March 2, but left him the same evening, having failed to consummate the marriage.[4] After a brief reunion with Garnet, Mansfield's mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in 1909. She blamed the breakdown of the marriage on a lesbian relationship between Mansfield and Ida Baker, and she quickly had her daughter despatched to a spa town, Bad Wörishofen, in Bavaria, Germany. Mansfield had miscarried the child after attempting to lift a suitcase on top of a cupboard, although it is not known whether her mother knew of this miscarriage when she left shortly after arriving in Germany (Mansfield was subsequently cut out of her mother's will).[4]

More about his career as a composer is here

About Guillemant, we only know that he worked as a flautist and composer in Paris, 1746-57. Nothing is known about his life before or after this period. That's quite remarkable - I have ancestors in the 18th century about whom we know more ...

Still, someone should have a heart and compose Wikipedia entries for obscure composers like these ...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

... and the winner is ...

seeing I posted on the shortlist for the Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of 2009, I have to report the final result as well.

So the winner, revealed in Horace Bent's blog this week is:

Daina Taimina: Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (A K Peters)

I actually voted for this one, if only on the grounds that it represents an interesting way to popularise mathematics. Although I was also tempted by Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, which didn't reach the medal ranks.

PS: if you do want to take your needlework into non-euclidian realms, has the book, but you'll need some patience: Usually dispatched within 1 to 3 weeks. Looks like they're not monitoring this prize.

Friday, March 26, 2010

large human collider

I love the news feature by Zeeya Merali in the current issue of Nature, The Large Human Collider (even though I thought of this title first, used it for our home-built ice rink, back in January!).

The author describes how, at the Large Hadron Collider, "sociologists, anthropologists, historians and philosophers have been visiting CERN to see just how these densely packed physicists collide, ricochet, and sometimes explode." One of the social social scientists interviewed said she went there to observe "the language, taboos, and rituals of this exotic community."

The basic idea is that at just under 3000 participating scientists for the ATLAS detector alone, the community seems to have passed a critical size to qualify as a culture in its own right (though social scientists have also looked at the previous, smaller collaborations). Also, considering the cost of the LHC operation, the 20 or so social scientists that observe the physicists are practically free (and funded by different research councils, anyway).

Now that makes me think, what if the whole thing isn't really about the physics, and someone has just tricked the physicists into it, in order to conduct an experiment analysing the collision of human minds? I'm sure there is a viable plot for a Dr Who episode in there somewhere.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I've reviewed a book about biotemplating in this week's issue of Chemistry & Industry, which is now online here (same issue which has my astrobiology story on the cover).

People with institutional access (and SCI members) can access the review here.

For everybody else, here's a snippet explaining what biotemplating is all about:

There is, however, a third way of creating nanoscale structures, one which borrows more from Nature than just the principles of molecular assembly. In biotemplating, the existing nanostructures of organisms are used as templates on which to deposit thin layers of non-natural materials. This process can lead to architectures consisting of materials with useful properties, such as semiconductors, while benefiting from Nature’s knack for extremely subtle structures.

Designs on Nature
Chemistry & Industry Issue 6 (22nd March 2010), p

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the train ends here

Linguists in Germany are very excited these days: they have the unique opportunity to witness the birth and evolution of a new language, known as Bahn-Englisch or Railway English (RE):

This language is consistently used by people making public announcements on DB trains and stations. While it uses English words, RE has no similarity to real English, typically using word-by-word translation of German idiomatic expressions.

For instance, the UK announcement "This service terminates here." translates to RE: "The train ends here."

Now I could spend hours reminiscing and making fun of this (I think there are even books dedicated to this pass time), but what really puzzles me is that RE still continues to thrive even though the announcements must be entirely useless to their target audience, i.e. to those rail passengers who don't understand German.

The only way of decoding RE announcements is to translate them back into German (word by word), which, of course, anybody who actually needs announcements in English wouldn't be able to do. Also, all place names (and a few English words) are pronounced the German way, so many foreign passengers may not even recognise the name of their destination when it is announced.

Thus, somebody in rail management should have realised that by now and either have the announcements scrapped or arranged for the relevant people to be trained in announcements in proper English.

I'm wondering whether anybody who has travelled on German railways without knowing much German has ever managed to make sense of these announcements. Do let me know.

PS oh, and talking about all things German and badly translated, happy 50th birthday to Gabriele Susanne Kerner, widely known as Nena. Her breakthrough song "99 Luftballons" actually has very nicely crafted lyrics in German, but you wouldn't be able to tell from the English version "99 red balloons".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

save the whales

It's rare that a political leader does a green thing to save his skin, but this appears to be happening in Australia where a majority is angry about Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, and PM Kevin Rudd is now beginning to make good on his election promise to take action against it.

My news feature on whaling (also covering recent findings on how whales work as carbon capture and storage device, providing another reason not to slaughter them) is out in Current Biology today:

Whaling battles
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 6, R256-R257, 23 March 2010
summary and restricted access to PDF file

Monday, March 22, 2010

exploring new worlds

Notwithstanding the impression you may have gained from TV series like StarTrek, it is only 15 years since astronomers discovered the first planet orbiting a star that is not our Sun. Amazingly, another 420 or so extrasolar planets have been discovered since then, and increasingly, the improvements in methods allow planet hunters to detect objects that are in the size range between Earth and Neptune (as opposed to the super-Jupiters on crazy fun-fair orbits that turned up first, for purely methodological reasons).

As discoveries of transiting exoplanets (i.e. those that do us the favour of crossing our sightline and partially obscuring their star) become more widespread, observers can also begin to analyse the changes in the light and use spectroscopic methods to analyse the atmospheres of those planets.

This development, along with recent discoveries made on Mars and in the Saturnian system has revitalised interest in astrobiology. I have written a feature about all this, emphasizing the chemical aspects (i.e. hunting for extraterrestrial life as a challenge to analytical technology) which is out in today's issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Chemistry & Industry No 6 (22.03), 22-24
Homing in on extraterrestrial life

Full text

The story is also featured on the cover, with an artist's impression of the Kepler spacecraft, a dedicated planet-hunting mission:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

cuban cancer success

Following my visits to Cuba in 2004 and 2005, I wrote a few pieces about the spectacular successes of the medical biotech research going on there. At the time the affordable HiB vaccine was a major story.

Since then, I've lost track of developments there, so I was pleased to learn from Clare Sansom's excellent article in ecancermedicalscience that the immunology institute CIM at Havana (which I also visited at the time) has been very successful in the development of cancer vaccines and other immunological cancer treatments.

I should explain that, unlike vaccines against infectious diseases, cancer vaccines are for treatment, not prevention. Essentially, they train the immune system to recognise cancer cells as intruders and deal with them the same way they would with a microbial infection. CIM has developed a vaccine called ClimaVax that is already in clinical use for lung cancer.

I understand they also have an antibody that works on the same principle as Herceptin (i.e. by blocking the receptor of the epidermal growth factor, EGF), but may have fewer and less serious side effects.

More details in ecancermedicalscience.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

towards sustainable farming

Today there will be a couple of Earthwatch lectures at the Royal Geographic Society in London, covering research aimed at improving the sustainability of food production. Mark Chandler will talk about his work with coffee farmers in Costa Rica, while Ken Norris will focus on cocoa production in Ghana.

I have mentioned Mark's work in a news feature last November (blog entry and link), and Ken's in June 2008 (blog entry and link). Both very thought-provoking re. connections between the food we consume and the state the world is in.

Both projects are corporate partnerships (with Starbucks and Cadbury, respectively), and are also addressing issues of how economics can better cooperate with nature, rather than destroying it, as discussed in this recent story.

2010 Earthwatch Lectures

Farming and sustainable environments
Wednesday 17 March 2010
The Royal Geographical Society,
1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR

Chaired by Countryfile and Watchdog presenter
Julia Bradbury

Speakers: Professor Ken Norris, University of Reading;
Dr Mark Chandler, Earthwatch

5.30pm to 6.30pm Citizen Science Competition Advice Clinic
6pm - Cash bar, photo exhibition
7pm – Lecture
8.30pm – Cash bar

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

clues in the signposting

According to George Ebers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genomics at Oxford, the true causes of multiple sclerosis (MS) may be neither in the genes, nor in the environment as such. The clue, as he has come to conclude after decades of research in the field, is in how the environment interacts with the signposting that affects gene expression, known as epigenetic markers.

I wrote a feature about this work for Oxford Today, which is now available online (free access to all):

Piecing together the causes of lives torn apart
Oxford Today Volume 22 Number 2, Hilary 2010, pages 20-21

The printed version comes with a nice big picture of cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose life and career were cut short by MS.

Monday, March 15, 2010

cute platypus seduces readers

If proof were needed that cute animals on the cover help to sell books, my German title "Der Kuss des Schnabeltiers" (see this blog entry from last September's release) has achieved a respectable sales result (by my very modest standards) in its first year, doing much better than the English version, which doesn't look quite as attractive. Among my German titles, only "Exzentriker des Lebens" (Life on the Edge) had a better start.

I've updated my personal sales ranking here -- guaranteed to be the only bestsellers list my books will ever feature in!

At, the current sales ranking is 46,150, which -- again, by my modest standards -- isn't bad. Plus, there is a very enthusiastic review by a kind reader whom I don't even know.

Friday, March 12, 2010

venn diagrams

Car design is of course one of the creative activities we're most exposed to, as all our streets are clogged with the things, so I do tend to have strong opinions on what I am confronted with, even though I'm not going to buy a car any time soon. One of the designs I really like is the outline of the backside of the original Ford Ka, which is like a Venn diagram with the lights defined by the overlap between two sets (best appreciated from straight behind, as the kink will disappear).

I was reluctant to put this on here, as I didn't want to do advertising for cars, but I noticed recently that the new version of the model has switched to a completely different (more Japanese-looking) design, so assuming that this one isn't being built any more, I can praise it without fear of boosting car sales (happy to support the vintage car trade, though).

and of course it looks even better with the reflection of the OU Museum of Natural History ...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

stop flaring

One of the major unsung crimes against our planet is flaring -- i.e. the process of burning off unwanted natural gas in an open and entirely useless flame, technically known as a flare. According to World Bank figures, 5.25 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of associated gas – the equivalent of 25% of US gas consumption – was flared in 2004 ( This happens all around the globe in remote oil fields where capturing and transporting the gas would be uneconomical.

The Oxford University spinout company Oxford Catalysts, together with the microchannel reactor specialists Velocys Inc. has developed a microchannel reactor involving Fischer-Tropsch catalysis (see my earlier feature in Oxford Today) offering an economically attractive way of converting stranded gas into liquid fuel in situ, thus cutting down the flaring.

Velocys has announced this week that a joint demonstration testing agreement (JDTA) has been settled between Velocys, Inc., offshore facility developers, MODEC, the global engineering firm Toyo Engineering, and the Brazilian State oil company Petrobras to build and operate a microchannel GTL (Gas To Liquid) demonstration facility. The companies hope that this agreement will bring the prospect of routine offshore production of liquid fuel from stranded gas a step closer to reality.

The 5-10 barrel/day (bbl/d) demonstration facility will include a microchannel steam methane reformer (SMR) along with a microchannel Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reactor. The demonstration plant, which is expected to be up and running by early 2011, will be constructed by Toyo Engineering with support from MODEC and installed at the Petrobas facility in Fortaleza, Brazil. The FT and SMR microchannel reactors will be fabricated by Kobe Steel Ltd.

Following successful demonstration, this technology is expected to be used by MODEC, Toyo and Velocys on the commercial floating production, storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs) used in the development of offshore oil and gas fields.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

investing in nature

I only reluctantly admit this -- because I foolishly believe in people doing the right thing without being bribed to do so -- but the economy, if handled correctly, could possibly save the planet. In February, Pavan Sukhdev held the annual Earthwatch Lecture here at Oxford and explained how an appreciation of the real value of natural resources left intact (e.g. south american rainforest as a water pump for the Argentinian cattle industry) could shift the balance so far that preserving wild nature would appear as a sound investment rather than a financial burden.

With this in mind I have looked at two examples of finance deals aiming to save rainforests -- one in Ecuador, coupled to (non-exploration of) crude oil, and the other in Guyana -- and written a news feature for Current Biology which is out today:

Ransom for rainforests
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 5, R217-R218, 9 March 2010

summary and restricted access to pdf file

Monday, March 08, 2010

ensemble, c'est tout

Ensemble, c’est tout
(Hunting and gathering)
Anna Gavalda

I am having trouble reviewing this book with anything like the necessary critical distance, as I loved it so much I wanted to live inside this fiction. Not just for the 300 sqm flat in central Paris furnished with random antiques, but for the whole feel-good package, suggesting that there is such a thing as society, and people can help each other out in spite of all differences that may seem to separate them. The characters who find surprising ways of helping each other include: a twenty-something failed painter (f) with an eating disorder working as a cleaner; a young chef (m) with a stressful life involving lots of work and disposable girlfriends; the chef’s granny who needs looking after; and the only son of an ancient tribe of aristocrats, a walking talking history book with a stutter.

So, trying hard for a moment to view the book as literature, not as a lifestyle, I can think of a few points that may make it attractive even to those who aren’t Parisian BoBos at heart. First of all, as we know from her previous, shorter works, Gavalda is a people watcher more than a writer, so all her dialogues sound real and her characters are so alive that it doesn’t require much imagination to feel one could move in with them.

Then she also does clever things such as manipulating the reader by withholding crucial information, and reporting the “unheld speeches” which the characters wanted to deliver but didn’t. As we do, of course, all the time. I would feel uncomfortable, though, if someone put my unuttered thoughts on a page like this. Maybe her characters should have a word …

Culturally, the novel contains references not just to the art which is part of our heroine’s life, but also to the francophone cartoons including Tintin and Asterix, and I had the impression that the work of Hergé had some influence on the grandiose locations and description of the characters as well. This brings us back to the feel-good factor, as I grew up with these bandes dessinées rather than their American counterparts, so appreciated these reminders.

The book has been enormously successful in France: it made a shortlist for the best novel of the decade (it came second, behind Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell) and was filmed with Audrey Tautou (not surprisingly, as Amélie is another obvious cultural influence), but practically didn’t make any appearance this side of the English Channel, which seems to be widening all the time.

PS after watching the film on DVD, I feel like I've seen the ladybird edition of the story: simplified, nicely illustrated, and much too short (90 mins). Casting is great, but I got no sense of place, and only 1% of the human complexity. It might work the other way round though, watching the movie first, as a trailer advertising the book.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

lazy like sunday morning

A very depressing place to visit on a Sunday morning is Oxford Railway Station. No trains whatsoever going north (replaced by buses due to engineering work) and the next train south will be in one hour. Also note the absence of overhead power cables. Yes, that's right, it's 2010 and our "intercity" line hasn't even been electrified yet (planned for 2016, I believe - don't understand why they don't put the cables up on those Sundays when the line is closed anyway).

Never mind "High Speed 2," which may or may not materialise within the next 20 years (half a century delay compared to France), even the modernisations we saw in Germany around 1980 (intercity trains at least every hour (including on Sundays!), with guaranteed connection on the opposite side of the same platform) haven't arrived here. I'm afraid that taking a train pulled by an ancient diesel engine may not be all that much greener than taking a modern coach. But the most significant environmental cost of this mess is, of course,that most people take the plane to travel between Glasgow or Edinburgh and London.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

benign delusions, useful compulsions

I really love this quote which I found on twitter yesterday:

The best you can hope for in this life
is that your delusions are benign
and your compulsions have utility.

It comes from an equally insightful blog post from the creator of the dilbert cartoons, Scott Adams, and was posted by @lmg, whom I follow because he's the hero of this story.

If I ever write up "my philosophy", this quote will have its own chapter. And maybe I can print my own greeting cards with an edited version, such as:

May all your delusions be benign
and your compulsions useful ones.

I am, of course, a compulsive writer and under the delusion that people want to read what I have to say, and I am very grateful that my delusion is relatively harmless and my compulsion just about useful enough to pay the bills.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

the wrong kind of incentive?

(updated Fri 5.3.2010)

I used to admire George Monbiot, but in his column this week he delivers a general bashing of feed-in-tariffs which includes a few points I have to disagree with. Feed-in-tariffs are a scheme first introduced in Germany 10 years ago and since then copied in around 60 countries and several US states, by which private households that generate their own electricity can sell it back to the electricity provider and get paid more than they would pay to buy the equivalent energy, thus providing a cash incentive for the installation of private solar panels, wind turbines, etc.

As of 1.4., the UK introduces a similar scheme, which Monbiot now rubbishes, dismissing the German scheme along with it. Addressing his criticism point by point:

1) The UK scheme (unlike the German one) is designed to deliver a guaranteed return on the householder's investment, which means that the most inefficient methods of producing energy get the highest subsidies. I agree that this is a fatal flaw in the UK scheme. (I think the German scheme is also different in that it pays generators _only_ for the excess electricity they feed back to the net, not for what they use themselves. So for German householders it pays to generate _and_ save energy.) Trust New Labour to do something ten years late and then get it wrong.

2) Compared with other options, Monbiot says, solar PV (photovoltaics, i.e. using sunlight to create electricity, as opposed to heat) is the most expensive way of saving a given amount of CO2 emission. Apart from the fact that some of the cheaper options include unpalatable things like massive use of nuclear power, I tend to think that we need all reasonable options, including expensive ones. He points out that replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving ones actually saves money and CO2. Well, we did that in 1986, but it hasn't stopped global CO2 emissions from going up further.

3) Monbiot says that in Germany carbon saving by PV is zero, because under the carbon trading act other industries can release more CO2 and compensate any effect. But that would apply to everything anybody might do, so it's a flaw in the trading act rather than a shortcoming in PV specifically.

4) He says the scheme subsidises the "fashion accessories" of rich people (by which he means home owners, which is strange as in the UK around half the households live in their own home, and most wouldn't consider themselves to be rich) at the expense of poor people who can't use the incentive and have to pay for it through higher electricity bills. While there is a small grain of truth in that, I would argue that the better-off part of the population would tend to waste electricity (eg by having several refrigerators instead of one, and several huge flat screen TVs), while the poor would be aware of their electricity bill. So unless I get to see hard data, I would assume the scheme penalises people who waste electricity and isn't particularly hard on poor people.

5) In the last part of the column, Monbiot claims that criminals could easily abuse the system by using electricity off the net to sell it back to the net at a multiple of the price. A few lines further down, though, we learn that the FIT scheme introduced in the UK now doesn't involve metering the electricity fed back to the net but is based on estimated output calculated from PV capacity. As I understand it, this would mean the criminal scheme outlined above wouldn't work.

6) Monbiot is right to point out that the success of PV depends on latitude, i.e. sunshine -- when dismissing the German scheme he may have forgotten to consider that Germany is actually further south than the UK, and does have quite warm summers.

7) Monbiot argues that PV is useless in the UK as it produces power at times when it is least needed, i.e. during summer days, as opposed to winter evenings. However, as most of the UK power is produced by fossil fuels which can be burnt any time or stored if they aren't, every bit of solar power generated even on a hot summer day saves fossil fuels from being burnt. Even more so, as the sunshine intensity is predictable in the short term, so fossil fuel plants can turn down their capacity on those sunny days.

8) another advantage for Germany that Monbiot fails to acknowledge is that as an early mover, the German PV industry has hugely benefited from the scheme and is, I believe, second after China globally. This, of course, doesn't help the UK government which ineptly copied the scheme ten years later.

9) considering that he's been banging on about growing his own green food for years, it is also curious that he doesn't appreciate people may like the idea of producing their own green energy.

I've published a (somewhat more positive) piece about the German scheme in Current Biology a few years ago, which is on restricted access here (also see the relevant blog entry).

PS (4.3.): 10. Monbiot says the German incentives are being scaled down this month because the scheme wasn't working. I haven't researched that yet, but I would suspect that they were scaled down because the black/yellow coalition (conservative / neoliberals) saw the opportunity to cut back something the red-green coalition had put in place in 2000. Also, there may have been a 10 year guarantee which has now run out, not sure. Plus, as the scheme has been very successful in kick-starting the solar industry, the govt. may argue that it's done its job and isn't needed on a similar scale any more. Will have to look into that.

PS (5.3.): yesterday's Guardian carries a response from Jeremy Leggett (who works in the PV industry and is the editor of the book "The solar century" which I reviewed last year):
Solar panels are not fashion accessories,
rejecting Monbiot's claims in four points. Actually, I was considering to submit my 9points to the response column, but then thought Jeremy Leggett is surely going to write something (and he's more qualified). Psychic powers working well this week!

Also in yesterday's edition is an article on the finance pages suggesting that a crucial piece of legislation needed to make the FITs work has been delayed, so the whole thing may still go off the rails. Better wait before I top up that mortgage. This finance article refers to Monbiot as a "green campaigner". Not so sure about that any more, as he now supports nuclear and bashes solar power.

Monday, March 01, 2010


new month, new title picture. This one features part of the beautiful backside of our family cello, cut out of this photo:

No German publications this month so far (there is one scheduled for late March publication, but I haven't even written it yet).