Tuesday, August 31, 2010


updated 20.10.2012

Time and again, events like the Timberlake / Jackson “nipplegate” scandal remind us that in the Anglosaxon parts of the world, the exit of the human female’s milk ducts is something so obscene that it must under no circumstances see the light of day, or of a camera. To somebody who moved into the Puritan realm only 17 years ago this is still very puzzling, as in continental Europe, for instance, the sight of this small round anatomical detail is common on beaches, in cinemas, and in art galleries. Needless to say that mannequins in French shop windows typically have nipples (see below) while their sisters here in Oxford don’t have any. Why do Anglosaxons have a problem with the simple fact that the Homo sapiens female has nipples? Why do they try to hide this aspect of the human anatomy from their children (BBFC slams a 15 age limit on anything that includes a visible one)?

Let’s investigate some of the possible explanations. You can’t get pregnant via your nipples, so I wouldn’t count them as genitalia sensu strictu, and thus they shouldn’t be covered by the same rules as the more centrally located organs of both sexes. I’ll admit that they are erogenous zones, but if the Anglosaxon rule is that all erogenous zones of the female have to remain invisible, women would also have to cover their earlobes, lips, etc, and would probably end up with a dress code that even the Taliban would approve of. Very conveniently, this rule would still allow the male of the species to walk down the high street in nothing but speedos.

Maybe it’s not about the excitability of the female but about the excitement of the onlooking male? This part of the problem is a vicious circle: if the sight wasn’t so unnaturally rare, its effect on the excitable young males would be smaller. Witness the recent report about a UK aquarium which allegedly “had to” fit a bikini to a mermaid figurehead in one of the displays, as the admiring schoolboys were causing traffic jams. Against this theoretical explanation I have to object on the grounds that I, for one, can find a beautiful face just as attractive and exciting as a well-rounded chest, so the logic of “what excites the male must be hidden” would again lead us to the Burkha.

My scientific analysis shows that we are left with exactly zero good reasons that could justify the Anglosaxon nipplephobia without also condoning the complete cover-up ideology of the Taliban and their friends. Recently, the GoTopless movement in the US has held another demonstration in support of this point. I understand that for the occasion the men put on bikini tops while the women went without. The Guardian printed a comment by Julie Bindel about the event, accompanied by a photo of a topless woman – from behind. One has to respect the state secret at all costs, it appears. (Ostensibly, they wanted to show the other photographers at the event, who were mostly male. However, I seem to recall that at most events the majority of the photographers are male. Something to do with the shape and size of those long lenses, I suspect.) What the Guardian did not mention was that the movement was launched and is supported by the Raelians, which is a bit problematic for me as they support Intelligent Design.

Anyhow, intelligently designed topless demos notwithstanding, the trend seems to be going in the other direction. As Viv Groskop reported in the Guardian recently, “hooter hiders” are tent-sized garments designed to hide breasts and babies (and most of mum, too!) during breastfeeding. Apparently, these monstrosities are already widely used in the US and are now taking over the UK. Even in connection with the process it was designed for (sorry, the process it evolved for), the nipple must not appear in public. At the risk of repeating myself, this reminds me of the burkha again. Are we quite sure that it’s safe to allow males to gawp at women’s faces, hairstyles, arms, legs? Maybe the explanation for all this is that the Taliban won the war, and nobody told me?


PS sorry, but I just had to get this off my … err … chest, after all these years of silent suffering. Rant over now. Normal science / culture service will resume as soon as my blood pressure has returned to safe levels.


PPS 2012 updates:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

not all chemicals are bad

... it must be true, as I read it on a sign outside a pub:

I spotted this important contribution to public enlightenment today in St. Clements, Oxford. Also uploaded six other Oxford pix to my flickr photostream.

Friday, August 27, 2010

single molecule sequencing

It is ironic and an underappreciated fact that the revolution in genome research started to happen only after "the" human genome was sequenced. While the sequencing of the generic human genome relied on the classic (but, on the genome scale astronomically expensive) Sanger method, new methods developed after 2000 have led to a rapid increase in productivity and drop in costs. Now the third generation is upon us, promising genome sequences from a single copy of the DNA, and even further price drops.

I wrote a feature about these developments for Education in Chemistry, which appears in the September issue, p 144-147 (Single molecule sequencing). Now online on the EiC website (free access).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

free range bloggers v. battery bloggers

(updated Thu 16.9.2010)

I have experience with both types of blogging, the free range one, like on this blog, where I can say or do whatever I like, but may only reach a limited audience, and the institutionalised blog, where I get some extra traffic courtesy of the hosting organisation and the other bloggers, but have to use the platform as it is provided by the organisation, and my content should probably also conform with the expectations of the hosting body.

In science blogging, in particular, I often come across such institutionalised "battery blogs" (eg the nature networks, and just now the Guardian has also started a network of science blogs), but I'm rarely tempted to follow any of them. Nothing against the people writing there, but if I see a platform where 30 people are blogging about science, I couldn't possibly make the time to follow them all, and so I take the shortcut of following none and sticking with my eclectic list of "wild bloggers" that I have accumulated over the years.

Also, in my understanding the whole point of blogs is that they are independent of the established media outlets, so if major newspaper or magazine publishers launch blog platforms, I am getting suspicious that they want to hark back the control they fear to lose.

Another reason why I prefer the wild ones is that the institutionalised ones are dominated by male writers - I always had this impression, now Jenny Rohn has collected data confirming it.

Am I the only one who feels that anarchic urge not to let blogging be locked up in cages ? All opinions welcome.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Galápagos Islands less threatened?

We're still in the year of biodiversity, and the Unesco decision to remove the iconic Galápagos Islands from the "red list" of threatened World Heritage sites has drawn mixed reactions. The government of Ecuador, which saw itself put in the "naughty corner" by the red-listing, welcomed the move which acknowledged its improved efforts. Environmental organisations have, however, claimed that the change was premature and a lot remained to be done.

My news feature on this debate is out in today's issue of Current Biology:

Fears over new Galápagos status
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 16, R656-R657, 24 August 2010

Summary and restricted access to pdf file

Monday, August 23, 2010

le ♥ en plus

a complete dozen eccentric photos from my recent travel to northern France (Paris, Amiens, Lille) is now online at my flickr photostream.

Pleased to see that the region still has the logo with the ♥

though they seem to have lost the slogan, which used to be "le coeur en plus" if I remember correctly, in my childhood days. I did spend a lot of time in that part of the world, you know. But still discovered things I had never seen, like the Les hortillonages area of Amiens, where I took pictures of all those little footbridges (there were about 100, so be grateful I only posted 3!).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

self-portraits in shiny surfaces

I'm back from a short visit to Northern France, some travel related blog entries to follow soon.

While I was away, I missed World Photography Day (Thu 19.8.), and the Brazilian newspaper Estadão celebrated by publishing a collection of self-portraits from readers and from flickr users. I'm pleased to report that two of my photos were selected, you'll find them on pages 1 and 3 of this site.

In the same spirit, flickr has a group for self-portraits using reflections in shiny surfaces, which is great fun, too. This is my latest contribution to this group, a photo taken in Paris a few days ago:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

synaptic vesicles & artificial genomes

The German pieces out this month include a look at the life cycle of synaptic vesicles, through the eyes of a STED microscope, a critical appreciation of Venter's "artificial genome" bugs, and a piece on data sharing ethics in the UK and Germany.

Methoden: Supermikroskop ermöglicht Beobachtung der Nervenfunktion
Chemie in unserer Zeit 44, Nr 4, 246.

Erstes künstliches Lebewesen?
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 8, 14-16.

Datenschutz kontra Wissenschaft im Genomzeitalter: Very British - typisch deutsch
Trillium Report 8, Nr. 2, 117

Friday, August 13, 2010

not an ugly building

I don't know who the people are who voted the Strata SE1 the UK's ugliest recent building, but I think they need their eyesight tested. And anyone who calls this a phallus probably hasn't seen one in decades (beer belly getting in the way?).

I actually like the design of it, plus it's built with various green issues in mind (sustainable energy, footprint, infrastructure, etc) So what's not to like?

image : BFLS

It reminds me of an owl more than anything. More information about the building is here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

bad science of autism and brain scans

I immediately had a bad feeling about this story re. autism diagnosis via brain scans which was reported by various media outlets including the Guardian earlier this week. Firstly, as many different, unrelated causes can lead to autism-like phenomena, a sample of 20 adults with autism is much too small. They may cover a non-representative sample of the autistic spectrum, and thus not tell us much about autism in general. And if the brain scan is so simple and easy, why haven't the researchers scanned 2000 people with and 2000 without autism?

Secondly, the statistical "success" of the study isn't all that good, as is explained here.

Oh, and lastly, looking at adults with autism and claiming the results can serve in early childhood diagnosis is just ridiculous. Look at children before they show worrying behaviour, and come back when you can predict which ones will develop autism.

Which brings me back to something that I've said before (on twitter, I think): Rather than paying Ben Goldacre to make fun of the competing media outlets that misrepresent science, the Guardian should pay him to read their own science stories before they get released. Or, maybe if they find the time and funds, they could do both. But the quality control would be a much greater public service. The people who get misinformed by bad science stories (including those appearing in the Guardian) will not normally read Goldacre's column to correct their information.

In other words, preventing the disease from spreading is much more valuable than pointing a finger at the people affected.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

in praise of squares

As cropping is the main (and usually the only) thing I do to my photos, I've been thinking of the merits of various formats, and at the moment I have a thing for squares, especially to capture things that normally aren't square, like petals:

Accordingly, the six photos I've added to my flickr photostream today are all square, and I also started a new set with squares. Obviously, if this 3D craze catches on, I'll have to move up to cubes :)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

education stirred up

One hope I had of this new coalition government we now have in this country is that the continuous flow of policy changes in education would slow down a bit. Under New Labour we had a major restructuring of schools and/or universities (and also in the health system) announced every week, to an extent that it was impossible (at least for anybody who also has other things to do) to actually follow the news or to keep track of which of the policies they were really putting into practice (for instance, the health checkups for over 40s, my GP tells me, although announced two years ago, never arrived at the practice level).

So, well, as readers in the UK will know, the hope was disappointed, and the rate at which major policy changes are announced has even increased. One observer blamed it on the fact that Cameron is actually able to delegate decisions, leaving ministers free to announce their ideas without having to double check with him each time.

In higher education, the BIS (business, innovation and skills) secretary Vince Cable brought up the idea of graduate tax a few weeks ago, which seemed to be sinking soon after, but has popped up again this week. Lucky for me, because I wrote a piece about this, which is out today, and in the worst case it could have been all ancient history by now, but in fact it happens to be the policy du jour.

I've also had a look at Germany, where things are less hectic, but suffering from the cacophony of policies made independently by 16 Länder governments.

Anyhow, my piece is here, read it and weep:

Cuts spark university rethink
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 15, R616-R617, 10 August 2010
summary and restricted access to pdf file

In fact, some technical difficulties aside, I think the graduate tax isn't such a bad idea. From there it is only one step for the government to realise that graduates pay a lot more tax already (as they earn more, on average), so they are actually paying back the cost of their education already. Or, as a former president of Harvard University famously put it: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Monday, August 09, 2010

windows on the nanoworld

I wrote a feature article on revolutionary new imaging methods such as STED (STimulated Emission Depletion) microscopy and SRS (Stimulated Raman Scattering), and the first atomic resolution protein structure determined by cryo-electron microscopy alone. STED, for instance, invented by Stefan Hell in Göttingen, manages to bypass Abbe's diffraction limit, which was considered an unremovable obstacle for more than a century. New methods developed by Sunney Xie at Harvard can coax light signals from molecules that aren't normally fluorescent.

This feature should be out today in

Windows on the nanoworld
Chemistry & Industry, No. 15, pp 20-22

Sunday, August 08, 2010

happy shark day

Last week I had things to do up the hill in Headington and decided to visit the Headington shark, an iconic work of art which I've blogged about before but which I had only seen from a safe distance (i.e. from the main road) so far. So here's at last, one of my own photos of it:

It looked different from the Wikipedia picture I posted three years ago - the shark lost the white paint on its belly, and someone cut back the plants that covered the facades of the houses in the older picture. Plus, someone put a stupid traffic sign too close to the shark (New road layout ahead, or something similarly important). People can be so inconsiderate around art ...

But other than that, it looked really good for a shark that's been stuck in a roof for 24 years. Pleased to report that it has found acceptance to an extent that the PR work for Headington shops now uses the shark in various icons (e.g. here) and it has its own official page on the Headington website (where you'll also find the whole back story, including various attempts of authorities to have it removed). Oh, and it's the shark's birthday tomorrow, 9.8.(Nagasaki day). So happy shark day to all.

Friday, August 06, 2010

bangles or bracelets or what?

Saw this display at the antiques market yesterday and loved the sight of the silver circles against the red background:

I labelled the photo "bangles" without thinking much, but as a complete dummie in all things fashion, I am now beginning to wonder whether they are called something else. I've just uploaded this and a few older photos to my flickr photostream. And joined the antiques and 2CV groups. I have yet to discover a visual topic that doesn't have a group on flickr.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Why Bad Romance is like Mozart

Leafing through this week’s Radio Times, I spotted a piece by James Lowe, who apparently wants to get teenagers to listen to classical music. I went through it distractedly, while eating, reading the subheadings only:

If you like U2 … you’ll love Wagner
(maybe, but I’ll have neither, thanks)
Vampire Weekend – Bach
Dizzee Rascal – John Adams
(John who?)
Metallica – Stravinsky
(again, neither rocks my world much)
Mumford & Sons – Aaron Copland
(WTF ???)

Then, looking at the middle panel (which is set against a dark background, so I hadn’t perceived it as part of the story when I first went through the piece) I found:

If you like Lady Gaga … you’ll love Mozart
Now we’re talking. As example pieces, the author discusses Bad Romance vs. Der Hölle Rache from the Magic Flute, which I think is an inspired combination. And he’s right, of course. If Mozart were alive today (and 20-something, not 200-something), he would be producing something like Bad Romance, not “Smooth Classics at Bedtime”.

So, Lowe’s musical horoscope works for me, after all. Check yours here.

Come to think of it, she does look a lot like Lady Gaga, doesn't she?

Now if Lowe could tell me whether there is a link between my affinities for Dvorak and Shakira ... I think I have a nascent idea, but I'll keep that for another blog entry.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

how alpha turns into beta

(plus breaking news on gamers predicting protein structures, below)

Ten years ago, I published a review on alpha helical proteins converting to beta sheet structure, which may happen, for instance, when proteins “misfold” to form amyloid fibrils similar to the ones observed in a range of diseases including Alzheimer’s (1). I had studied amyloid formation in peptides for a few years, and my main interest in the alpha/beta conversion was the fact that it violates a central dogma of molecular biology, namely that each polypeptide sequence defines only one stable native structure.

Zhao Qin and Markus Buehler at MIT have now published molecular dynamics simulations showing in detail how the conversion from alpha to beta may happen and how it changes the properties of the polypeptide chain in distinct phases (2). While I’m not really in a position to give expert judgment on MD work, I think the alpha to beta transition has become quite important in recent years, due to the wide range of medical conditions involving amyloid, but also based on interest from the material sciences, so I reckon it will be useful for the people still in the field to have these mechanistical insights into how proteins change shape.


1) M. Groß, Current Protein and Peptide Science 2000, 1, 339-347
Proteins that convert from alpha helix to beta sheet: Implications for folding and disease
2) Z. Qin, M. J. Buehler, Phys Rev Lett 2010, 104, 198304
Molecular dynamics simulation of the alpha-helix to beta-sheet transition in coiled protein filaments: evidence for a critical filament scale

I've used this picture before, but I just can't get enough of it:

Breaking news, added at 1800 h London time :

Gamers can predict protein structures

In other protein folding news, a paper out in tomorrow’s issue of Nature (p756) tackles the notorious “folding problem” , i.e. the fact that it is still hard to predict the 3D structure of an unknown protein from its linear amino acid sequence, by handing it out to volunteer gamers. The combined efforts of tens of thousands of players of a multiplayer online game yielded a rich, new set of search strategies for the prediction of protein structures, the Nature press release says.
Seth Cooper and colleagues have developed a multiplayer online game called ’Foldit’, in which incorrectly folded protein structures are presented as puzzles. The players, many of whom do not have any formal scientific training, manipulate the protein structures to optimize the computed energy.

The researchers used ten puzzles, where the target protein structures were not publicly available, to test the players’ abilities: they found that players outperformed the ‘Rosetta’ structure prediction software on five of the puzzles. Many players worked collaboratively and — unlike computational approaches — they explored not only conformational space but also the space of possible search strategies.

The authors believe that further analysis of the strategies used by the top-ranked Foldit players could lead to improved automated algorithms for protein structure prediction and could facilitate research on related problems, such as protein design, that rely on computational algorithms.

Nature video

my article in German about the FoldIt program, Spektrum der Wissenschaft 10/2010

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Julio Medem's room in Rome

UPDATE 24.10.2010 Just posted my review of the movie here.

UPDATE 9.9.2010 Amazon.co.uk lists room in rome DVD with a release date of Oct. 18, at a reasonable price of 11.99. Pre-order now before they change their mind.

I’ve started reading a little book about my favourite film maker, Julio Medem, which just appeared this spring (by the gloriously basque-named author Zigor Etxebeste Gómez, Ediciones Cátedra 2010). I found out that he has a new film out in Spain, called Habitación en Roma (Room in Rome), which had its premiere at the Málaga Film Festival in April, and full release in May.

I’ve checked the IMDB entry and found out that there isn’t a release date for the UK (or any other country) at this point. Reading what Etxebeste writes about the new film, however, I am getting extremely worried that it may not get a UK release at all. It appears that it is a love story between two women who are undressed most of the time, and the DP uses lots of macro lenses to show the physical geography of each woman as the other would see it from very close up. Now something is telling me that the UK censors will not be looking very kindly at this approach. (Yes, I know that the C in BBFC stands for classification these days, but it still amounts to censorship, as it stops people from getting to see the films.)

So, I guess I’ll have to chase around Barcelona when I get there in October for some little backyard cinema that still shows films months after their release. Watch out for the resounding silence with which the British press will meet this film, even if it gets a UK release. Medem’s previous film, Caótica Ana, didn’t get released here (in that case it’s more likely due to the political aspects of the movie) and I don’t think it ever got mentioned anywhere, which is good for me, in a way, because my blog entry about the film emerges as the highest ranking google result in English.

Meanwhile, I looked on YouTube and found a completely marvellous “musical trailer” which is essentially a music video for the wonderful song “Loving Strangers” by Madrid folk singer song-writer Russian Red (aka Lourdes Hernández) furnished with scenes from the movie:

There is also a proper trailer, but that one is really too hot to handle for the English-speaking parts of the world.

PS One intriguing detail that I didn’t know about Medem is that his paternal grandfather, and thus the palindromic name which inspired the structures of some of his movies, came from a German family. The family history of the Medems, going back to Caspar von Medem (* 1560) is here. Note the frequency of the palindromic names Otto and Ana, which Medem used in Los amantes del circulo polar.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Weber Test

I found out about this brilliant diagnostic test, which one can actually do at home, while waiting for an appointment to get my ear sorted out, which is a bit blocked up right now. If you have hearing loss on one ear, strike a tuning fork and hold it against your skull along the symmetry line (actually, I put it between my front teeth, as I do when I use it for tuning), to make sure it is at equal distance from both ears.

If your hearing problem is due to sound conductance within the ear channel (as mine is), you will hear the vibration of the tuning fork louder in the affected ear than in the healthy one, so the sound seems to be coming from the affected side. Which is a bit surprising when you have spent days not hearing anything on that side.

If, by contrast there is a problem with the actual sensory mechanism (or further downstream), the affected ear will be dimmed as in all other hearing, so the sound seems to be coming from the healthy side.

Works really well, and it is kind of reassuring when you get the right result.

More about the Weber Test in Wikipedia