Friday, January 28, 2011

well-studied woods

England's forests are in the news this week, as the government is planning to sell them off (it's so hard to keep up with the swing of their wrecking-ball, anyone know what it will hit next week?). Fortunately, that won't affect our local patch, Wytham Woods, as it is owned by Oxford University. Here's my review of a recent book on Wytham Woods, which came out last year and is due to appear in paperback in June:

Wytham Woods: Oxford's Ecological Laboratory
by Peter Savill, Christopher Perrins, Keith Kirby, Nigel Fisher (eds.)
OUP 2010

Going for a walk in the woods, we may naively think we are looking at nature, but in reality, as Chris Perrins writes in the introduction of this book: “Wytham Woods is like a book which records the activities of people over many centuries.” This forest just outside Oxford, like all other forests in Europe, is most definitely not what grew naturally after the ice of the last Ice Age receded. Humans planted and cut trees, erected fences to keep animals in or out, and used the woods for a variety of purposes, including, in the last five decades, for ecological research. As climate change forces us to rethink our relationship to nature, this is exactly what makes Wytham Woods so interesting: While it has always been woodland, it is a silent witness of human interaction with nature, from the arrival of agriculture through to the symptoms of climate change.

Therefore, it is quite appropriate that a proper book should record what we know about this metaphorical book of interactions between humans and nature. This one is pitched at a very academic level (as is obvious from the prohibitive price of the hardback), so the editors have invited experts to review various aspects of the research conducted at Wytham Woods. However, some parts are also readable and interesting to the lay person who may just come to it from a “local interest” perspective. The introduction, detailing the history of this patch of land (which Raymond ffennel, ne Schumacher, donated to Oxford University after the death of his only child) is very accessible, as is chapter 3 on land use changes over time. There are, inevitably, chapters regarding the trees and the flowers of the forest, which I skipped, as I’m not much of a botanist.

What I found very endearing was the section on the badgers of Wytham Woods – apparently the land has the highest recorded population density of badgers in the world, and also the best-studied badger population in the world. At its peak, the badger count was 46 animals per square km, and the latest figure is 37 adults per square km. I learned that biologists are puzzled by the fact that badgers live in groups, even though the benefit of doing so isn’t immediately obvious (they hunt earth worms, which doesn’t exactly require a team effort, and since the disappearance of wolves, their biggest natural enemy is the motor car, against which, again, groups don’t help much). More than once the badgers made me think of human behaviour.

Climate change research, including the ongoing partnership program between the Earthwatch Institute and HSBC, which is now also open to volunteers from the general public (see project page or my feature in Oxford Today), is confined to the last, rather short chapter. The wealth of data already recorded on the plants and animals of Wytham Woods, as detailed in the previous chapters of the book, is a big asset for climate change research. Quite how climate change will affect the forest and its inhabitants isn’t clear yet, but researchers have a good knowledge base to start finding out what’s going on, and this book is a great introduction to this scientific treasure.

I don't expect anyone is going to pay 50 quid for the hardback (I borrowed it from the library, thinking "use it or lose it"), so here's an advance link to order the paperback:

Alternatively, you can read the first chapter on the publisher's site.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

a fine lady

Following the instructions of the nursery rhyme:

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes

I went to Banbury and found this fine lady:

And I thought she really did look like a fine lady. And she had the bells on her toes all right, though one couldn't move the bells, so she couldn't have any music. But the horse is looking very nice too:

The sculpture isn't historic, by the way, it was put up 5 or 6 years ago, probably in an attempt to attract more tourists to Banbury, which is in fact a charming market town with a shopping area that's probably larger than Oxford's.

Monday, January 24, 2011

1400 kinds of plant smoke

Uses and abuses of plant-derived smoke
Marcello Pennacchio, Lara Jefferson and Kayri Haven
Oxford University Press 2010

This is a compendium listing 1400 plant species, so it could very well be boring. However, it is dedicated to plants that have been burned to produce smoke for various purposes, and it’s the rich variety of these purposes that makes this book interesting. Obviously, burning plants to do something with the smoke is an ancient and practically universal behaviour, which in our time has been funnelled into the global habit of smoking mass-produced cigarettes, and thus disconnected from its diverse cultural roots.

Read my review in the current issue of Chemistry & Industry, issue 2, 24.1.2011, page 27

Thursday, January 20, 2011

chocolate and wine

review of:

Chocolate unwrapped, by Sarah Jane Evans
Pavilion, Oct. 2010

As someone who likes to match up red wine (Cotes du Rhone) with dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids or more) I was intrigued to see that the wine critic of BBC Good Food magazine has published a book about chocolate. I should warn you that the word “chocolate” is used in the narrow sense here – if you like your “dairy milk” bars containing vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter, you’ve probably dialled the wrong number.

The book opens with a 50-page introduction into the history and production of chocolate, complete with a how-to guide to tasting. This is followed by an alphabetical compendium of some 80 brands of chocolate from around the world, from Akesson’s to Zotter. Each gets two pages, and from each brand one bar, 70% or nearest offer, is marked up with flavour notes where the author’s main job as a wine critic shines through.

The first part is well written and contains lots of interesting facts, both from food science and history. Chocolate feels smooth, for instance, only if the particle size is 30 micrometres or less. I also learned that more than half the world production of cocoa beans comes from just two countries, namely Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. And that the UK insisted on EU rules permitting up to 5% vegetable fat in “chocolate.” Remember to read the list of ingredients before you buy any. The good news, though, is that the appreciation of real chocolate, made from fairly traded ingredients of well-defined origin, seems to be a growing trend even in Cadbury-infested places like the UK.

The list of chocolate brands is also surprisingly readable, thanks in part to the interesting mix of people who at some point of their life decide that their vocation is to produce chocolate. (Having read the first part of the book describing the difficulties involved, you know that they have to be a bit mad to choose this as a career!) While there are of course those who have inherited a family business or come from a background of patisserie or other fine food, there is the odd scientist, lawyer, and management consultant sprinkled in who discovers in mid-life that the quest for the perfect chocolate bar might be more satisfying than whatever they were doing in their previous career.

On top of that, the book is mouthwateringly illustrated with colour photos of lots of chocolate bars, details of the production process, and the plants. And it is beautifully produced, inside and out. Considering this, the book is very good value. Quite a few of the chocolates introduced here will probably cost more per weight.

PS I’ve bought Divine for a while, which is included in the list, but my current, very affordable favourite is the cooperative’s own brand “truly irresistible Fairtrade dark chocolate” with 85% cocoa solids, which sadly isn’t included in the list.

Friday, January 14, 2011

passport pics for penguins

The cover of this week's Nature highlights the danger of banding penguins for identification:

However, alternative recognition methods have been available for years now and have been applied in the field to various animal species including penguins. Years ago, I did a feature on the pattern recognition on whale sharks using a program borrowed from astronomy (included in my platypus book).

Regarding the penguins, Earthwatch say that they are already road-testing a non-invasive identification method in their penguin project on Robben Island (South Africa). Scientists are using an automatic recognition system which records patterns of spots on the chests of adult birds through digital photography. The technique is still being tested and refined, but eventually it may be possible to monitor remotely more than 90 per cent of the African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) on the island. This automated system will help to eliminate the need to band penguins, except for specific purposes such as measuring chick survival rates, when flipper bands still need to be used.

Referring to the Nature report concluding that king penguins had 40 per cent fewer chicks if they were banded, and lived shorter lives, Earthwatch team leader Peter Barham said: "There have been several studies on the effect of banding on African penguins and Magellanics penguins which have been unable to find any significant differences between banded and unbanded penguins when it comes to breeding success. There are, however, other impacts of banding which is one reason why we want to introduce the recognition system to replace banding where possible. From time to time, for example, we find African penguins trapped by their bands."

More info about the penguin project and how to join

Thursday, January 13, 2011

happy birthday Wikipedia

As Wikipedia celebrates its 10th birthday on Saturday, I have mixed feelings. Of course I hugely admire and support the spirit of freely sharing the encyclopaedic knowledge accumulating in Wikipedia, but on the other hand I am also trying to make a living from using my knowledge and writing skills, which means that I occasionally contribute to one of the competing traditional encyclopaedias, which are now finding it increasingly hard to sell the goods that Wikipedia offers for free, and thus have smaller budgets to pay contributors, and thus end up falling behind with the updating work, which happens much faster on Wikipedia anyway.

At the moment, I am not contributing to the English language edition of Wikipedia, as this would amount to biting one of the hands that feed me. I have created a small number of entries in the German edition though. If and when the hand mentioned above stops feeding me, I might write more for the English edition as well.

So happy 10th birthday, Wikipedia!

image source

PS I enjoyed and agreed with Timothy Garton Ash's comment in the Guardian on the Wikipedia anniversary.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

missing plant species waiting in drawers

[related blog entry in German: Wissenslogs]

Where should researchers look for new plant species? According to an Oxford-led study, herbaria (collections of dried plant samples) are the final frontier of species discovery, as half of the flowering plant species yet to be discovered are likely to sit in a drawer already.

The researchers investigated how much time passes between the collection of a plant sample in the wild and its description as a new species. Around half the new species analysed had been waiting in collections for 25 years or longer, they report in PNAS. Extrapolating this trend into the future on the basis of a current discovery rate of 2000 species per year and an estimate of 70,000 missing species, the scientists arrive at the surprising conclusion that half of those 70,000 have already been collected.

Read more about this in my feature in today's issue of Current Biology:

Herbaria source of new plant species
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 1, R6-R7, 11 January 2011
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

Monday, January 10, 2011

perforin pore in German

Following up on my Chemistry World news story on the perforin pore, I have done a longer article about this for Spektrum der Wissenschaft, which appears in this month's issue:

Zweischneidige Killerwaffe
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 1, S. 18

Beginning of the article and restricted access to pdf file

This is the only German piece published this month, so that's the January round-up done with.

(image courtesy of Helen Saibil, Birkbeck College London)

R.H.P. Law et al. Nature 468, 447–451 (18 November 2010) doi:10.1038/nature09518

Friday, January 07, 2011

personally, I like to be challenged mentally

So good to see Ms Dynamite in the new Katy B video - in celebration I've dug up one of her early noughties vids:

Thursday, January 06, 2011

nine megabikes at the edge of the Universe

I just found out that my next book is going to come out earlier than I expected, on Feb 23rd. So now I have to get going building a web page for it (under construction here) and spreading the word ...

The book is in German, and it is a collection of my humour and opinion pieces from the last ten years, mostly published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie or Spektrum der Wissenschaft. Some previously unpublished gems are included as well.

The title of the book, 9 Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums (9 million bicycles at the edge of the Universe) comes from a piece I wrote about Simon Singh's objections to the lyrics of Katie Melua's song 9 million bicycles back in 2005. The gist of it is obvious from my letter to the Guardian, which is online here.

The book will look like this:

I love the cover a lot. Never mind the text, buy it for the cover! Oh, and there are 14 cartoons by Roland Wengenmayr inside as well.

PS (4.3.) It's now listed at with the correct title!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

winter fun

Haven't done much blogging recently, too busy with ice skating down the river ... It really is a bit weird - after moving here in 1993 we waited 15 years for a proper winter and now we had three in a row (if a proper winter is defined by being able to skate outdoors on natural ice). Of the three cold winters, this was the first one to make the rivers Cherwell and Thames freeze over, and for a full week we were able to skate on a millstream of the river Cherwell.

Oh, and here's George Monbiot explaining why this may well be a symptom of global warming: That snow outside is what global warming looks like.