Friday, April 29, 2011

european women in chemistry

I wrote a "long essay review" on the book European women in chemistry, which, by definition, is more of an essay than a review. I've conjured up a book review variant of the time traveller's paradox (the one about going back in time and killing one's grandmother): If my grandmother had pursued a career in chemistry after her degree, she might have ended up in this book, but I wouldn't be here to review it ... You can find my essay review in Chemistry & Industry issue 8, p26 or online here (restricted access). Some critical remarks about the book itself: I love the idea of compiling these biographies in a volume celebrating the year of chemistry and centuries of women’s contribution to chemistry, but I think the editors could have done more to provide some added value, seeing that the bare-bones info is easy to find on the web these days. For instance, a simple thing that someone could have done during proof-reading would be to cross-reference the names of women who have a chapter of their own, but are also mentioned in other chapters, such that readers have the option of navigating the network of the female chemists. Then, somebody should have checked the references. Those at the end of Marie Curie’s chapter include German translations of biographies published in English and French. Where a full-length biography exists, it should definitely be mentioned, but I noticed that Brenda Maddox’s tome on Rosalind Franklin has been omitted. I suspect there must be a dedicated biography of Irene Joliot-Curie as well, which we aren’t told about. The uninspiring prose doesn’t really invite the reader to read the book from cover to cover, which is a shame. However, what I hope the chapters will achieve is to tickle people’s curiosity sufficiently to ensure that they go and find out more about those of the chemists they find interesting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

third generation genome sequencers

I have covered the upcoming revolution in genome sequencing, i.e. the development of "third generation" sequencers that can read single molecules and/or use electronic instead of optical base detection a few times now (e.g. this feature in Education in Chemistry and this essay review in C&I), so I'm really excited that we now reach another milestone in this development.

Today, Pacific Biosciences announces the full-scale commercial release of its single molecule sequencer, the PacBio RS.

Without any attempts at false modesty, the company PR declares: "The PacBio RS is a revolutionary DNA sequencing system that incorporates novel, single molecule sequencing techniques and advanced analytics to reveal biology in real time. The system delivers unprecedented sequence readlengths - over a thousand DNA bases on average. And unlike ‘second generation’ systems on the market today that typically take over one week to deliver results, the PacBio RS allows customers to obtain results in less than a day."

Details of how the PacBio machine works are included in my EiC feature, which is openly accessible here.

I have recently written two other features about third generation sequencers (one in English and one in German), which are now in press, so watch this space.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

planet of the phages

My feature about bacteriophages (viruses infecting bacteria), their chequered history and possible future as antibacterial therapeutics, is in today's issue of Current Biology:

Revived interest in bacteriophages
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 8, R267-R270, 26 April 2011


Summary and FREE access to pdf file

Among other things, I learned from the research for this story that there are a lot more phages on our planet than all other kinds of living things, so we cellular life forms really are a minority living on he planet of the phages ...

A horse chestnut tree in Headington Hill Park - these trees are infected by bacteria, which are in turn infected by phages ...

Friday, April 22, 2011

don't tell me that it's over

I quite like Amy Macdonald's second album, A curious thing, not sure why it didn't get much attention around here ...

this appears to have been the lead single from this album, but I don't recall it getting any airplay.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

solidarity poster

love this solidarity poster I saw in Brussels this weekend, at the Centre International

It's from the Belgian Labour Party - more on their thoughts re Libya and the Arab revolutions here (in French).

Monday, April 18, 2011

cells, cells, cells

There are now three competing approaches to regenerative medicine: embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent cells, and transdifferentiated cells. In my latest feature article, out in last week's issue of Current Biology, I explored these three options and discussed the implications for medicine and society.

Since writing this piece, one notable side effect occurred to me that I hadn't thought of: the approach of "therapeutic cloning," much debated in around 2004-05, has completely disappeared from the agenda, now that there are options that are both easier and less problematic at the bioethics front.

Regenerative medicine spoilt for choice
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 7, R235-R237, 12 April 2011

Summary and FREE access to pdf file

Friday, April 08, 2011

"exceptional" fees

both Oxford University and the former polytechnic, Oxford Brookes University have now announced that they will charge tuition fees of £9000 per year, the value introduced by government as an "exceptional" option, while most universities were expected to charge "up to" £6000, i.e. £6000 exactly. Over 30 other universities have also announced the £9k charge (listed here). Even the lowest-ranked university of all has announced a fee of £8450, well clear of what was supposed to be the standard.

Now I do understand that the universities feel they can't carry on without the exceptional fees, seeing the government is pulling the funding rug out underneath their feet. But in my limitless naivete, I would have hoped that instead of rushing to milk the students, the universities might have united in protest and made it clear to the government that they can't do their job of offering education to the people if they aren't getting proper (state) funding for it. I have a dream ...

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

chemistry all around the world

The round-up of German pieces published this month includes a clever application of llama antibodies, celebrations of the International Year of Chemistry circling the globe, and debates over the circling of the square story from last autumn.

Streit um die Quadratur des Kohlenstoffs
Chemie in unserer Zeit 45, 82

In 80 Feiern um die Welt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 59, 403

Mini-Antikörper für Maxi-Effekt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 59, 435-6

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

I see a rainbow rising

The unforgiving

Within Temptation

I’ve followed WT since The heart of everything, and love the Black Symphony recording to bits. But what might they do after something as dazzling as BS? The new album left me confused at first. I loved the sound from the beginning, but just couldn’t place it. Plus, I didn’t quite know what to make of the expanded videoclips (which they somewhat grandiosely call “movies”), where a figure called Mother Maiden brings people back from the dead to “put wrongs right”. I wasn’t sure I actually needed that. While I like the dark moods underlying much of their work, I don’t have to have it spelt out who killed whom and why. There’s enough darkness to go round for all, anyway.

Then, suddenly, it all fell into place. Listening to the track no. 6, Iron, for something like the 27th time, I realised that Mother Maiden had accidentally resurrected Ronnie James Dio, and the band now aimed at reviving the elegiac anthem sound produced by Rainbow when Dio was their singer (I actually saw them live, back in the last century!) . And guess what, it works amazingly well. Other tracks with Rainbowesque qualities include Iron, Where is the edge, and A demon’s fate – well I guess if I were to analyse it in detail, it would be most of the album.

I’m firmly expecting a holographic rainbow rising above the stage on their next tour. But it’s all good, I still love the album, even though the Rainbow memories now make me chuckle at times.

PS: the short video of the first single, "Faster" is here - this one also comes with a Rainbowesque chorus.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Temple Grandin

trailer of the Temple Grandin biopic, which was shown on UK satellite TV yesterday (and I missed it):

Grandin is a household name for everyone involved with autism, following her memoir Emergence: Labeled Autistic, published in the 90s, but I guess it is a good thing to bring this remarkable life story to a wider audience, which will help raise awareness of autism as well.

There was a feature about Claire Danes, who plays Grandin in the film, in last Saturday's Guardian, which also contained some info about the film and Grandin's story.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

chemistry landmark

I just spotted this weekend that the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory in South Parks Road has acquired a second plaque. The first one honoured the work of crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, and the new one some discovery that led to today's lithium batteries:

The date on the plaque is when it was handed over to the department (see a short news release here, but I'm quite sure it hasn't been mounted on that wall for longer than two weeks when I spotted it this weekend. I love the hexagonal design of the new plaques. Places that get several of these will be able to create interesting polycyclic compounds from them ...

Now if somebody could find out why the lithium battery in my camera, only two years old, only lasts one day (80 photos), that would be very helpful.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

dot the i

In my rapidly growing collection of films that did not get a cinema release in the UK although they are perfectly nice, this is one of the more puzzling examples. It was made in the UK, with support from the British Film Council (now being axed), and with dialogues completely in English. All nipples are duly covered up, as Carmen’s bra stays on even during passionate encounters. And apparently the film made a favourable impression at festivals including Sundance. The case against a release, I presume, was that the two lead actors, Gael Garcia Bernal and Natalia Verbeke, are relatively unknown here, and/or the fact that someone gets away with a serious crime. Take your pick.

What UK cinema goers missed out on is not so much a thriller (I never really feared for the well-being of the protagonist), but a nice little film about the disappearance of privacy in a world were cameras are cheap and plentiful, and where electronically enhanced voyeurism has become normal. Trust nobody, the take home message seems to be.

I’m wondering what the version shown in cinemas in Spain was like, seeing that Mexican Garcia Bernal has to pretend being Brazilian in order to justify that he isn’t speaking Spanish with the Madrid girl played by Verbeke. (Which still doesn’t justify the present of a Garcia Marquez novel in English translation! Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!) I wonder how the Spaniards got out of this language dilemma, and whether they got the actors to do their own dubbing.

I think it might actually be worth getting a DVD from the continent, as this UK edition has no bonus features whatsoever, just the inescapable anti-piracy ad and a couple of trailers.

Friday, April 01, 2011

oddbins run dry

the Guardian reports it's the end of the road for mildly eccentric wine merchants chain OddBins, which happens to be my age. I loved their crazy catalogue graphics and used to buy my Havana Club (Cuban rum) from there, but I have to say that at least in the last three years, when I did some exploratory wine shopping, they never had any Cotes du Rhone bottles that might have tempted me. I mostly ended up importing them from the continent or buying them at M&S.

Just recently, I picked up brochure called "Oddyssey" from one of the branches (we have three within easy cycling distance), which relates the intriguing history of the chain, now looking certain to be coming to an end.

Here is a photo of the branch on Oxford's High Street,taken just a few days ago:

PS Possibly one of the last bottles they sold before going into administration arrived at my house just yesterday, it was the prize for spotting the odd book title that won the Diagram Prize.