Monday, December 31, 2012


O: The intimate history of the orgasm
Jonathan Margolis
Century, 2003

Der Mensch wird auf natürlichem Wege hergestellt, doch empfindet er dies als unnatürlich und spricht nicht gern davon. Kurt Tucholsky, Der Mensch

Every one of the seven billion humans alive today, as well as everybody who has lived before, owes their life to at least one person having an orgasm, as Margolis points out at the end of this book. (Although twins and sperm-donor children may have to share one, I might have added.) When it’s off its reproductive duty, the orgasm is free and healthy, though short-lived fun accessible to most people. So why have dominating cultures and religious creeds demonised it for centuries, insisting that women should feel no sexual pleasure at all, and men should limit theirs to procreation?

Following the cultural history of sexual pleasure – for which he uses “the orgasm” as a shorthand – Margolis gives a broad overview of the shifting attitudes towards it. His history starts off a bit shakily with speculations on stone-age sex, where he repeatedly admits that we don’t really know what went down, but then continues to speculate anyhow.

The writing gets much stronger as soon as the killjoy tendencies of the Christian church start to kick in, which he contrasts with the more liberal attitudes in other cultures including ancient China and India. Margolis argues convincingly, for instance, that the restrictive sexual morals of the catholic church, gradually getting worse as its power grew, also infected other cultures and religions, which started out with a much more relaxed attitude than they have today.

The general perception is that this anti-orgasmic ideology peaked in Victorian times and that things have gradually improved since then, with things like the Kinsey report, the Lady Chatterley trial, and the pill representing the much-cited milestones on our way back to a more natural and reasonable attitude to our own reproductive biology.

Arriving at the present day, one is tempted to think we live in the best of all times and have overcome most of the religious hang-ups. Except that fundamentalism is on the increase, and some of today’s dominating cultural forums play by rules that are downright Victorian. For instance, no breastfeeding pictures are allowed on facebook, and a female nipple on a cinema screen is deemed off-limits for children (who, on the other hand, are allowed to watch people getting murdered). So I wouldn’t quite share the author’s optimism that we’re at the beginning of an age of enlightenment. Things can slip back fairly quickly.

There isn’t much new material or original thought in this work, and it could have done with more thorough editing, but there are lots of lovely quotes and factoids to enjoy along the way, from the pharaohs’ duties in fertilising the Nile with their own seeds to J. Edgar Hoover’s admission that the FBI is powerless against the almighty “oral-genital intimacy.” I am particularly grateful that the author mentioned a book from 1839 with the intriguing title The women of England: Their social duties, and domestic habits. I found that it has actually been re-issued recently and is available to buy.

Thus, as a “review” drawing on a vast range of sources, O is certainly worth reading.

Cover of the Italian edition - very similar to my English edition though.

PS: It is really weird that I seem to have missed this when it came out, especially as I translated/edited Lust and Love in 2004/05, so would have had my eyes wide open for related works. I think it must have been comprehensively ignored by the media around here. I only discovered it a month ago in one of those bookshops where every book is £2. So it was cheaper than the Saturday edition of our newspaper, come to think of it, and it's very good value at that kind of price.

Monday, December 24, 2012

brazilian relatives

Back in 1891, when my great-great-great-great-uncle Christian Gottlieb Weiß wrote up what he knew about his ancestors and relatives, he noted about his aunt:

„Maria Katharina Weiß, geb. 17.2.1786 verh. mit Pfarrer Ried aus Schauern (Hochwald) ist in Rio di jeneire (Südamerika)“

which for a long time was all we knew about that branch of the family. We have now found out, however, that this family emigrating to Brazil has left many dozens of descendants there. They didn’t in fact go to Rio but to São Leopoldo, like a lot of other emigrants from the Hunsrück area did, too. The spelling of the husband’s name is Rieth, and he wasn’t a vicar either.

Helpful fellow genealogists in Brazil sent us a big chunk of data of Rieth descendants, which I’ll summarise the important bits here:

Maria Katharina (or Maria Barbara according to other sources) and her husband Georg Philipp Rieth (1784-1843), together with their two sons Philipp Christian Gottlieb (*1811) and Johann Friedrich (*1814) emigrated in 1829, arriving in São Leopoldo on 25.5.1829.

Both sons married within the community of German migrants from the Hunsrück. Philipp Christian Gottlieb Rieth married Maria Elisabeth Schiehl (born 1820 in Hundsbach near Meisenheim) in São Leopoldo in 1838. Johann Friedrich Rieth, confusingly, married Maria Caroline Rieth (1824-1898), born in Schauren like he was, so more likely than not a cousin. This second Rieth family (the parents are Georg Heinrich Rieth and Johanna Dorothea Schlieper) arrived in São Leopoldo on 29.12.1825.

Each of the two had eleven children, many of whom went on to marry other people from the German community (we find the names Uebel and Purper from Oberstein, Hemb from Niederkumbd, Haag from Sensweiler near Trier), producing more than 40 great-grandchildren for Maria Weiß and Georg Philipp Rieth.

These descendants stayed mostly in the surroundings of São Leopoldo (i.e. in the state of Rio Grande do Sul), settling in places like Lomba Grande, Hamburgo Velho, Sapiranga. In this area, you’ll even find streets and a school named after people with the surname Rieth.

Image source and further info:
Wikipedia entry on German migration to Brazil (in German)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Astrobiologie für Einsteiger

The official publication date for the German edition of Astrobiology - A brief introduction is today (though hasn't updated the page yet). Below the picture is a snippet from the preface.

Auszug aus dem Vorwort:

Auf der Grundlage der umfassenden (wenn auch unvollständigen) wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnisse über das Leben auf der Erde stellt die Astrobiologie sich drei fundamentalen Fragen über das Leben im Universum:

• Welche physikalischen Eigenschaften ermöglichen es unserem Universum, Leben hervorzubringen?

• Wie spielte sich die Entstehung und Entwicklung des Lebens auf der Erde ab, und wie verschieden könnte dieser Prozess anderswo abgelaufen sein?

• An welchen anderen Orten im Universum könnte Leben entstanden sein, wie könnte es aussehen, und wie können wir es finden?

Der Wert der Astrobiologie liegt zum Großteil darin, dass diese Fragen vielleicht zu den fundamental wichtigsten Problemen der heutigen Wissenschaft gehören. Sie sprechen grundlegende Bedürfnisse des Menschen an, nämlich, zu wissen, wer wir sind, wo wir herkommen, und ob wir in den Weiten des Weltalls allein sind. Zusätzlicher Nutzen ergibt sich daraus, dass diese Fragen eine ungewöhnlich interdisziplinäre Vorgehensweise erfordern. Die Astrobiologie berührt eine Vielzahl von traditionellen Disziplinen wie Kosmologie, Astrophysik, Astronomie, Geologie, Chemie, Biochemie und natürlich die Biologie. Dieser Umstand verleiht den einzelnen Wissensgebieten einen neuen Grad an Bedeutung, da sie in einem weiter gefassten Kontext eingebettet werden. Andererseits macht die interdisziplinäre Natur der Astrobiologie auch eine reibungslose Kommunikation zwischen weit auseinanderliegenden Disziplinen erforderlich. Es gilt, Astronomie für Biologen verständlich zu machen, und Zellbiologie für Astrophysikerinnen. In diesem Sinne versuchen wir mit diesem Buch, den gegenwärtigen Stand der Astrobiologie einem breiten Spektrum von wissenschaftlich Interessierten, „also Hörerinnen und Hörern aller Fakultäten“ zugänglich zu machen und beschränken uns deshalb auf die notwendigen wissenschaftlichen Einzelheiten.

Monday, December 17, 2012

sea floor surprises

I used to think that our civilisation's lack of knowledge of the deep sea was just embarrassing - as often summarised in the statement (still true, I think) that we know the far side of the moon in greater detail than the sea floor. However, in the course of research for my latest feature, I realised that it is downright dangerous.

The bottom of the ocean is the boundary between the Earth's crust, which is reduced, thus may contain large amounts of methane, and the oxygen-bearing oceans. Microbes ensure that the methane reaching the boundary gets oxidised and metabolised. If it escaped this process and managed to rise to the atmosphere, a climate disaster would hit us that might be even bigger than the one we're currently producing ourselves.

And yet we have very incomplete knowledge of the chemistry going on in sea floor sediments, as two recent, completely unexpected discoveries have revealed - one demonstrating novel redox biochemistry with S(0) intermediates, the other electron transport through bacterial filaments.

My feature is out today in Current Biology:

Surprises from the sea floor

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 24, R1023-R1025, 18 December 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.053

Free access to

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Bacterial filaments that act as conducting wires in sea floor sediments (Photo: Nils Risgaard-Petersen).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

peptides, proteins and poo

the articles published in German this month cover innovative toilets, non-ribosomal peptides, and the story behind this year's chemistry Nobel (G-protein coupled receptors).

WC 8
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 60, 1175

Peptidsynthese ohne Ribosomen
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 60, 1198-1199

Enthüllungen aus dem Reich der Sinne
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 12, 24-27

PS Oh, there's also a book review in the special review section of the "in unserer Zeit" journals:

Kleine Nachhilfe: Antworten auf Kinderfragen (review of: Endlich Mitwisser, Holger Wormer and Michael Dietz)
Chemie in unserer Zeit 46, Nr 6, Treffpunkt Buch plus, V

Friday, December 14, 2012

snow leopards

For my recent feature "Felids fighting for survival" I established contact with the conservation charity Panthera, which specialises on felines. Panthera has now released a new video from the field of a snow leopard mother and cubs in Tajikistan.

Their description: "In true holiday form, the footage shows two snow leopard cubs licking and pawing icicles, attempting to climb a rock, playing, etc. Along with the interactive nature of the footage (and the awww factor), our scientists were pleased to find that it also potentially indicates that a healthy, breeding snow leopard population exists in the Jartygumbez Istyk region of Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

is thorium the answer?

My long essay review of the book:
Superfuel – Thorium, the green energy source for the future.
by Richard Martin
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN 978-0-230-11647-4

is out in Chemistry & Industry, December issue, pp 46-47.

I didn't know anything about thorium reactors before reading this book, but thought the author made a convincing case. Most intriguing, however, is the unravelling of the history of nuclear technology and the reasons why the reactor type predominant today was chosen. I think it's a fair summary to say that all of them were bad reasons, and a lot of them had to do with military considerations.

A snippet from my review: "It is always interesting to trace back the evolution of technology and work out why one route was taken rather than another. Why did petrol knock out ethanol fuel, when today we’re going back to ethanol? Why did planes that are heavier than air take off and leave the zeppelins behind? In the case of thorium liquid fuel reactors versus pressurized water reactors with solid uranium rods, Martin argues convincingly that the decisions favouring the latter type of technology were made for all the wrong reasons and that they blocked a technology that would today come in very handy as a green solution to the challenges of climate change and energy security."

For balance, note also that Stephen Ashley et al. say in the current issue of Nature that the arms proliferation risk of the thorium technology isn't as small as its proponents claim (Nature 2012, 492, 31).

SCI members can access the full text of my review here. If anybody would like a pdf reprint, leave a comment here or drop me a tweet.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

evolution of writing

Something very scary happened in western Iran around 5000 years ago. People started using a writing system for their bookkeeping, used and developed it for a few centuries, and then stopped writing.

The system they used is called proto-Elamite script, it is obviously inspired by Mesopotamian cuneiform but has mostly developed its own symbols, which aren't completely decoded yet. Decoding it further may help to explain how and why people fell back to illiteracy.

I interviewed the leading researcher specialising in this script, who happens to be based in Oxford, and wrote a feature which is out in Current Biology today. And, writing for biologists, I've given the story a bit of a biological spin, hence the title:

The evolution of writing

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 23, R981-R984, 4 December 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.032

Free Access to full text (HTML and PDF version available)

Photo of a proto-Elamite tablet from the Louvre, Paris © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Monday, December 03, 2012

Vermeer's China

Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook

I raved about this book a few years ago after reading just a review of it - I was so jealous of the idea.

Years later, after laying hands on an actual copy and actually reading it, I'm not quite as excited any more (it may be a sign that I forgot to post the review here after I wrote it in May and posted it on amazon).

The author uses the compact and widely known oeuvre of Vermeer and, particularly, the objects pictured in it as a window into the 17th century world. (Very fittingly, as windows (or more likely, the same window) often feature in these pictures.) There is some great storytelling and intriguing connections between Old Europe, the New World, and China, which in this day and age we are very prone to interpret as the "dawn of globalisation."

I was a little disappointed, however, to find that Brook didn't stick with Vermeer - of the eight works he discusses, only five are Vermeer paintings. As an expert in Chinese history, the author is ultimately more interested in the global trade routes in the 17th century than in Vermeer, and he only uses the painter as a tool to popularise his academic discipline. Of course he has every right to do so, but I'd still be interested in a book that tries to shed light on the story of every object of every single Vermeer painting. There aren't that many, so it should be possible.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

paradox lost

My review of the book Paradox: the nine greatest enigmas in science, by Jim Al-Khalili is out in Chemistry World online:


It also appears in the print issue on page 69 (together with lots of other book reviews, worth checking if you're hunting for presents ...).

Friday, November 23, 2012

tumblr and I

These days I am spending most of my online social networking time on tumblr, which is ironic, as it took me well over a year before I got the hang of it.

I had been homeless on the web since MySpace turned into a ghost town and the forums I had visited also died at around the same time – probably all due to the unstoppable rise of facebook. While I’ve been able to transfer quite a few of these contacts to facebook, I never really liked spending time there. In 2010, I signed up to twitter, which I like a lot, but it is a medium more than a place. I can use it to widen the audience for blog entries (on blogspot) or photos (on flickr), but if I spend more than five minutes watching my twitter timeline (following some 1600 people!), the futility and randomness of it gets to me. Unless there is some major political scandal to kick around, which is always fun on twitter. (I also tried google+ but that never took off, and I am registered with LinkedIn, but it bores me to tears.)

So, well, tumblr and I started out on the wrong foot. I signed up in June 2011 when somebody whom I knew from mutual blog-following on blogspot moved her blogging activity to tumblr and I wanted to stay in touch. However, she soon succumbed to the temptation of the NSFW blogs available on tumblr and ended up reblogging that kind of stuff endlessly without posting anything of her own.

In the first months I didn’t come across any individuals who were actually posting their own content. Everything I saw back then seemed to be just swirling round in circles (which I guess is where the name tumblr comes from?) and come from unattributed sources, i.e. probably stolen. Using tags like #science I found some vaguely interesting blogs that I still follow, like the mother nature network, which covers science and environment, but that didn’t really pull me in.

The legacy of my very first contact in tumblr meant that I had no shortage of addresses for erotica, but once I eliminated all peniswaving blogs, I was left with a few lesbian ones (which I still love) and one that systematically reblogs “topless Tuesday” photos. For a few months I just let these float by, but at one point I started to wonder who these women were. If I liked the face above the boobs I looked up the blog and found quite a few interesting people who – and that was rather important to me – did post their own content, rather than just reblogging all the time.

Some of them even very kindly followed me back, so by that stage – perhaps 1 year into the experience - I had around 20 followers (as many as my blog on blogspot has, except that I don’t think that anybody still checks the blogs they follow there). That gave me a little bit more confidence to expect that somebody, at some point might actually look at contributions I post, so I systematically posted links to my articles and blog entries from blogspot. That helped a little bit, some people became interested in the science bits I had to offer.

Then I widened my spectrum, discovered that there is a one-click option to share my flickr photos on tumblr, also posted the odd video, and ended up sharing everything I posted elsewhere (blogspot, twitter, flickr, facebook) on tumblr as well, and more. By the beginning of this month, the increased activity succeeded in attracting new followers on a daily basis, and catalysing new friendships in a way that I hadn’t really experienced since the demise of myspace.

Tumblr really has become a place on the web where I like to spend time, where I’m surrounded by people who I like, even if they are still mostly strangers. I find it amazing how openly people communicate about very intimate problems over there, and how supportive and loving most people are (apart from some anon. trolling – personally I’ve switched off anonymous asks, so I don’t have that problem). I’m beginning to worry that this is too good to last and that Murdoch might soon buy it up and ruin it (this irrational fear will in the future be called the MySpace trauma). I'm just hoping it stays exactly as it is.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

how the croc got its teeth

Last month, en route to a family visit, I stopped by at the Institut de Genomique Fonctionelle de Lyon (IGFL) and learned lots of exciting things about the research they're doing there, connecting physiology, evolution and development with the help of genomics. Essentially, how does a string of DNA turn into a living breathing animal? How did the leopard get its spots, and the croc its teeth? (Disclaimer: they don't do leopards in Lyon, as far as I know, but they have got answers for the croc question!)

There was too much to mention everything but I tried to make a meaningful story out of this, which is out in today's issue of Current Biology:

How does an animal work?

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 22, R933-R935, 20 November 2012

For the next two weeks (and then again after a year), the text will be freely accessible:

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Note the lovely species portraits by photographers Vincent & Caroline Moncorgé, commissioned by the institute.


Lyon by night - photo from my previous visit ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

rocking the planetary boat

One of the most fascinating books I got to review in recent years was The goldilocks planet by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, which covers the history of our planet from the perspective of climate history, as deduced from geological evidence.

It is a very scary rollercoaster ride through 4 billion years. But maybe the scariest part is the ending - we humans came to populate the planet in a period of surprising stability, and now, as the authors put it, we're rocking the boat that has shown a marked tendency to capsize in the past.

My long essay review, discussing the issues involved from an astrobiological perspective, is out in Chemistry & Industry this month, page 46-47. It is premium content, but if you ask me nicely I can send a pdf reprint.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

noisettes live

I don't know why, but the new Noisettes tour had its premiere at Oxford last night. It was a great show, ranging from full-on inferno to soft and sensitive. Like the last time, Shingai kicked off her shoes after the first song and performed the rest of the show barefoot, directing the band with her toes (or so it appeared sometimes).

I still don't know enough about their work to make any meaningful comment about old and new songs they played. Clearly haven't done my homework since I saw them the last time round.

So, have a couple of pictures instead (if I'm allowed to make a small suggestion, they could have done with a spotlight on Shingai - most of the time she appeared as a silhouette):

I gather they play the Koko at London today, then Manchester and Glasgow.

PS: Special guests Josephine Oniyama and Marques Toliver were very good, too.

Friday, November 09, 2012

hidden treasure

Tanita Tikaram: Can’t go back

With this album, I had a very weird experience of finding treasure that was very well hidden. I have fond memories of tt’s first album and the single Twist in my sobriety, which was a huge hit in the 80s, but have somehow managed to miss everything she released after that. So when I heard she had a new album coming out this year I started to investigate.

First I watched the official first video from the album, “dust on my shoes” and thought it was a bit too happy-clappy and too smooth for my tastes. Still, I checked audio clips of some other tracks of the album on amazon, and liked those better, so made a note of the release date. In the week it was released I was in a record shop, but the record that wasn’t there was Tanita’s. I ended up ordering it a few weeks later.

It comes with two disks, the proper new album and a bonus CD. I listened to the new material a few times, it was ok, I still like her voice and the kind of sounds she makes in general, some of the arrangements are interesting. But somehow it didn’t grab me. I might have given it 3 stars out of 5.

When I got bored with it, I looked at the other CD, which according to the track list contained old songs from her previous albums. I assumed the record company had just thrown in some old recordings for the benefit of the younger audience who don’t know the back catalogue. I played the CD without paying much attention, I recognised Valentine Heart, which is on her debut album, and still didn’t pay much attention.

When the CD came to Twist in my sobriety, around the middle, it finally struck me. This was not an old track. This was a completely new arrangement, with minimal instrumentation, of the old song. In this case, it was a guitar and a cello. And I found it spectacularly good, breathtaking. And the other songs on the bonus CD are similarly reworked, and similarly brilliant.

I like the first CD, and most of the songs I like a lot more than the one chosen for the first video, but the bonus really did grab me by the collar and didn’t let loose. Which is very ironic, as the whole idea of the album and the title track is not to go back to the past, and to me the most successful part of it is where she did go back to the past and reworked it. And this isn’t even explained on the album sleeve. The only thing that points to this being new recordings is the fact that the instrumentalists for each track are listed in the booklet (typically with one of the two instrumentalists being the singer herself). This is a very well camouflaged treasure indeed.

PS I would have normally added a rant about the stupidity of big record companies at this point (why didn't they release the reworked material as a separate Unplugged CD???), but the CD is from a German label I never heard of before, so I'll let them off the hook.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


city – a guidebook for the urban age

by PD Smith

Bloomsbury 2012

Call me crazy but I love wandering about in big (European-style) cities. Ideally, they should have a historic core (Mediaeval will do, Roman ruins a bonus!), a big river, a university. Prague, Paris, Cologne, that sort of place is the perfect holiday destination for me.

But what makes cities so attractive, not just for me as a visitor, but for an increasing number of people to move into them, especially into the rapidly growing megacities (with more than 10 million people) of the developing world? Can the cultural history of “the city” be generalised to reveal insights into this form of human cohabitation and cooperation?

PD Smith has attempted this generalisation for cities throughout history and around the world. Like one of my random walks through a city, the book explores many avenues and sights, sometimes via unexpected passageways, and the author invites us to peruse the book in nonlinear fashion. Like the districts of a city, the book has themed section, but within their confines, surprise encounters may happen.

Smith highlights the advantages of a compact, walkable, people-friendly city (I might have mentioned Cologne as an example, where people walk, rollerskate, cycle etc. across the entire North-South extent of the city area on the marvellous river promenade), as opposed to the sprawling, car-friendly city (LA, Brasilia, Milton Keynes). People-friendly cities with adequate public transport and energy-efficient buildings are in fact more environmentally benign on a per-person basis than country lifestyles that heavily depend on driving.

Smith draws on an astonishing treasure trove of sources – including the many volumes that have been written about specific, much-loved cities such as Paris, Venice or New York , and on studies of specific topics like commuting, suburbia, or street art. Faithful readers of his book reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere will recognise some of the information nuggets.

Like any traveller, he always tends to gravitate back home to London, which for a time was the biggest and most powerful city of the world. He concludes the weighty tome with an outlook on the future of the city and with a memento mori, reminding us that all cities will fall to ruins one day.

Highly recommended for anybody who can appreciate cities as more than just the place they commute to.


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

cats around the world

Tigers have become an icon of wildlife conservation - there are already many more of them living in captivity than in the wild, and there is a real risk that they may disappear from the wild altogether.

They are not the only big cats in difficulties though. Around the world, on the five continents where felidae became top predators, most of the over 30 existing species are threatened, as I explore in my most recent feature, which is out in Current Biology today:

Felids fighting for survival
Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 21, R893-R895, 6 November 2012

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Here's one feline species that's not threatened and found lots of new habitats in recent times:

houseboat cat

Sunday, November 04, 2012

vintage Zulawski

Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours

(France, 1989, available on multi-region DVD)

Last night, I watched this film for the second time (the first time was in 1990!), and I felt it has kept remarkably well. It is essentially about two people losing their mind for different reasons, and clinging to words, their associations, rhymes and echoes, and to each other, to stay sane / alive if only for a couple of days longer. There is poetry in the increasingly random dialogue, much of which gets lost in translation so it is mainly recommended for those who can appreciate the French version.

Seeing the film as a vision of the world (just about) pre-internet, it is noteworthy that Dutronc’s character gives the world a programming language while the computer screens reveal that he’s losing his own language to an incurable disease. In this current age of “smart phones and stupid people” are we also losing our minds while improving the minds of our machines to perfection? Discuss. The story also predates political correctness and the TGV network – people fly from Paris to Biarritz, how antediluvian! The images are just as beautiful as they were 22 years ago (some stills featuring Sophie Marceau with not many clothes on are still making the rounds on tumblr!), so it’s almost a timeless classic.

Does anybody know whether the film was ever released in UK cinemas? The IMDB doesn't give a release date for it, but maybe they didn't bother adding all the dates for old films made before IMDB existed? But then again, they do list the release date for Germany (where I saw it).

PS I was shocked to hear one of the characters suggesting to the language-loss patient that he should substitute missing verbs with “schtroumpfer” (to smurf). I’ve said that so often (when trying to teach various languages to various people including my children) that I almost came to believe I invented it. Not sure whether I said this before the movie came out.

Friday, November 02, 2012

katzenjammer live

I saw Katzenjammer live last night for the first time (though I didn't admit I was a Katzenjammer virgin when they asked, wasn't sure what the rite of passage might be!). I could go on raving for hours now, as they're just so crazy and refreshingly different from everything else that happened in the history of the universe until now, but then again, I'm not nearly qualified to unpick the zillions of influences and cultural references in their work (I just about managed to identify the Genesis cover and I know that the big triangular thing is a contrabass balalaika), so I'll just post two of my not so very good photos and a video of one of my favourite K songs below.

I should point out that this video is very much at the tame end of the spectrum of Katzenjammer craziness ...

Catch them if you can - here at Oxford they played in a ridiculously small venue at a very affordable price, but that might change if word spreads ...

PS The writer in Oxford's Nightshift magazine correctly translated the name as a fit of self-pity, but I think they took it from one of the first comic series in the US, The Katzenjammer Kids, which began at the end of the 19th century and was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Busch.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

a special proteasome for the immune system

The round-up of German pieces in November has only one article, covering the crystal structure of the immunoproteasome:

Molekularmedizin: Recyclingtonne für das Immunsystem – genauer betrachtet

Vom zelleigenen Schredder für Proteine, Proteasom genannt, besitzen Immunzellen eine Sonderausfertigung. Jetzt haben Forscher dessen Aufbau im Detail untersucht. Damit hoffen sie, Medikamente gegen Autoimmunkrankheiten zu entwickeln.

Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nov. 2012, S. 20-22

beginning of the text and restricted access to full text

I've covered some aspects of this work in English earlier this year, in a feature about symmetry and complexity.

(image: © Prof. Michael Groll/Technische Universitaet München.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

atlantic insights

Last month I visited Hamburg and attended the joint meeting of the research projects THOR and Nordatlantik. I learned many interesting things there about the complex relationships between oceans and climate and the research that aims to understand these.

You can read all about this in my latest feature in Current Biology which is out now and freely accessible(NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication):

Atlantic circulation keeps turning

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 20, R853-R856, 23 October 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.013

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I also took lots of photos at Hamburg - one of them appears on the first page of the feature, another below (that's not the hotel where I stayed) and another half dozen on my flickr photostream.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

pregnant bellydancing

loving the highlights video of Shakira's pregnant performance in Baku:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

castillos de cartón

This is a lovely movie about three students trying to find their way in art, love/sex, and life in general, and I reckon it shows about equal parts of these three areas. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the cover of the UK DVD, which focuses on one of these and obviously tries to sell the film as porn, which it clearly isn’t. This is underlined by the very unsubtle English title, "3some". I think the original title, Castillos de cartón, is to be understood along the lines of “castles in the air”. The script is based on a novel by Almudena Grandes with the same title (see book review below).

The three characters are set apart from mainstream society not just by their creative urges but also by their unusual 2+1 love life, which they don’t dare to spell out to their parents. This isolation increases the pressure on each of them to find fulfilment within that triangle. To me, this was the most important aspect, and it was acted very convincingly. The art could have been used even more – I love the triangular arrangement where they draw portraits of each other, but their art isn’t really used to show how they see each other.

Actress Adriana Ugarte also appears in Lo contrario al amor (which was shown at the London Spanish Film Festival this year (but I missed it) and in the earlier film El juego del ahorcado. Will have to check those out ...

Can't bear to reproduce the UK cover, so here's the spanish one, which I will at some point print off to replace the one I have now:

amazon UK - they sell the horrid UK edition a lot cheaper, though.


PS (23.11.2012): review of the book:

Discovering the book after having seen the movie isn’t an ideal situation, but as we live on an island that seems to be a million miles away from continental Europe, I wouldn’t have heard of the book otherwise. It hasn’t even been translated into English.

This is a slim novel under 200 pages, but it still has some intriguing layers of complexity. On top of the plot of the movie, the love triangle set in the 1980s, it has a noughties level as well. It starts with one of the protagonists calling the second to deliver the news of the suicide of the third. On that premise, which understandably makes the protagonists think of the past, the story is related in flashbacks.

There are also some formal subtleties which I quite enjoyed. For instance, the text has four parts, titled el arte, el sexo, el amor, and la muerte (the fourth, death, was dropped in the film, but the rest agrees with my three-part description above). Each of the parts starts with a statement concerning the number 3, reflecting, of course the status of their relationship:

3 is an odd number;
3 is a peculiar number; (not sure if that’s what she meant with “aparte”)
3 is an even number;
3 isn’t a number after all.

And there are other elements like these hidden in the text, echoes, reflections, repetitions, contradictions, which I rather like, and which I’m sure will keep students in Spain busy for a while.

I think Grandes succeeds in making the artistic mind accessible. I’m a great fan of everything that at least tries to explore how creativity works and what makes artists tick, and this was an interesting addition to the relevant works I knew. Sadly, Grandes doesn’t describe in detail what the art of the most successful of the three artists looks like (or did I accidentally skip a page?). In the movie, his breakthrough moment is when he covers a huge canvas entirely with red paint, but I found no reference to that in the book.

What I did find, however, is the song from which the title is derived. It is Para ti, by Fernando Márquez, and it dates from 1995, so its use in the story is only mildly anachronistic.

The relevant lines, which are quoted in the book, are:

Para ti, nos buscamos el paraíso,
nos cocinamos melodías con su charme,
nos olvidamos de los críticos seniles,
nos encerramos en castillos de cartón.

Anyhow. A lovely little novel. Available in Spanish and in German, but not yet in English, so if anyone wants to push for a translation …

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ants, arsenates, and asteroids

This month's roundup of German publications is covering the letter a, with a feature on ant orientation (which I also covered in Current Biology recently), a report on evidence showing the arsenate-resistant bacteria have not managed to replace phosphates in their metabolism, and a humorous take on asteroid mining. Next month, we'll get to bees, black holes and bedbugs. See you then.

Arsenat-Stoffwechsel widerlegt Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 46, Issue 5, page 276 (published online: 2 OCT 2012) DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201290051 Restricted access

Wie sich Ameisen in der Wüste orientieren Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 60, Issue 10, pages 1007–1009 (published online: 4 OCT 2012) DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201290351 Restricted access

Asteroiden-Recycling Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 60, Issue 10, page 978 (published online: 4 OCT 2012) DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201290380 Restricted access

PS: the journal home page of Chemie in unserer Zeit currently displays a news item concerning the current exhibition of the industry painter Alexander Calvelli, with a reference to my article about him.

Monday, October 15, 2012

haunted man

Three years ago, I saw Bat for Lashes live at Oxford's O2 academy, not knowing much about them / her (I don't think it's ever made explicit, but the media seem to assume that the name is simply a pseudonym for Natasha Khan, not the name of her band). I then completed my BFL CD collection (2 CDs), which I liked a lot, so I was very keen to get the third offering on day one. Here are my first impressions after 4 spins:

Essentially, the third Bat for Lashes album is a lot like the second, only more so. “Haunting” is a key word that describes the addictive effect of the sounds used to underline Natasha’s ethereal vocals. We get a different texture in each song, for instance plucked and muted strings in the first single All your gold, resonating drums in the next track, then bowed string bass in another, or warbling synths or xylophones. These accompaniments are often ostinato, i.e. obstinately repeated for much of the song, but as they have a different kind of sound in each song, they still offer interesting diversity, and often manage to sound mysterious, pulling the listener in by making them curious.

So, well, if you’ve played "Two suns" a hundred times (I have), you may enjoy this even more.

Oh, and I just love the cover photo to bits. Sadly, the booklet doesn’t reveal what happened next – surely she can’t have carried that bloke around forever?

Prostye Dvizhenia

Related to the movies we're not allowed to see here, I should also mention pop videos that are effectively banned. A notorious case from the early 00s is the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. I love the style of their videos, some of which reminded me of European cinema, e.g. Kieslowski's 3 colours trilogy (maybe some east-west European dialogue behind this).

The parts of their work that were released internationally faced stiff opposition in the UK and calls for outright censorship from TV show hosts Richard & Judy.

Small wonder then that the following gem was never released in an English version. It's title, Простые Движенья, translates as simple movements. I think the movement it might have triggered around here could be described as a kneejerk response ...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

oxford waterways

In the last few years, I have spent a lot of time on or alongside Oxford's waterways, including the river Cherwell, the Thames (also known as the Isis around here) and the Oxford Canal. With various combinations of children I have crossed, walked along, swum in, navigated with our canoe, and ice-skated on these waterways, so over time a few photos have accumulated.

Accordingly, I have now created a flickr set dedicated to Oxford's waterways, which you can check out on my flickr pages, or watch as a slideshow below.

Having gone through my 800+ flickr photos twice, I've now found 73 waterways pix, but I may still have missed a couple.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

alien invaders

My latest feature is about invasive species large and small, from raccoons to ants, also visiting those that cause disease in plants or humans:

Alien invaders

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 19, R819-R821, 9 October 2012


HTML text and PDF file. (NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication)


Photo: NHG

Friday, October 05, 2012

en la cama

Germany/Chile 2005
Dir.: Matías Bize
Cast: Blanca Lewin, Gonzalo Valenzuela

The film that inspired “Room in Rome” would be interesting in its own right, but is even more intriguing when one sees it after Medem’s version of events. It is even more confined to the bedroom (here in a motel in Chile), and the film makes fun of this constraint by bringing up the old children’s game where one is not allowed to touch the floor, restricting the movements of the two characters even further.

Although the dialogue is completely different, the characters can easily be aligned with Medem’s cast. Bruno is in certain ways like Alba, and Daniela clearly inspired Natasha – and both conceal the same piece of information until quite late in the movie.

The cast consists exclusively of the two people in the room (so in the difficult moments one can think of Sartre and conclude that hell is the other person). We don’t even hear the voices of people calling the characters on their mobiles, and we have to trust them on what they report – which may not be true, as trust is being a problematic issue in this story as in Medem’s.

I liked the cast, although, of course, no bloke on the planet could really compete with Elena Anaya. Blanca Lewin as Daniela is almost a Medem-like figure, she’s got something of the look of Medem’s female protagonists, and one can easily imagine how her performance caught his interest. So I would recommend it to anybody who liked Room in Rome (or Sartre’s Huis Clos ?). My DVD from Germany has a 12 certificate - if you convert that from Euro to Sterling and add the number of frames revealing nipples, it would probably end up at 18, if anybody bothered releasing the DVD in the UK (there is a region 1 DVD, released in 2008, not rated, cover shown below).

Thursday, October 04, 2012

not buying that

Here comes a draft list of some companies I prefer (or ideally would prefer) not to support with my custom. Additional suggestions welcome

last updated 04.03.2016


TESCO supermarkets - notorious for their treatment of suppliers, and I also find the speed of metastasis quite scary, there are now half a dozen of them within easy cycling distance of my home. (I’ve also seen Tesco stores in Hungary and in the Czech Republic.) Support your local co-op store instead. As a member, you get profit shares, so if you pay too much the excess flows back into your pockets, not into those of some zillionaire shareholders.

A Tesco express at Budapest, Hungary.

Asda - owned by Walmart, which is the US equivalent to TESCO.

Nestle - there was a wave of boycotts and protest back in the last century, mainly based on the company’s aggressive marketing of infant formula milk in developing countries, where a lack of clean drinking water means that persuading mothers to replace breastfeeding with formula milk can actually cause additional deaths. I don’t think the company has resolved this issue in any satisfactory way, as a few local boycotts from recent years have highlighted, even though the global attention has faded. Also, coffee, chocolate etc. are product ranges where it is easy to find good quality FairTrade products, so there is no reason to buy unethical stuff.

Cadbury’s - OK, I know that they have now started to use FairTrade products (better late than never - but see what the BBC Watchdog programme says about their FairTrade aspirations!), but I seem to remember that they lobbied the EU to water down their definition of "chocolate" to allow the inclusion of soy fat instead of cocoa butter, and I still resent that. Currently, I buy either Divine Chocolate or Co-op own brand - which is also made by Divine.


A reader has nominated Amazon for being "union busters and tax dodgers". I agree with that argument, and I also would like to keep physical bookshops in business. However, as I'm normally after books that high-street bookshops would never dream of putting on their shelves, I couldn't do without a big online trader. As an author, I am also faced with the dilemma that amazon sells my books while most high-street bookshops don't.

I was interested to learn, however, that the website enables customers to order books online and have them delivered to their local bookshop. Which I guess helps to save the shops and stops all the cardboard packaging from piling up at our home. So I'll try that soon.

Update 2016: A piece in the Guardian on alternatives to amazon.


The big four high street banks: RBS/Natwest, Barclay’s, HSBC, Lloyds TSB - their failings have been well publicised in the context of the government bailouts for RBS and Lloyds, which were deemed “system-relevant and too big to fail.” Until recently, I wasn’t aware that there are alternatives, but it turns out one can find more ethical banks (e.g. the co-operative bank), and there are also a few credit unions in the UK (not as many as in the US) and a few building societies that survived the 1990s wave of demutualisation. Visit the Move Your Money website for more info.

Aviva insurances - just how much did they pay their bosses?


The Sun, The Times - I would never buy a copy of any newspaper owned by the Murdoch family, for obvious reasons. When I see one in a bin or on the ground I might pick it up, just to make sure the paper gets recycled. If I’m feeling very generous I might even flick through the pages.

Sky satellite TV – well, ideally.

Broadband providers – horrible people, but there are co-operatives springing up offering phone and broadband. Will try one of these soon and report back.

Google is among the companies passing on data to the NSA, so I'm now a happy user of DuckDuckGo. If for whatever reason I still need google, DuckDuckGo will run my google search anonymously for me in https mode. Still staying faithful to google's blogspot platform.


Energy providers – as the main energy providers are selling the same electricity and the same gas through the same infrastructure, they can’t really compete properly, they can only trick people by offering cheaper rates in the short term, which will then revert to normal rip-off rates long term. – There are now a number of regional energy co-operatives, plus the co-operative energy operating across the UK, so, again, any excess flows back to the customers, not to the shareholders.


Back in the days I used to book air travel via expedia, until I found out that they weren't offering any flights to Cuba. One can of course book directly from the airlines. In the UK, Co-operative travel is an alternative I'll try out the next time.

British Airways cancelled a return flight ticket when we had to change plans and couldn't use the outbound flight. They did so without telling us - even though they emailed about less important thing prior to the flights. The warning that they "may" do so is somewhere in the countless pages of small print you have to approve on booking, but it doesn't say they will do without warning. Here is a published report of a similar case. Not going to use them again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

sexual politics

My latest feature investigates the important question why so many stupid things are said and done at the interface between sex and politics, pegged to Todd Akin's remarks on rape victims not getting pregnant, but I think the stupidity in this field is eternal.

It is a serious problem, but on the other hand it's also an opportunity to make fun of ridiculous things, so I should admit that writing this was as much fun as one can have with one's clothes on (to tick the only sex-related clichee that I haven't used in the article itself).

Anyhow, you have been warned, 18+ readers only are invited to read the full story in today's issue of Current Biology.

When reproductive biology becomes political

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 18, R779-R781, 25 September 2012, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.006

Read the story in HTML and PDF format (NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

gecko book out now

My latest book, a collection of recent nanoworld stories in German, is now officially out and in the shops.

Michael Groß:
Von Geckos, Garn und Goldwasser:
Die Nanowelt lässt grüßen.
Wiley-VCH Sept. 2012
pp. 302, ISBN: 978-3527-33272-4,
€ 24.90, £ 22.50

Further information here. The shelf with my collected works now looks like this (there is a copy of everything that has its own ISBN number, hence hardback and paperback editions of the same title side-by-side):

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ecce homo

When I was 18, there was some kind of party involving my dad’s work colleagues in our garden. Observing from the sidelines, I noted that one of the secretaries wasn’t much older than me. She was polished to perfection, all fake smiles, polite phrases, small talk and social graces. As a grumpy teenager who had none of these attributes and gloriously failed to see their point, I probably wondered how much voltage you need to convert a human being into this kind of robot.

Later that night, it fell to me to drive this very same robot home, and during a half-hour drive I was surprised to find that there was a human being behind that robot façade. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I was so impressed I might have fancied her if I hadn’t seen her other side earlier in the evening, the memory of which still scared me. (I wrote a poem about this, called ecce homo, which you’ll find below – in German.)

Now I had a similar revelation from the infamous topless photos of the woman formerly known as Kate Middleton (easy to find on tumblr). I hated the whole wedding shebang with a passion and found every one of the officially approved fake-smile photos revolting, but on seeing those paparazzi shots I got, for the very first time, the impression that there may actually be a human being behind that robotic façade.

As the editor of the Italian magazine Chi said, they show two normal human beings in love. Maybe that’s why we (here in the UK) are not allowed to see them. The monarchists don’t want us to know that there are normal human beings underneath all the fancy clothes. In that case, there actually is a very strong public interest case to be made for publication of the photos, in order to break through the deception we’re getting all the time.

It is also noteworthy that, on the travels during this affair, she put on a headscarf when visiting muslim countries where women are expected to do so, but when visiting Pacific island nations where women go topless, she didn't adopt the native dress code. Very puzzling all this.

Still, why a lively human female in her 20s would choose to live a robot’s life, remains a mystery to me, in both cases.

PS: I tend to agree with Jonathan Jones's recent comment on all this.

I have found a lovely photo I would like to use here, just asked the photographer for permission and am awaiting response. In the meantime, enjoy the cover of Chi magazine and Steve Bell's topless royal family, and please check back tomorrow.

OK, giving up on that photo, here is plan B:

Spare a thought for poor old Kate Topping, she will have a lot of unexplained traffic on her linked-in profile this week! But seriously, while Google Germany categorically refused to censor the autocomplete algorithm just last week, when the ex-president's wife asked them to stop the auto-propagation of rumours, it looks like Google UK has decided to lend the royals a hand. Another scandal within the scandal.

ecce homo


als funktion
von erwartung
und leistung

als apparat
mit optimalem

als kommunikations
element geölt
mit höflichkeit

doch dann
aus dem
rahmen getrennt

sieh da
ein mensch

Thursday, September 13, 2012

heart of matter

My review of the book

Nucleus: A trip into the heart of matter
Ray Mackintosh, Jim Al-Khalili, Björn Jonson, Teresa Peña
Dundee University Press. Second edition. 2011

is out in the September issue of Chemistry & Industry, page 49. The online version is premium content, but here's a little snippet for you:

"The authors of Nucleus attempt to make this big picture - how the atomic nucleus connects to everything and influences virtually every aspect of our world - accessible to a lay readership. With just over 130 pages, colour illustrations throughout, and a total absence of formulas, the book has the right kind of look for it."


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homo sapiens: rise and fall

In my latest feature I'm exploring the recent discoveries of surprisingly large numbers of rare genetic variations in individual human genomes. Experts have attributed these to the rapid population expansion since the beginning of agriculture. There is still some debate re. whether or not the accumulation of such mutations poses a threat to the future health of our species.

The feature appears as part of a special review issue on Evolution and Human Health in today's issue of Current Biology:

Rapid population rise bad for our health? Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 17, R702-R705, 11 September 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.040

Free access to full text available in HTML and in PDF format.

The other articles that are part of the special themed section are also on open access.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Prague slide show

I spent a rather lovely week at Prague, checking out the EuCheMS conference and also spending a lot of time roaming the city in the footsteps of Kafka, Dvorak, Jacopo Strada, Tycho Brahe, Kepler ...

Here's a slideshow of a small selection of my photos:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

ant orientation

In a feature that was a bit off the beaten track for me, I've covered the orientation of desert ants, which can make use of a wide range of tools from step counter to vibration sensing. One of the interesting questions in the field is how the ants compute the information coming from their various navigation tools and how they eventually decide where to go.

My feature is out in Current Biology today:

How ants find their way
Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 16, R615-R618, 21 August 2012

Read the story in HTML and PDF format.

(free access)

Photo: Kathrin Steck.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

¡no pasarán!

Loving this week's SPIEGEL cover showing Pussy Riot member Nadyezhda Tolokonnikova sporting a ¡No pasarán! T-shirt.

Der Spiegel, issue 33/2012

That brings back so many memories of Nicaragua solidarity events and all that :)

Those who "will not get through" according to the use of the slogan at the time, were of course the Contra - right-wing insurgents (as we like to say today) enthusiastically supported by that nice Mr Reagan. Earlier uses of the phrase include Spanish Civil War, says Wikipedia.

Monday, August 13, 2012

DNA origami

My essay review of the book

Materials Science of DNA

Jung-Il Jin and James Grote, eds., CRC Press 2012, ISBN 978-1439827413

appears in the August issue of Chemistry & Industry on page 51. It is premium content, but here's a little snippet:

All in all the book is accessible enough to serve a broad interdisciplinary field, so it can equally be recommended to biologists who want to branch out into nanotechnology and to materials scientists and nanotechnologists who consider adding DNA to their repertoire of nanoscale building materials. Even for those a bit further remote from it, this area is definitely one to watch.

PS: If you're reading the magazine and have tried to figure out the connection between the picture and the review - there isn't one. Due an error, a completely unrelated (but nice) picture was printed with the review.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

life is a mad circus

Review of (or, rather, a first attempt at figuring out):

Balada triste de trompeta (The last circus), Spain 2010, Alex de la Iglesia

based on DVD imported from France, as film was not released in UK.

I love Alex de la Iglesia’s knack for absurdity, and I don’t normally mind his over-the-top violence too much, as it is clearly described as absurd, so it’s just actors messing about with ketchup, as far as I’m concerned. So I do make an effort to get to see his films, even if it's sometimes tricky around here.

I suppose this one is about trauma handed down from the generation of the Spanish civil war to the next one, along with cultural traditions and the jobs of circus performers. Very normal in one way, but also completely pointless once you start to question it. As in the previous films I saw, there were lots of absurd details I liked in this film too, but I was somehow missing a positive element to balance it out. As the only female protagonist is variously beaten by one clown and kidnapped by another (just like in real life, come to think of it), I was missing a positive character, like the prostitute in 800 balas. The only relief we're getting here is the realisation that our real lives aren't quite as mad as the mad circus shown here.

Still no reason to censor it, as de la Iglesia clearly has meaningful things to say, even if he expresses them in unusual ways. For instance, the satirical depiction of Franco and his people will have been more meaningful for the domestic (and older) audience than for a foreign observer of post-Franco Spain like me. I'm looking forward to seeing what he will (one day) make of the absurdities of the current economic disaster that has befallen Spain.

I was intrigued to see the film uses a Spanish version of Je l’aime à mourir, by Francis Cabrel – wondering whether that’s what inspired Shakira to use it in the concert for the Live from Paris DVD. The film was released in Spain on December 17th, 2010, and the song showed up in the Paris concerts of June 13th and 14th 2011. You do the maths.

cover of the French DVD, which I ordered from It doesn't have English subtitles though. There is a US edition available as region 1 DVD, under the title "The Last Circus"

Friday, August 10, 2012

both of us

I loved B.O.B.'s airplanes (with Hayley Williams) at the time, but that could have been a one-off. Now he's done it again, with Taylor Swift:

Oh, and price tag, with Jessie J, was good too. So, conclusion (and memo to Shakira) B.O.B. is the man to duet with ... seems a much nicer guy than that pitbull person.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

mysteries of diatoms

I have covered the research relating to the silica shells of diatoms - their morphogenesis and use in bio-nanotechnology - for many years, but have now for the first time taken a look at the wider context of diatom biology and its links to climate change and other earth systems. The resulting epic feature article is out in today's issue of Current Biology:

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 15, R581-R585, 7 August 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.07.041

HTML text Free access to PDF file (NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication)

photo: Wikipedia

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

chocolat in lebanon

film review:

Where do we go now? (Et maintenant on va ou?)

I am getting increasingly paranoid about films that I would like to see but which aren’t shown in cinemas around here. So when I found out that Nadine Labaki, whose first film Caramel (2007) I had enjoyed very much when it came out, had a new film out, but it wasn’t showing up at our local independent cinema, I poked them via twitter and was told they’d show it “off-date.” Which they really did, a few weeks later, in a grand total of four showings. So having stuck my neck out, I really had to go and see it, and make some appreciative noises about it.

It’s received very little attention around here and I read a lukewarm review from Germany, but I really liked the film. The very obvious formula is, of course, to concoct fairy-tale solutions to real-world problems. A bit like in Chocolat, just that it’s set in Lebanon, and comically remote villages in Lebanon have a different set of problems from comically remote villages in France profonde. For instance, instead of one religion we have two. And instead of river pirates (or whatever Johnny Depp was playing in that film) we have Ukrainian burlesque dancers (though they are already part of the solution, not of the problem).

Anyhow, the peace of the village is severely threatened, and you won’t be surprised to hear that the crafty women of the village manage to save it, though their tricks and twists weren’t quite as predictable as you may think. The film has gorgeous images (some might say too beautiful, but it works for me), including some landscapes at dusk that really need a big screen to work. Altogether it’s a feelgood fairytale that isn’t going to solve the problems of the Middle East, but who or what is going to solve them?

PS Mark Kermode's review in the Observer is quite enthusiastic as well, though very short. I'm wondering if the fact that the dialogue is in Arabic makes a difference compared to European movies, in terms of explaining the poor showing and uptake (I was in an audience of 3). It would be surprising as most people here would have to read the subtitles even for the French and Spanish movies as well, but maybe these languages have a viable support group of speakers and fans here, while Arabic hasn't?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

losing our ice caps

I've recently read "The goldilocks planet" for review (watch this space) and learned to appreciate the variability of Earth's climate on geological time scales. 3 million years ago (just a moment, for a geologist), we didn't have a permanent ice cap on the Arctic, and just over 30 million years ago, we didn't have one on the Antarctic either.

The way the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are developing right now suggests that we may be heading back to those warmer days, and man-made climate change is happening faster than any previous geological climate change.

How are ecosystems in the Arctic and Antarctic responding to the loss of polar ice that is happening already? And which of their responses may lead to dangerous positive feedback loops? I've looked into these problems for my latest feature which is out in Current Biology today:

Life changes as polar regions thaw

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 14, R547-R550, 24 July 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.07.009

Read the story in HTML and PDF format.

Actress Lucy Lawless (Xena the warrior princess) took part in the Greenpeace campaign "Save the Arctic" (see this lovely interview in the Guardian. Maybe the scariest feedback loop of them all: that the disappearance of the Arctic ice will give us access to more fossil fuels to burn ...

PS More ice-melting news

Monday, July 23, 2012

Astrobiologie für Einsteiger

I’ve been quite busy over the last 12 months partly due to having two books to prepare in parallel, both to be published in German later this year. One is a collection of new(ish) nanoworld pieces, called Von Geckos, Garn und Goldwasser: Die Nanowelt lässt grüßen, due out in September.

The second, of which I’ve just finished processing the page proofs, is a German translation of Astrobiology: a brief introduction (based on the 2nd English edition which came out last year). This should be out in December, and you can already pre-order it on and And it will look like this:

And I just had a brilliant idea for a new project, so I’m off to write a new proposal …

PS: Astrobiologie für Einsteiger is one of the first two titles in a new series of short textbooks. The other one is: Chemie für Einsteiger und Durchsteiger by Thomas Wurm, out on the same day.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Turkey's biodiversity

My feature on biodiversity in Turkey came out last week while I was away:

Turkey's biodiversity at the crossroads

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 13, R503-R505, 10 July 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.06.051

Read the story in HTML and PDF format. (NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication)

Note that the captions of the second and the third region contain an error - the area where the photos were taken is called the Kars region (not Kagas). The region is correctly identified in the main text.

Map from Wikipedia - love this map a lot, as it shows immediately the reasons why Turkey has such interesting biodiversity ...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

curiosity cover

Ahead of the arrival of the Mars Science Laboratory aka Curiosity on Mars (scheduled for Aug 6th), I have prepared a feature summarising what kind of things the new rover will investigate there. The article is in the July issue of Chemistry & Industry and it even made the cover:

Full text (HTML) - free access

PS the same issue also contains my review of the book
Advanced Oil Crop Biorefineries (RSC Green Chemistry)
that one is premium content, but I have a PDF file ...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

ecce torpet probitas

by sheer coincidence I recently stumbled upon a song from the Carmina Burana which seems to sum up this week’s scandalous events quite nicely – it’s all about how honesty lies in a coma (the title), greed rules the world, people bend the rules to get rich quick, etc. Isn’t it amazing how prescient people were in the 12th century? Or alternatively, have we fallen back to the dark ages?

Latin text below the video, Latin text with English translation here (song no. 4, on page 5).

Ecce torpet probitas,
virtus sepelitur;
fit iam parca largitas,
parcitas largitur;
verum dicit falsitas,
veritas mentitur.
Omnes iura ledunt
et ad res illicitas
licite recedunt.

Regnat avaritia,
regnant et avari;
mente quivis anxia
nititur ditari,
cum sit summa gloria
censu gloriari.
Omnes iura ledunt
et ad prava quelibet
impie recedunt.

Multum habet oneris
do das dedi dare;
verbum hoc pre ceteris
norunt ignorare
divites, quos poteris
mari comparare.
Omnes iura ledunt
et in rerum numeris
numeros excedunt

Cunctis est equaliter
insita cupido;
perit fides turpiter,
nullus fidus fido,
nec Iunoni Iupiter
nec Enee Dido.
Omnes iura ledunt
et ad mala devia
licite recedunt.

Si recte discernere
velis, non est vita,
quod sic vivit temere
gens hec imperita;
non est enim vivere,
si quis vivit ita.
Omnes iura ledunt
et fidem in opere
quolibet excedunt.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

molecular puzzles

I love rotaxanes - they are assemblies consisting of a ring loosely wrapped around a dumbbell shaped molecule, whose endgroups are so bulky that they stop the ring from escaping. They hold the same fascination as those puzzles made of chromed wire, one just can't help wondering: how on earth did that thing get around the other one? Or maybe it's just me.

Anyhow, I was pleased to hear from Oxford chemist Harry Anderson that his group and others have now succeeded in creating rotaxanes with polyynes (polyacetylenes) as the axle. Puzzles apart, such constructs are also of interest as possible molecular wires and as a first step towards a new modification of carbon. So I wrote a news story about all this, which is now out in Chemistry World:

Running rings around molecular wires

Free access.

Cartoon: Wikipedia

UPDATE (4.8.2012): you can now find the piece in this month's print edition as well, on page 33.

Monday, June 25, 2012

I miss the misery

I think I should follow up that Beethoven post with a rock video. Like Daniel Barenboim said (at least in the Hilary & Jackie movie) after jamming over the riff of You really got me: "That's how you should play Beethoven."

Anyhow, here's the new Halestorm video, enjoy:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beethoven for cello and flute

We're currently trying to play the first movement of Beethoven's duet No. 1 (originally written for clarinet and bassoon, but we're adapting an adaptation for violin and viola). Here's the score I've prepared - all the notes are there now (I hope), but dynamics aren't quite complete yet (requires Flash -but I can email PDF file on request):

As of 2021, the Flash thing no longer works at least on my computer, but this link should take you to the score, and you can look at it without being registered with noteflight.

If you click play above, you'll get a computer-sound version - but here is how it should sound like when it's played by proper musicians.

PS: an amazing and growing list of repertoire for cello and flute is here.

PPS: We played this at the Oxford Music Festival in January 2013. The adjudicator used words like "brave" and "challenging" a lot, but we made it to the end, so I count that as a success. We're now moving on to the third movement of the same piece, which appears to be a little bit easier (hoping I can get my head round the triplets). After writing up around 40 bars, I realised that a version of Movt. 2 and 3 playable with our instruments is actually published in the book:

Duets for Violin and Violoncello for Beginners, Vol 2
(Arpad Pejtsik & Lajos Vigh, eds.)
Editio Musica Budapest Z. 14062

so we'll work with that at the moment, maybe finish the draft on noteflight later.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

flickr anniversary

Today is the second anniversary of my flickr photostream. Last year I ran a countdown of the most viewed items, but the chart looks still quite similar (viewers still seem to have an insatiable appetite for long-legged homo sapiens females, although these represent only a minority of my photos), so there's no need to repeat it. Suffice it to say that last year's number 4, showing a woman running in the park, has become the front runner by a long stretch ahead of last year's winner, and it keeps accumulating views. I have recently figured out that this is mainly due to people having fitness blogs on tumblr and similar sites, who very enthusiastically blog and reblog photos they find inspirational for their quest to get fit (see for instance one of my photos here).

As an alternative birthday celebration, I'm showing the most-commented-upon photo, which, somewhat surprisingly, shows a smurf:

painting smurf

So here's to the third year of sharing photos on flickr - still enjoying the experience very much. Do drop by if you can.

PS: my first upload

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

crowd studies

One day in March 2007, scientists put up a camera in a window overlooking Oxford's Cornmarket Street(a pedestrianised shopping street) and filmed 2822 pedestrians to find out whether or not they would follow the gaze of a stimulus individual or group standing in the street and looking up at the camera for 60 seconds.

I just love this kind of experiments and the kinds of insights they give us into human behaviour, and I may very well have unwittingly taken part in this one, as I do occasionally walk down the Cornmarket Street. Being a keen photographer, I would of course have looked up to see whether there might be something worth snapping.

Anyhow, I've written a feature article about this and similar studies of crowd behaviour, which appears in today's issue of Current Biology:

Is it wise to join the crowd?
Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 12, R467-R470, 19 June 2012

FREE access to full text and PDF file.

st pancras people