Friday, March 30, 2012

planet spotting

Now that Venus, Jupiter, and our Moon are going separate ways again, here's a group photo in memory of the amazing sights we had in the evenings of the last few weeks. This was a day or two after new moon, when the Moon approached the Venus-Jupiter pairing we've had for a while.

Actually, I didn't know that I could take photos of planets with my cheap little compact camera, until I tried it on the height of this month's encounters. And I wouldn't have known when and where to look for planets until I joined twitter a couple of years ago and started following lots of astro people.

Here's an earlier one I took before the Moon got involved:

venus and jupiter

Friday, March 23, 2012

chaperone movies

Back in the 90s I did some research on the molecular chaperone GroEL, which at the time didn't even have a crystal structure to its name. It is a great pleasure to see that the accumulation of structural and functional knowledge on this protein has now reached the stage where researchers can assemble snapshots to a movie showing plausible twists and turns that the seen subunits of each ring may carry out during their functional cycle.

The paper from Helen Saibil and colleagues at Birkbeck College, London, appeared in Cell (online) yesterday (D K Clare et al, Cell, 2012, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.02.047) and I wrote a news item for Chemistry World which has gone live today:

Molecular chaperones caught on film.

PS (23.4.2012): a related paper that just came out in Biophys J. and is freely accessible: Prying Open Single GroES Ring Complexes by Force Reveals Cooperativity across Domains Akiko Ikeda-Kobayashi, Yukinori Taniguchi, David J. Brockwell, Emanuele Paci and Masaru Kawakami Biophysical Journal, Volume 102, Issue 8, 1961-1968, 18 April 2012 doi:10.1016/j.bpj.2012.03.046

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

symmetry and complexity

My latest feature in Current Biology deals with complexes built from several identical or different protein subunits. There are good reasons why nature likes to build highly symmetrical assemblies from identical protein units, but on the other hand there are also good reasons why such structures may diversify and evolve highly complex arrangements of different subunits, with the proteasome, shown below, being a case in point.

Symmetry and complexity in protein oligomers
Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 6, R175-R177, 20 March 2012

summary page

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)

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

Friday, March 16, 2012

writing, sharing, privacy ...

As this is the 1000th entry in my blog on blogspot, I think I can get away with a bit of navel-gazing re. what I’m trying to achieve, what I’m sharing and why, privacy issues, and all that.

First some history

Back in the early noughties, I was very happily addicted to manually updating my rather large website, and I didn’t get the point of these new-fangled blogs at all. Only in 2006, on joining MySpace, where you had a blog by default, whether you wanted or not, did I start to try this timeline format and began to enjoy it. As a control freak, however, one wants to have more order in one’s thoughts than simply a chronological one, so I looked for some platform where I could maintain at least some sort of logical connectedness of the kind I had on my website. I tried Yahoo360 (as my website was on Yahoo’s Geocities and that blended in seamlessly), but after running various formats in parallel, I ended up using blogspot as the primary blog (though I did post copies of entries in MySpace for a while, until that site turned into a ghost town).

I do like the way Blogspot allows finding blogposts easily by date, by keyword, and by search, and with the additional “link-within” app I think the connectivity between things is practically perfect for me.

What to share and when

My main justification for blogging is of course to find additional audiences for my writing published in books and magazines. I like to think of it as a funnel, where, with luck, the media that have wider audiences with shorter attention times guide some of these audiences on to the media that require a bit more concentration, so for instance: twitter – blog – magazine article – book. I don’t have much evidence that this funnel is actually working and pulling the crowds in, but hey, there’s no harm in trying.

In addition, I do like to share random bits that I happen to be interested in with the wider world (if only because sometimes there are so few people interested in the same thing that the next person may be quite far away, so there would be no use shouting in the street or going to the pub to talk about these interests). A lot of this random sharing, when it is just a link or a picture has now migrated to Twitter, and for my own photos I mainly use flickr, so the blog is left with the somewhat more text-heavy stuff, such as short excerpts of science journalism pieces (funnelling towards the full-length piece), rants on politics, economy, life, and raves about music and movies. I also try to review every book I read, though in recent months I didn’t find time to read anything beyond the books I was commissioned to review anyway.

With these things, there is still enough material to do 3-4 blog entries a week (have done fewer in the last few months, as I had two book projects to finish at the same time, which swallowed a lot of my spare time). Ideally, it would be great to do daily posts on a variety of subjects, maybe visiting each area no more often than once a week. People writing about how to monetise blogs say you have to find a niche and stick to it, but that approach would hold no interest for me. I can do niche business with the existing niche magazines any time I want, but the beauty of blogging for me is that I can write on the whole spectrum of my interests, without having a chemistry editor complaining that there isn’t enough chemistry in my story.

To give an impression of what I blog about, these are the 20 most-used tags in the first 999 blog entries:

sciencejournalism 202 (label for science stuff published elsewhere)
sciencenews 182 (for science stuff not published elsewhere)
oxford 147
photo 114 (for every entry that contains one of my photos)
bookreview 86
currentbiology 85
biochemistry 84
environment 77
germany 72
medicine 63
pop 63
shakira 56
rants 55
nanoworld 54
literature 52
astrobiology 48
travel 48
history_of_science 47
genome 45
miscellaneous 44

So adding the first two labels together gives us a science content of 38%. Sounds about right.

What not to share

Given the recent developments around Google, Facebook et al, one has to consider privacy issues as well. Personally, I’d like to believe that I’m too weird for any algorithms to figure out what ads I might click on. As evidence I can point to who have tried to figure me out pretty much since the company started in the US and haven’t succeeded to this day. What their bots can’t get their heads round is that I buy books and other things in different countries (have used US, UK, DE, FR and ES versions of amazon), and for different people (not always ticking the gift options), and that I also use their site as an author, as a marketplace vendor, not to mention as a reviewer – in which case I look up the details of the book, but get it sent via a magazine I write for. After 15 years or so, suggestions I get from amazon are still mostly useless – if it is something I’m interested in, I normally own it already. So good luck to google if they want to work out who I am, I’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Having said that, it is of course only sensible to withhold information when I can gain no benefit by revealing it. If only because nasty people from some “intelligence” agencies I could think of will probably be working on ways of tapping into Google’s information on people already. I don’t reveal my address, don’t say where my tweets are from, and seeing the recent cross-platform information sharing that google is starting now, I may want to do something to protect my searches.

In Facebook, I don’t fill in most of the details that the site asks for, and I happily accept friendships from random people who I don’t really know (as my profile is public, it doesn’t make any difference anyway). Just to confuse Facebook a bit more, I occasionally switch the language I use the site in. I don’t use the like button outside of facebook, and generally only create cross-links to divert traffic out of facebook, not to pull it in. I see facebook as a human zoo where people are caged for the benefit of the visitors / advertisers, so I still prefer the wild open spaces of the web to the zoos.

Who reads what

I haven’t done any serious visitors statistics on my blog, but the occasional look at the tracker that runs at the bottom of the right hand side column suggests that there is only modest traffic, some 20-30 visits per day, and that most of it comes from searches. There was a time when tweeting blog entries helped, but that has stopped working, not sure why. Tweeting links to a specific photo on flickr still gives me 15 extra clicks within a minute, but tweeting a blog entry gives one or two at best.

Google searches are especially successful in attracting visitors to topics that aren’t adequately covered by the English language media, e.g. Spanish language pop music or cinema. So if somebody using a search engine set to English as the preferred language looks for information on movies like Julio Medem’s Caotica Ana or Shakira’s impact on society, they are likely to end up on my blog. (Amazingly I get Medem and Shakira related visits practically on a daily basis, while areas where I can actually claim some level of expertise, like nanotechnology or extremophiles, pull in much less traffic, presumably because they are adequately covered by higher-ranking sites.) Other popular search terms include the philosophy of Lady Gaga and that of capitalism as well, the Headington shark and the architecture of Santiago Calatrava. For further popular search terms see this analysis I did in 2010.

All in all, I’m still happy with what this blog enables me to do and communicate, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

7 days in Havana

I'm hoping to catch Julio Medem's latest work, which is a seventh of the 7-episodes film 7 days in Havana, at some time this year. Medem's contribution is the Wednesday, and it's called La tentación de Cecilia. Am a bit nervous as his last two feature films didn't get cinematic releases in the UK, but let's wait and see.

UPDATE 21.7.2012): in theory, the film was released in the UK at the beginning of July, but a check at our local indpendent cinema revealed they are planning to show it "off-release" i.e. later ...

In the meantime we can enjoy the rather lovely official website of the film co-sponsored by my favourite rum, Havana Club. What's not to like?

Just keeping all limbs crossed and hoping that I actually get to see the movie.

official poster of the movie

Friday, March 09, 2012

gecko alert

I have recently submitted both the book manuscripts that have kept me very busy since September, so I can now begin to reveal what they are about. The first one is a collection of nanoworld-related pieces from the last six years or so, written in German. It is organised similarly to my very first book, Expeditionen in den Nanokosmos(1995), which later appeared in English as Travels to the Nanoworld, although the field has grown and changed a lot since then.

Back in 1995, travels to the world of the invisibly small were the reserve of a very small number of well-equipped and adventurous pioneers. Now there are “nano” labelled institutes and companies everywhere, there are nanosized structures in every computer you can buy in the shops, and there are nanoparticles in most sun lotions.

The field has become so huge that I wouldn’t be able to give a representative account of it. Thus, the idea this time was to present my compilation of nano articles as a collection of “postcards from the nanoworld” without claiming much logic or completeness. These glimpses at the vastness of the small world would be flanked by an introduction and an outlook chapter as they were in my very first book.

This concept worked out very well for the content of the book, but didn’t quite make it onto the cover. The publishers preferred to pick specific ideas from the collection, so we’ve ended up with a gecko-themed book called "Von Geckos, Garn und Goldwasser: Die Nanoweltwelt lässt grüßen" which in a way fits in nicely with my previous platypus collection .

The book is due to come out in September this year and will look like this:

It is already listed at Further details and a dedicated gecko-website to follow soon.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

fighting infections

The growing threat of antibiotics resistance is something I have covered since the 1990s, so it is a bit depressing that it still is a growing threat and no solution is in sight. I've combined this bacterial problem with recent issues surrounding the threat of avian flu viruses adapting to human hosts for a feature on infectious diseases, which is out in today's issue of Current Biology and freely accessible to all:

Fighting infections
Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 5, R142-R145, 6 March 2012



NIH / Wikipedia