Sunday, June 23, 2013

algae, bees, and chemists

The roundup of German pieces published in June includes red algae caught stealing, bees being invited for coffee, and chemists in high office.

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, 647
Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Extremophile Rotalge des Gen-Diebstahls überführt

Nachrichten aus der Chemie 61, 623
Ausgeforscht: Wir sind Papst (und mehr)

Chemie in unserer Zeit 47, 146
Koffein stärkt Gedächtnis der Bienen Abstract and restricted access to PDF file


one of the bumblebees buzzing around on my flickr photostream.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Vénus noire

review of the film

Vénus noire by Abdellatif Kechiche (France 2010)

This film from the auteur of Cous cous (La graine et le mulet) and this year’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the warmest colour (La vie d’Adèle) tells in epic breadth the sufferings of Sarah Baartman, one of the African women shown around as a curiosity ("the Hottentot Venus") in European cities at the beginning of the 19th century.

While mentions and images of the historical Venuses are familiar to many, I think they remained curiosities so far. The film very successfully lifts the human being caught up in this show off the page and makes her experience of hopes, disappointment and exploitation the focus of the story. With the benefit of living in a (slightly) more enlightened age, we can see that she is beautiful, intelligent, and talented in ways that the contemporary audiences – neither the workers in London nor the aristocrats and scientists in Paris – could hardly fathom.

Seeing her strength in the face of adversity is uplifting, but watching her European audiences and the males that exploit her is very uncomfortable if you happen to be white and/or male. The underlying curiosity for people who are different from one’s own is of course not a bad thing, but without respect for the otherness it can have devastating effects.

I find it rather puzzling and depressing that this film didn’t get a UK release (not even on DVD - I bought mine in France, and amazon UK offers an import version). In many ways the London episode (where anti-slavery campaigners even try to liberate Baartman from her employer in a court case) is the less depressing part of the story.

Image from

Thursday, June 20, 2013

1000 photos

Tomorrow marks the 3rd birthday of my Flickr photostream, and as it happens, I am also celebrating my 1000th picture there. Oh, and I even got used to the new design. Looks kind of cool as long as you don't scratch the shiny surface and it saves me money on the pro membership ...

The most-viewed photos are still the same ones as last year, so instead I'm posting a brand-new one here, photo number 1000:

liege guillemins

This is of course Calatrava's Liege Guillemins station.

Monday, June 17, 2013

emotional science

In my latest feature in Current Biology I've explored how science, after centuries of trying to shut out all emotional and subjective things, is now rediscovering emotion. After all, we now know that feelings show up in MRI scans, so they must be real. And in some contexts, from conservation through to medicine, they might even be useful.

Can science relate to our emotions?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 12, R501-R504, 17 June 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.056

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blue marble

The blue marble that I got from Wallace J Nichols whose work is discussed in the feature. It symbolises our watery planet as it can be seen from space, and also points to his views on the "blue mind."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

amor (celos de ti)

I just came across an audio file of Shakira performing this song on tumblr and didn't recognise it (it doesn't appear on any of her CDs). Investigating further, I found the video:

The song is by Puerto-Rican composer Pedro Flores and according to this site it was recorded for an anthology of his work.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

control freakery

Each time I’m taking the Eurostar to continental Europe I am left wondering, why is a single passport check ok to travel out, but two or three are done on the way back?

Coming back from Germany via Brussels last Sunday (on the Eurostar departing Brussels at 19:52) we had our passports checked three times (by Belgian and UK authorities in Brussels, and then by UK people again in St. Pancras). The ticket was also checked three times, by the machine at checkin, by the UK passport control in Brussels and by a train manager on the train.

I don’t really see the need for any passport controls within the EU. If I can fly from Madrid to Helsinki or Athens under the Schengen agreement without border control, what’s so special about the UK and Ireland that they can’t join? I’m really not buying the argument that these countries are so attractive they need extra protection.

Then, if you do need passport controls, why not do them once in the right place, and be done with it? If I’m a legal traveller on the first contol, I’ll surely still be legal on the third one. To me, the third passport control on the same leg of the journey really is where security measures end and harassment begins. It didn’t improve my mood that a steward, as I was stepping up to the counter with my son who has autism and needs constant supervision and assistance, shouted at us “one at a time”. If he had actually looked at us before, he could have figured out why we went ahead together.

My personal gripes apart, surely, it can’t be good for the UK economy if people who may be travelling to London on business get harassed this way?

New art work suspended from the roof of St. Pancras station.

Monday, June 10, 2013

bees memories

Recent research and the EU's temporary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides has brought the threats to bees and other pollinators on the agenda again. While manufacturers insist that neonicotinoids aren't toxic to bees in concentrations found in the environment, the interest now focuses on the more subtle effects the substances may have. For instance, by making bees forgetful, even sublethal doses can endanger the survival of the colony.

Read all about it in my feature that came out in Current Biology last week:

EU ban puts spotlight on complex effects of neonicotinoids

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 11, R462-R464, 3 June 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.030

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bumblebee 1103

(one of my many bumblebees on Flickr)

Incidentally, in this month's issue of Chemie in unserer Zeit I also have a piece on bees' memories. Unlike the neonicotinoids, caffeine seems to improve it.

Pflanzeninhaltsstoffe: Koffein stärkt Gedächtnis der Bienen

Chemie in unserer Zeit

Volume 47, Issue 3, page 146, Juni 2013 DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201390029

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