Wednesday, December 24, 2014

a valiant vicar

In the course of our investigations into the ancestors who were tradesmen in the small town of Kirn from the 15th through to the 17th century, we also came across a likely ancestor who was the town’s first Lutheran vicar. (I was actually baptised in his church, where his bones are probably still underfoot, which is kind of spooky.) He had an unusual life, so here’s a draft version of his biography:

NB: I've added a German version of his biography to

Peter Siegel was a student of Martin Luther at Wittenberg and went on to introduce Luther’s ideas to his home town of Kirn long before the area officially became protestant.

Peter Siegel was born in 1485 as the son of the baker Nikolaus Siegel and his wife, who was a daughter of Hen Thielmann. He started out learning his father’s trade and then probably became a monk. In October 1518, at the unusually advanced age of 33, he went to Wittenberg to study theology with the reformer Martin Luther, whose ideas had inspired him.

After three years of study, in 1521, the rulers of his home territory suggested he should become vicar of Münster am Stein, which is also on the river Nahe, downstream of Kirn. It is unclear whether he actually obtained this job, but he soon married a woman from his home town named Gertrud (not quite in accord with catholic dogma).

He then moved back to Kirn, where, according to his tombstone, he was a vicar from 1528 to his death in 1560 (although the first mentions in the town archives only date to the 1530s). Specifically his epitaph said that he “preached the gospel of Christ at this church for 32 years – no matter how much his adversaries raged – in its pure and unadulterated form, after elimination of all man-made additions.” In Latin that reads:

qui cum duos et triginta annos, huic Ecclesiae, quantumvis frementibus adversariis, Evangelium Christi pure sincereque, neglectis hominum figmentis, tradisset

Those raging opponents will mainly have been the members of the local Collegiate church, who made several complaints to the archbishop at Mainz about their vicar. Disputes over the true faith raged on into the 1540s, such that one cannot pin down a date for the introduction of the reformation at Kirn. The territorial overlords clearly protected their renitent protestant vicar from prosecution by the archbishop, but only “came out” as protestants after the 1555 Augsburg Settlement, which allowed each ruler complete freedom to choose the faith for their domain (cuius regio, eius religio).

The citizens of the small town (which, despite its strong tradition in trades and crafts, only officially became a town in 1857) were already very supportive of their protestant vicar by that time. A significant date in this context is 1544, which is when the records of the wool weavers' guild stop mentioning the Corpus Christi (Fronleichnam) holiday, which is a highly significant day for catholics only. Kirn remained purely protestant until 1681 when French troops took over the town and the castle next door to it, the Kyrburg.

Peter Siegel died on October 15th, 1560 and was buried in his church, which had to be partially rebuilt in later centuries, but still is a protestant church in the same location to this day. From 1684, the French occupation forced the town to simultaneously use the church for catholic as well as protestant services, and the new catholic altar came to cover up Siegel’s tomb. Later on, the tombstone, whose inscription survives in transcripts (although the date had to be corrected), was removed and remains lost.


Own photo of the Lutheran church at Kirn.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

stripped back cellulose

Cellulose as made by plants is a complex material that mankind has used for all kinds of applications for millennia. Only in the 20th century synthetic materials increasingly replaced it, mainly because the plastics can be tailored to any material property required. Now, however, as plastic waste is becoming a global problem and sustainable solutions are in high demand, researchers are rediscovering cellulose and stripping down its complexity, resulting in so-called nanocellulose. With these structural building blocks of natural cellulose, they can then construct composite materials to rival the synthetic ones.

I've written a feature about nanocellulose which is out in the December issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Nature's building blocks
Chemistry & Industry December 2014, pp 18-21
(premium content, but I can send PDF "reprints" on request)

On page 51 of the same issue you'll find my review of the book The economic competitiveness of renewable energy - pathways to 100% global coverage, by Winfried Hoffmann.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

the trouble with animals

It's all very well having animals around as food or for company, but the trouble is that we pick up diseases from them, and those can be deadly, especially in the initial phase after jumping across to our species. At the end of the year in which Ebola hit the headlines for months, I've discussed the wider problem of zoonotic disease and the lessons to be learned from the failure to tackle Ebola in time to stop it running out of control.

Our shared burden of diseases

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 24, pages R1139–R1141, 15 December 2014 Open access

(I can send PDF "reprints" on request, and the article should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

seasonal offerings

My German pieces published in December are embarrassingly seasonal - there is ice and snow aplenty in a feature about the subglacial biosphere of Antarctica, and the target of my regular fun-poking is Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), which is known in Germany as Weihnachtsstern (christmas star). That's quite enough xmas for me, I don't want to hear it mentioned again until next year ...

Mikrobielle Artenvielfalt unter dem Eis der Antarktis
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 62, 1186-1187, 2014
[related content in English]

Die Wissenschaft vom Weihnachtsstern
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 62, 1251, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

how to feed the world

The world population keeps growing, more people want better diets, and climate change puts food production at risk. All these global trends mean we as a civilisation will have to act now to make sure we will still have enough food in the next few decades.

Plant science can offer crucial support for this quest in a number of ways. Improvements in crop yield through genetic engineering are a controversial route, but even by tracking down wild relatives of crop plants and feeding their desirable traits into the gene pool by conventional breeding, plant scientists can help to improve global food security. Importantly, bridges must be built between fundamental research in plant science and the applied research in agriculture.

These issues are covered in some detail in my latest feature which is out today:

Plant science called up to provide food security

Current Biology
Volume 24, Issue 23, pR1105–R1108, 1 December 2014
Open access

The feature was inspired by this special issue of the American Journal of Botany (October 2014):

Monday, November 17, 2014

go wild

Back in October, I attended the Earthwatch debate on rewilding, which offered an interesting range of perspectives on the issue - and was followed by an enthusiastic audience with a majority in favour of reintroducing carnivores like lynx and wolf to the UK.

I've distilled my impressions into a feature which is out in Current Biology today:

How wild do you want to go?

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 22, pR1067–R1070, 17 November 2014

Open access

(My own photo of the event, Kate Humble giving the introductory speech.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

the butcher, the baker ...

... I'm actually short of a candlestickmaker in this story, but I have a few other interesting trades, so bear with me:

Until around a decade ago, I believed I was the first person in the family to be born in the small town of Kirn, by the river Nahe. While 3/16 of my ancestors hail from the surrounding hills of the Hunsrück, they seem to have studiously avoided the river valley with the towns Oberstein, Kirn, Sobernheim, and Kreuznach.

Then we discovered one ancestor who was born at Kirn more than 300 years before me (in 1654, to be precise), and she turned out to be related to the Andres family, who went on to found the local brewery (Kirner Pils), which is still thriving today, bucking the trend that has seen much larger companies dominating the beer market. They do make very good beer, as well, so I’m glad they’re still there (and still in the hands of the Andres family).

After pulling various threads attached to that family we have now got a whole network of ancestors who were crafts and tradesmen in Kirn, going back to the mid-15th century. There were butchers, bakers, tanners, weavers, plus the extinct profession of Schleifmüller, which I’ll explain below. For two centuries they had a thriving small town economy there – even though Kirn only officially became a town much later (1857) and the inhabitants had to pay to get their freedom in 1600. Then, however, the plague arrived in 1606, closely followed by the 30-years war (1618-1648), devastating the whole community. During the war, the number of households in Kirn fell to one tenth of what it had been before (230 to 22). Just after the war, as some refugees returned, there were 74 households, and the population would take until 1800 to recover, by which time my ancestors were long gone.

Here are, in chronological order, some of the things we think we know about our ancestors in this little community in its heyday until darkness fell.


In generation 17, born between 1440 and 1470, we have three households. Henn (Henrich, Hen) Kub (Koben) married Katharina Hensels around 1465. Not sure what they did for a living, but from the next generation onwards the Kubs are bakers, so let’s assume that. From 1481 to 1488 Hen Koben was mayor (Schultheiß) of Kirn. He lived in a house in the Adelsgasse that will later be home to the Creutzer family, below. Today this street is called the Nahegasse, and it's the tangent on the West side of the market square, so it's at the very heart of the historic centre of the town.

Second, a tanner called Steffen, which in some sources is given as his last name and in others as his first name, with Lauer, an old-fashioned word for tanner, as the last name. At this time, the use of family names was still fluid, and we have several examples of people switching between their father’s first name, their profession, and a nickname, as a family name. Steffen’s daughters called themselves Lauer, so let’s stick with the name under which you’ll find him in GIB, i.e. Stephan Lauer. His wife is Katharina (Ketter) Wöllenstein (Wolfstein, Wellstein), they married around 1495. (Strictly speaking, we don't know where this family lived - research is ongoing.)

Third, a “Schleifmüller” called Contz Schmidt, meaning he had a water mill and used the power to sharpen tools and possibly swords as well. People working at a Schleifmühle were also referred to as smiths, so his last name may reflect this. He obtained a heritable leasehold for his mill in 1468 – this is the earliest firmly established date in all of our family history. While there is nothing left of the mill, the millstream is still there, so one can guess the location.


One generation down the line (born 1470-1490), we have the descendants of the above plus a few newbies. New kids on the block in generation 16 are the tanner Hen(rich) Culmann and his wife Catharina Treger.

Henrich Kub’s son was a baker called Hans Kub, but he seems to have kept a low profile, as that is all that we know about him.

The tanner Stephan Lauer had two daughters whose first names we don’t know. The one we care about married another tanner called Lauer, Simon Lauer, who came from Gemünden, some 20 km north of Kirn in the Soonwald, and by the Simmerbach which joins the Nahe just downstream of Kirn.

The other Lauer daughter married a man called Wöllstein (note the similarity to her mother’s name, Wöllenstein, but no link established yet), and went off to Becherbach, just a few kilometres south of Kirn, where she had a daughter, who would later marry her first cousin, the son of the older Lauer girl and Simon Lauer, called Johannes Simon – where, again, the father’s first name became the family name for a lineage that remained present in Kirn through to the 20th century.

Contz Schmidt had three sons, one of whom called himself Theiß, which became the family name of his descendants, and which is now quite a widespread name in the area. Of interest to us, however, is the first-born called Conrad Schmidt, who expanded his father’s business. In 1524 he is recorded as the owner of two mills and a house in the Steinweg, the northern extension of the Adelsgasse.


In Generation 15 (born 1500-1520) we have three households, and as we are following the daughters of the smiths and the tanners, we are saying good-bye to these professions and focus on food production.

Around 1525, Eulalia, the daughter of the tanner Hen(rich) Culmann and Catharina Treger married the earliest known male ancestor of the Andres lineage (of brewery fame) to show up in Kirn, a butcher who is variously also known as Endres Metzler (referring to his profession). Eulalia was the oldest of five children, who all went on to have their own families. Two of the sons became butchers under the family name of Pass, which was their father’s nickname. Of the at least 16 grandchildren of Culmann/Treger, one marries Hans Theiß, grandson of Contz Schmidt, another Johannes Simon, grandson of Simon Lauer. Both marriages are not part of our relevant lineages, showing that there are multiple cross-links between these families.

The Kub kept their passion for baking, as Adam Kub was a baker like his father, and he married Anna Simon, daughter of Simon Lauer and the nameless older Lauer girl.

Finally, the nameless Schmidt girl married another baker called Ulrich Emich. Now that is an interesting name, because the former lords of the Kyrburg, the castle overlooking the town, came from a family whose firstborn sons were called Emich throughout the 11th and 12th century. I need to investigate what exactly it means when this name turns up as the family name of an ordinary citizen two hundred years later. Confusingly, another Ulrich Emich worked at the castle around the same time, and there have been earlier Emichs in the services of the counts of the Kyrburg, specifically Wilhelm Emich was Sekretarius there 1568-1577, and as a reward for his faithful service, he received a house in the Steinweg, close to where the Kub and the Schmidt people mentioned above lived as well, which could count as circumstantial evidence that he is in fact linked to these townspeople.

Ulrich Emich later (around 1570) married a second woman, who is called Wellstein in one source and Anna Wolfstein in another (AIS). The latter source claims that she was the mother of the Emich daughter we’re interested in, but if the marriage date is correct, this would appear implausible, so we’re sticking with the Schmidt girl. (Although the Wellstein ancestors reach one generation further than the Schmidt ones and yield another person resident in the Adelsgasse.)


In generation 14 (born 1525-1560 ), we have three households again, featuring a wool weaver and two butchers.

The woolweaver is a new arrival called Jean (Johann) van Dham (later: Dammi) from Malmedy, a town near Liege, in today’s Belgium (then it was a small church territory), or possibly from St. Vith, in the district of Malmedy. Von Dhams lived in St. Vith over many generations, but are believed to have come from Fels (Larochette) in Luxembourg originally. Intriguingly, there is an earlier von Dann family of wool weavers recorded in Kirn from 1530 onwards, and I have a suspicion they come from the same source.

The butcher Uli Andres, son of Eulalia Culmann and Andres Metzler, married Sabine Kub, the baker’s daughter.

The nameless daughter of the other baker, Ulrich Emich, married the butcher Jakob Creutzer ,who lived in Hen Kub's house in the Adelsgasse. They had three children in 1580-1585, but she must have died then, as he married again and had another three children with his second wife.


Generation 13 (born 1550-1590), the field is narrowing, and we can begin to see where all this is leading …

The immigrant wool weaver brought along a son called Hans Dammi, who worked as a cotton weaver. He married Elisabeth, the widow of Urban Welsch, who was also a wool weaver, but we don’t know her background. The name Welsch also points to a migration background, it essentially meant “foreign”, and one online genealogy claims that he is also from Malmedy, so at first I thought he may have received the moniker on arrival at Kirn. However, as the Malmedy area was also German speaking, and there are Welsch families in that area to this day, I now think that the name is due to an earlier migration event and he already lived in Malmedy under that name, which would be helpful in tracing down his family connections there. After Hans Dammi’s demise Elisabeth married a third time in 1614, this time the lucky man was another wool weaver called Matthes Wilhelm.

Merten Andres, still following in the butcher tradition, marries the competitor’s daughter, Katharina Creutzer. Her brother Georg Matthias Creutzer keeps the butcher shop going and becomes mayor in 1635, as does Katharina’s son Jakob Andres ten years later.


In generation 12 we have the winning couple (born 1614/1619):

While the Andres sons march on to butcher shop, inn-keeping, and finally beer brewing glory, we follow daughter Anna Margareta Andres who marries the weaver Johann Dammy, son of Hans.

They seem to have been of the robust sort – having lived through the thirty-years war and a return of the plague, he reached the age of 78, and she was 80 or 81 years old when she died in 1700.

Johann Dammy was mayor in 1676 (it was obviously the thing to do, in those circles). A local historian also mentions that after the war ended in 1648, and there were no funds to restore the public bath houses by the river, Johann Dammy rented the huge copper kettle that had become redundant and used it to dye his fabrics.

The couple only married in 1651, when they were both well over 30, but given the hardship the town suffered in the thirty-years war, they probably waited to make sure that it was really safe to do so. They had five children born in 1652 and 1666. The second of them, Elisabeth, was the last of my direct ancestors to be born in Kirn. In 1682, she married Matthes Wilhelm Schüler, an innkeeper in Kirchberg, and moved there. Although her brother Johann Jakob Damme had several sons, the name disappeared from Kirn, no person with this name appears to have been born there after 1700.

One hundred years later, Johann Jakob Andres began brewing beer for other inns as well as his own. Two hundred years later, his grandsons Philipp and Carl Andres launched the brewery as large scale business.

The tanners, including the Simon family, also went on to do well, and in the 19th century, leather factories became one of the key industries of the town.


Own photo.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Nicaragua Canal

One hundred years after completion of the Panama Canal, plans for a new, larger shipping route across Central America is dividing opinion. In my latest feature I have looked both at the economic opportunities for one of the poorest countries of the area, and at the dangers to biodiversity and ecosystems.

Will the Nicaragua Canal connect or divide?

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 21, pR1023–R1025, 3 November 2014

Open access

Source: Wikimedia.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

gene therapy comeback

The idea of treating diseases by fixing faulty genes was big in the late 90s, but then suffered some serious setbacks. Thanks to new vectors and a broader spectrum of disease targets, the approach is now making a comeback and one treatment has already gained official approval in the EU.

Read all about it in my latest feature:

New hopes for gene therapy
Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 20, pR983–R986, 20 October 2014

FREE access to full text and PDF

The book of life - a printout of the human genome on display at the Wellcome Collection, London. Own photo. (I was considering to use this picture with the feature, but didn't have space for it in the end.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

useful anarchy

Intrinsic disorder in proteins has fascinated me ever since 1997, when Kevin Plaxco asked me to co-author a News & Views piece (1) on what was then an emerging topic. By now it is an established scientific phenomenon feeding a whole research community, so I even had the opportunity to attend a conference about it a few years ago, and write a feature for Chemistry World among other articles.

We now know that intrinsically disordered proteins play an important role in nature. Quite a few of them work in molecular recognition and can achieve specific binding by “folding around” their target. Others are medically relevant. For instance, there are disordered domains (an oxymoron for the protein folding crowd to chuckle or argue about) in virus proteins and in transcription factors that are important targets for cancer drugs.

If nature can find use for disordered sequences, maybe scientists can also use them in molecular design? Kevin’s group at the University of California at Santa Barbara has now demonstrated an intriguing approach in which disordered sequences (of DNA, this time) can make a receptor more cooperative, meaning more likely to bind a second molecule once it has bound the first (2). The best known natural example of molecular cooperativity is the binding of oxygen to haemoglobin in our red blood cells – it can carry up to four molecules, and each position filled increases the affinity of the remaining ones. The attraction, for haemoglobin as for biotechnologists, is that cooperative binding has a much sharper transition, switching from all empty to all full in a narrower range of concentrations than a non-cooperative receptor would.

But how do you force a receptor to be cooperative if it isn’t naturally inclined to do this? What first author Anna Simon and colleagues in the Plaxco lab did was to cut the receptor (a DNA aptamer in this work, but it should in principle be possible with proteins as well) in two halves, then duplicate each half. If you think of a complete working receptor as a pair of robotic hands that can grab a ball, they glued two left hands together and two right hands, but a connected pair of left and right was needed to carry out the desired function. They then connected the ends of the left and right construct with a DNA sequence that prefers to be disordered.

Bringing one pair of robot hands together to grab one ball comes at a cost, as the disordered DNA linker loses entropy (i.e. opportunities to adopt many random conformations) when its two ends are brought closely together. Once the first ball is firmly grabbed, however, and this entropic fee has been paid, the second pair of hands is suitably arranged in close proximity and ready to grab the second ball without having to pay any entropic costs for that. Thus, as in haemoglobin, the second binding event is much more favourable than the first.

Image: Anna Simon / ref. (2)

Simon et al. tried this out with three different DNA receptors, from a primitive one binding mercury ions to a sophisticated aptamers for the molecules cocaine and doxorubicin, and found that all showed some cooperativity, and one receptor, the one for doxorubicine, gave results within the error margins of the values that theory predicts for perfect cooperativity.

Seeing this works with all three DNA receptors tested, it should also work with others and could also be transferred to proteins. In fact, a recent paper suggests that nature also uses this trick in proteins already (3). Then it could be expanded to more than two binding sites, and it would be good to have high-resolution structures of these constructs to analyse their function in detail. The application of disorder in molecular engineering may be a whole new research field that has just been born.


(1) K. W. Plaxco and M. Groß, Nature 1997, 386, 657.
(2) A. J. Simon et al, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2014, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410796111
(3) A. C. Ferreon et al., Nature 2013, 498, 390.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

a schnapsidee

... is the kind of inspiration that you only have after a few glasses of schnaps, and which may turn out not quite so inspired once you've sobered up. The idea to produce alcoholic drinks in powder form sounds like it could qualify for this label in more than one respect, as I discussed in September's Ausgeforscht column. On a more sober note, the round-up of German pieces published in September/October also includes fake graphene, neonicotinoids, and shark antibodies. Something for every taste, really.

Pulverisierte Schnapsidee
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 62, No. 9, 951

Variationen zum Thema Graphen
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 48, Issue 5, page 329, DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201490059
Abstract and limited access to full text
related content in English

Sorgenkind systemischer Pflanzenschutz
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 62, No. 10, 991
related content in English

Haie geben Einblick in die Evolution des Immunsystems
Spektrum der Wissenschaft No. 10, 12
Summary and limited access to full text
related content in English

own photo

Monday, October 13, 2014

Klundt Clan

Migration in my family tree normally works like this – direct ancestors coming in (eg from Wallonia), and aunts/uncles going out (eg to Brazil). There is one married couple of direct ancestors, however, who emigrated to Russia and stayed there for the rest of their lives (to make matters worse, many of their great-grandchildren later emigrated to the US). Fortunately, their firstborn son and his family stayed in Germany, otherwise I wouldn’t be here now and you might be staring at an empty screen. So here comes a story of fearless migrants and wine makers:

Johannes Klundt was born November 2nd 1759 in Wollmesheim, a village near Landau in the Southern Palatinate, a traditional wine growing region, the second of five children of Konrad Klundt and Maria Johanna Bodang (this name appears to be a palatinate distortion of the French name Bonnedame). His parents had a very small vineyard there (just half a hectare), and some 3.5 ha other agricultural land. Splitting this between him and his older brother would have left too little for either party to survive.

Johannes married Eva Hust (1762-1837) in 1781 – she may also have a migration background, as the name Hust is almost non-existent in Germany, but there are lots of them in France and Belgium. They had five sons and a daughter, born between 1782 and 1805.

Moving out

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Tsars actively encouraged settlers from southwest Germany to move to the Odessa area at north coast of the Black Sea, which was then a new addition to the Russian empire and is today part of Ukraine. A village called Rohrbach (today: Новосвітлівка - Novosvitlivka), some 120 km north-northeast of Odessa, was built in 1805 and the first German settlers arrived there in 1806. My ancestors Johannes Klundt and Eva Hust got there in 1809, after a journey of 80 days, most of which was done by ship (specifically, in improvised wooden boxes that were used one-way only) down the Danube.


So who came along and who stayed behind? When Johannes Klundt left, his parents were no longer alive. We know that of his five sons, the first one, Johann Jacob (1782-1853; my four-times-great-grandfather), stayed behind. He had already set up his own family in nearby Godramstein, with his wife Katharina Barbara Müller (1781-1813) from that village and his son Georg Nicolas (1805-1851) who was to become a farmer and wine maker.

The second, Wilhelm (* 1785) was still unmarried and came along. Their only daughter Eva Catharina (* 1792) and two younger sons, Heinrich (1797-1851) and Johann Michael (1801-1876) were still children when the Klundts emigrated, so they came along by default and lived their lives in the German colony near the Black Sea. We don’t know what happened to the other son.

Johannes’s older brother Johann Jacob (1756-XXX) presumably inherited the modest house and land of Konrad Klundt and worked as a cooper and farmer. (There are two family vineyards called Klundt in neighbouring Mörzheim today (led by Sven Klundt and Walter Klundt), but we’re not sure exactly how they are related to this family.)

Intriguingly, one of the many Klundt descendants in Rohrbach, Heinrich’s granddaughter Katherina Klundt (1857-1949) later married a man called Johann Hust, who was also born in Rohrbach, which makes me think that a brother or cousin of our Eva Hust may have emigrated together with the Klundt family. We don't really know much about Eva Hust's family at all, except the names of her parents, so we don't know whom she left behind or may have taken along for the ride.

The four children who came along to Rohrbach between them provided Johannes and Eva with 26 grandchildren, who all (except one) appear to have stayed in the Odessa area all their lives. (Intriguingly the three sons contributed 13 grandsons carrying the name onwards). When Johannes died in 1833, and Eva in 1837, they left behind a healthy and thriving clan that seemed to have established itself in its now environment.

The village economy in general seemed to be doing well in those times, according to this report. Villagers grew large amounts of wheat, but also held sheep and produced some wine. The population of the village grew from 602 in 1816 to 1581 in 1859.

Moving on

From 1871 onwards (with a ten-year transition period), the colonists lost the privileges that they had enjoyed for two generations, and life on the Black Sea suddenly looked a lot less attractive. Apart from the loss of financial incentives, the young men were also facing the obligation of six years service in the Russian army. Thousands of German settlers emigrated again. The population of Rohrbach peaked in 1894, then dropped by a third, mainly as a consequence of migration to the US. Of the more than 60 great-grandchildren of our founding couple, at least 12 emigrated to the US, where they kept the reproduction rate up, so there must be hundreds of descendants of the Klundt families from Rohrbach in the US and also in some other parts of the world. They are listed here by a descendant of Heinrich and here by a descendant of Eva, but I haven't counted.

In 1884, Jacob Klundt (1855-1939), the eldest of Johannes's great-grandchildren, and his wife Maria Lutz (1854-1939) with their children (three were born in Russia, but not sure if all three survived) took the lead and emigrated to Mitchell County, South Dakota. Then they moved to the city of Alexander, South Dakota. Jacob’s mother, Juliana Kulatus (1835-1925), five brothers and one sister, Katherina (the one who married Johann Hust) joined them there in 1889. As the remaining three siblings and their father Heinrich Klundt had died before the emigration, this means the entire surviving clan moved to the US, where Juliana became a proud grandmother of 50. A bunch of Johann Michael’s grandchildren also emigrated to the US between 1893 and 1907, as did a few scattered individuals and families across the board. They had a lucky escape, because the 20th century held disaster in store for those settler families who stayed in Russia.

In 1889, the combined Klundt families moved to Dakem, North Dakota, on three covered wagons. During the years in South and North Dakota, Jacob Klundt and Maria Lutz had another eight children. They tried to establish a farming business there, but found the climate too different from what they were used to on the shores of the Black Sea.

Thus, in 1902, Jacob’s family (with ten children) migrated further west to Franklin County, Washington, where they bought land near the Snake River, north of the town of Walla Walla, from a Mr Page – after whom the location was named in 1903. Conrad’s family followed them, while Katherina and the other brothers stayed in North Dakota.

Until 1919, the Klundts ran a ferry across the river as well as their farm. Jacob’s son Charles Klundt became the first postmaster of Page when a post office was installed in 1903, later to be followed by two of his brothers.

The Klundts also set up a shop, a church, and fisheries. They also established a modest vineyard of two acres and actually produced wine. This makes me think that they probably handed down their wine-making traditions over the generations since they left the palatinate, and also grew vines in Rohrbach. For a more detailed account of their lives in the US, see the historical sketch provided on this page. The village of Page no longer exists, sadly, as it disappeared under water in 1961, when a dam was built on the Snake River. But there are a lot of vines growing on the slopes near the Snake river nowadays, and maybe the Klundts have something to do with that.

So the bottom line is I have every excuse to obsess about wine, it runs in or veins …

Note: Alternative spellings of the name in old records include Clund, Klund, Chlundt.

Monday, October 06, 2014

science in antarctica

I had a feature on the shrinking arctic sea ice a couple of years ago, so here comes the southern counterpart. Apart from the concerns over climate change and loss of continental ice, I'm also looking at the recent investigation of biotopes in the subglacial lakes and their importance for astrobiology.

Shrinking ice caps in the spotlight

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 19, 6 October 2014, Pages R941–R944
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.040

abstract and limited access to full text and PDF file
(should become free access one year after publication)

A mosaic of satellite images of Antarctica taken by RADARSAT-2.

Credit: RADARSAT-2 Data and Products © MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (2008) All Rights Reserved. RADARSAT is an official mark of the Canadian Space Agency. (PR)

Thursday, October 02, 2014

viral DNA

Many DNA viruses pack their DNA so tightly inside their capsids (protein shells) that the molecular chain can no longer move and remain frozen in a glassy state. But how does it get out of that freeze when the virus infects a cell? The answer is in my latest news story in Chemistry World:

Viruses melt ‘glassy’ DNA (free access)

source: found floating around on tumblr

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guillaume Paque

Continuing the theme of obscure composers, the young cellist recently played Souvenir de Curis, a piece for four cellos by the Belgian cellist and composer Guillaume Paque.

Here are four blokes playing it (but if you prefer to see four girls playing it give me a shout and I'll send the private link):

The information I could find about him reads, in its entirety (and the years / ages don't add up):

"GUILLAUME PAQUE must be mentioned, born at Brussels on July 24, 1825. At ten years of age he became a pupil of the Conservatoire, where, during a course of six years, he received his entire artistic training. Dismissed from the institution with the first prize, he entered the orchestra of the Royal Theatre in his native town. After he had belonged to it for some years, he took up his abode in Paris, with the intention of permanently settling there. But an offer which he received in 1840, of entering, as solo cellist, the Italian Opera at Barcelona, induced him to leave the French capital. Scarcely had he arrived at Barcelona, when the Professorship of the Musical School was committed to him. In 1849 he played before the Queen of Spain in Madrid, and in 1850 he travelled in the South of France giving concerts. In the same year he fixed his residence in London, where he gained popularity as a chamber music player. He found his particular sphere of work as solo cellist at the Royal Italian Opera, as well as teacher at the London Academy of Music, until his death on March 3, 1876. Amongst his compositions he published several "Fantasias," Variations, and Drawing- room pieces."


Friday, September 26, 2014


The Sicilienne by Gabriel Fauré is a popular repertoire piece for both flautists and cellists, but here comes the version for cello and (a somewhat less competent) flute, arranged by the young cellist in the family.

PS (9.2.2015) We've performed that at the Oxford Music Festival (family class) now, so the version now on noteflight is the final one as we will move on to fresh challenges.

Monday, September 22, 2014

melancholic minds

Today's issue of Current Biology has a special section on applied neuroscience, and my contribution to that is a feature on depression:

Silver linings for patients with depression?
Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 18, pR851–R854, 22 September 2014

Free access to full text and PDF file.
(May be withdrawn after two weeks, but will come back in a year.)

The artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) suffered from severe anxiety and has in his work depicted various states of emotional distress, including depression. This work is called Evening. Melancholy I. (1896). (Image: Wikipedia.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Calvelli at Braunschweig

I've been following the work of industry painter Alexander Calvelli for many years now (I happen to know him as he's the son of my PhD supervisor) and wrote a feature about him in Chemie in unserer Zeit back in 2002.

His latest exhibition is now on at the Jakobs-Kemenate Braunschweig (Brunswick) and shows his perspective on a range of industries found in and around that city, producing useful stuff from sugar to pianos:

Alexander Calvelli
"Zwischen Zucker und Zink - Gemälde einer unzugänglichen Welt"
18. September bis 9. November 2014

His work isn't very well represented on the web, but I pinched this postage-stamp sized reproduction of one of his new works from the exhibition website:

Braunschweig Hafen (source)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

who let the raccoons out?

My latest book in German is officially released today:

Invasion der Waschbären und andere Expeditionen in die wilde Natur
Wiley-VCH 17. Sept. 2014
pp. 255, ISBN: 978-3527-33668-5,
€ 24.90, £ 22.50

Under a broad theme of "understanding what makes living beings tick", it covers lots of recent developments in ecology and functional biology, including the orientation of ants, the intelligence of corvids, the effectiveness of protected areas, and the ecology of species invasion. The raccoon of the title is an invasive species in Europe, and I love this story in particular as it is a case where a big biological problem can be traced back to a single act of stupidity, the release of a couple of raccoons in Germany, rubber-stamped with the permission of local authorities and meant to "enrich the local fauna". Plus, of course, we need a cute animal for the cover.

Here comes the German blurb, plus some links where you can order it:

Bald leben mehr als eine Million (!) Waschbären in unseren Wäldern und nicht nur da - sie kommen uns auch in den Städten »besuchen«. Die putzigen Kerlchen können nichts dafür, denn wir sind an ihrer Verbreitung Schuld, da wir das ökologische Gleichgewicht der Natur gestört haben. Doch was genau ist eigentlich Ökologie jenseits von Ökostrom und Ökolabel?

HIGHTECH-AMEISEN, HOCHINTELLIGENTE KRÄHEN UND DER URZEIT-GINKGO Alles hängt mit allem zusammen: Gerät ein ökologisches Teilsystem aus dem Gleichgewicht, löst das oft eine Kettenreaktion aus. In dem Teil >Zusammen leben< fragt Michael Groß u. a., ob Schutzgebiete wirklich die bedrohten Arten schützen, erzählt über die Wanderschaft von Pflanzenschädlingen, die sich durch weltweite Handelsnetze auch global verbreiten, oder stellt einen Überlebenden der Dinosaurierzeit vor: den Ginkgo. Warum überlebte er damals das Massensterben der Arten?

Kohlendioxidschwaden, Vibrationen, Magnetismus, Pedometer und noch vieles mehr: All das besitzt z. B. ein sehr kleines Lebewesen - die Ameise. Sie findet mit dieser »Ausstattung« sogar in der Wüste wieder zu ihrem Nest zurück. Im Teil >Aktiv leben< stellt uns Groß diese kleinen tierischen Wunderwerke vor, berichtet aber auch von den hochintelligenten Krähen oder erzählt, wie das Krokodil seine Zähne bekam. Im Abschnitt >Weiter leben< gibt er einen Ausblick auf die »Verschmelzung von Biologie und Technologie«.



Thalia (hardback and kindle) (hardback and kindle) (hardback and kindle) (hardback and kindle) (only kindle version so far)

e-book formats available from the publishers

Friday, September 12, 2014

from graphene to stanene

Graphene - a single layer of graphitic carbon - has caused some excitement in recent years, but there's always the slight inconvenience that it is an "always-on" conductor rather than a switchable material of the semiconductor type. This problem has motivated a lot of research into graphene analogues and derivatives, both on a carbon basis and on the basis of elements that share some of its properties due to being near carbon in the periodic table.

In my latest feature I have looked at graphene analogues using other elements, including carbon's neighbours boron and nitrogen, as well as its fellow group IV elements silicon, germanium, and tin (whose honeycomb layers are known as silicene, germanene and stanene, respectively). The feature appears in the September issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Stanene, the next miracle material?

Chemistry & Industry issue 9, pp 24-27.

I'm afraid it's premium content, but give me a shout if you want a PDF "reprint".

On page 51 of the same issue, there is also my review of the "Handbook of cellulosic ethanol", ditto.

A model of graphene. Image source.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

building molecules made easy

Let's have a news story for a change, here's one that just appeared in Chemistry World online, on a new combinatorial approach that is apparently so simple everybody could create new molecules. Just mix the building blocks and test if any of the resulting combinations has the properties you're looking for.

Bringing chemical synthesis to the masses

Chemistry World online 7.9.2014

Free access

Those lucky enough to get the print edition of Chemistry World can find the piece on page 21 of the October issue.

By the way, I may have forgotten to mention one or two other CW news stories in the last couple of years, such as this one:

Speeding up the experiment to fit the simulation

Thankfully, the CW website keeps track of my contributions here.

Monday, September 08, 2014

deviant desires

My latest feature in Current Biology, partially inspired by the recent book Perv – the sexual deviant in all of us, by Jesse Bering, covers the biological diversity of sexual orientations in humans (and some animals) and our society's inability to deal with this serious problem in a rational manner.

Paraphilia or perversion?

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 17, pR777–R780, 8 September 2014

OPEN access to full text and PDF

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy by Peter Paul Rubens, after a lost painting by Michelangelo (National Gallery, London)

Monday, August 25, 2014

three cute animals

The release of my third cute-animal themed book is only four weeks away - after platypuses and geckos I now have a raccoon serving as a mascot. I've just set up a dedicated web page for the new book, which you'll find here:

Invasion der Waschbären .

In the process, I also found that Yahoo had shut down my website for the last three weeks, as I forgot to update my payment info (and naively assumed they would just revert to the old trick of displaying ads on my site rather than shutting it off). Apologies to anyone who got frustrated looking for the site it should now be back to normal.

The new book covers ecology and functional biology. Expect more raccoon-related ravings soon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

bees to birds

I have covered the threats to bees and other pollinators a few times since the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in the noughties (see the label bees, although this blog doesn't quite go back to the very beginning of the problem). Gradually, the emphasis shifted to the question of if and how systemic pesticides and in particular the neonicotinoids, could through indirect or subtle sublethal effects cause pollinator problems.

Ecologists have now compiled evidence suggesting that it's not just the pollinators that suffer from systemic pesticides accumulating in soil and surface water. Collateral damage ranges from annelid worms to birds, and valuable ecosystem services (beyond pollination) are under threat. I've written a feature about all this which is now out in Current Biology (restricted access):

Systemic pesticide concerns extend beyond the bees
Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 16, pR717–R720, 18 August 2014
Summary and restricted access to full text and PDF file

Bumblebees in a garden in Germany. Own photo.

Friday, August 15, 2014

capturing carbon

I've reviewed a lovely textbook:

Introduction to Carbon Capture and Sequestration
(The Berkeley Lectures on Energy, Vol. 1)
Berend Smit, Jeffrey A. Reimer, Curtis M. Oldenburg, Ian C. Bourg
Imperial College Press, ISBN 978-1-78326-327-1

Shame that - for all the brilliant engineering that goes into it - carbon capture and sequestration is a rather dumb way of addressing the problem that we've now known for 25 years and done nothing to fix. Surely, as a civilisation, we should be able to recycle the carbon dioxide using artificial photosynthesis and thus close the carbon cycle (see my recent feature)? Anyhow, my long essay review is out in the August edition of Chemistry & Industry, pages 50-51, it's premium content, but do give me a shout if you want a PDF file.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

photosynthesis and pH sensor

just two German publications to round up for July/August, a long one on artificial photosynthesis and the quest to make solar fuel, and a short one on the catfish that uses pH sensors to find its prey:

Photosynthese unter Kontrolle?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2014, 62, No. 7/8, pp 769-770
recent feature in English covering the same area

Ein Fisch mit pH-Meter
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2014, 48 No 4, p245
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

Friday, August 01, 2014

three months of street music

My street music blog on tumblr, which is three months old today, is beginning to find an audience. Going slowly, but six times faster than my main blog on tumblr, which was at a comparable stage after 18 months ...

I'm mixing up my own photos and videos of Oxford buskers with reblogs from around the world, which results in a colourful mix of open-air music-making:

So do drop by if you can.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

ecology all plugged in

Field workers in ecology and technology are increasingly turning to modern technology in their quest to monitor and protect wildlife. Discarded smartphones now serve as listening stations to spot illegal logging, while affordable drones help with the conservation efforts for large species, and satellite imaging provides valuable data on the ecosystems level.

I have rounded up a few surprising examples of such new applications of technology in ecology and conservation in my latest feature:

Connecting with the natural world

Today’s technology, from smartphones to drones, provides researchers and conservation workers with many new and improved ways of observing and protecting wildlife.

Current Biology
Volume 24, Issue 14, pR629–R632, 21 July 2014
OPEN access to full text and pdf file

Topher White from Rainforest Connection demonstrates a listening device built from a discarded smartphone. In real-life application the devices are installed invisibly, however, camouflaged and higher up in the trees. Photo: Rainforest Connection.

Friday, July 18, 2014

analytical about art

The July issue of Chemistry & Industry contains my feature on the use of analytical methods such as SERS (surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy) in art conservation:

Fading pictures
Chemistry & Industry July 2014, pp32-35

One of the recent examples covered is the colour change through light damage in the painting Portrait de Madame Léon Clapisson by Auguste Renoir:

shown in a reconstruction of the original colours (left) in comparison to the faded original. (images: The Art Institute of Chicago).

Also in the same issue (p50-51) is my long essay review on fracking, the excuse being the book:

Hydrofracking: what everyone needs to know
by Alex Prud'homme

I'm afraid both pieces are premium content, but I have PDF files, so drop me a line if you want one.

Oh, and the art feature made the cover:

I'm loving the cover design by the way - I have often stood in front of the new(ish) C&I logo in the cropped circle and wondered: "Is it art?"

Monday, July 07, 2014

solar fuel

My latest feature in Current Biology discusses artificial photosynthesis and the quest to produce transport fuel from renewable energies:

Closing the carbon cycle

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 13, pR583–R585, 7 July 2014

Free access to full text and PDF link

own photo

Friday, July 04, 2014

perverted policy

Perv – the sexual deviant in all of us, by Jesse Bering


Author Jesse Bering grew up as an insecure gay boy during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and knows a thing or two about what it feels like to have a sexual orientation that the “silent majority” very loudly disapproves of. Although things in the US and most western countries have changed dramatically since then, he has kept a healthy dose of anger and mistrust against similar moral panics.

He puts his scepticism and scientific expertise to good use in analysing the problems around the people who are as ostracised today as he was in the 1980s, including paedophiles and all those with other kinds of “abnormal” sexual orientations, technically described as paraphilias.

Sexual orientation – a concept which only emerged in the late 19th century – can easily be measured today (the author has great fun describing how it is done with male subjects) and it has become clear that in boys it is fixed by the age of 10. Thus there is no way to cure a paedophile of his orientation, just as one cannot straighten out gay people.

What society could do, but has failed to do so far, is to recognise that people with certain paraphilias have a problem and need help addressing it. Harm reduction, rather than moral, naturalness or normality, is the key issue in Bering’s argument. Podophilia (foot fetishism) isn’t likely to harm anybody, but paedophiles need help to live with an orientation that would inflict suffering on children if they lived out their secret urges.

Currently, society tends to label them evil (contrary to the scientific evidence showing that they haven’t chosen their orientation) and heaps so much shame on them that some resort to child murder rather than risking exposure of their sexual transgression.

Bering points to scientific evidence showing that in places where child porn was temporarily legally available, child abuse was less prevalent than when it wasn’t, suggesting that such material, repulsive as it is to the rest of us, doesn’t encourage transgression but rather provides an outlet and reduces crime.

These findings create a first-class philosophical dilemma – would it be ok to recycle confiscated child porn to offer it as a pressure valve to known paedophiles who might otherwise go out and stalk children? Even though the making of that material presumably harmed children in the past? And does it make sense to incarcerate “hands-off” offenders, i.e. people whose only crime is to have indecent images stored on their computers, if these very images may have stopped them from doing worse?

A possible solution that the author appears to support would be to allow computer animation material to be produced and consumed. Strictly following the harm reduction idea this would make sense, as nobody is harmed in the production of such footage, and if it helps to reduce actual harm to actual children, it must be a good thing, right? Now try explaining that to the media outlets with the biggest megaphones …

Combining passion rooted in his own experience with an impressive writing talent, Bering has distilled a difficult subject matter into a fascinating book. It may still take a few decades until society (any society on the planet, really) is ready to extend evidence-based policy to the unspeakable issues addressed here. If Bering’s book helps to speed up progress just a little bit, it will be remembered as a huge achievement.

I admit that the cover design is kind of clever, but it might create problems if you do your reading on public transport ...

PS: as I usually do, I also tried posting a version of this review on the amazon UK page of the book. Strangely it hasn't shown up there.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

freezing facebook

After what I’ve learned this week about manipulation of timelines by facebook, I‘ve decided to freeze my facebook account. This means I will not close it, to make sure my sign-off post explaining the reasons remains visible and people can find the links to my pages on other social sites, but I’ve blocked twitter from forwarding my tweets, so there should be nothing new coming in.

It’s not mainly the fact that the research they carried out on “emotional contagion” was unethical because there was no informed consent, although this was certainly unacceptable. Personally I would have been unlikely to be hit by facebook's mood manipulation, as I rarely check the timeline. It's worrying to think what other uses the site might find for similar "experiments".

What affects me more and makes it pointless for me to share things on facebook are the routine manipulations that were revealed in the wake of the fiasco. From this story I’ve learned why my tweets forwarded to facebook no longer got any reactions: As I didn’t use facebook directly very often, so didn’t put many likes and responses on people’s posts and don’t interact much, I was accorded low priority in people’s timelines, so they were less likely to see my stuff unless they specifically visited my own page (and for those who are ready to put in this extra effort, I’d rather they visit my blog on blogspot).

Which is a vicious circle, really. If you’re not so popular on Facebook, the algorithm will make you even less so by de-prioritising your content in other people’s streams. This is a turbo-charged popularity contest, worse than anything happening in real life.

For regular updates, follow this blog, my twitter, and/or my tumblr - further links are under "VISIT MY" in the margin (underneath the green astrobiology cover).

Quote from one of the explanatory pieces in the Guardian:

How many stories is Facebook filtering out, and how? Backstrom explained in August that Facebook's news feed algorithm boils down the 1,500 posts that could be shown a day in the average news feed into around 300 that it "prioritises". How does this algorithm work? Backstrom explained that factors include: how often you interact with a friend, page or public figure; how many likes, shares and comments individual posts have received; how much you have interacted with that kind of post in the past; and whether it’s being hidden and/or reported a lot.
PS: I missed Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble when it came out - that would have warned me. A discussion of the Facebook newsfeed in relation to the filter bubble theory is here.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

lee and che

My series on Oxford buskers seems to be settling in on a monthly rhythm now. For a daily fix of street music visit my street music blog on tumblr. This month's artists are duo Lee and Che - I think she's called Cheryl in real life, so he must be Lee. They play covers of pop/country songs that are a bit less well known (at least to me), so I discover new songs every time I see them. Here they are doing their thing in Cornmarket Street (own photo):

I have a couple of street videos of them on my youtube channel:

Cover me up by Jason Isbell

For you by Angus and Julia Stone

For more info find them on Facebook.


My flickr pics of Lee and Che

Lee and Che's youtube channel


NB: Anybody wanting to join the vibrant Oxford busking scene needs a busking pass from the Oxford City Council, application details here. See also the code of practice and the map of the nine official busking spots here.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

four years on flickr

as another summer solstice rolls by, it's also another anniversary for my flickr photostream. After four years on the site, I have accumulated 1415 photos, that's just under one per day, which I think is a reasonable rate. I am at no risk of exhausting the 1TB storage space, the site tells me that I'm still under 1% of capacity. So I could carry on for another 400 years.

While I'm not entirely happy with the design changes that flickr has made in the last year, the site still works well for me in terms of finding an audience that will look at my photos and occasionally provide feedback. While I would be perfectly happy to post pictures of architectural details and bumblebees all the time, the audience seems to have a weird preference for photos of human beings, so I'm also providing a few of those. Especially if the humans of Oxford engage in activities I'm interested in such as playing music or reading.

I would embed a few flickr pics here, but they tend to mess up the lovely link within app which crosslinks between my blog posts. So instead I'm offering you a screencap showing the top of my viewing charts as of today:

Visit my flickr photostream here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

phage therapy for trees and people

The use of bacteriophages as antibacterial therapeutics is an option that has been underappreciated for too long, considering the current crisis of widespread resistance to antibiotics. As I've reported three years ago, much of the ecological research into the triangular relationship between a pathogenic bacterium, its host and its phage has been carried out with plants such as the horse chestnut. This has now reached the point where experimental treatments for plant diseases can be introduced based on phage cocktails. These can also serve as models to study the promise and pitfalls of future use of phages to treat infectious diseases in humans.

My feature is out in Current Biology today:

Phage therapies for plants and people

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 12, 16 June 2014, Pages R541–R544

Summary and restricted access to full text / pdf download

NB there has been a change of access policy so the features will no longer be on open access in the first two weeks after publication date. They will, however, become freely accessible one year after publication. If you have problems accessing a feature, please do drop me an email (michaelgrr aatt yahoo ddott co ddott uk) - I have pdf files at hand which I'll be happy to send for personal use.

A horse chestnut sapling, own photo.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

science in south america

Back in 1999 I applied for a fairly amazing job at Nature and got through to the final, meaning I had the opportunity of a long chat with the editor, telling him what I would like the the magazine and website to add to its existing strengths. One of the main things I obsessed about was that they should do more to represent and support science in Latin America. Which obviously wasn't what they wanted to do at the time, so I didn't get the job. (Click the tag "LA_ciencia" for further attempts at supporting Latin American science).

It looks like it took 15 years and a world cup to make them change their mind - the special section Science Stars of South America in the current issue looks quite comprehensive at first glance (I may have more to say on it once I've actually read it). It seems to be on open access, start your reading here.

Cover of Nature, 12.6.2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

how drugs became demons

In my long essay review of the book "Demons - our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco and drugs" by Virginia Berridge (OUP 2013), I had plenty of space to ponder the perversity of current drugs regulation, as highlighted by David Nutt and others. As for the book itself, Berridge does a very good job explaining how events from the Opium Wars onwards led to the world ending up in this particular rabbit hole. My main criticism was the author's remarkable detachment from these hotly debated issues, which can at times be infuriating. Also, as she apparently has no opinions on any of the controversial issues surrounding current drugs policies, she doesn't offer a way out of the mess either.

Anyhow, my review is out in the June issue of Chemistry & Industry, on pp 50-51. If you have any problems accessing it, drop me a note.

Friday, June 06, 2014

archaic proteins and all that Bach

In the round-up of German pieces published in May-June 2014 we have medical marijuana, curious carbohydrates, and paleo proteins, as well as intellectual giants from Johann Sebastian Bach to Dr House.

Wirkstoff THC: Marihuana-Medizin macht Ernst
Chemie in unserer Zeit Vol 48, No 3, p 163

Biochemie: Kohlenhydrate spielen Protein
Chemie in unserer Zeit Vol 48, No 3, p 167

Ausgeforscht: Kobalt im Blut
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 62, No 5, p 595

Ausgeforscht: Proteinreiche Buchstabensuppe
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 62, No 6, p 727

Blickpunkt Bio: Proteine aus der Urzeit des Lebens
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 62, No 6, pp 632-634

Oh, and I nearly forgot, the paleo proteins made the cover of Nachrichten:

Monday, June 02, 2014

coffee and chocolate

I generally avoid writing about food, as it gets written about too much already, but if the few food types I really care about (essentially: wine, chocolate, coffee) are under threat, I have to ride to their rescue.

So here comes a feature on how climate change, financial speculation, and growth in demand may make it harder to find decent coffee and chocolate at affordable prices in the near future:

Coffee and chocolate in danger

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 11, pR503–R506, 2 June 2014

OPEN access to full text and PDF file

own photo.

PS A few months after my feature appeared, the genome of Coffea canephora was published in Science magazine, accompanied by an excellent perspectives piece arguing that in light of the present dangers to coffee crops, researchers should urgently link up genome info with phenotype characterisation:

A wake-up call with coffee
Dani Zamir
Science 5 September 2014, vol 345, p 1124.
abstract and restricted access to full text

And I'm chuffed that the author cited my feature (even referred to it twice). It doesn't happen every day that my journalistic work gets cited in Science magazine.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

communication breakdown

les femmes du bus 678 (original title: 678)

director: Mohamed Diab
starring Nahed El Sebai, Boushra, Nelly Karim

This film based on real events in Egypt describes the intersecting lives of three women who had been exposed to sexual harassment in public (only one of them on public transport, so the French title is misleading!) and who strike back in different ways. One of them, apparently, was the plaintiff in the first-ever harassment case in the history of the country, resisted immense pressure to withdraw her accusations, and went on to win the case. Another holds self-defence lectures for other women, but gets frustrated when none of the women attending ever admits to having experienced harassment. And the third, after attending these lectures, takes to using sharp objects against the offending males.

The fourth significant person in the story is the (male) police detective who investigates the sharp object episodes. To me the most significant observation that the (male) film-maker makes about the relationships of these four people with their significant others is that in three of the four couples the communication about important issues fails completely. Incidentally, in the one couple that does communicate successfully, both partners work as stand-up comedians in their spare time. Surely that’s telling us something …

The film is, of course, very timely and important given the things we hear about not just in Egypt but everywhere else, and covers the difficult issue sensitively (as far as I can tell from the French subtitles on my DVD from France – I can’t vouch for the quality of the Arabic dialogue which I don’t understand). Not easy to watch and maybe not exactly a date movie, but worth the effort.

(IMDB entry)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

nikki loy

Continuing my series on Oxford buskers, here comes Nikki Loy, a jazz-influenced singer-songwriter with several releases and lots of indoor gigs to her name (see her busy schedule, I'll try to catch her at the Cowley Road Carnival, July 6th). I first saw her at an in-store gig at the Truck Store when she released her "Live in London" CD, and on a later occasion found her busking at Carfax:

A youtube video (not mine) of her busking is here.

Free download of her song "Effortless".

More info on her website: and/or on twitter: @nikkiloymusic.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

raccoon invasion

My next book in German, due to come out in September, is a collection of biology stories. Almost no chemistry/biochemistry this time, mainly ecology and organism level biology.

Invasion der Waschbären: und andere Expeditionen in die wilde Natur (Erlebnis Wissenschaft)

Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA; (17. September 2014) 256 Seiten,
ISBN-10: 3527336680, ISBN-13: 978-3527336685

The raccoon on the cover points to a story on invasive species, by the way.

More info soon ...

Monday, May 19, 2014

stop stressing

why are people chronically stressed and what can they do about it? I've been looking for answers to this in a feature that has just appeared in a special issue on stress:

Chronic stress means we’re always on the hunt

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 10, pR405–R408, 19 May 2014

Full text (on open access for two weeks, and then again after one year)

Spending time looking across water helps to fight stress, says Wallace J. Nichols. Works for me. (Own photo, taken in Frankfurt, Germany.)

Friday, May 16, 2014

La vie d'une autre

La vie d'une autre (another woman's life)
France/Belgium 2012


Marie, played by Juliette Binoche, wakes up one morning and is horrified to discover that she is middle-aged. Last thing she can remember is being 25 and falling in love and into bed with Paul (Mathieu Kassovitz). Look at it this way, and it’s what happens to many people, even if most wake up middle-aged in somewhat less affluent circumstances than Marie. It used to be called mid-life crisis. And if we think very hard, we may still remember how all these years went by, whereas Marie can’t, due to either amnesia or time-travel (see also Camille redouble for a voyage in the opposite direction), take your pick.

In Sylvie Testud’s adaptation of a novel by Frédérique Deghelt, this time-jump is just a device to heighten the challenge of turning around a relationship that must have decayed gradually over 15 years, as for Marie these 15 years are shrunk into one night. Predictable confusion about everyday routines and complex emotions ensues – you’re not allowed to smoke in a restaurant? When did that happen? – but I think that for everybody on the wrong side of 30 the more interesting aspect is to examine whether there is a little bit of Marie’s predicament in our own lives.

Sometimes, I could swear that the 17-year-old in my household went to primary school just last week, but fortunately, I’m not quite as confused and bewildered (yet) as the protagonist of the film. Some aspects of international affairs have this 15-year gap for me – for instance, I have no idea how, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia ended up handing out its public property to a small club of people we now call the Russian billionaires as if they had always existed. I surely missed the memo when those billions changed hands.

Speaking of which, in this time of scandalous increases in economic inequality, it is a bit unfortunate that Testud expects us to feel for people who appear to be obscenely rich by anybody’s standards, but as the film dates from 2011, she probably didn’t quite see this problem coming. Otherwise, I found it quite enjoyable and thought-provoking. (And of course it didn't get released in the UK, that's why I'm reviewing it in my series of Films Not Shown)

Monday, May 12, 2014

a gel by any other name

I'm discussing cheese-making and amyloid in my review of the book:

Physical gels from biological and synthetic polymers
Madeleine Djabourov, Katsuyoshi Nishinari, Simon B. Ross-Murphy
Cambridge University Press 2013 ISBN 978-0-521-76964-8

which is out in the May issue of Chemistry & Industry, page 51.

It's premium content, but give me a shout if you need a copy.

I love the cover of the book, by the way:

Monday, May 05, 2014

shark conservation

Tumblr people seem to like an eclectic mix of animals - red pandas, sloths, nudibranchs and sharks spring to mind. After seeing many infographics on how many sharks are killed by people and how few people are killed by sharks, I gradually came to the conclusion that I should write something about this. So here comes my debut article in the field of shark conservation:

Learning to live with sharks

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 9, pR341–R344, 5 May 2014

Free access (at least until the next issue appears) to:

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A great white shark scavenging a whale carcass. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Continuing my series on musicians I've seen busking around here, PerKelt are a mediaeval/celtic fusion band mainly active in London and Oxford. They are playing lots of live gigs mainly in London and also pop around to play the Cornmarket Street open air circuit quite frequently.

The members are: Will Connor (percussions), Stepan Honc (guitar), Pavlina Bastlova (recorders, vocals).

They have two CDs out, which are both very popular in my household. More details on their official website.

Here's a recent concert video which they posted on YouTube: Quen a Omagen - Upstairs at the Castle

And here's my video of the band busking in the streets of Oxford (quite bad background noise, hoping to catch them at a better spot some time!): Tourdion.

A better street video: Ai Vist Lo Lop

PS: Coming soon - my video of another busker, with members of PerKelt shuffling around in the background, as they are waiting for their turn. That's how lucky we are, we have amazing musicians queuing up waiting to serve us!

NB: Anybody wanting to join the vibrant Oxford busking scene needs a busking pass from the Oxford City Council, application details here. See also the code of practice and the map of the nine official busking spots here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

origins of our species

Last month I attended a fascinating symposium on human evolution at Sitges, near Barcelona. I got the impression that the origins of our species are getting more complicated with all the new information coming in from genetic and archaeological finds. So my latest feature is called:

The complicated origins of our species

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 8, pR295–R298, 14 April 2014

and it's on free access now until the next issue appears:

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Full moon rising over Sitges beaches and harbour (own photo).

Friday, April 11, 2014

prize coverage

I was recently awarded the GDCh Preis für Journalisten und Schriftsteller, that's the prize for journalists and authors from the German Chemical Society. This kind of thing is new to me, so I have no idea when where and how I should brag about it, but I'm guessing it might be useful to have an archive for the relevant press coverage, so here goes:

Chemistry Views magazine (10.3.2014)

Angewandte Chemie 2014, 126, 2570 (restricted access)

Angewandte Chemie Int. Ed. 2014, 53, 2536 (restricted access)

And I would never have found those three references if it hadn't been for the attention of chemists at my alma mater, the Phillipps Universität Marburg, who included them in their history brochure on page 21.

Articles connected to / motivated by the award:

Mein Weg zum Wissenschaftsjournalismus
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2014,48, 68-71 DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201400659 [FREE access]

Es fehlt der wissenschaftliche Tiefgang
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2014, 62, 750-752
An interview which the editors of Nachrichten conducted with me on the day after the award ceremony, referring back to some of the problems I addressed in my lecture.

photo of the event from the GDCh facebook page

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

sense and sensitivity

I've been following the work of Kevin Plaxco's lab on biosensors made from DNA aptamers since the beginnings, and last November there was a new breakthrough to report, the development of a sensor that can monitor the concentration of a target substance in real blood in real time.

I've taken this as an opportunity to write a feature on real time sensors which has now come out:

Biosensors in real time Chemistry & Industry 2014, Nr 4, pp 42-45
restricted access (but drop me a line if you want a pdf file)

In the same issue, I also have a review of the book Bioactives in Fruit:

The good fruit guide Chemistry & Industry 2014, Nr 4, p 51
restricted access (but drop me a line if you want a pdf file)

which is a good excuse to embed one of my foodporn photos:

Monday, April 07, 2014

sylva kay

In my new series on buskers I've seen in Oxford, here's a singer-songwriter whose work reminds me a bit of the 1990s (I hope she won't mind me saying), of people like Garbage and early Sheryl Crow. (It's got the right mix of stirring noisiness and quiet sensitivity for me, if that makes any sense at all.)

Sylva Kay is new on the Oxford scene, but is putting in a lot of appearances in Cornmarket Street, so with any luck Oxford based readers will have seen her or may find her soon.

She's got an album out called Undercut which you can buy as CD or vinyl LP from her or via her official website or check out on SoundCloud. No you can't borrow mine, because I play it every day.

On Saturday 5 April she played a proper indoors gig at the Wheatsheaf which was really lovely and hopefully the first of many at the wide range of venues we have here. You can find videos of the first three songs on my YouTube channel (see specific links below).

And I just discovered a short film from an earlier life of hers, when she lived in San Francisco. It's called Access every sparkle. Oh, and another video called Sylva's Sticks. During that time she was in a band that went through various reincarnations and name changes - a stomping collection of professionally produced recordings appears under the not very google-friendly name of "American City" on soundcloud.


A growing list of links (last update 26.6.2014):


PS something I love about pics of buskers is the complete randomness of shouty shop signs in the background, like the "change" in this one. There are a lot more of these to come in the series!

NB: Anybody wanting to join the vibrant Oxford busking scene needs a busking pass from the Oxford City Council, application details here. See also the code of practice and the map of the nine official busking spots here.