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):