Sunday, January 25, 2015

organs on chips

The slightly delayed January issue of Chemistry & Industry includes my feature on chip-sized microfluidic models of human organs, mainly based on the amazing work that's been done at the Wyss Institute at Harvard in recent years. This may well revolutionise medicine and make animal testing redundant.

Chips with everything
Chemistry & Industry January 2015, pp 28-31
Free access to full text

Image: Harvard's Wyss Institute

In the same issue, there is also my review of the book

The burning answer: a user’s guide to the solar revolution
by Keith Barnham (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2014)

The solar revolution
Chemistry & Industry January 2015, pp 48-49
Restricted access

Here's a snippet from my (long essay) review:

"In fact, Barnham delivers three books for the price of one: a popular science book on the historic developments that led to our current energy technologies, then the “user’s guide” of the subtitle, an analysis of the present day situation in the renewable energy vs. climate change field complete with a manifesto for the revolution, and finally a look at what should and might happen in those crucial 15 years ahead of us, which may well decide the long-term success of our civilisation."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

reading the world

I was very impressed when I read that the author Ann Morgan had managed to read one book from each of the 196 countries represented at the 2012 Olympics in London. Her list of books read and others that were recommended to her is here, and the book she wrote about the experience is reviewed here.

Thinking about how embarrassingly far I would fall short of that figure I estimated I would be lucky to make it to 50 countries (in my life so far, not in a year) and started my own list to prove it. If and when I've reviewed a book on this list, I've included a link to the review. If I can't remember whether I've actually read it (even though it's on my shelf), I've marked it with CR. NFY means not finished yet. Still struggling to get to 50 though.

  1. Algeria – Mehdi Charef: Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed (CR - saw the movie though)
  2. Argentina – Federico Andahazi: El anatomista (The anatomist)
  3. Austria – Daniel Kehlmann: Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the world)
  4. Belgium – Amélie Nothomb – L’hygiène de l’assassin
  5. Brazil – Paulo Coelho: Der Alchemist (The alchemist)
  6. Canada - L. M. Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  7. Chile – Isabel Allende: La casa de los espiritus (The house of the spirits)
  8. China – Hong Ying: K – the art of love
  9. Colombia – Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Cien años de soledad
  10. Congo, Republic of the – Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé (Broken Glass)
  11. Cote d'Ivoire – Fatou Keita: La rebelle
  12. Cuba – Zoe Valdes: La nada cotidiana
  13. Ecuador – Alicia Yanez Cossio: El cristo feo
  14. Equatorial Guinea – Guillermina Mekuy: El llanto del perro
  15. France – Anna Gavalda: Ensemble, c’est tout (Hunting and gathering)
  16. Germany – Charlotte Roche: Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands)
  17. Guatemala – Miguel Angel Asturias: Leyendas de Guatemala (CR)
  18. India – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and dust
  19. Iraq - Weam Namou: The feminine art
  20. Israel – Ephraim Kishon: Oh, oh, Juliet
  21. Italy – Umberto Eco: Der Name der Rose (The name of the rose)
  22. Kyrgyzstan – Chinghiz Aitmatov: Jamila
  23. Lebanon - Vénus Khoury-Ghata: Les fiancés du Cap-Ténès (CR)
  24. Madagascar – Michele Rakotoson: Dadabé
  25. Mexico – Laura Esquivel: Como agua para chocolate
  26. Mongolia – Galsan Tschinag: Die Karawane (NFY)
  27. Morocco – Tahar Ben Jelloun: Harrouda (CR)
  28. Netherlands – Anne Frank: Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank (Diary of a young girl)
  29. New Zealand - Katherine Mansfield: Stories
  30. Nicaragua – Gioconda Belli: El pergamino de la seduccion (The scroll of seduction)
  31. Nigeria – Sefi Atta: Swallow
  32. Peru – Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del Celta (The dream of the Celt)
  33. Poland – Stanislaw Lem: Stories
  34. Russia – Mikhail Bulgakov: Master and Margerita
  35. Senegal – Ousmane Sembene: Guelwaar
  36. Sierra Leone - Aminatta Forna: The memory of love (NFY)
  37. Spain – Almudena Grandes: Castillos de carton
  38. Sweden – Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking
  39. Switzerland – Max Frisch: Homo faber
  40. Syria - Rafik Schami: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (NFY)
  41. United Kingdom – Esther Freud: Lucky break
  42. United States – Megan Clark: Seduce me
  43. Vietnam - Kim Thuy: ru (NFY)

Own photo of my reading pile some time in early 2014.

PS: I'll keep updating this with any further reading adventures, hoping that one day I can travel around the world in 80 books ... So this post will also serve as a directory to my reviews of world fiction.

Monday, January 19, 2015

evolution of allergy

In December, I attended the Cell Symposium on type 2 immunity (i.e. our adaptive immune system as opposed to innate defence mechanims) and learned a lot about the big two questions in the field of allergy, namely why did allergies evolve, and why are they becoming more prevalent in industrialised societies?

It's been a steep learning curve not helped by immunologists' habit of speaking in acronyms, but I believe I discovered some meaningful connections to evolution and ecology - it's really all about snakes and parasitic worms. So I wrote a feature summarising what I think I understood, which is out today:

Why did evolution give us allergies?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 2, pR53–R55, 19 January 2015

Open access

The Cell Symposium in session (this was a reception in the town hall though, not part of the scientific programme). Own photo.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

reinventing Paris

review of:

Paris reborn
Stephane Kirkland
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013

The city landscape of Paris is instantly recognisable in many photos that don’t contain any landmarks or specific clues. You see the slate-covered mansard roofs, the well-aligned balconies, the wide boulevards, the trees, the street furniture, and you just know it must be Paris.

One important reason why it is so recognisable is that much of it was built within two decades (1852-1870) and to strict design standards keeping the extravagance of architects and developers in check. More than 100,000 houses were built in this time, and half a dozen entirely new transects cut in straight lines across the city. The name most widely associated with this remarkable act of urban development is that of the prefect of the Seine département, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. We like to talk about Haussmannian boulevards, and there is even a boulevard named after him.

Kirkland argues that, while Haussmann was the right person in the right place at the right time to ruthlessly implement the vision of what we now appreciate as the Parisian city landscape, it wasn’t his vision at all. President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who then became emperor Napoléon III by a coup d’état followed by a plebiscite, had drawn the colourful lines on his master plan when Haussmann was still a provincial bureaucrat in Bordeaux, and even before him there had been similar ideas and concepts floating around. It was no secret that Paris at the beginning of the 19th century was in urgent need of renovation. It was the combination of the emperor’s vision and the prefect’s efficiency at getting things done that made this project a reality.

In his very readable account of the origins of one of today’s leading tourist magnets, Kirkland aims to distribute the blame and credit fairly, spelling out the specific contributions of Napoléon III and Haussmann, as well as those of the architects and financiers involved. He also acknowledges the dark sides of the “grands travaux”, from the wholesale destruction of medieval Paris (apart from Notre Dame cathedral, which was lovingly restored) through to the questionable finance deals and the banishment of the working class to the suburbs.

It was partly due the republican critics of these faults that Haussmann, the rather boring bureaucrat, came out of this story with the biggest slice of posthumous fame. Under the empire, the critics couldn’t attack the emperor directly, so they pinned all the blame on Haussmann. He didn’t mind too much, and he added to his immortal fame by publishing three volumes of memoirs when he was underemployed under the third republic. The republic, for all its criticism of the empire, essentially carried on with the project of modernising Paris in the same style, culminating in the world exhibition of 1900, which gave the city the metro and the Eiffel tower.

Cover of the hardback edition. I hear it is now out in paperback.

Monday, January 05, 2015

fun with science

Current Biology starts its 25th year today and, in celebration, issue 1 of vol 25 is dedicated to the biology of fun and all things fun in biology (there's also a press release for this).

My contribution to this has been a look back at my own work in science communication (not quite 25 yet but soon) and to reflect on how having fun with and occasionally even making fun of science can help the worthy cause of disseminating the insights of science to a wider public.

The joy of science communication

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 1, pR27–R30, 5 January 2015

Free access to full text and PDF download.

Own photo of young people having fun with science at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.