Saturday, April 25, 2015

the trouble with photosynthesis

If you look at plants from a technological point of view, there is a fascinating flaw in photosynthesis which is simply down to the fact that it evolved in an atmosphere with virtually no oxygen, and now it is having problems with its own waste product. Some tropical plants like maize and sugar cane have found a fix, but other crops like rice and wheat are massively inefficient at turning carbon dioxide into food, which is why various research groups are trying to improve them.

Read all about it in my feature:

Fixing photosynthesis
Chemistry & Industry April 2015, pp 42-45
Free access to the full text

In the same issue I also have a "long essay review" of the book Fracking by Hester and Harrison (from the series Issues in environmental science and technology)

Fracking - points of view
Chemistry & Industry April 2015, pp 50-51
limited access

Thursday, April 23, 2015

bees can't help it

Another news story on bees and and neonicotinoids. Over the last few years it has become clear that sublethal effects of the pesticides are very bad news for the success of bee colonies. The UK govt seems to think that bees could just say no to poisoned nectar.

Research from Geraldine Wright's lab now shows that they can't detect the poison with their sense of bitter taste. Worse still, they have a tendency to eat more of the toxic stuff. Full story out in Chemistry World, free access:

Bees 'prefer' neonicotinoid-laced nectar
Chemistry World 22.4.2015

The story also appears in the June issue of the printed magazine, on page 29.

own photo (not sure if I've used this one before?)

PS related news that came in just after this:

Monday, April 20, 2015

climate change at 25

I first heard about carbon dioxide causing climate change in the late 1980s. I was dabbling in a bit of local politics with the Green party in Germany and preparing a manifesto for the 1990 elections, for which I wrote a couple of pages on emission control. The emissions we were worried about back then were, of course, toxic gases that caused visible problems on short timescales, such as acid rain and Waldsterben. I remember thinking something along the lines of "what's wrong with carbon dioxide? It's not even toxic!"

But with the first assessment report on climate change published in 1990 we soon learned what was wrong with carbon dioxide, and at that point the world really should have changed course and reduced emissions, but unfortunately they kept going up. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, it was an unfortunate coincidence that climate change only became apparent in the very moment when western democracies responded to the collapse of the communist bloc by abandoning all attempts to regulate corporations and markets, and these forces took the world in exactly the wrong direction.

Anyhow, 25 years after the problem was recognised and described, we're still making no progress towards solving it, which is very frustrating. I've comemorated and analysed this depressing anniversary in my latest feature which is out today in Current Biology:

Twenty-five years of climate change failure
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 8, pR307–R310, 20 April 2015
Open access

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

an ancient copper mine

After writing about the Simon family who were miners in Fischbach (Nahe) and then 170 km further south in Markirch (Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Alsace), I had the opportunity to revisit the ancient copper mine at Fischbach, which is where Johann Christoph Simon must have worked before migrating to Markirch, and where some of his brothers as well as his father Nickel Simon also worked.

Specifically the five men who were linked to the Fischbach mining industry were (with made-up translations of the job titles Schmelzer, Röster, Bergschmied):

  • Johann Nickel Simon, born Niederhosenbach in 1672-3, worked as a smith and as a miner, married Anna Francisca in 1700, died 1754 aged 81.
    as well as his four sons:
  • 1701 Johann Nickel Simon jun – roaster and smelter at Allenbach
  • 1703 Johann Jacob Simon – smith at the mines in Markirch
  • 1705 Georg Nickel Simon – miner at Fischbach and Kautenbach
  • 1707 Johann Christoph Simon – smelter at Markirch

They were part of the second and final era of success for the Fischbach mine, which had a fair number of ups and downs throughout the centuries. Here’s my potted history which I also wrote up in German for Wikipedia:

According to a document from 1461, copper mining in the valley of the Hosenbach creek near Fischbach dates back to at least 1400. In 1473, the two counts whose territories met on the hill above the mines signed an agreement to split all income from mining equally between them.

In the 16th century, the mines were thriving with up to 300 miners working there. Copper was sold beyond the region, for instance to Dinant (today’s Belgium), which was a centre of brass making. Due to the 30-Years War and the difficulties in maintaining the safety of the mines and the transport of the metal produced, mining ceased from 1624.

Mining was resumed at the Hosenberg site in 1697, but not in the sites on the opposite bank of the creek. From 1730 to 1765, the industry flourished once again. Johann Christoph Simon and his brother Johann Jacob Simon must have been in Markirch already (Johann Christoph married there in 1732 Around 1750 there is also the earliest evidence of the use of explosives in mining – even though the know-how was already developed half a century earlier in eastern German mining regions such as Saxony, and migration from those areas to Fischbach has been described by Bühler and Brandt. Between 1765 and 1776, the mining business went into decline, and in 1792, war forced its closure once again. Several attempts to revive it were undertaken in the 19th and in the 20th century, but all failed, due to high costs and low yields.

In 1975, the mine was opened to visitors. Guided tours around the impressive network of man-made caves are offered all year round. Above ground, there are also exhibits demonstrating copper smelting, as well as a sight-seeing circuit.

Back to the family history – Bühler and Brandt note that the Fischbach miners were highly respected professionals, as evidenced by the fact that they married into well-known families of nearby market town Kirn. However, my Fischbach ancestors and those in Kirn represent completely different lineages and cross-links between them have yet to be found. We have a few more generations of Simon ancestors, back to Mathes Simon, born around 1600 in Allenbach, but no details of what they were doing while the copper mine was closed.

Fischbach copper mine with life-size figures of miners, own photo.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

solutions for everybody?

In my round-up of German pieces I mentioned my review of the film "Better living through chemistry" which was part of the annual April fun and games section in Nachrichten aus der Chemie. Here comes a shorter version of my thoughts on this film, in English:

One question puzzles viewers of this film from the beginning to the end: Why on earth is it narrated by Jane Fonda? I think I worked it out at last – she’s the agony aunt of some third class waiting room magazine and the question she’s answering this time is something along the lines of: “I spend my life being everybody’s doormat – can chemistry improve my life?” And, according to agony Aunt Jane, it can.

In the fairy tale that Auntie Jane tells us to make her point, she’s equipped the protagonist with a small-town pharmacy, to make sure he has a good supply of chemicals to experiment with. At the beginning, he doesn’t quite know what to do with that, other than quietly enjoying the intimate information he has about lots of people in the town.

In the course of an evening delivery to a posh address he meets a very conventionally attractive woman in a very transparent negligee, who describes herself as a trophy wife and complains of the terminal boredom that comes with this job. She has the bright idea that the pharmacists, who has “solutions for everybody but himself” might find the formula to change his life on the shelves of his workplace. The drugs work magic on him, lifting his love life, sporting achievements, and even his hair.

What else can you do with chemistry? Oh, yes, murder people. The chemically enhanced couple have a half-hearted go at that, but the scriptwriters (Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who also direct) clearly shied away from the dark side and hastened to return to the safer ground of lesser crimes.

What is disturbing about the movie is its morality about drugs, reflected not only in Auntie Jane’s voiceover recommending misuse of prescription drugs but also in the reckoning at the end. Watch out who gets punished and who gets away. And perhaps you shouldn’t follow Auntie Jane’s advice.

It appears the film went straight to DVD in Europe, and deservedly so.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

layers of gold and plastics

In the round-up of German pieces published in March / April we find structures folded and intertwined, deposits of gold and plastics, and reflections on a chemistry-related movie.

Pop-up im Mikromaßstab
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 2, page 94, April 2015
Abstract and limited access to full text

Hauptsache, die Chemie stimmt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 433-434
review of "Better living through chemistry", English version here.

Was macht der Müll im Meer?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 443-444

Ausgeforscht: Eine Hölle mit goldenem Boden
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 503

Molekularer Drudenfuß und Davidstern
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 3, 10-12
first paragraphs of the article and limited access to full text

... oh, and a new Wikipedia entry as well.

macro-scale origami birds (own photo)