Friday, December 30, 2016

20 years online

I have no idea where that time went, but it appears that it’s 20 years ago today that I launched my first website, from which the current site evolved mostly by alternating courses of uninhibited random growth and moderate pruning.

In the last few years, and especially since my tumblr started to attract some followers from late 2012 onwards, I have neglected the old website a little bit, but just now I have cleaned it up a bit and updated things like the publications list. In a way, the various blogs and other online outlets could be seen as the shoots and flowers growing from the original tree I planted in 1996, so I’ll take this anniversary as an excuse to write up a short history of my web presence, although now, 20 years later, almost everybody on the planet has a web presence.

I feel my hair turning grey as I write this, but I actually managed to finish my PhD without ever having used the internet. I did write the thesis on a computer and had a Neolithic laptop, but the network as such was still under construction as I finished, and hadn’t reached my lab yet by the time I left. On arrival at Oxford in 1993 I learned about things like email, and the www, and some time in 1996 I must have realised that everybody could put a page (or twenty) on the web, so why not me?

In the xmas break I learned the essentials of HTML from a book and started composing my home page, which launched on 30.12.1996 under the not so original title of Michael’s Home Page. Rooted in an old technology newspapers and magazines background, I aimed at publishing a numbered issue every week, with sections including science, science communication, bilingualism.

On 13.1.1997, issue 3 appeared with title “Only Connect!”, based on the quote from EM Forster’s novel Howards End which still serves as a motto today and has provided the title and URL for my blog,

After a year, the site had 43 pages, and it soon grew into a tree structure with eight or nine first level pages branching out into hundreds of second and third level ones. For nine years and a bit, it remained my main web presence, and I probably spent way too much time on updating it, which may well have killed my academic career.

Then, in the tenth year, and a few years after leaving the academic career behind, I found my way to MySpace and discovered blogging, as every MySpace account came with a blog by default. For comparison, I also tried yahoo/geocities and blogspot, which is the one I kept using after MySpace went down the drain.

When I moved out of Birkbeck College in 2006, a version of my website stayed there, and is still online here). Incidentally this is about the last version before I introduced the “bookshelf” design of the front page which is still up today, launched in July 2006.

After the great Exodus from MySpace, I joined Facebook, then twitter, and finally tumblr. Initially twitter worked best for me, but in the last few years tumblr has become the outlet where followers actually see and react to my stuff. Although the stats on blogspot aren’t too bad either these days.

With all the excitement of the more interactive and “social” sites, the old website got neglected a little bit, but I still polish it up when I have a new book to promote, or, as happened this year, when the delay in the publications list becomes too embarrassing.

At some point, I may even blow some dust off the 10-year-old front page design. I’ll put that on my (virtual) list of New Year’s resolutions.

My front page as it looks today - I think my initial idea was to change those bookends regularly to refresh the look, but I got stuck with the second pair I made ...

The site is at
as well as at

Thursday, December 29, 2016

landschreiber Mohr

Mohr is an interesting German family name, as it is also an ancient word for dark-skinned people (related to Maure, as in Mauretania), much older than the 19th century import “Neger” related to Spanish / English negro. Both of which, of course, are today considered rude. Mohr may thus in some cases be pointing to a distant migration background, to a darker looking person arriving in the village and being called names which stuck. However, there are also two alternative explanations, one relating to moors (swamplands), the other to pig breeding, so you can’t be sure which of the three applies.

Our Mohr ancestors can be traced back to the small town of Gemünden in the Hunsrück mountains. There we find a Hans Mohr in the 16th century, to whom all of the Mohr families in the Hunsrück area seem to be connected. One significant lineage leads to Nikolaus Mohr of Kellenbach near Kirn, which is well-documented in GedBas.

Our lineage, however, involves Johann Conrad Mohr, who became a Landschreiber for the Duke of Simmern – today a very inconspicuous town of 7000 inhabitants, but it was a state capital until Louis XIV’s troops burned it down in 1689 in the Palatinate succession wars (part of the Nine Year Wars), when they also created that very romantic ruin still overlooking Heidelberg today. The Landschreiber was a leading position in the regional administration, second only to the Amtmann. (I have no idea how these job titles might be translated into English but I’m open for suggestions.)

Considering the importance of his position, it appears likely that Johann Conrad Mohr will have studied law in Heidelberg. What we know for sure is that he married Katharina Bilger at Heidelberg on 25.6.1611 and at least one of their nine children (Juliane Elisa) was born there in 1613.

His tenure as Landschreiber lasted from 1615 to his death (from the plague) on 25.6.1635, interrupted by six years of Spanish occupation, 1626-1632. His boss, the Count-Palatine of Simmern-Kaiserslautern, Louis Philip (1602-1655) reigned 1610-1655, so no change there. Louis-Philip was the younger brother of the “winter king” Frederick V, whose misfortune led to the 30-Years War.

Among the Landschreiber’s children, Johann Ludwig, born 1617, is well represented in GedBas. Intriguingly, he married one Angelique de Madra, who allegedly came to the court at Simmern at 15 as a religious refugee and was then brought up there.

We’re after the older son, Andreas Mohr, however, who was born either in 1612 or in 1615, possibly still in Heidelberg, before his parents moved to Simmern. He married Walburgis, and became a forester, in which role he is documented at Rheinböllen in 1672. Two generations followed in this profession – the son Hans Peter, recorded first at Rheinböllen, then 1670-80 at Argenthal, and the grandson Mathias Mohr at Mengerschied. His daughter Juliane Mohr, born 1717 married an innkeeper at Simmern called Johann Kuhn, which is where we leave the Mohrs and the forests.

Simmern in 1648 by Matthäus Merian, source.

PSJuliane Mohr's female line descendency leads to Regina Catherina Strack who was the founding mother of the Imig clan, so find her descendents there.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


Hancox: a house and a family

by Charlotte Moore

Charlotte Moore was widely known in autism circles back in the 00s, when she wrote a regular Guardian column called Mind the Gap on her family life and bringing up two boys with autism and one without. This led to a memoir George and Sam about her autistic sons, which I also read and enjoyed, so I took notice when in 2010 she published another book about her family, this time focusing on the house she lives in and the Victorian ancestors from whom she inherited it.

I picked up a copy from Oxfam at some point, but somehow it never got to the top of my wobbly reading pile. Until we started renovating our own crumbling old house, and I wrote a blog entry about it. The clever “link within” widget that cross references my entries dug up an earlier mention of Moore’s book, which I took as a hint and actually read it.

The house as such takes up a slightly smaller role than I might have expected, but it is a suitable foundation to construct a family history narrative on, and as it happens it is also an archive that appears to hold immense treasures of written materials from love letters to furniture bills. It appears to be a family trait that no piece of paper with written information was ever thrown away. This, like many other details, made me think that the autism genes in her family may be similar to those in mine.

At the centre of the family story (although slightly aloof as he had a very busy professional life) stands the physician Sir Norman Moore (1847-1922), only child of a single mother, who twice married women from the vast Leigh Smith clan (descendants of the abolitionist William Smith, MP), which provides most of the surrounding cast, including famous Victorians such as the Arctic explorer Ben Leigh Smith, the women’s rights pioneer and co-founder of Girton College Cambridge Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, and, more remotely, Florence Nightingale.

Most members of the extended family are unusual for their time and social environment. We find a lifelong lesbian couple benefiting from Queen Victoria’s disbelief, a man with three parallel families in different social strata, allegedly trying to undermine the class system, several very early feminists, and lots of fraternising with the servants and volunteer work to help the poor. Although at the end of the day, when it comes to serious business like marriage, there is just as much disapproval of aspiring in-laws as in more conventional circles.

What surprised me is that in the early 20th century much of the family’s daring to be different funnels into converting to Catholicism, which strikes me as slightly at odds with the social radicalism of the earlier times. And as the “Great War” strikes, the family is at one with the zeitgeist, and nobody questions the sense of the great slaughter in the trenches, although the family lost a son in the first year of the war.

In any case, the whole, extremely well documented family history and associated social history makes for an interesting read, all the more so if you reflect how the various extents of eccentricity on display here may have funneled into the author’s autistic offspring.

As I have shown the book cover before and it is sure to resurface among the cross references below, here's a portrait of Sir Norman Moore, from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

open archives 2015

my features in Current Biology become freely accessible one year after publication. So, by now, all features published in 2015 or earlier are in the open archives. Here are some of the highlights of 2015:

Listen out for life (astrobiology and SETI)

Can we change our predatory ways? (Homo sapiens as a weird kind of apex predator)

How life shaped Earth (my contribution to a special issue on the history of life on Earth)

How to protect the last free-living humans (on uncontacted tribes)

Can we avert marine mass extinctions? (given our track record wiping out terrestrial megafauna?)

Assessing humanity's global impact (and the case for the Anthropocene).

PS: New Year's resolution - from January onwards, I will highlight one of the old articles from the open archives on the Mondays between those when a new feature appears.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

cancer stem cells

My review of the book

Cancer Stem Cells: Philosophy and Therapies

appears in issue 10 (December) of Chemistry & Industry, on page 39, (restricted access)

under the somewhat misleading title:

Stem cells for cancer therapy?

Here's the snippet from the review explaining what it's really about:

"What if cancers also relied on stem cells for their growth and spread? If they did, it might be pointless to try to kill the largest possible number of tumour cells. If just one or two cancer stem cells got away, they would start a new tumour, which might explain the frequently observed relapses after seemingly successful treatments. Instead, to cure a patient from cancer, it might be necessary and sufficient to kill all its stem cells."

Monday, December 19, 2016

no miracles needed

The end of year period is always a good one to reflect on our place in the Universe and where we all came from, ie to write another feature on an astrobiology theme. This year it's about recent insights into possible mechanisms relevant for the origin and early evolution of life up to and including the RNA world.

The feature is out now:

How life can arise from chemistry

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 24, pR1247–R1249, 19 December 2016

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Rapid progress in investigations into the origin of life is adding to our understanding of how the emergence of evolving systems from prebiotic chemistry may have happened – without the need for magic. (Photo: Rama, Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, December 10, 2016


this term's addition to my nascent flute repertoire is Mozart's stray Andante, K315. The modest speed means that I can actually play along with the CD I have, drown out Aurèle Nicolet and pretend I'm performing with an orchestra, which is great fun.

Next up, some "American" period Dvořák ...

PS (2017): When I wrote this entry, I wasn't aware that Aurèle Nicolet had died earlier that year (30.1.2016) - his passing seems to have been ignored by the UK media. See this appreciation from the Berlin Philharmonic.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

catching up

oooops, I seem to have neglected the round-ups of my publications in German, so here goes from July through to December 2016:

Neurochemie: Vogelspinne zeigt neue Schmerz-Wege
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 4, page 159
abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Calcium rundum vernetzt
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 4, pages 224-225, August 2016
abstract and restricted access to full text

Ökosystem: Eine globale Nährstoffpumpe
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 7/8, pages 738-740
abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Bier - neu definiert
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 7/8, pages 819
restricted access to full text and PDF download

Ausgeforscht: Küche gegen Labor
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 9, page 935
restricted access to full text and PDF download

Netzwerk Leben: Ein Thermometer, das auch wehtun kann
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 5, pages 352–353, October 2016
abstract and restricted access to full text

Medizinische Chemie: Schmerzbehandlung ohne Suchtgefahr
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 10, pages 952-954
abstract and restricted access to full text

Forensik: Fälschliche genetische Fingerabdrucke
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 10, pages 29-30

Wie entstanden und funktionierten die ersten Nucleinsäuren?
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 6, page 370
abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Erkennt die Signale
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 6, pages 420-421, Dez 2016
abstract and restricted access to full text

Biowissenschaften: Insekten als Indikatoren
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 12, pages 610-612
abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Der Duft der alten Bücher
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 12, page 1235

Also, congratulations to Chemie in unserer Zeit for completing its 50th year, here is how it all began, back in 1967:

Monday, December 05, 2016

evolution of cities

towns and cities seem to be growing "naturally" wherever humans decide to settle and start to trade. Intriguingly, some key parameters of their growth appear to have remained constant from antiquity to this day, suggesting that neither technology nor political organisation has had much of a say over the human tendency to aggregate. Now, however, as the majority of people already live in towns and cities and billions more are to follow, we can't allow settlements to grow on their own. Good and sustainable planning is required to make sure that the dramatic urbanisation of our species doesn't lead to large scale disaster.

I've explored these issues in my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

The urbanisation of our species

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 23, pR1205–R1208, 5 December 2016

FREE access to full text and PDF download

The mathematical equations relating the growth of population density of a city to its population size apply to medieval cities just as well as to modern ones. The photo shows a side road in the historic part of Mainz, Germany (own photo).

Monday, November 21, 2016

forest biodiversity

the ongoing deforestation of our planet is a major crisis, but it's not only about the loss of forest area. The biodiversity is important and endangered too, and recent analyses suggest it gets too little attention. Hence my latest feature:

How can we save forest biodiversity?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 22, 21 November 2016, Pages R1167–R1170

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Forests with a rich mixture of species not only look more interesting, they are also more productive and can thus better protect us from climate change. (Image: Deborah Taylor.)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the end of the world

it is the end of the world as we know it, and it may lead to the end of the world full stop. Children born this year have a theoretical life expectancy that would take them close to next century, but I'm now fairly sure that our civilisation will not survive that long. Rather than adding to the general tsunami of comment, I'll just compile a few links here, both to my own earlier articles and to recent opinion pieces that I found helpful. (last updated: 25.11.2016 - updates will appear at the top of the lists)

Mon 9.1.2017 my feature on the trumpocalypse and the post-truth world is out now.

George Monbiot: The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces

George Monbiot: Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph

"Hitler's only kidding about the antisemitism" New York Times, 1922

Naomi Klein: It was the Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump

Gloria Steinem: After the election of Donald Trump, we will not mourn. We will organize

Simpsons writer says President Trump episode was 'warning to US'

My features on related topics:

Will our civilisation survive this century?
Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 23, R1017-R1020, 2 December 2013

Angry voters may turn back the clock
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 15, pR689–R692, 8 August 2016

Cover of the first issue of Der Spiegel after the election.

Friday, November 11, 2016

lighting the future

Edison-style incandescent lamps have disappeared from the shops. The energy-saving compact lamps that replaced them are also likely to go, and are already being replaced by even more energy-efficient LED lamps. But is this the best solution, the ultimate light bulb? Will they last as long as Edison's bright idea? In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry magazine I looked into new developments in lighting technology:

What a bright idea

Chemistry & Industry Volume 80, Issue 9, pp 22-25, DOI: 10.1002/cind.809_8.x

Free access to full text (HTML) via SCI.

Restricted access to full text and PDF download via Wiley Online Library.

an installation of lights and chemical glassware in the windows of the Wellcome Collection, London (own photo).

In the same issue on page 38-39, there is my review of the book "Bananaworld" by Jeffrey Bub (premium content).

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Australian genomes

After rapidly developing the second and third generation sequencing methods that make it feasible and indeed affordable to sequence many human genomes, research has been slow to turn to address human genetic diversity (most of which is in Africa, not between the arbitrarily defined "races") and the migrations in which our ancestors spread out around the globe. Even though extinct relatives including Neanderthal and Denisovan have had their genomes published years ago, it's only now that Australia and Papua New Guinea are receiving adequate attention. The genomes of their indigenous populations cast a unique and revealing spotlight on the history of our species.

Read all about it in my latest feature:

Out of Africa, into Australia
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 21, 7 November 2016, Pages R1119–R1121

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Since modern humans expanded into the Australian continent some 40,000 years ago, they developed a rich landscape of cultural and linguistic diversity — until the arrival of the colonialists who failed to appreciate their ancient civilisation. (Photo: © Wayne Quilliam Photography/Yothu Yindu Foundation.)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

this old house

Now that our house has become a bit quieter, we’re doing some long-overdue repairs, and while uncovering the bricks and floorboards we’re also exploring some of its history, if only so we know who to blame if it falls down on us. Seriously though, if anybody happens to know any further details, please let me know.

The story starts in 1883, when the third batch of plots of our neighbourhood was sold to individuals for investment or development – the unique mix of many different styles still on display today is the result of this. Together with William Street, and the short stretch of Marston Road between these, this is the oldest part of New Marston. The oldest surviving buildings date to the 1880s.

On the 12th of February 1883, the Oxford Industrial and Provident Land and Building Society Ltd. sold the plot of land to Mr Harry Charles Poulter, of 59 George Street, Oxford, College Servant, for the sum of 12 pounds 10 shillings. The land is described as Lot 25, “a plot of freehold land in the parish of Marston, in the county of Oxford”. It is one of the 59 lots comprising the “No. 8 Estate”, which covers the last third of the area, most distant from the Marston Road (then the Main Road), but closest to the city. In our section, the plots are 22 foot wide, in the middle section they are the most generous at 24, and towards the Marston Road under 20. Our block is described as “coloured in blue”, but the blue has faded quite a bit in 130 years. Estates No. 6 and 7 are coloured yellow and pink, respectively. Come to think of it, it’s real life Monopoly, with blocks of properties tied together by colour.

On the same day, the plot situated back to back with ours, facing the back lane that is now Edgeway Road, which was then Lot 9 in the same batch, was sold to Frank Poulter, the younger brother of Harry Charles. Both can be found in Ancestry. Harry Charles was born in George Street Oxford, in 1850, where he still lived at the time of buying the land. He went on to marry Ellen and they had six children born between 1888 and 1900. His brother Frank was born in 1862. Their parents were Henry Poulter and Mary Ann Eaton.

On the 17th of April 1906, Mr Harry Charles Poulter (now residing at 26 Buckingham Street, Oxford) sold the plot to Miss Sarah Austin of 93 Southfield Road, Oxford for £ 19,-. The document we have on this transaction is dated 27.10.1913, obviously prepared to facilitate the onward sale now including a house.

On a map of the area dated 1910 the house is clearly shown, as well as 123 Edgeway Road, but no other houses towards the far ends of the roads:

On the 20th of November 1913, Miss Sarah Austin sold the plot to Mrs. Emma Andrews, complete with „the messuage or tenement erected thereon and now in the occupation of Thomas Austin“, along with the back-to-back plot in Edgeway Road (Lot 9), combined purchase price £ 160. In Kelly’s Directory of 1913 „Austin, Thomas, builder“ is listed as a New Marston resident without an indication of his specific address.

On 21.3.1938,Emma Andrews sold Lot 9, today known as 117 Edgeway Road, to Sidney Cooke and Harold Lisemore. On July 28th, 1940, Emma Andrews, then residing at 113 Sugworth Lane, Radley, Berkshire, died leaving her sister, Mrs. Rose Annie Timms, as well as Doris Silvester to execute her testament.

On August 9th, 1943, Rose Annie Timms, widow of Frederick Timms, 31 Culham, sold the house to Emily Gladys Maud Dore, 80 Great Clarendon Street, “spinster”, for £ 100.

On July 8th 1961, Emily Gladys Maud Dore, then resident at the house, died intestate. Her father, retired master carpenter Victor Henry Dore, was the only relative entitled to her estate and thus inherited the house, which in May 1964 he sold to the company Pristacott Developments (Towersey) Ltd., 57 High Street, Oxford, for £ 1400.

On July 27th 1964, Pristacott (now based at 43 New Inn Hall Street) obtained planning permission for an extension to create a bathroom and change the baywindow at the front. Of February 9th 1965, Pristacott obtains a more wide-ranging planning permission also including the garage: “Extension to form bathroom, porch and garage for private car”.

At least since the mid 1980s, and until his death in April 1993, the author, tutor and editor John Blackwood lived in the house. He used the garage to run a small publishing company, Charon Press, with the photographer David Collett of William Street, where they published their own books including “Oxford Gargoyles and Grotesques” (1986) and similar ones on Windsor’s gargoyles and “London’s immortals”. Being located in Ferry Road, the publishing house was named after the ferryman to the underworld of Greek mythology, who came early to pick up John Blackwood.

Open questions:

We're still unsure as to what the kitchen/bathroom arrangements may have been like before our current bathroom was built in 1964. The room plan may have been like this one. In contrast to that plan, the backside window of our dining room (kitchen in the old plan) appears to have been converted from a door, and right next to it the outside door of the kitchen(scullery) appears to be original (judging by the very Victorian brick arc at the top), but does that mean there was no internal door between dining room and kitchen?

Monday, October 24, 2016

edited crops

The genome editing method CRISPR-Cas promises genetic improvements in crops and livestock without the drawbacks of conventional GM. Regulators have given it carte blanche, but will consumers also accept it? Much depends on how this latest agricultural revolution will be communicated, and whether its potential to empower a wider range of participants (rather than encouraging a monopoly of the GM/Monsanto kind) will be realised.

I've explored these questions in my latest feature which is out now:

Harvest time for CRISPR-Cas?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 20, pR903–R905, 24 October 2016

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

The mushroom Agaricus bisporus is the first food variant edited with the help of CRISPR-Cas technology and cleared by the US Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Leif K-Brooks.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

save the elephants

Elephants have been in the news a lot recently, with two international conservation conferences calling on countries to ban all internal ivory trade in line with the international trade ban that has already been in force for decades. The reason is a new crisis in poaching and ivory trading, caused this time by buyer interest from China.

Read my take on the situation here:

The plight of the pachyderms

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 19, R865–R868, 10 October 2016

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Confiscated ivory items displayed ahead of the first official ivory crush held by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. (Photo: Gavin Shire/USFWS.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016


As the young cellist has moved out now, I am left to focus on my solo flute work (although there’s never a shortage of jolly company for playing a few folk tunes around here, so I’m keeping up some of those sessions as well). I’ve decided to post a musical still life for every work I’ve learned to play, starting with my very first Köchel number, K525, which is, of course, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, all four movements of it. I might play the third movement at the Festival next year, be afraid …

Next up is a work that Mozart actually wrote for flute, the Andante K315.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

butterflies decline

As our species systematically reduces the biodiversity of our home planet, many groups of species are in decline, but few have been so comprehensively observed as butterflies and moths. Other insects may be more important for ecosystem health, but butterflies are beautiful, so they get plenty of attention. Which is also good, as it enables scientists to analyse biodiversity loss across vast areas and through centuries, using the accumulated amateur observations as well as specimen collections kept in museums.

Read more about butterflies in my latest feature which is out now:

Butterflies take a well-studied tumble

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 18, pR823–R825, 26 September 2016

OPEN access to full text and PDF download

Der Schmetterlingsjäger (The butterfly hunter) by Carl Spitzweg, 1840. Source.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

megadam mania

I used to think that dams and hydroelectric power plants are generally a good thing as they produce renewable energy which should more than offset any problems they may cause locally. I learned from my research for this latest feature, however, that large dams in tropical climates tend to release methane produced by fermentation of submerged vegetation and algae. In the worst-case scenario, this may mean that a large dam built in the wrong place may be no better for the climate than the equivalent gas-fired power stations. If we're very lucky, someone might find a way of collecting all that methane - by burning it one could both produce more energy and reduce its climate impact. But while this kind of solution is still in the dream stage, countries like Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo keep building ginormous dams.

Read all about it:

A global megadam mania

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 17, pR779–R782, 12 September 2016

OPEN access to full text and PDF download

The Three Gorges Dam in China is currently the largest power plant of any kind, but maybe not for much longer ...

By Source file: Le Grand PortageDerivative work: Rehman - File:Three_Gorges_Dam,_Yangtze_River,_China.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

a fond farewell

Rainer Jaenicke 1930-2016

My old professor or Doktorvater, as we like to call PhD supervisors in Germany once the title is in the bag, died at the end of July aged 85. Throughout our shared project (one year final year thesis plus three years doctoral thesis) he was a generous friend more than a boss, and remained one in the 23 years after. So, I’ll try to honour him with an obituary, which is not a format I have often had to write, but as time goes on, one does tend to have more farewells to make. Here’s my first attempt, I may add to it later.

Rainer Jaenicke was the youngest of the four children of a semi-famous chemist, Johannes Jaenicke (1888-1984), who during the Weimar Republic was the assistant of Nobel Laureate Fritz Haber, assisting, among other projects, with the doomed attempt to isolate gold from sea water to pay off Germany’s debt, and his wife Erna Buttermilch (1895-1961).

Johannes Jaenicke spent much of his long life meticulously compiling material for a biography of the great chemist and controversial figure (Haber’s ammonia synthesis process produces half the nitrogen contained in the bodies of the world population, but he also pioneered the use of chemical weapons), but, as he lost his eyesight with age, he ended up being unable to write it. All existing biographies of Haber are based on Johannes Jaenicke’s extensive collection, which has been archived by the Max Planck Society.

His three sons all became professors of some kind of chemistry. Walther Jaenicke (1921-2011) of physical chemistry at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg; Lothar Jaenicke (1923-2015) of biochemistry at Cologne, and Rainer Jaenicke of biophysical chemistry at Regensburg.

The one thing I know about Rainer Jaenicke’s childhood in Frankfurt is that at age 13, he teamed up with a young pianist who accompanied his flute playing, Agathe Calvelli-Adorno. They lived happily ever after, as they say, and played music together for over 70 years.

Both families had partial Jewish background and suffered for it during the Nazi time, but made it through. Her Jewish grandmother was deported to concentration camp Theresienstadt and died soon after liberation. The Jaenicke brothers saw their career options limited by being fractionally Jewish according to the Nazi arithmetics (through their mother) but made up for it after the end of the “1000 years”.

Rainer Jaenicke married his pianist just before he obtained his PhD in physical chemistry with Hermann Hartmann (1914-1984) in Frankfurt, started a family, and got his Habilitation in 1963. With their children, they set off to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked with Max Lauffer (1914-2012) until 1969. Soon after his return he secured a professorship at the newly founded University of Regensburg, Bavaria. He took the chair for biophysical chemistry, which he held until his retirement in 1999. I believe he also served on the committee that commissioned / chose the around 30 major artworks that are scattered around the campus. For a project of this size it was a legal obligation to have a certain amount of “Kunst am Bau”, and there is a nice little book, called “Rund um die Kugel,” discussing all the artworks.

From the US, he brought back the research interest of protein assembly systems such as tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) – a classical system to study self-assembly which in my student days was still used in the practical biochemistry course in his department. From there, his research interests widened to protein folding and stability, including stability under extreme physical conditions like salinity, high and low temperatures and high pressures, which is where my thesis happened.

By the 1990s, one of his trademarks was to keep old-fashioned physical methods of analysis alive, especially analytical ultracentrifugation. This method involves spinning a sample so fast (40,000 rpm would be a typical speed) that large molecules such as proteins are gradually pulled out of solution by the centrifugal force. And this happens in a transparent cell, such that one can shine light through the sample and actually watch the molecules go down.

During my time in the lab (1989-1993) he kept two Beckman model E centrifuges alive and spinning, which was an achievement in itself, as the company had stopped making and indeed servicing these instruments, each the size of a generously-proportioned wardrobe, some time in the 1980s. Several dead machines in the basement were cannibalised for spares. As he was reluctant to persuade students to dedicate three or four years of their lives to an extinct technology, he did many of the centrifugation runs himself, and had great fun fiddling around with the machines.

And right he was too, because around that time, Beckman changed their mind and decided to develop a new instrument from scratch. I vividly remember Howard Schachman (1918-2016 - he died a week after RJ) visiting the lab, another model E aficionado, recalling how the company asked him for advice. As they had closed down the relevant department many years ago and fired everybody who knew anything about analytical ultracentrifuges, they were facing an uphill struggle trying to build a new one. But they got there in the end, and the instruments are now a bit more compact, so they can sit on a lab bench and feed their results to a computer.

As a supervisor, he was very generous with ideas, suggestions and help in establishing collaboration opportunities. I had collaborations with five labs outside Regensburg, four of which he enabled with phone calls to the relevant group leaders (the fifth was someone I met at a conference). While always ready to offer this kind of help and support, he never ever told me what to do – I had a rather painful awakening when I moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship in the UK and lost some 95% of the freedom I had been used to.

Part of the reason for my freedom was in the fact that during my doctoral thesis I was the only person in the lab working on the effects of high hydrostatic pressure. There were crowds of protein folding people and of those doing thermal stability, a few looking at salinity. Thus, there was no need for higher level co-ordination, there was no risk of my work overlapping anybody else’s, and I could basically do whatever I wanted. In this situation, as my own sub-group leader, and as I was also writing my own papers from day one, I put the asterisk indicating the correspondence author behind my name, just on the naïve assumption that he wouldn’t want to be troubled with the paperwork. He never queried that – only when we wrote a review together after I left the lab did he regain the asterisk, which any other professor would have claimed as their statutory right throughout.

Incidentally, he didn’t try to steer his children into a certain direction either. His daughter became a nurse, his sons an actor and an artist. He always highlighted their career choices – very unusual for a family of chemists – with pride, contrasting them to the children of colleagues (presumably including, though not mentioning, his brother) who were groomed to follow in the scientific tradition.

During my Regensburg years, I gained the impression that he had never really adapted to the Bavarian temperament of the people around him. Regensburg being a modern university serving a regional constituency (as opposed to the ancient universities like Heidelberg which attract students from all of Germany and indeed abroad), even most of the faculty colleagues had a conspicuous regional accent - not just in their language but also in their thinking and (conservative) worldview. He probably found he had more in common with the many international visitors he invited to Regensburg than with his immediate colleagues and next-door neighbours.

Thus, even though regulations for professors of his generation would have enabled him to use university facilities as an emeritus indefinitely, it was no big surprise to hear that in the late 1990s, after retiring at 68, he moved to the small town of Schwalbach am Taunus, within S-Bahn commuting distance of the city of Frankfurt, which he routinely referred to as home. The couple bought a bungalow – modest looking on the ground floor, but with a basement doubling the area and providing an impressive exhibition space for works of their artist son, Alexander Calvelli, as well as other graphic works which they collected. There were also guest rooms complete with musical instruments – visitors had the choice of sleeping in the presence of a harpsichord or a grand piano.

For nearly two decades, they kept a busy social and musical life at Schwalbach. The last time I visited, in the spring of 2014, the onset of memory loss was noticeable, although he could still play music. His condition gradually worsened to cut him off from the outside world, with the impressions from music remaining the last connection.

some items from my collection of RJ memorabilia ...

Friday, September 02, 2016

5 languages in search of an author

review of

Elena Lappin
What language do I dream in?
Virago 2016

Elena Lappin (nee Biller) was born in Russia, grew up in Prague speaking Russian at home, emigrated to Germany as a teenager after the suppression of the Prague Spring, then went to Israel to study, lived in Canada, Israel again, and the US, before ending up in London. This book is not so much about what language she dreams in, but about how she could become a writer after having to leave the country of the language she felt most connected to, which was Czech. After many wanderings, she decided that English was the one.

Only after she was already settled in London and in English as her writing language, she found out that she was not related to the man she believed to be her father. Her biological father – the son of a minor Soviet agent in the US who had to flee to Moscow – was a native English speaker, giving her language settlement a kind of retrospective biological justification.

Another intriguing aspect of her story is mentioned only in passing: her younger brother, Maxim Biller, facing the same problem, came to a different solution – he stayed in Germany and is now a fairly well-known German writer.

Along with her own quest for the right language to write (and dream) in, Lappin also discusses some of the famous examples of émigré writers adapting to new languages, including Vladimir Nabokov (and his memoir, Speak, Memory, which also deals with this issue), Joseph Conrad, and Milan Kundera. She forgets to mention Kurt Tucholsky, who fell silent during his exile in Sweden and died from an overdose of sleeping pills in a presumed suicide after realising he couldn’t continue to be a writer after being separated from his native language.

Thus, in a mixed-up world, everybody has to find their language for themselves, and some may fail to do so. In Lappin’s case, each of the languages not only stands for a specific culture and geographic area, but also for a subset of her extended family – there is no language that all her relatives share, so with her five languages she is the only link that connects the family network fragmented by migrations and language changes.

As a fellow writer also juggling half a dozen languages I found her memoir very relatable. Failing that, readers will also discover an intriguing and warm-hearted account of the global migrations of Jewish families from Eastern Europe, reminding me that most people have migration background of some kind.

Monday, August 22, 2016

talking to animals

Inspired by the recent news of mutual communication between honeyguide birds and humans, I have had a look at our exchanges with other animals, including barking and meowing ones. The resulting feature is out now:

Talking with animals

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 16, pR739–R742, 22 August 2016

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

The Yao in northern Mozambique cooperate with honeyguide birds to raid bees’ nests, which the birds locate and the humans then break up to provide food for both. Humans and birds have specific calls for their joint honey-hunting expeditions, which have been established for several centuries at least. (Photo: Claire N. Spottiswoode.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

never too late

Never too late: My musical life story
by John Holt
Delacorte 1978; Da Capo 1991

After years of troubling the family class at the Oxford Music Festival in a duo with the young cellist, I also tried my luck as a solo flautist in the late beginners class this year. As I produced my first note on the flute at age 35, I considered myself qualified for this event. The adjudicator made lots of encouraging noises and recommended John Holt’s book to the class, consisting only of me and a pianist, mentioning that the author had taken up flute and cello at a similarly advanced age.

Closer inspection revealed that Holt had started the flute at 35 and the cello at 40, which quite closely matches the ages at which I got involved with the same instruments, so I just had to read the book to find out how he got to that point. (Part of my trajectory is outlined in this blog entry about our family cello.)

So I found out that the author had no exposure to music at home (must be bad when he writes down the five notes that his grandfather used to whistle as a musical influence!) and discovered singing when he joined the glee club late in high school. Having had no luck with music at college, he briefly sang in a barbershop quartet in his 20s, later taught himself three chords on the guitar, still blissfully unaware of what the #s and bs were for. Asked a musician what orchestral instrument to learn and was recommended the flute. Got on alright but dropped out when life got busy, then discovered the cello and threw himself into learning it. At the time of writing (in his early 50s) he was busy playing in three different amateur ensembles every week and practicing four hours a day.

In real life, Holt tried teaching, got disillusioned, and ended up writing books about education policy, home schooling and “un-schooling”, so he also has interesting observations on the process of learning in people of all ages. The important messages in this book are that 1) the widely held beliefs that many people are “tone-deaf” and that the ability to learn a musical instrument to amateur proficiency is rare are plain wrong, and 2) while an early start has its advantages, a late start also has some.

Like the adjudicator I would recommend the book to any grown-up toying with the idea or feeling the urge to learn an instrument. It’s the perfect protection against those who try to tell you you’re too old – as the head of a council music school told me at the ripe old age of 16. Holt’s story shows that it’s never too late.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

exoplanetary chemistry

In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry I have covered some recent developments in the discovery and chemical analysis of exoplanets, as well as the Breakthrough Listen programme, aiming to detect communications from their inhabitants.

Life among the stars

Chemistry & Industry vol 80, issue 7 (Aug. 2016), pp 18-21.

Free access to full text (HTML) via SCI.

Restricted access to full text and PDF download via Wiley Online Library.

In other astrobiology news, Germany now has a scientific society dedicated to this field, the Deutsche Astrobiologische Gesellschaft (DAbG). The founding meeting will be at the workshop "Astrobiology: Life in the context of cosmic evolution." at Berlin-Adlershof, Aug 31 to Sep 2. Programme.

Poster of the event.

Monday, August 08, 2016

progress ends here

As a non-British EU citizen living in the UK and likely to be affected by Brexit if and when it happens, I've had to spend a few weeks reading up on the referendum and all the other crazy things happening in the world right now, so I was glad to get the opportunity to write up what I think I understood in a feature for Current Biology. (Always handy when obsessive reading magically turns into valuable research.)

The theme that links Brexit to the rise of Trump, Le Pen, and other populist candidates appears to be that developments of the last three decades like scientific and social progress, European unification, globalisation, etc. have left far too many people behind, who now constitute the angry voters that are ready to elect populists offering reactionary recipes and simple lies in response to the complex questions of today's world.

For a somewhat more detailed analysis, read:

Angry voters may turn back the clock

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 15, pR689–R692, 8 August 2016

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Large pro-EU demonstrations, unheard of before the referendum, were held in London and other cities after the vote. The narrow margin of the result as well as the false promises that were withdrawn the day after the vote led to calls for a new referendum based on an actual plan of how an exit might work. (Photo: höRticuLtora/flickr.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

disappearing forests

My latest feature is about deforestation in Eastern Europe - of the legal kind in Poland and of the illegal kind in Romania. Oh, and I also managed to get a mention in for Chernobyl - at least one place in Europe where wildlife is left in peace.

Europe's last wilderness threatened

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 14, pR641–R643, 25 July 2016

Open access to full text and PDF download

Białowieża forest,Poland (Photo: Ralf Lotys/Wikipedia.)

Monday, July 11, 2016

heads of the dead

today's issue of Current Biology includes a special section on the "Biology of Death". My contribution was inspired by the recent exhibition "The Skull - Icon. Myth. Cult." which I saw at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Völklingen Ironworks near Saarbrücken, Germany, back in May, as well as by the famous shrunken heads at Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, not far from our home. The feature rounds up various ways in which different cultures have preserved and manipulated the heads of family, friends and foes for various reasons.

Read all about it:

Heads of the dead

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 13, pR544–R547, 11 July 2016

FREE access to HTML full text and PDF download

The Latmul in Papua New Guinea honoured notable ancestors by sculpting a new, beautiful face onto their exhumed skulls, using clay and shells. This is an example from the Gabriel Max collection. (own photo)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

weird science

You might say my articles about science are all weird, but now I have one that actually appeared under the title Weird science, and that's a first. It is about quantum biology, a new(ish) interdisciplinary field that looks at some of the more surprising aspects of quantum mechanics and their role in biology.

The feature appears in Chemistry & Industry Volume 80, Issue 6, pages 22–25, July 2016
free access to full text in HTML format via SCI website
abstract, first page, and restricted access to PDF files via Wiley Online Library

Oh, and it made the cover, too, see below.

(Unfortunately, the magazine has been reduced to 10 issues a year, which is why issue no. 6 is out in July. Very confusing.)

In the same issue, on page 38, you'll also find my review of Alan Heeger's memoir "Never lose your nerve!"

Monday, July 04, 2016

time to move on?

From my family history, I know that people in centuries past have found great opportunity in new homelands, but the crucial thing is to know when it is time to move on. My great-grandfather found business success in Königsberg, Eastern Prussia, and he left literally on the last ship that got through. My ancestors who emigrated to the Odessa region (today's Ukraine) on the shores of the Black Sea in 1806 (having left the relevant oldest son behind!), established a good life there for a couple of generations. After 1870 the new paradise lost its shine and many families moved on to the US. The descendants of those that stayed suffered forced relocation to Asia and prosecution under Stalin.

So, well, right now the candidates among whom the next UK prime minister will be chosen are debating whether or not Britain (in whatever diminished size it will exist then) will allow EU citizens to stay after it has signed out of the EU. Of course they won't deport 3 million people. But conceivably, we might need residence and work permits, and equally conceivably, the recently introduced threshold of £ 35,000 salary required for the permission to stay could also apply to EU citizens (the median salary is substantially below that figure, so only those who fall into the top 40% or so of earners can stay).

So, reluctantly, after 23 years of living here very happily, we're having to consider our options, to make sure that after 2018, we will still be able to live within the EU and without having to justify our existence. Like Scotland, we may have to leave to remain. Watch this space.

A few random thoughts on the issue (will occasionally add new ones at the top of the list):

  • 16.8. According to the Sunday Times, article 50 may only be triggered in late 2017 - more time to get ready for a Brexodus. The Brexiteers are beginning to realise that they don't have the skilled personnel they would need in order to even begin thinking about such a gigantic project. Give them a bit more time and maybe they will realise that it wasn't such a bright idea in the first place.
  • 8.8. My feature on Brexit and other populist menaces has appeared in Current Biology.
  • 13.7. Theresa May has appointed Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office, showing exactly what she thinks of the 7 billion foreigners out there. I for one am taking this as a personal insult. Also, she keeps saying she wants to make the country work for British citizens. No word about EU citizens, but is the chain around her neck supposed to be a subtle hint?
  • 11.7. As Theresa May is now certain to become prime minister, her speech held today promises a country that works for everyone. There are some quite progressive things in there, but unfortunately the term "everyone" doesn't appear to include the 3 million EU citizens who live here.
  • 6.7. Nice to know that parliament supports our right to stay, but note that this is non-binding and a majority in parliament is against Brexit anyway.
  • Considering how much time I've lost following the whole chaos, worrying about our future here and making contingency plans for a possible Brexodus, I would extrapolate that the worries of more than 2 million EU citizens currently working in the UK should add up to make a measurable dent in the country's economic performance.
  • Theresa May becoming prime minister (and staying until 2020) is probably our worst scenario, as she has the intelligence and the cold heart to go through and do the worst. Boris Johnson's fantastic incompetence was (relatively) a glimmer of hope while he was still in the running.
  • Cultural events I have attended since the referendum: A Galician folk session, a concert by the Liverpool band Dead Belgian, who play the songs of Jacques Brel, and an Irish session. How much of Oxford's international scene will survive once the drawbridges go up?
  • Without free movement we probably wouldn't be here at all - so I imagine that the future hassle of work permits etc. may very well redirect part of the academic traffic to alternative destinations.
  • While all major scientific organisations are trying to reassure people that international cooperation will go on as before, there are also some, like the Wellcome Trust, that could decide to move their funds and activities elsewhere.
  • While Scotland and Northern Ireland understood their best interest, it was quite shocking that Wales, which benefits hugely from the EU, voted out. Some explanations here.

Look, there are 27 countries we can move to!

Image: Wikipedia
(spare a thought for the volunteers who are trying to keep the Wiki entries on the Brexit crisis up to date and readable)

Friday, July 01, 2016

cycling highway

It’s very exciting news that an intercity cycle highway is being built in the Ruhr area, Germany. I think this will save a huge number of car journeys. Many people there do cycle within their city (and/or for leisure) but tend to use the car by default when going to the other cities of the area, although they are all very close to each other. So having this cycle highway could do wonders.

And due to the recent deindustrialisation (accompanied by renaturation of rivers, creation of green spaces), there are lots of tracks, bridges, etc. already in place that can be used.

For more info, read this recent story in the Guardian.

Or check the project website (in German only, I think), from where I pinched this logo:

Monday, June 20, 2016

saving corals

I have covered the growing danger to coral reefs a few times in my articles, but this time round I'm going one step further and focusing on the question of what, if anything, science can do to save them. Can we support their migration to cooler habitats? Breed supercorals? Should we?

I've explored these issues in my latest feature which is out today in Current Biology:

Can science rescue coral reefs?
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 12, 20 June 2016, Pages R481–R484

FREE access to full text and PDF download

NB with all the excitement about bleaching and temperature resistance, I may have forgotten to mention that overfishing is also a significant threat to corals in some parts, as they depend on grazing fish to clear away algae.

Corals after a bleaching event at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Justin Marshall/CoralWatch.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

melting points

Alexander Calvelli's latest exhibition, Schmelzpunkte (melting points) opens today at Henrichshütte Hattingen, Germany. It runs until October 23rd, opening times Tue-Sun 10-18h, Fri till 20h.

Am E-Ofen. Georgsmarienhütte, 2001.
Foto: Alexander Calvelli

Here's the press release from the museum (seems to be available in German only, sorry!):

"Schmelzpunkte" heißt eine neue Ausstellung mit Gemälden des Kölner Künstlers Alexander Calvelli, die der Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) vom 17. Juni bis 23. Oktober in seinem Industriemuseum Henrichshütte Hattingen (Ennepe-Ruhr-Kreis) zeigt. In einer historischen Halle präsentiert das LWL-Museum rund 150 Gemälde des Künstlers. Darüber hinaus laden einige der Bilder im Außengelände zum direkten Vergleich zwischen dem Motiv und seiner künstlerischen Bearbeitung ein. "So treten Industriekultur und Malerei in ein besonderes Spannungsverhältnis", sagte Kurator Dr. Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch vom LWL-Industriemuseum am Montag (13.6.) bei der Vorstellung der Ausstellung in Hattingen.

"Ich male vergängliche Architektur" - mit diesem Satz beschreibt Calvelli sein Werk und verbindet so inhaltlich die nahezu fotorealistische Darstellung von Blumen mit den Motiven der Schwerindustrie. Letztere bilden den Mittelpunkt der Ausstellung. Schmelzpunkte stehen dabei für Transformationsprozesse: Mit den Aggregatzuständen ändern sich Strukturen und Gefüge. Metalle werden aus Erzen erschmolzen, umgeschmolzen, in Formen gegossen und geformt. In Konverter und Elektroofen löst sich alter Schrott auf, bevor er erneut in Form gebracht einem neuen Nutzungszyklus zugeführt wird. Diese Transformationsprozesse prägen das Erscheinungsbild des Strukturwandels.

So spannen die Gemälde Calvellis den Bogen vom Erz zum Schrott, vom Ursprung zum Niedergang. Sie zeigen mittelständische Betriebe und Großkonzerne, archaisch wirkende Kleinschmieden und gigantische Schmiedepressen. Die Darstellungen von längst verschwundenen Werken, aktiven Arbeitsstätten und im industriekulturellen Kontext neu entdeckten Anlagen vermitteln einen Eindruck von den Wandlungsprozessen, denen die Montanindustrie seit jeher ausgesetzt ist.

"Die Gemälde Calvellis ziehen den Betrachter durch den hohen Realismus in ihren Bann. Die Strukturen der Arbeitsorte treten plastisch hervor. Es braucht eine Zeit intensiver Betrachtung, um zu erkennen, wie künstlerische Akzentuierungen die scheinbare Realität bewusst verfremden", so Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch. "Der intensive Blick in die Werke vermittelt einen nachhaltigen Eindruck von der Arbeit mit glühenden Metallen. Tatsächlich geht es nicht um die Dokumentation industrieller Anlagen oder die Illustration technischer Prozesse, sondern um die kritische und distanzierte Auseinandersetzung mit den Zeugnissen des Industriezeitalters."

Bei der Eröffnung am Freitag (17.6.) um 19.30 Uhr wird der Künstler anwesend sein. Die musikalische Begleitung erfolgt durch den Klangkünstler Georg Zangl. Gäste sind herzlich willkommen. Der Eintritt ist frei.

Schmelzpunkte: Alexander Calvelli - Industriemalerei
17. Juni bis 23. Oktober 2016
LWL-Industriemuseum Henrichshütte Hattingen
Werksstraße 31-33
Geöffnet Di-So 10-18 Uhr, Fr -20 Uhr


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

boron, barbecue and biotech

In the roundup of German pieces published in June, we have biotechnological uses of algae, burning barbecues, hydrogen bonds, and circadian clocks:

Bor baut Brücken
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 3, page 159
abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Die Zeitschaltuhr
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 160–161, Juni 2016
Free access to full text and PDF download

Impfstoffproduktion: Alge statt Ei?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 6, pages 610-612
abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Jetzt wird's brenzlig
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 64, Issue 6, pages 719
restricted access to full text and PDF download

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

how Romanian lost its romance

I taught a workshop at Bucharest recently and just before the trip I discovered an old French book about the Romanian language at an Oxfam store, so I read much of it on the way there, and found it really intriguing. As the book is probably out of print, I’ll summarise some of the points I found interesting.

Latin heritage: The area was only under Roman control for a century and a half (106-275) – and the Latin derived language only became prevalent after the Romans left. The invasion of the Huns in 375 and destruction of the towns drove the Latin-speaking townsfolk out to the countryside, where they mingled with the peasants who spoke a Thracian language related to modern Albanian, and from this encounter Romanian was born. Then, the language was fairly isolated from the other Romance languages, and thus kept old-fashioned terms when medieval Latin changed and passed those changes on to Italian and French. Intriguingly, the Iberian languages, on the other end of the continent, retain some of the same old-style expressions, so they sometimes resemble Romanian more than the geographically closer languages Italian and French. For instance, when Latin, French and Italian switched from mensa to tabula for table, the peripheral Romance languages in Iberia and Romania didn’t get the memo, so we have mesa in Spanish and Portuguese and masӑ in Romanian.

German influences include cartof (Kartoffel) for potato, and halba (Halbe) for half a measure of beer, and a word derived from “Schmecker” for their argot. The name of the region around Bucharest, Wallachia, derives from the Germanic word for non-Germanic people, as in Welsch, Wallon, Welsh, etc.

Alphabet: Romanian used the Cyrillic alphabet until 1860, which it had originally adopted from Bulgarian for complex reasons linked to the shared orthodox religion.

Romance language that lost the romance: Again as a consequence of being isolated from the Romance languages in central Europe, Romanian lost Latinate terms from the area of love, romance, relationships. While most areas of Western Europe got their romantic ideas from the troubadours, Romanian lost the words derived from Latin amor, amare, carus and sponsa, and replaced them with the Slav words iubi, dragoste, drag and nevasta, respectively. So it became a Romance language that loves in Slav terms.

Later however, Romanian reconnected with French and got many words from modern French (eg bej, ruj, coafor, creion …), as well as lexical and grammatical influences from Hungarian, Turkish, and Slav languages, often even within the same word. So it ended up as a unique mixture not just of several language influences but also of languages from unrelated families, and with connections all across Europe.


Gilbert Fabre: Parlons roumain, langue et culture Editions L’Harmattan 1991

PS - a quick check on French amazon revealed that it is available as an e-book as well as second-hand. Plus, from the same series there are books about dozens of other languages, mainly those not so commonly taught, so this is a huge temptation. (Lots of them have the same title with only the name of the language exchanged, so you find them easily with the search terms: parlons langue culture. However, there are also recent deviations from the pattern, eg Parlons slovaque, une langue slave, from 2009)

Monday, June 06, 2016

sea floor mapping

I have on various occasions used the statement that we know the surface structure of Mars in greater detail than that of the sea floor on our on planet, and I understand that it is still true overall, but oceanographers are now working to close that gap in our knowledge. Just over 100 years after bathymetry, the science of measuring the depth of the oceans, and thus the topography of the sea floor, began in earnest, experts now met to lay out plans for future progress in exploring what's under the water. This knowledge is important not just for seafarers and fishing industries, but also for the safety of landlubbers in the face of sea level rise and tsunamis.

Read all about it in my latest feature:

How deep are the oceans?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 11, pR445–R447, 6 June 2016

permanent link to full text and PDF download
(open access)

The combination of advanced sonar and satellite technology can produce high-resolution 3D models of seascapes like this one in the Caribbean. However, for much of the sea floor, there is still insufficient data. (Source:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

writing course

Just compiling a few links here to use them later at a writing course I will be teaching.

Monday, May 23, 2016

lumbricus terrestris

Earthworms have found very little appreciation in mainstream biology ever since their biggest fan, Mr Charles Darwin, died. Now, however, several projects are underway aiming to reveal the ecology, diversity and economic benefits of worms and other soil invertebrates - including a new Earthwatch-sponsored "citizen science" project encouraging you to survey the earthworms in your garden. Read all about it in my latest feature which is out now:

Putting earthworms on the map

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 10, pR387–R390, 23 May 2016

restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will convert to open access one year after publication)

Darwin’s interest in earthworms led to the publication, in the last year of his life, of a book about them. This is a caricature of Darwin’s theory in the Punch almanac for 1882, published at the end of 1881, just after publication of his book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations of their Habits. (Image: PD-ART(cc PD-old-100)/Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, May 09, 2016

drawing life

I always wanted to do something on scientific illustration, so the current exhibition of Maria Sibylla Merian's Suriname insects, and the forthcoming 300th anniversary of her death were a good excuse to give in to that. My feature on biology illustration from Merian to this day is out today:

Putting biology in the picture

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 9, pR343–R346, 9 May 2016

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Maria Sibylla Merian, Grape Vine with Gaudy Sphinx Moth, 1702–3, is on display as part of the exhibition Maria Merian’s Butterflies at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 9 October. (Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.)

Friday, April 29, 2016

april book reviews

The April issue of Chemistry & Industry includes two book reviews from me, on page 40 a long one on

Still only one Earth:
Progress in the 40 years since the first UN Conference on the Environment.

R. E. Hester and R. M. Harrison, eds.
RSC publishing, 2015
(vol 40 of the series: Issues in Environmental Science and Technology)
ISBN 978-1-78262-076-1


"This look back over four decades is bound to produce a quaint mixture of issues that have been fixed and are thus mainly of historic interest, such as the ozone hole and leaded fuel, and on the other hand issues in progress that should have been solved but haven’t, such as climate change and local pollution in the rapidly growing economies like China and India."

... and on the following page a short one on

Einstein’s dice and Schrödinger’s cat:
How two great minds battled quantum randomness to create a unified theory of physics

Paul Halpern
Basic Books 2015
ISBN 978-0-465-07571-3


"Simplifying the complex network of the physicists that shaped our current world view by focusing on a subset of two, this analysis shows that it is not just the individualities of each that shape the process, but also the interactions between them."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

licence to smell

The slightly belated roundup of German pieces published in April (there were none in March, I think) includes the whiff of dead people as well as the underappreciated sense of smell of living people, a dead chemist who could have become Bond, the rise and rise of vegetarian mycoprotein products (such as Quorn (TM)), a potential treatment for cataracts, and the question why elephants rarely get cancer.

Wir können besser riechen als wir denken
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 140-143.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

See also my feature in English, which is now on open access.

Grauer Star: Aggregate aufgelöst
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 83.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Netzwerk Leben: Die Notbremse
Chemie in unserer Zeit 2016, 50, 88-89.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Mykoprotein als Fleischersatz
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 403-405.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Beinahe Bond
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 446.
Abstract and restricted access to full text

Ausgeforscht: Ätherisches Nachleben
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2016, 64, 487.
Restricted access to full text

Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen has studied the smell lexicon of hunter-gatherer societies in South Asia. The photo shows her sampling the smell of wild ginger during a field trip to the Jahai in Malaysia. (Photo: Niclas Burenhult, Lund University, Sweden.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

two billion cars

Earlier this year I stumbled across economists' projections that there will be 2 billion motor vehicles on the roads by 2030. We passed one billion some time around 2010. So the car population will double within 20 years. Maybe the scariest part of this is that those economists seem to think that this is a good thing, and how lovely that people will have to buy fuel for those (because the vast majority will still run on fossil fuels!) and what opportunities that will bring for economic growth.

Well, put that together with the facts that nearly all Diesel cars emit more than they are allowed to, the ongoing scandal of VW's emission test cheating, and that people in cities like London are actually dying prematurely due to this pollution, and the road building that destroys the rest of the natural environment left on this planet, and all that gets me quite angry enough to write a couple of thousand words in a few hours. For comic relief I have thrown in a photo from last year's World Naked Bike Ride - virtually the only visible protest against car culture these days.

My feature is out today:

A planet with two billion cars

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 8, 25 April 2016, Pages R307–R310

FREE access to full text and PDF download.

People look much nicer without cars (and clothes) - Bristol WNBR 2015

Related materials:

  • Data from our nearest air quality measuring station are here, nice interface to play around with the results and create graphs ...
  • The relevant EU standards are here.
  • A news feature from Nature magazine, June 2016, on pollution in New Delhi.
  • Friday, April 22, 2016

    how to hammer a dulcimer

    We seem to have given birth to a new string instrument, and now I'm trying to rationalise what happened:

    So the young musician in the family wanted a hammered dulcimer. Her mother found a build-your-own instruction online. Her grandad helped her build the box. And I helped with the bridges and all the metal that goes on top (20 hitch pins, 40 tuning pins, more than 30 metres of piano wire for 20 courses of strings). And miraculously, the international 3-generation project actually resulted in a real musical instrument, which is now playable:

    And here's what it sounds like shortly after completion of the work:

    It's not very difficult to play (essentially it works like a xylophone with strings) and the construction isn't too challenging either. We disobeyed the instruction in adding more courses on the bass bridge, and by making the treble and bass bridges in one piece each with holes in it, rather than as many little ones.

    With hindsight, I would suggest that the "simplification" of building the box rectangular rather than as a trapezoid as in commercially available dulcimers is causing as much trouble on the strings side as it avoids on the box building side, so I might one day try to do one with the proper shape. As for the cost, it's just under £ 4 per course of 2 strings for the metal work - plus the wood, paint glue etc. if you don't have that lying around anyway. In our household we probably have several dulcimers worth of broken furniture that could be recycled, so watch this space.

    Monday, April 18, 2016

    bike to work

    lots of European countries have programmes encouraging people to cycle to work, like for instance:

    Austria: Radelt zur Arbeit

    Denmark: Vi cykler til arbejde

    Germany: Mit dem Rad zur Arbeit

    Netherlands: Fietsen naar het Werk

    Norway Sykle til jobben

    To find similar campaigns near you (even a few small ones in the UK), check:

    Bike 2 Work

    Speaking of bicycles, our tandem, which served us faithfully from 2005 to 2014, has now left the premises, donated to a community bike workshop where it will be restored hopefully find a new lease of life.