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.

    Monday, April 11, 2016

    animal internet

    Last July, in a feature about advanced applications of technology in animal tracking for ecology, I mentioned the book "Das Internet der Tiere" by Alexander Pschera. I'm very pleased to hear that an English translation of this fascinating book is coming out this week, published by the New Vessel Press. Here is what I wrote in the introduction to my feature last year:
    "More than 50,000 wild animals are currently equipped with tracking devices that record their moves and in many cases additional data about their physiology, their environment, their behaviour, or their interactions with other animals. Due to the miniaturisation of electronic devices and improvements in communication technology, the opportunities have expanded to reasonably non-invasive tagging of smaller animals including small birds and even larger insects.
    This trend produces more than just a large stash of “big data” in ecology. As the author Alexander Pschera has argued, it creates the “internet of animals” in analogy with the much-hyped internet of things – which is why his book, published in German, is also called “Das Internet der Tiere” (2014). Some tagged animals already have their social media profiles where human fans can follow their moves.
    Pschera’s favourite animal, the Northern bald ibis or waldrapp (Geronticus eremita) also has an online presence that allows the author to stay in touch. The waldrapp has been virtually extinct in the Alps but a successful, technology-guided reintroduction effort from the EU-funded project Waldrapp Team brought the birds back. Echoing the 1996 movie Fly away home, the team used light aircraft to teach the birds their historic migration route which had fallen into oblivion.
    As they are still highly endangered, the birds are closely monitored. Martin Wikelski – a pioneer of the internet of animals – and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology at Radolfzell, Germany, have recently developed solar-powered GPS tags for the waldrapps, which could, in principle enable tracking an animal for its whole lifetime without the need for recapture. Thus, their fans can follow their every move, and the team relies on social media including Facebook to publicise the cause (
    Pschera argues that this phenomenon creates a new interface between us humans and our natural environment, with which we have somewhat lost contact due to the technical progress and urbanisation of the 20th century. Like in pre-industrial times, wild animals will once more be able to teach us many things about the world we live in. As Wikelski puts it in his preface to Pschera’s book: “Humanity as a whole will receive the support of a guide dog, to finally realise Humboldt’s ideal of understanding nature […] through the interplay of its constituent parts.” This revolution takes place simultaneously on land, in the oceans, and in the air."

    (The feature is still behind the paywall but should come out into the open one year after publication, i.e. on July 20th.)

    Tuesday, April 05, 2016

    Australia's wildlife in peril

    As the Great Barrier Reef is beginning to suffer catastrophic bleaching from the current El Niño warming, Australia's unique biodiversity on land is also under threat from deforestation and habitat loss. I've rounded up a few of the issues currently being fought over especially in Queensland in my latest feature which is out now:

    Fate of Australia's wildlife in the balance

    Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 7, 4 April 2016, Pages R257–R259

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

    The iconic koala is one of many species losing large areas of habitat as deforestation accelerates in the state of Queensland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)