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).