Saturday, December 30, 2017

beginning to see some improvement

While Brexit, the Trumpocalypse, and other disasters were unfolding, I had a surprisingly good year, so much so that I looked at the short biography on my website earlier this month and realised it needed a major overhaul (done now), as so many exciting things happened this year. While the writing business continued as normal (but no new books to brag about) and the children are have also finished growing up, the surprising new developments of 2017 were mostly of the musical sort.

Maybe it all started when I attended Lydia Kavina’s theremin workshop in November 2016 – once you realise that you can play tunes by waving your hands around in thin air, anything becomes possible. Seriously though, it helped me to trust my unconscious mind, which appears to be a better musician than the conscious one.

With just a short introduction into the basics of the technique, I found I was able to play arpeggios and then tunes. Although the idea was that the teacher played the notes on the piano and the student was to find them on the theremin, I knew both the tunes she played and I realised that when I thought of the next note in my head the hand would do the correct move automatically.

With that in mind, and in preparation for further theremin adventures (and considering that I don't have a proper theremin yet), I picked up the family cello to learn some more interesting pieces, starting with The Swan. To my own surprise, I managed to learn the piece without getting arrested by the animal protection police, so I’m now expanding my cello repertoire, have recently joined an orchestra with the cello (also inspired by John Holt's memoir Never too late), and I’m signing up for the next theremin workshop. Meanwhile, my flute repertoire, supported by half-hour lessons twice a month, is also growing very slowly. I’ve started to mark progress with a still life photo for every piece.

In the very busy Oxford folk scene, I have continued attending many of the regular sessions that I had joined with the young musician during her gap year (2015/16). This was lesson 1 in “Trusting the Unconscious” – if I think about what I’m doing (or sight-read, or recall a tune from memory) I am already three bars behind, but if I just go with the flow, it works much better.

In March I played flute and about three bars worth of guitar in the very lovely Misa Campesina Nicaraguense, which is performed annually in celebration of Oxford’s partnership with León, Nicaragua. Preparations for the Misa Campesina 2018 are underway.

Shortly after the Oxford Folk Weekend, where I played in various sessions for something like 18 hours in three days, we had a special Galician session with Galician bagpiper Carlos Núñez, who is an amazing musician and a huge star in celtic folk and happened to be on holidays in the UK. Which was absolutely magical.

Folk Weekend Oxford 2017, taken by the official photographer.

After the June edition of the Galician session – which has always been my favourite one of the (at least) 10 different folk sessions I have joined or tried out since August 2015 – one of our pandeireteiras (tambourine players/singers) asked me if I was going to run the sessions after Mano’s departure, which was in fact the first time I heard that he was about to leave Oxford. And it was the last of his sessions I could attend, as he moved his final one to mid July, to a date when I was abroad. (Yes I do plan my travel around the Galician sessions and I do get mad when people move them!)

I reckoned that even without Mano’s musical genius and multiple bagpipes, we still had the unique combination of our very enthusiastic and talented Galician pandeireteiras, some seriously good international instrumentalists who can play the tunes much better than I can, and a faithful audience provided by the Intercambio Spanish language meetup, which routinely publicises the sessions as the Galician Music Night. And I reckoned it would be foolish not to do something with these assets.

So, without wanting to claim any musical merit, I agreed to take on the admin and make sure that some of the more experienced folkies would be at hand to keep the tunes flowing more smoothly than I might play them if I was left to my own devices. We had a small session with a core cast at the end of July, but numbers perked up in the following months, as London gaitero David Carril joined us on a regular basis, and after I got hold of the mailing list and set up the facebook group and WordPress blog to make sure that at least the information flows freely.

Simultaneously, our pandeireteiras carried on with their weekly tambourine classes, and we had a few lovely special events, including the Magosto (chestnut party, organised by the Galician Studies Centre), an excursion to David’s third session at London, and a special xmas session.

Oh, and the Galician Studies Centre has also spoilt us with cultural goodies this year. We had the UK premiere of the opera O arame, and the first screening in a new series of Galician movies. All of which is also a welcome opportunity for me to finally get to grips with the Galician language, building on the 2 terms course I attended in early 2016. If you know Spanish, it isn’t all that difficult. It’s essentially the same internal structure with a different set of decorations on the outside. Possibly even easier if you know Portuguese, but I don’t. A native speaker told me it’s just like Portuguese only with lots of xs. And knowing the language also makes it easier to join in the songs we sing at the sessions. So it’s all connected.

Watch this space for more linguistic and musical excitement happening in the new year, everything is possible! A back of the envelope calculation revealed I may have passed those magical 10,000 hours of practice some time in this crazy year, and sure enough, as Pablo Casals famously said (when asked why he still practiced the cello every day in his 90s), “I’m beginning to see some improvement.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

season for astrobiology

Open Archive Day

I've sometimes used the last CB issue of the year as an excuse to revisit astrobiology, seeing that it includes all the big questions of origin that also feed religions. This year, however, I've resisted the temptation, even though we had an interstellar visitor passing by just in time for xmas (see below). Instead, here comes the open archives link to last year's feature on the origin of life :

How life can arise from chemistry

This also means, of course, that all 24 of my 2016 features are now on open access, so go wild and enjoy.

Looking at the stats of this Open Archive tag, I am getting the impression that it is reasonably popular, so I'm planning to carry on in the new year, digging up one old feature on the Monday when no new feature comes out.

'Oumuamua: Interstellar Asteroid
Illustration Credit: European Southern Observatory, M. Kornmesser

Thursday, December 21, 2017

ammonia goes east

I recently noticed that there is an amazing amount of research into improved methods for ammonia synthesis happening in Japan (and hardly any in Europe). It turns out that a continuous tradition links this research to Setsuro Tamaru, a Japanese post-doc who worked with Fritz Haber in Karlsruhe and then in Berlin, until the beginning of the first world war.

As I've always used nitrogen fixation as a key example of how nature does things better than we do, I had a closer look at what the Japanese researchers are up to and where we stand on the spectrum between Haber's classic high temperature, high pressure synthesis, and nature's ambient conditions nitrogen fixation.

The resulting feature is out now in Chemistry & Industry:

N2: no quick fix

Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 10, pages 36-38

Restricted access to full (HTML) text via SCI website

restricted access to PDF file via Wiley Online Library

Setsuro Tamaru (1916∼1917 in New York).

Monday, December 18, 2017

bacterial voting

Quorum sensing is the fascinating mechanism by which bacteria decide whether they are present in sufficient numbers to have an effect, eg to produce light for a symbiotic host organism, or to launch an infection in an unsuspecting victim. This field has a fan community among those interested in the resulting phenomena (eg bioluminescence, infection) or in bacterial communications more generally, but I don't think it has received nearly the attention it deserves. Part of the reason may be that some of the most important areas where QS occurs are also incredibly complex. However, bioluminescence offers very simple and elegant model systems, and on the basis of things learned there, science can eventually progress to the messy ones, like our guts.

I think I last wrote about quorum sensing around 10 years ago (and, definitely, in my book Light and Life), so it was about time to revisit the field, which is becoming more important as we are beginning to appreciate the importance of the bacterial symbionts in our bodies. My feature on is out now:

Shining new light on quorum sensing

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 24, pR1293–R1296, 18 December 2017

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Embryos of the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes), which are colonised specifically by the luminescent symbiont Vibrio fischeri, are an ideal model system to study aspects of symbiosis and quorum sensing.

(Image: Tim Miyashiro and Andrew Cecere (Appl. Environ. Microbiol. (2016) 82, 3082–3091.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

bacterial wires

Open Archive Day

I heard last week that the ability of bacteria to form pili that act as electrical wires is not limited to the species of geobacter in which it was first discovered (press release here).

This reminded me of a different kind of bacterial electricity which I described in a feature back in 2012, which is now freely accessible:

Surprises from the sea floor

Microbiologist Derek Lovley and colleaugues at UMass Amherst report finding electrically conducting pili or 'e-pili' in more bacteria species than just the original Geobacter discovery he made 30 years ago.
Credit: UMass Amherst

Saturday, December 09, 2017

well connected

In the round-up of German pieces published in November and December, we gain information and energy from the bloodstream, while solar powered worms are running around in circles and everything is connected to everything else. Business as usual, really.

Netzwerk Leben: GTex - alles vernetzt

Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 6, December 2017, pp 428-429
Access via Wiley Online Library
(last instalment of my 12-part series on the molecular network of life)

Ausgeforscht: Frankensteins Blutturbine
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 11, November 2017, page 1175
Access via Wiley Online Library

Warnende Moleküle im Blutkreislauf

Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2017, pages 1203–1204
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Solarkreisel statt Energiewende
Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2017, page 1267
Access via Wiley Online Library

Friday, December 08, 2017

misa campesina 2018

Musicians and singers wanted for the Misa Campesina Nicaraguense 2018. This folk mass is sung every year in celebration of Oxford’s partnership with Leon, Nicaragua.

The date for 2018 is now confirmed, it is the Sunday 22 April, i.e. Sunday morning during the Folk Weekend. The idea behind this scheduling is that the Oxford Leon Association and Trust is going to invite a very special guest from Nicaragua to take part in the misa and in other events during the Folk Weekend.

There will be around three rehearsals in the weeks before the event, so probably starting from late March. Further info, links, and my ravings on this year’s misa (which was the first time I took part) are here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

estevanico's stories

review of:

The Moor’s account

Laila Lalami

I have a thing about the history around 1492 – the end of the reconquista (expulsion of Arabs and Jews from the Iberian peninsula) and the beginning of the conquest of the New World. Arguably, that’s where all our problems started, including slavery, global imperialism, never-ending wars allegedly about religion. One of my cultural reference points here is from Don Quijote - the scene on a market place in Toledo where Christians, Jews, and Moslems mingle and the narrator has no trouble finding a translator for an Arabic document when he needs one. The imperialism and nationalism emerging after the reconquista banished that kind of multiculturalism from Spain for centuries, and other European nations looked at monocultural Spain as an example.

Given this mild obsession, the Moor’s Account is perfectly positioned to attract my attention – it is set just after 1492, with the protagonist, an African Muslim slave getting involved in a Spanish expedition to Florida that goes catastrophically wrong. Estevanico is one of only four known survivors of a crew of several hundreds that set out from Sevilla in 1527. The other three have given reports that were recorded, but his weren’t, or they didn’t survive. Thus, Laila Lalami fills this gap and uses her imagination to figure out what he might have written.

History knows little about the real Estevanico (although he does have a decent Wikipedia entry), but Lalami has given him a childhood and nascent career as a merchant in Azemmour, Morocco, where (according to her guess) he sold himself into slavery in time of need. The value of freedom is a key theme of the novel, as is the power of storytelling. The latter is of course a favourite subject of almost everybody who writes, but it is handled very convincingly here. Storytelling saves Estevanico’s life multiple times, and the novel is also structured as a collection of stories.

Using the accounts of the other three survivors as a scaffold, Lalami also fills in significant events that the Spaniards may have plausibly swept under the rug, including cannibalism among starving groups of the shipwrecked party, their role as healers among the Native Americans (she hints that catholic authorities would have frowned upon that as suspected witchcraft), and marriages with Native women.

The resulting account looks very convincing as invented history and makes a lovely novel. Only occasionally did some English phrase that doesn’t exist in Spanish remind me of what I would consider its only weakness, namely that it is written in a language that Estevanico would have never encountered in his life. (Then again, the same applies to Robert Harris’s brilliant 3-volume biography of Cicero, which purports to be the lost work of his secretary, Tiro.)

In any case, with the links it draws between the Muslim world, Europe and the Americas, and the problems that were to overshadow centuries, it is a great novel not just about what happened after 1492, but about what went wrong in the last 500 years.

PS by crazy coincidence, while I was reading the book I discovered one of the sources that Lalami used at the flea market - Bernal Diaz, The conquest of New Spain, a beautiful hardback of the English translation for £1. Not entirely sure I'll actually want to read it as well, but it does have lovely illustrations ...

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

changing climate

It has become common practice in the media reports after extreme weather events to say that while climate change makes such events more likely, a specific connection to climate change cannot be made. This, however is now changing as climate attribution science is improving its methods.

While the climate summit was underway in Bonn, I wrote up a feature on the current situation in climate change and the progress in attribution science which is out now:

Finding good explanations for bad weather

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 23, pR1249–R1252, 4 December 2017

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Bonus material: right behind my feature is a Q&A with phage researcher Britt Koskella, who starred in one of the first features I wrote in this format, back in 2011.

The COP23 climate conference at Bonn was accompanied by large demonstrations in favour of more effective measures to curb CO2 emissions. (Photo: Takver/flickr by a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

wine moves

Around harvest time this year, I wrote a feature on how climate change affects wine production (good news for English wines, not so good for French ones), which is out in the latest issue of Chemistry & Industry, and also on the cover (I objected to the grape/great puns but to no avail):

Grape expectations

Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 09, pages 22-25
DOI: 10.1002/cind.819_6.x

open access to full (HTML) text via SCI website

restricted access to PDF file via Wiley Online Library

Monday, November 27, 2017

woods and trees

Open Archive Day

In October, Oxford University marked the 75th anniversary of possession of its own local forest, Wytham Woods, with the unveiling of a blue plaque and a series of special events underlining the importance of the woods as a community resource and basis for both citizen and academic science.

I have written about Earthwatch projects involving Wytham Woods back in the 00s, but not so much recently. The most recent mention I could find in my features is from the 2014 feature about a global deforestation map which is now on open access:

Fears for the woods and the trees

Wytham Woods

Wytham Woods. Photo by Nerys Groß

Monday, November 20, 2017

how whales learn new tunes

Humpback whales are just people like you and me, as I realised recently when reading a paper about how they learn new tunes. This was one of those moments when hours of leisure time (in this case: time spent in pubs playing wrong notes at the wrong time) magically transform into valuable research. The resulting feature, covering whale songs and folk tunes among other cultural highlights, is out now:

Cultured cetaceans

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 22, 20 November 2017, Pages R1193–R1196

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Humpback whales are known for their elaborate songs, which spread through
entire populations by social learning. (Photo: skeeze/

PS there's also a research paper on feeding strategies in blue whales in the same issue, which is why there is a whale shown on the cover as well:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

dvořák times seven

I've rounded up all recordings we have of the Dvořák cello concerto (including two I inherited from my grandad who didn’t play but had witnessed (and photographed) his dad playing cello).

Still space for a few more. Natalie Clein, I’m looking in your direction ...

Monday, November 13, 2017

global genomes

Open Archive Day

I recently reported about the research on hidden biases that are widespread even among people with liberal / egalitarian worldviews who would find the discrimination resulting from bias unacceptable.

One area where biased outlooks have harmed science is modern genomics. The most interesting revelations about the diversity, history and evolution of our species are to be expected from detailed analyses of African genomes as well as from comparing them to genomes representing the endpoints of the migrations that distributed our species around the world.

Instead, genomics spent its first ten years on sequencing males of European origin like Craig Venter and James Watson. Only in recent years, more than a decade after the first genome, has science begun to do our globalised species justice.

A year ago I wrote a feature on how the study of genomes of the native populations of Australia and New Guinea helps our understanding of human migrations and diversity. This feature is now on open access:

Out of Africa, into Australia

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I discovered this sonata via a long rambling path. If I remember correctly, I saw a mention somewhere that Einstein had named his violin "Line" - which resonated as the young musician in the family also assigns names to the ever growing family of string instruments (but not to wind instruments). I asked Paul Halpern, who has written a book about Einstein's friendship with Schroedinger, if he knew what happened to Line, and he referred me to this website about celebrations of Einstein's 125th birthday, where I read:
This lecture was followed by a surprise: a musical event featuring Paul Einstein on violin and Siegfried Räbblen on Piano. Paul, a great grandson of Einstein's is a musician living in the south of France and played on Einstein's violin. The piece was a Mozart Sonata, K304, written in 1778. It is the only instrumental work Mozart wrote in E-minor and its poignancy reflects Mozart's reaction to the news of his mother's death. It was Einstein's favorite.

So I looked it up and found this flute performance of k304 by Ginevra Petrucci and really liked it, and bought the score complete with accompaniment CD. Which turned out to be unnecessary, because as it happened, my flute teacher had just completed her own flute adaptation of the piece. So I worked my way through both movements of her version and am now reasonably happy with my playing, although there are always lots of things left to improve at a later point.

By the way, I don't think it required much virtuosity from Einstein or other amateur violinists to play it - I noticed one could readily play it unchanged on viola i.e. even without the violin's E string, and thus also on cello an octave below. So, if you have a string instrument sitting around, give it a try and release your inner Einstein.

Oh, and for flautists it is of course interesting because it is quite close in time (as well as in the Koechel Verzeichnis) to the two flute concertos.

Next up: a Telemann fantasia ...

Thursday, November 09, 2017

the sound of chemistry

A couple of book reviews I forgot to mention:

Sonochemistry by Gregory Chatel
Chemistry & Industry issue 7, page 39.
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
Chatel offers a brief introduction into what sonochemistry is for the ‘silent’ majority of chemists, which he presents with commendable clarity. Any chemist wondering whether sonochemistry might be worth trying, should find what they’re looking for in the first half of the book.
(spoiler alert, the second half of the book isn't quite as gripping as the first.)

Nanocomposite materials,
Chemistry & Industry issue 6, page 38.
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
I've reviewed way too many "nano" monographs in the last 20 years, so I am losing patience with them. And this one didn't quite manage to convince me that I want to read more ...

Monday, November 06, 2017

phosphorus problems

Of the multiple global problems that we are facing in the anthropocene, phosphorus may be one of the more confusing. Some say we're about to hit peak phosphorus, others that it will last a few centuries longer. Then again, we shouldn't really dig up all the geological reserves and pour them into our waterways, because that will lead to eutrophication disasters.

In either case, it would be good to know where the phosphorus is and which way it flows. Based on a better knowledge foundation, we can then perhaps build a more circular phosphorus economy.

All of which is explained in more detail in my latest feature which is out now:

Where is all the phosphorus?

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 21, pR1141–R1144, 6 November 2017

FREE access to full text and PDF download

The alchemist Hennig Brand discovers phosphorus, as imagined by Joseph Wright of Derby. Image source
(I used this pic the last time I wrote about phosphorus in Curr Biol, back in 2010, so I couldn't use it again in the feature)

Monday, October 30, 2017

insect declines

Open Archive Day

Dramatic declines in flying insect populations have been in the news recently, which reminded me of last year's feature on butterfly declines. Butterflies may not be the most important insects ecologically, but their visibility and aesthetic appeal means that they are better studied than many.

My butterflies feature is on open access now:

Butterflies take a well-studied tumble

(own photo)

Monday, October 23, 2017

hidden bias

Of course people aren't racist, if you ask them. In the last decades, openly acknowledged prejudice has lost ground in western society, and only a small minority would admit to it. But are people still biased deep down, maybe without realising it?

Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji have developed a very clever way of testing for such hidden bias, the implicit association test (IAT), which you can try out for yourself here. The test has now been widely used and many people report that they discovered implicit bias they were unaware of previously.

All this isn't quite new any more, but given that some remarkably prejudiced people are now in positions of power in some countries I could think of, and given the horrendous number of black people killed by police in the US, it is more important than it may have been in the more optimistic times when the test first went online. So I've read the book Blindspot by Greenwald and Banaji (shown below) and written up a feature about the remarkable story of the IAT and what it means for us today.

Oh, and I took two versions of the IAT, and I am pleased to report that:

1) Your data suggests:
Little or no association between Female and Male with Science and Liberal Arts.

2)Your data suggests:
Moderate automatic preference for Black people compared to White people.

So I am now moderately biased in favour of the IAT, as it gave me the results I hoped for.

Anyhow, here's my feature:

Can we change our biased minds?

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 20, pR1089–R1091, 23 October 2017

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Friday, October 20, 2017

ave maria

My great-grandfather Heinrich had played the cello in an amateur string quartet in the 1920s to 1930s, and I was told that when he died in 1958, a cellist played the Ave Maria at his funeral.

While the piece is quite famous as a song, I recently started to wonder what the cello version sounded like and if I might be able to play it. I found a very easy adaptation for cello alone (in F major) that I can actually play (adagio happens to be my favourite tempo, too).

More interesting is this version for cello and guitar. (I'm a bit confused about the key, but I think it is in A while the original song is in Bb.)

So there's something left to aspire to once I get bored with the easy version ...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

white paper water

back in September 2015, I spent a week at Leipzig, having a lovely time with a bunch of water chemists discussing what chemistry can do to safeguard our water. It wasn't quite as much fun trying to write up the proceedings as a white paper if only because I am not much good at juggling the input of multiple co-authors. But somehow, miraculously, a finished product materialised. In my post-traumatic state I appear to have missed the memo when the thing was published, but it is online both

in English


in German

and on open access so feel free to read it if you must. I just looked it up because I needed some of the info I learned at Leipzig.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Open Archive Day

This time of the year, the names of the months tend to get modified for various health and charity endeavours from stoptober to movember, so let's celebrate octopusober as well, with a flashback to my September (!) 2015 feature on the amazing intelligence of cephalopods:

Intelligent life without bones

Writing this changed my views in so far, as I now find it very disturbing that people actually eat octopuses. You might as well eat dogs.

Among the behaviours recently observed in octopuses is a ‘tap on the shoulder’ with one arm approaching from the far side, startling the prey and chasing it into the other seven arms. (Photo: Roy L. Caldwell.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

connect seven

The roundup of German pieces published in September and October includes worms (separately) damaging books and plastic bags, the benefits of fish oil and cannabis, the networks of microglia in the brain and chemists' families, including the family of my PhD supervisor whose father worked with Haber, who invented the synthesis of ammonia, about which there is also an article. Obviously, you can buy fish in plastic bags and even catch it yourself using those very same caterpillars as bait, and cannabis probably influences the microglia in some ways, so everything is connected to everything else. Phew.

Stickstofffixierung: Ammoniaksynthese bei Zimmertemperatur?

Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2017, p 294
Access via Wiley Online Library

Abbau von Polyethylen: Kontroverse um Raupen und PE

Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2017, p 294
Access via Wiley Online Library

Netzwerk Leben: Mikroglia – Wächter im Gehirn

Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2017, pp 298–299
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Verjüngungsrausch für Senioren

Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 9, September 2017, page 975
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ein Genschalter für Essgewohnheiten

Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, pages 989–991
Access via Wiley Online Library

Chemie als Familientradition

Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, pages 1036–1038
Access via Wiley Online Library

Ausgeforscht: Dem Bücherwurm auf der Spur

Nachrichten aus der Chemie
Volume 65, Issue 10, October 2017, page 1075
Access via Wiley Online Library

Monday, October 09, 2017

islands of life

Island biogeography is a very successful concept looking at how species manage in (partial) isolation from the rest of the world. It applies to islands in the sea, of course, but also to other isolated patches of habitat such as forest fragments, areas of land cut off by by roads, or sea floor areas with specific properties such as those around hot springs.

In my latest feature, I have rounded up some examples of non-literal island biogeography, and I also managed to sneak in a nod to the Cassini spacecraft, which went on its last nosedive while I was writing this piece.

Life’s islands under the sea

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 19, pR1037–R1040, 9 October 2017

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Biodiversity on and around islands can be very different from the nearest mainland. Island biogeography models these phenomena on the basis of dispersal and extinction. (Photo: Falco Ermert/Flickr by a CC BY 2.0 licence.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

unusual instruments

The Oxford Music Festival is mainly for young musicians playing orchestral instruments, guitar or piano, but there is also a space for people of all ages playing weird and wonderful instruments.

Following my suggestion, the committee has launched a new class called:

Show us your unusual instrument

Non-competitive. Any non-orchestral instrument from early music, folk, non-European traditions, including home-built or -modified or newly invented instruments. 5mins to play a piece and explain the instrument.

Time limit 5 mins.

It's class 160 near the bottom of this page

IMPORTANT: registration deadline is Sat 14th of October. (Although the festival itself takes place on the last weekend in January and the first weekend in February.)

So sign up now for a chance to show and play your ophicleide, hurdy-gurdy, nyckelharpa, khene, theremin, morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), tromba marina (marine trumpet), crumhorn, txalaparta, shawm, or whatever other instrument you play, and help to show the world that music doesn't always have to be played on violin and piano.

For those who don't know the festival format: There is an entry fee to pay (£9 for this class), which buys you the opportunity to perform to an expert audience, constructive criticism from the adjudicator - a professional musician and music teacher, who normally will dispense a carefully crafted sandwich with criticism surrounded by praise - plus the chance to meet other unusual instrumentalists, plus free entry to the festival on the day you perform, so you can listen to other musicians performing all day if you like. There are typically four strands of classes running parallel, so you can pick and mix.

I'm signing up to improve my skills on our home-built hammered dulcimer, and I'm advertising the class to make sure it won't be just me hammering the dulcimer ...

Angel with viola a chiavi ('keys'), Cappellina di Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy. Fresco by Taddeo di Bartolo, 1408. Image source: Wikipedia

PS (19.10.2017) in related news, the Society for strange and ancient instruments has just completed crowdfunding to build a quartet of marine trumpets.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

predatory ways

Open Archive Day

Both insect food and artificial meat have been in the news recently, so it may be a good time to reheat my feature on how we (as a species) tend to kill the wrong animals and mess up ecology:

Can we change our predatory ways?

Monday, September 25, 2017

antiquity's genomes

Research using ancient genomes is still advancing rapidly. At first, it was limited to higher latitudes, but it is now possible to sequence ancient DNA from warmer parts of the world, bringing it closer to the origins of western civilisation, and, soon, to the origins of our species.

In my latest feature I discuss the results of genomic studies of ancient Greeks and Canaanites (in today's Lebanon), which add genetic substance to the stories of Homer and the Bible. Both studies pin down migrations, but also reveal a remarkable degree of genetic continuity across millennia. While the piece was in press, some of the groups involved in the Greek study have gone further south and published ancient genomes from sub-Saharan Africa. Hard to keep up these days.

Read all about Greeks, Minoans, and Canaanites here:

Roots of Mediterranean civilisations

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 18, pR979–R982, 25 September 2017

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Restoration of a late Minoan fresco dated ca. 1525–1450 BCE. Only the offset, irregularly shaped fragments are original. The faces of the women were copied from other, smaller Minoan artworks. (Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dodge Fund, 1927.)

PS: looks like archaeology at Troy is also making progress, see this report in The Guardian which came out just after my feature.

Monday, September 18, 2017

megadams march on

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I reported how the inflationary spread of megadam projects in tropical countries may do the environment more harm than good. The thing is that submerged vegetation in large reservoirs in the tropics can release enough greenhouse gases to wipe out the climate benefits from the hydroelectric plant in comparison to a modern gas-fired power station.

However, the megadam mania has marched on regardless. Earlier this year, for instance, the Guardian asked:

Why is Latin America so obsessed with mega dams?

and concluded that other renewable energies may be preferable in many cases. Some projects have in fact been stopped by protests and environmental concerns, but in many places, the mania continues.

My feature is now on open access:

A global megadam mania

Thursday, September 14, 2017

galician news

It looks like I have inherited the admin side of Oxford's Galician session, after the founder and all-round musical genius Mano has left town. At the same time I realised that I had a WordPress account that I haven't used in 10 years, so I will now advertise the sessions and generally rave about Galician music there as well as in the Facebook Group which I've just set up.

So, you choose:

Galician Session Oxford (WordPress blog)

Galician Session Oxford (Facebook group)

Oh, and I'm also running an email list, but that will only involve one mail per month, just the reminder I'll send one week ahead of the session. Drop me a note if you want to get on that list.

The sessions will continue to happen at the James Street Tavern, last Wednesday of every month, 8:30pm.

I will never get bored of the illustrations from the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Monday, September 11, 2017

becoming a plant

Today's issue of Current Biology has a special section called

The making of a plant

with lots of fascinating stuff on everything plant related from cell biology to agriculture.

My contribution is a feature rounding up various ways in which mimicking plants can be useful for us, from architecture through to ecology and behaviour of pollinators:

Reinventing the plant

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 17, 11 September 2017, Pages R855–R858

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

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

a flood of floods

Open Archive Day

With the recent "unprecedented" floods in Texas and India, we have gained further examples demonstrating what catastrophic climate change will look like on a regular basis. For most people a warmer climate will not mean relaxing by the pool, but fleeing floods and other disasters.

The connection is quite simple really. Warmer sea surface water allows storms to pick up more water vapour and more energy, both of which make them more devastating. I've discussed all this in a feature published early last year, which is now on open access:

World under water

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Nicaragua's struggles

Open Archive Day

The project to build a ginormous canal across Nicaragua has divided opinion. It is likely to spell ecological disaster in a number of ways, but then again, it is hard to deny one of the poorest countries in the Americas the opportunity to capitalise on its geographic location.

I reported on the project in November 2014 in a feature which is now in the open archives:

Will the Nicaragua Canal connect or divide?

Now it looks like it is definitely going to be built, even though not all Nicaraguans are happy with it. Recent press reports suggest that conflicts with protestors may be escalating, answering my title question by reminding us that the canal not only connects two oceans but also divides the country, although these letters suggest the majority is still behind the project.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

life and her children

Life and her children:

Glimpses of animal life - From the amoeba to the insects.

By Arabella B. Buckley.

With upwards of 100 illustrations

This is a popular science book from 1885. As the author states in the preface: "Its main object is to acquaint young people with the structures and habits of the lower forms of life; and to do this in a more systematic way than is usual in ordinary works on Natural History, and more simply than in text-books on Zoology."

I bought this one from an Oxfam shop - more expensive than what I usually buy, but still under £10. I could almost claim I need it for my work. The writing and the animals are embossed and gilded, which doesn't show very well in my photos but looks lovely in real life. Also, the lower parts of the letters have a horizontal stripe pattern, presumably suggesting they emerge from the water, as life did.

It turns out Arabella Buckley (1840-1929) was Charles Lyell’s secretary and started writing and lecturing about science after Lyell’s death (1875), see her short Wikipedia entry. And it seems to have worked out well for her, considering this impressive list of titles published:

A short history of natural science and of the progress of discovery from the time of the Greeks to the present day. For the use of schools and young persons (1876)
Botanical Tables for the use of Junior Students (1877)
The Fairy-Land of Science (1879)
Life and Her Children (1880) with illustrations by John James Wild
Winners in Life's Race or the Great Backboned Family (1883)
History of England for Beginners (1887)
Through magic glasses and other lectures : a sequel to The fairyland of science (1890)
High School History of England (1891) co-authored by W.J. Robertson.
Moral Teachings of Science (1892)
Insect Life (1901)
Birds of the Air (1901)
By Pond and River (1901)
Wild Life in Woods and Field (1901)
Trees and Shrubs (1901)
Plant Life in Field and Garden (1901)
Eyes and No Eyes (1903)

additional photos are in my tumblr post about the book.

Monday, August 21, 2017

plastic planet

I have covered the catastrophic accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans a couple of times before, but a recent analysis of all the plastic ever produced suggested that this is only the beginning of the problem. Production keeps growing exponentially and faster than the global economy, and the waste produced will follow that curve with only a short delay.

So, time for another feature on the horrible things we're inflicting on our home planet:

Our planet wrapped in plastic

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 16, 21 August 2017, Pages R785–R788

Free access to full text and PDF download

Beaches even on remote and uninhabited islands can accumulate large quantities of plastic waste delivered by the ocean gyres. This picture was taken on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Susan White/USFWS.)

PS other recent news on plastic waste:

Fish mistaking plastic particles for food (16.8.2017)

David Attenborough on plastic pollution (25.9.2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

vanishing wilderness

Open Archive Day

A year ago I wrote about the threats to one of the last true wilderness areas in Europe, the Białowieża forest, on the border of Poland and Belarus. It appears that the risks we worried about then are now becoming a harsh reality, as the Guardian has reported earlier this year:

'My worst nightmares are coming true': last major primeval forest in Europe on 'brink of collapse'

(The Guardian, 23.5.2017)

My feature is now on open access:

Europe’s last wilderness threatened

Friday, August 11, 2017

very hungry caterpillars

the roundup of German pieces published in July and August includes my take on the plastic-degrading caterpillars, along with the surprising regulatory role of ribosomal proteins, the quest for better fertilisers, and musings on a ban of concentrated hydrogen peroxide.

Raupen zerlegen PE
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 4, August 2017, Page 223
Access via Wiley Online Library

Netzwerk Leben: Die Proteinfabrik reguliert sich selbst
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 51, Issue 4, August 2017, Pages 282-283
Access via Wiley Online Library

Besser düngen
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 65, Issue 7-8, Juli - August 2017, Pages 764-765
Access via Wiley Online Library

Jäger und Sammler
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 65, Issue 7-8, Juli - August 2017, Page 859
Access via Wiley Online Library

Monday, August 07, 2017

seafood genes

long chain omega 3 fatty acids, as found in fatty fish, are important for our health - this much is clear. But from this, one cannot conclude that everybody should eat more fish.

In fact they are so important that human evolution has adapted our metabolism to the availability or lack of the fish oil compounds. Thus people from a fish-eating genetic heritage may need the fish oils, while others from a long vegetarian tradition have evolved their own ways of producing the compounds in their body.

Thus, the answer is complicated, as I have explained in my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

How our diet changed our evolution

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 15, 7 August 2017, Pages R731–R733

FREE access to full text and PDF download

In Inuit and other populations traditionally relying on seafood, researchers have found gene variants that weaken the endogenous synthesis of the fatty acids that these people take up with their regular doses of fish. (Photo: Louise Murray/Science Photo Library.)

Friday, August 04, 2017

old tunes

reviving the series of antiquarian books from my shelves, here are some musical titles I bought from the book stall at the Oxford Music Festival this year:

Giesbert, F.J. (Hrsg.):
Deutsche Volkstänze. Eine Sammlung der schönsten Volkstänze und Reigenlieder für 1 oder 2 Blockflöten oder andere beliebige Melodieinstrumente nach Belieben mit einer Laute. Hefte 1 und 2.

My edition is undated but the internet ventures all sorts of guesses ranging from 1910s to 1940s. The serial numbers 2361 and 2362 are not that far away from the Rohr-Lehn recorder book for schools (2661) which is ancient, but was still in use in the 1970s. In fact, you can still get these from Schott Music today, apparently, but they don't reveal the publication date either. The editor, Franz Julius Giesbert, lived 1896-1972, so that narrows it down a bit ...

Der Flötenmusikant - Volkslieder und Tänze für 1 oder 2 Blockflöten gleicher Stimmung edition Schott, Band I-III.

These are also from Schott, and a different version under the same title is still available today, presumably the three booklets merged into one. My three little books have numbers on the back cover and month of printing, reading:

158 XII.61 on the first two volumes, and then 158 VII.63 on the third.

Funnily enough, Giesbert No 1 also has 158 in the same place (but no date) and No. 2 has the number 33 - I think these numbers specify the lists of other works available, but the dates are still likely to be close to the date of printing, right?

Monday, July 31, 2017

nature on fire

Open Archive Day

It's wildfire season in the Northern hemisphere, so a good time to re-consider my feature from two years ago on how nature can live with fire, but humans have managed to turn it into a problem - partly by stopping it from happening.

My feature is on open access here:

Learning to live with landscape fires

A forest fire near Sydney, Australia, dwarfs a fire truck sent to contain it. (Photo: Stefan Doerr, Swansea University.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

what is life

the latest issue of C&I contains my review of a book called "What is life?" - sadly not Schrödinger's take on the matter though.

Free access.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

fragmented forests

Brazil hosts a pioneering experiment designed to study the ecological damage done by forest fragmentation. After making some real progress in slowing down deforestation, however, the country is now once again speeding up the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The lessons learned in decades of research in the Amazon clearly haven't made much of an impact on the people now in power.

Read all about it in my latest feature, which is now out:

Brazil's fragmented forests

Current Biology volume 27, Issue 14, 24 July 2017, Pages R681–R684

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)

Oh, and I think this must be the 150th contribution in the series of features started in February 2011.

Research at the BDFFP has shown that forest fragmentation and edge effects significantly alter the abundance of bats. (Photo: Oriol Massana and Adrià López-Baucells.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

climate canaries

So I came across a story about albatrosses and how they are affected by ocean warming, and I wanted to do effects of warming more widely (other than corals), but all roads led to birds. Ocean warmings leads to more frequent extreme climate events, and it turns out that birds with their complex life cycles including migration, nest-building and parental care routines, are often quite vulnerable to these events. So they are our modern day coalmine canaries in a way.

All will be explained in my latest feature out now:

Volatile climate stirs bird life cycle

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 13, pR623–R625, 10 July 2017

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)

Sea birds like albatrosses are sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. In one recent study, a well-studied population was shown to suffer from the increasing temperature variations but to benefit from recent warming bringing it closer to its temperature optimum. (Photo: Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo/NOAA Corps. (CC BY 2.0).)

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

dvořák sonatina

I've just finished off the Dvořák sonatina op 100, having played all four movements over the last few months. I love it mainly for its echoes of the other "American" works, including the cello concerto and the New World symphony, which Dvořák wrote around the same time.

I started this adventure by buying a flute arrangement by James Galway, but soon realised he needlessly transposed the entire work as high up as physically possible, which in my ears doesn't sound very nice even if it is played competently, never mind when I try it. So I went back to the violin version (which is free online) and started from that, made it a bit more flutey with my teacher's help, looking at Galway's version for inspiration only where changes were necessary.

You can find a version that follows similar lines and uses the richer colours of the lower register here, played by Julien Beaudiment.

Next up: Albert Einstein's favourite Mozart sonata.

Monday, July 03, 2017

ecosystem service update

Open Archive Day

The ecosystem services concept aims to quantify the commercial value of all the natural resources we generally use without thinking, from the air that we breathe to the rain that waters our plants. The idea is that businesses have so far failed to protect these natural resources because they don't show up on balance sheets, and they appeared to be in unlimited supply, although we now know that they aren't and that in some respects we have already exceeded the capacity of our planet.

I learned about these things in 2011 and wrote a feature about them which is now openly accessible:

Valuing nature

The ideas have become more widely known since then but haven't quite managed to save the world as yet. It has also been criticised by some environmentalists, eg George Monbiot, on the grounds of turning nature into just another commodity.

Monday, June 26, 2017

coral conundrum

Open Archive Day

After several features on threats to coral reefs, including ocean acidification, warming, El Niño, and overfishing, I wrote one last June on what if anything can be done to save them.

Still, the threats keep coming and the solutions don't seem to be moving quite as fast as the problems.

This feature (like the earlier features it references) is now on open access:

Can science rescue coral reefs?

Aerial view of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island, which is surrounded by coral reefs that provide study material for research into the stress resilience of corals. (Photo: Doug Peebles.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

primate problems

There are around 500 primate species on our planet. Two thirds of them are threatened with extinction, because one, Homo sapiens, isn't quite as wise as the binomial name suggests. In my latest feature I have discussed some of the threatened species and the problems they are facing:

Primates in peril

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 12, pR573–R576, 19 June 2017

OPEN access to full text and PDF download

Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta) at Berenty Private Reserve in Madagascar. Source: Wikimedia

Friday, June 16, 2017

strings attached

In the round-up of German pieces published in May and June we have 3D-printed aliens, tattooed cucumbers, as well as entanglements of DNA and shoelaces (which, of course stand in for DNA as well):

Netzwerk Leben: Verwicklungen der Schnürsenkel
Chemie in unserer Zeit 51, 154-155
restricted access

Ausgeforscht: Tätowierung für Gurken
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 5, p619
restricted access

Ausgeforscht: E.T. aus dem 3-D-Drucker
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 6, p751
restricted access

Medizin: Gefaltete DNA für Diagnose und Therapie
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 6, pp636-639
restricted access

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

20000 leagues under the sea

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I enjoyed reading up about the late 19th / early 20th century pioneers of bathymetry, or the measurement of ocean depth (or sea floor topography, depending on whether you prefer your glass half full or half empty). Much of it sounded like a Jules Verne novel, with the sense of awe for the as yet unexplored which we appear to have forgotten, even though the sea floor remains poorly described to this day. So the vague memory I retain of the feature I wrote is that it was all about Captain Nemo, although in truth it probably wasn't.

The feature is now on open access so you can check for yourself:

How deep are the oceans?

Friday, June 09, 2017

cellular computation

as I have been saying since I wrote a book chapter on Molecular Computation (1998), the fundamental processes in a living cell are essentially computation. This could potentially be used in two ways - building computers based on molecules and cells, or manipulating important biological processes (eg in medical or agricultural context) using computational tools.

Back in the 1990s, the molecular computer was a promising avenue, but it never quite took off. Now the other way round, programming biology, seems the more exciting prospect. This has given a major boost by the recent invention of a compiler that can translate computer code into DNA regulatory networks, which in most cases even work in the cell.

As we are increasingly becoming aware that complex regulatory networks (rather than single genes and enzymes) are the things that we need to understand and control if we want to change biological processes, this development could very well revolutionise several areas where we interfere with living beings, from agriculture to medicine.

Read all about it in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry:

Cellular computer
Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 4, pages 26–29
DOI: 10.1002/cind.814_7.x
Full text (Wiley Online Library)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

virtual gets real

I'm not a gamer so I've happily ignored a large part of the technology developments in recent years. However, they are now reaching the point where there is significant collateral benefit for science. Virtual reality tech combined with miniaturised cameras and autonomous vehicles for oceans, air and space now allows us to explore spaces where we cannot go ourselves. Similarly, in neuroscience, VR combines with imaging technology to record brain responses to experiences that would in real life be incompatible with the study.

Luckily, the Radcliffe Science Library did a demonstration workshop just at the right time so I could try out a bit of VR myself and get an impression. And then I rounded up a few of the examples of how VR is actually becoming useful for science.

The feature is out now:

Exploring virtual worlds

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 11, pR399–R402, 5 June 2017

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

Greenpeace UK has recently launched a VR app enabling smartphone users to experience the Arctic from the safety of their homes. (Photo: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

homo migrans

Open Archive Day

Science magazine published a special issue on human migrations earlier this month, underlining the points that all humans have a migration background and movement is vital for science and progress (while also sticking out their tongue to the Drumpf administration).

Which reminds me that I had a feature on migrations published two years ago, which is now in the open archives:

Genetic traces of mankind’s migrations

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

armchair and time travels

A few months ago, I found the booklet about Colombia in a charity shop - but they didn’t have any other countries I was interested in.

Colombia - a booklet from the “Around the World Program” from the American Geographical Society. Copyright 1959, 1964.

printed in greyscale with green as additional colour throughout. At least 29 colour photos are glued in manually (numbered but not in order, so I may have overlooked one).

Now, at a fleas market, I’ve found a few more to start a collection. At the moment, I’m not quite sure if I’m collecting countries I’ve visited (neither Paraguay nor Uruguay) or Latin American ones, in which case Algeria would be the odd one out. Climate zones also vary - looks like I'll just have to schedule a trip to the 'guays.

I’ve actually read the Colombian one (a few more pics of it inside and out are here). I found it touching how the 1950s perspective is blissfully unaware of essentially all problems the country would face in the following decades. Will also read the other ones at some point.

I was wondering if this was based on some kind of subscription / collection model. Somebody on tumblr suggested they came as sets in slip cases, possibly a set for each of the continents that have several countries (wouldn't quite work for Australia, Antarctica).

Monday, May 22, 2017

recycling retroviruses

Last October I went to an epigenetics conference at the IMB Mainz, and one of the things I discovered there was the importance of KRAB zinc finger proteins. This sounds terribly technical and I probably ignored the relevant papers when I saw them in Nature or Science, but as two speakers explained at the conference, it offers a fascination way of understanding how evolution repurposes things. These proteins evolved as defence against retroviruses before our fish ancestors left the oceans, and over time they and the sequences descended from the former viruses became an integral part of our gene regulation.

Fascinating if slightly complex stuff, read all about it in my latest feature:

How our genome’s foes became its helpers

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 10, 22 May 2017, Pages R365–R368

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

The large family of KRAB zinc finger transcription factors goes back to a defence mechanism that originated in a common ancestor of humans and coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae). (Photo: Mordecai 1998, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

musical connections

At first glance, my great-grandfather Heinrich Groß (1882-1958), who played oboe and tuba in the military until 1918 and then the cello in an amateur string quartet until the mid 1930s, looks like a one-off on that side of the family tree. His only child, my grandfather, didn’t play anything (although he left a modest record collection including several recordings of Dvorak’s cello concerto). My father only found out about his grandfather’s musical past when another cellist turned up at Heinrich’s funeral to play the Ave Maria.

But stepping sidewise and looking at the (half-) siblings of both the cellist and his wife as well as their offspring, we find an astonishing number of people who played or worked with music in some form or shape. The cellist himself had one sister, with three great-grandchildren (ie my generation but younger), one of whom studied singing and early music and now works as a soprano and music educator.

Heinrich also had a half-brother from his mother’s previous marriage. His niece (the half-brother’s only child, I think) married into a dance school, a tradition which is now running in the fourth generation.

The cellist’s wife, Maria Pfersching (1881-1961; see also this entry on the origins of her paternal ancestors), was also from a relatively small patchwork family, with three half-siblings from her father’s subsequent marriage after the early death (in 1886) of her mother. Her two half-brothers, Heinrich and Fritz Pfersching, were amateur musicians who used to play for local dance events, although we’re not sure what instruments they played.

Among the descendants of her half-sister, Anna Pfersching, we have three professional musicians, with instruments including viola da gamba, bass trombone and cello. I understand they credit their talents to the Pfersching lineage, as the family of Anna’s husband reportedly had no musical inclinations.

Although, considering how Heinrich wrapped up his cello and never played again nor mentioned it to his grandchildren, I would argue that you can never know if you had some cryptic musicians in your family tree. I find this more shocking the more I find out and think about it. Surely, with the number of musical people on both sides and some variety of serious music-making happening in all five branches of the extended family, it is fair to assume that some kind of musical interest must have played a role when Heinrich and Maria got together. (They had a double wedding together with Heinrich's sister, and there are plenty of songs in the "wedding journal" of which I have a copy.) A musical family just falling into silence is a scary thought.

All’s well that ends well, though: Heinrich’s cello (now also known by the name of Heinrich) has seen a lot of excitement since the young musician in my family grew into it in 2009, including everything from quartets to barn dances. I will write up its adventures some other time.

Heinrich's string quartet, photo by his son who was a keen photographer. We still don't know who the other members were.

Monday, May 15, 2017

merian memories

Open Archive Day

Maria Sibylla Merian died 300 years ago, in January 1717. Ahead of the anniversary, I wrote a feature on the role of illustration in the life sciences using her hugely influential work as a prime example.

This feature is now on open access:

Putting biology in the picture

Image source: Wikipedia

Saturday, May 13, 2017

old books

My tumblr blog has a focus on everything bookish, and in this spirit I have also photographed and shared some of the antiquarian books on my shelves. As these photos are diluted with lots of other bookish stuff on tumblr, I decided to share photos of my collection here as well, under the antiquarian tag.

It isn't a very systematic collection, but I inherited some antiquarian books from my great-aunt many years ago, rescued some from a skip, and bought a few at charity shops and fleas markets, so over time, they have accumulated. Moreover, as the years clock, up, some of the books that I once bought new are also beginning to look a bit antiquarian.

To start the new series, here is a lovely appreciation of Oxford by D. Erskine Muir with watercolours by Jack Merriott, which I recently discovered at the antiques fair on Gloucester Green. A bit of googling revealed that the D. in the author’s name stands for Dorothy, and the book appears to date from the 1950s. I actually read it in its entirety, it was hilarious in a “plus ça change” kind of way.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

galician magic

I have been playing Galician folk music for nearly two years now, and (as Pablo Casals famously said about his cello practice in his 90s) I'm beginning to notice some improvement. In the last few weeks I have been spoilt with opportunities to improve further. There was a Galician session at the Folk Weekend, then the the regular monthly one, and a week later, advertised only by word of mouth, a special one, with a special guest. Only two days before the event I found out that the special guest was the most special one you could imagine.

If you read up about Galician folk anywhere, eg in this recent feature in the Economist, the one musician whose name will definitely appear is Carlos Núñez. So, well, he was around visiting friends in the UK, and he came to our special session to listen to us playing and then to join in, playing his whistles (not the bagpipes he's famous for), dancing, chatting and generally being amazing. People in attendance were a mixture of the regulars from the established sessions in Oxford and Cardiff, as well as a delegation from the newly launched Galician session in London, which also set the event apart from our regular sessions.

So, I think everybody (including the paella cook and a stray Morris dancer) felt it was a magical night, and rather than raving on, I'll link to my videos here:

0) Pablo Gonzalez sings Camariñas (before Carlos got involved - any wrong notes on the flute are mine)

1) some dancing

2) A rianxeira

3) Mazurca dos Areeiras (David, who played the whistles at the far side of the room in this video, also recorded a clip of this in which I appear, see embedded video below)

4) an Argentinian chamame, I am told

(These videos are "unlisted" meaning they can only be accessed via these specific links and will not show up in searches.)

Carlos Núñez talking to our group of pandeireteiras (tambourine players). The guy in white at the back is a stray Morris dancer - his side had a dance-out just before our event and he stayed on, playing the spoons.

Mazurca dos Areeiras, the view from the other side of the room:

PS more magic to follow soon. O Arame, the second ever opera to be written and performed in the Galician language will be premiered in Oxford in June, conducted by Tamara Lorenzo Gabeiras. You can see her dancing in my video no. 1). I spent the entire session standing close to her without realising who she was, even though I had seen her in a recital a year before.