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?