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.)