Tuesday, December 24, 2019

happy holidays

While I don't believe in Santa Claus, I am glad that the mad rush of trying to get everything done before xmas is over. I haven't managed to write any seasonal greetings or a legible end of year report, partially because I am changing my mind twice daily about whether to stick around or join the brexodus. One of several serious problems is that the death eaters are cropping up everywhere, so it's tricky to find a place where one might be safe from them.

Anyhow, my next hard deadline will be mid January, so plenty of time to catch up with various things that have fallen by the wayside ...

So have a good one of whatever you celebrate or don't. Personally, I am following way too many classicists on twitter, so I'm beginning to feel I should celebrate Saturnalia ...

Own photo - not our house but I love the concept of outlining the architectural details in lights. Seen somewhere in North Oxford on the way to Wolvercote.

Monday, December 23, 2019

something fishy in our genes

Open Archive Day

(last one for 2019, I'll take the 30.12. off)

After last week's salmon feature, I am sticking with fishy things. Preparing a future article on evolution, I had to look up my ancient feature pegged to the coelacanth genome and remembered I really liked it. The most mindboggling thought about this, as I noted in a blog entry back in 2013, arises from the fact that the coelacanth is one of the closest relatives of the lineage that conquered land and turned into tetrapods. Thus: "If you look at the tree of life from the perspective of the coelacanth, you'll find that mice, chickens and humans are closer relatives than herring or zebrafish, or anything that lives in an aquarium, and never mind sharks and rays. Try to get that into your brain if you're just a fish." Entirely logical but still mindboggling.

So, anyhow, here is the 2013 feature about coelacanth and other fishes:

What fish genomes can tell us about life on land

We struggled to get good photos of the elusive coelacanth, hence used one of its terrestrial relatives, Homo sapiens instead:

While we humans tend to have grandiose ideas about our special position in the tree of life, more than 70% of our genes have an obvious orthologue in zebrafish, suggesting that the vast majority of our genetic heritage evolved in an aqueous environment. Therefore, research into the genomes of fishes can help to address medical problems. (Photo: iStockphoto 07-15-11 © Vladimir Piskunov.)

Friday, December 20, 2019

get ready for brexodus

Oh well. Maybe I shouldn’t have given up the Harry Potter series in the middle of the goblet of fire. Now the death eaters are running rampant, and I don’t know what to do. Specifically: remain in the UK (and thus leave the EU) or leave the UK (and remain in the EU)? Very confusing all this. I think that generally, organisations claiming to speak for the 3 million EU27 citizens in the UK have been too craven advising people how to jump through the death eaters hoops rather than to keep open the option of packing up for brexodus.

Since the election, I’ve been changing my mind about it twice daily, so to get some clarity, I’ve made a spreadsheet for arguments for and against moving. Right now, the case against is looking stronger. It has laziness on its side, which is a strong motivator. Plus the fact that many perks we have come to appreciate in Oxford just can’t be replicated elsewhere. Plus the rather scary realisation that if we did move to Germany (or any other of the EU27 countries) the local branch of the death eaters might take over there in a few years (ie on the same timescale that a move would take) and we’d be back on square 1.

So I guess today’s plan is stay put but shed some ballast in case we have to leave. It may be different tomorrow though.

As Der Spiegel highlighted with its cover feature two weeks ago, Germany's once-mighty social democrats (SPD), with election results dropping into single figures, are now desperate enough to vote for a pair of leftwing outsiders for the new leadership. (While I may agree with the new leaders' views on some issues, it is clear that they would never have had a chance if the party was as strong as it used to be. And the idea of a job-sharing male/female leadership tandem, nicked from the greens, is also a symptom.) If that development echos the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, does that mean Germany will have a far right populist government in four years time? It could also happen in France, and in several other EU27 countries. Essentially the same crisis everywhere - centre left voters left behind by the Blairs Clintons, Schröders of this world when they rushed to embrace neoliberalism are now biting back by turning right. Not all of them, of course, but enough to tip over the old left-right balance.


PSA: science news is on holidays now - I won't need any new topics until mid January, so I can skip all that filter feeding ...

Monday, December 16, 2019

salmon runs out of rivers

I don't often write about food, but one of the editors at Current Biology suggested a feature about salmon, and as there is a lot of interesting ecology in this, apart from the obvious commercial interest, I agreed to do it as an end-of year festive treat ...

Salmon face uphill struggle

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 24, R1269-R1272, December 16, 2019

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Salmon enjoys an unbroken popularity as food around the world, leading to the rapid growth and global spread of its industrialised production. (Photo: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay.)

Sunday, December 15, 2019

the Galway method

All our instruments series, episode 20

In the early 00s, still, the young musician got a tin whistle starter kit as a present from her cello teacher, including a tin whistle in D with James Galway's signature on it and a 16-page brochure with Galway's method. I'm a little bit allergic to the pompous "the man with the golden flute" image that has been created around Galway, so I find it refreshing that he also bothered with cheaper instruments like the tin whistle at some point.

The book has the address of Rose-Morris & Co. - that's still the name of a shop in London, but I think back in the days they were also instrument makers, so they may or may not have made the whistle. The company history is here with all sorts of exciting instruments, but I find no reference to whistles.

For the video I've attempted to play the Muiñeira Freixido, a traditional tune from the repertoire of our Galician session, which fits exactly within the bottom octave of the whistle:

I enjoy playing whistles every once in a while, although I am not all too keen on the sound of this one. I'm sure better ones will cross my path. I often have this one in my bag when I go out to play, just in case somebody needs a whistle.

Friday, December 13, 2019

science news 13.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


For the first time: Mapping the winds of mars' upper atmosphere with MAVEN


When flowers reached Australia

Genetic 'clock' predicts lifespan in vertebrates


The mathematics of prey detection in spider orb-webs

Tiny insects become 'visible' to bats when they swarm

The limits of ocean heavyweights: Prey curb whales' gigantic size


Carolina parakeet extinction was driven by human causes, DNA sequencing reveals

This is the image of the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) specimen.
Credit: Marc Durà


Researchers design polymer that can kill drug-resistant bacteria

For controlling tsetse flies, fabric color matters


Scandinavians' little linguistic hat trick
Moving a word to the beginning of a sentence is a useful trick to draw attention to the most important topic you want to relay. The researchers of a new study have found that the Scandinavian languages are unique in their use of this technique.


From the news media:

A 2004 reintroduction of harvest mice in Northumberland was successful after all, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

science news 12.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Water common -- yet scarce -- in exoplanets


Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs. Features of the 8-m long specimen from the Middle Jurassic suggest that it records a phase of rapid diversification and evolutionary experimentation.


Study sheds light on 'overlooked' bee species
The UK's first citizen science project focusing on solitary, ground-nesting bees has revealed that they nest in a far broader range of habitats than previously thought.

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae)
Credit: Dr Thomas Ings, Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)

Tree cavities for wild honeybees

Why polar bears at sea have higher pollution levels than those staying on land

Local traditional knowledge can be as accurate as scientific transect monitoring

Azteca ant colonies move the same way leopards' spots form


Uncovering how endangered pangolins, or 'scaly anteaters,' digest food
kind of important for those animals rescued from trafficking.


Study of elephant, capybara, human hair finds that thicker hair isn't always stronger

food and drink

Plant researchers examine bread aroma: Modern and old wheat varieties taste equally good
Bread baked from modern wheat varieties are just as aromatic as that baked from old varieties. However, differences exist between the breads from different wheat varieties -- and those that were grown in different locations. These were the findings made by a team of German and Swiss researchers under the leadership of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHU) and the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart.

climate change

Shrinking of Greenland's glaciers began accelerating in 2000, research finds
Satellite data has given scientists clues about how, when and why Greenland's glaciers are shrinking -- and shows a sharp increase in glacial retreat beginning about 2000, according to new research presented this week.

Mountain goats' air conditioning is failing, study says
this one is about disappearing glaciers, too.


Researchers discover brain circuit linked to food impulsivity


From the news media:

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

science news 11.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Breathing new life into the rise of oxygen debate
researchers modified a well-established conceptual model of marine biogeochemistry so that it could be run over the whole of Earth history, and found that it produced the three oxygenation events all by itself.


Spying on hippos with drones to help conservation efforts

A new UNSW study has shown that using a drone to film hippos in Africa is an effective, affordable tool for conservationists to monitor the threatened species' population from a safe distance, particularly in remote and aquatic areas.
Credit: Victoria Inman

light and life

Oxygen [requirement] shaped the evolution of the eye


Insects' drag-based flight mechanism could improve tiny flying robots


Floral foam adds to microplastic pollution problem: Study

climate change

Greenland ice losses rising faster than expected

Could we cool the Earth with an ice-free Arctic?

citizen science

School citizen science project dramatically improves children's knowledge of UK mammals


From the news media:

bird flu comeback in the UK, reports the Guardian

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

science news 10.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


How Enceladus got its stripes


Four-hundred-eighty-million-year-old fossils reveal sea lilies' ancient roots

A modern-day sea lily in the Marianas region.
Credit: (c) NOAA Ocean Research and Exploration

Wing genes responsible for tiny treehopper's extraordinary helmet

When penguins ruled after dinosaurs died


Navigating land and water
Centipedes not only walk on land but also swim in water. Researchers at Tohoku University, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, University of Ottawa, and Hokkaido University with the support of the Human Frontier Science Program have, for the first time, decoded the flexible motor control mechanism underlying amphibious locomotion, or the ability to walk on land and to swim in water, in centipedes.

climate change

Last remaining glaciers in the Pacific will soon melt away
The last remaining tropical glaciers between the Himalayas and the Andes will disappear in the next decade -- and possibly sooner -- due to climate change, a new study has found. The glaciers in Papua, Indonesia, are "the canaries in the coal mine" for other mountaintop glaciers around the world, said Lonnie Thompson, one of the senior authors of the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Cities and their rising impacts on biodiversity -- a global overview


How playing the drums changes the brain

Rhythmic perception in humans has strong evolutionary roots

In a split second, clothes make the man more competent in the eyes of others
A major course of evil in the world: belief in men wearing suits.

Major political events linked to mood decline among young US doctors
Major political events, such as the 2016 presidential election and inauguration, were associated with declines in mood among young US physicians, finds a study in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.
The best thing about xmas is the British Medical Journal's special issue ...

dystopian futures

Data Science Institute researcher designs headphones that warn pedestrians of dangers
Wearing no headphones at all would be a cheaper solution to the problem.


From the news media:

Orca grandmothers looking after the young ones, reports the Guardian

Monday, December 09, 2019

horsemen of the climate apocalypse

Open Archive Day

The COP25 climate summit is still rolling at Madrid, on a background of rising protest and awareness that at least offers a little bit of hope of a turnaround, as I have tried to express in this year's climate feature, which appeared last Monday.

Last year's offering was a slightly darker affair, with calculations of the environmental cost of carbon emissions and details of all the many things that were and still are going horribly wrong in the world. Back then we had Bolsonaro joining the crew of the horsemen of the climate apocalypse, this year it may be the UK's very own horror clown.

Anyhow, last year's feature is now in the open archives:

Counting carbon costs

The 24th global climate summit (COP24) took place in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018. The city has historic importance in the steel industry and was transformed by modernist architecture in the 1970s. (Photo: Midnight Believer, Flickr.)

Saturday, December 07, 2019

santa Maria amar devemos

The Cantigas de Santa Maria - 420 songs in mediaeval Galician (aka Galician-Portuguese) collected by Alfonso X. in the 13th century - are an important foundation of Galician culture, and one or two of them have been played (as instrumental tunes) at our Galician sessions as well. However, our harper who plays them from memory, had learned them without numbers or titles, so they were almost impossible to find.

I recently attended a seminar on the cantigas (the relevant paper is here), where I learned lots of things about their structures and storytelling. Also about the fundamentals - for instance, the images of musicians, like the one above, appear only in one of the four known manuscripts. Two others include illustrations relating to the stories of miracles told in nine out of every ten cantigas.

The seminar inspired me to look at the mystery of our harper's cantiga again and I discovered that the lovely database Cantigas de Santa Maria for singers has a forward arrow on the pages displaying the modern notation for each cantiga. Until now I had assumed that I had to access each one separately with several clicks each time, but in fact I can just flick through them. Which I did, and starting at number one, I found that the cantiga we play most often is actually number seven. Quick and easy - not sure if I'd have had the stamina to find it if it had been number 407.

So it's called

Santa Maria amar devemos

and here is a lovely version with karaoke text lines, so you can sing along (and unlike some other versions I found, the melody sticks very close to the version we play):

In other CSM news, I just acquired a big book of solo pieces for alto recorder (Altblockflötensolobuch by Barbara Hintermeier and Birgit Baude, Schott 2014), and that also contains two of the cantigas, namely

No. 353 Quen a omagen da virgen (lyrics video here)
No. 166 Como Poden (lyrics video here)

I really like the 353 as a recorder piece, haven't quite gotten my head round the 166 yet.

Our gaiteiro, David Carril says he can play No. 100, Santa Maria strela do dia, so I will learn that one as well. Here's a video where you can read the manuscript while listening to the music.

In terms of recordings, there are lots of them on YouTube, obviously. This channel has so many, it may well be all of them, but they are in no particular order and mixed with videos of other early music, so it's hard to tell. The ones I checked usually had the lyrics displayed in some form.

This video: Fiesta en el corte de Alfonso el Sabio combines recordings of some 14 cantigas by different artists with a large number of the musicians miniatures from the manuscript.

I have a CD by Ensemble Alcatraz, called Vision and Miracles (1988) which includes CSM 103, 333, 117, 34, and 42 along with an instrumental suite using several cantigas and some other medieval pieces.

The Dufay Collective has recorded a CD full of cantigas, which is called Miracles.

Estampie have recorded a few. No. 120 Quantos me creveren (the numbers ending in 0 are songs of praise as opposed to stories of miracles) is included in their "Best Of" CD (2007) and a few more are on their album Signum (2004) including Non e gran cousa (26), Non devemos (27) and Quen na virgen (this could be 186, 256, or possibly 59, 103, or 276 - I don't have this CD).

La Capella Reial de Catalunya have recorded a dozen cantigas with Hesperion XX and Jordi Savall, available on CD as "Cantigas de Santa Maria - strela do dia". I'm a bit confused as Amazon seems to think it dates from 2017, but since the millennium the ensemble has been known as Hesperion XXI, so I suspect it may be a rerelease of a 1990s recording. Oh, and somebody posted it on Youtube in 2013.

Friday, December 06, 2019

science news 6.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Dull teeth, long skulls, specialized bites evolved in unrelated plant-eating dinosaurs

How flowers adapt to their pollinators

This is a flower of the bee-pollinated species Meriania hernandoi from the Ecuadorian cloud forest.
Credit: Agnes Dellinger

ecology and behaviour

Whales may owe their efficient digestion _of wax esters_ to millions of tiny microbes
I had to add the wax esters into the title because without this it would be no news at all, as I'm fairly sure all mammals use microbes to help with digestion, and we've known that for a while. Also, I think I am developing an allergy against PR people's use of the word "tiny" with things like microbes and molecules.

New study hints at complex decision making in a single-cell organism
how a protist "changes its mind"


Gulf Coast corals face catastrophe


Artificial cells act more like the real thing


Squid pigments have antimicrobial properties

climate change

Can Arctic 'ice management' combat climate change?
According to a much-debated geo-engineering approach, both sea-ice retreat and global warming could be slowed by using millions of wind-powered pumps, drifting in the sea ice, to promote ice formation during the Arctic winter.


How extreme environmental conditions affect the human brain
specifically: life in Antarctica

What is a scream? The acoustics of a primal human call
Reminds me of Jared Diamond's News and Views in Nature, back in 1997, with the title: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh,no!" (I've looked it up to get the number of repeated letters exactly right, without that it is hard to find) about why humans spend energy screaming rather than saving it to fight or escape. Back then, as I was writing science journalism in my spare time, I found it very inspiring to see you could get away with Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh,no! as the title of a piece in Nature.

How gene mutation causes autism and intellectual disability
There are several new causes/new cures for autism in my feed every day, but this one seems to make sense more than most of them.

dystopian futures

Can 3D-printing musical instruments produce better sound than traditional instruments?
In the coming dystopia, armies of robots will play 3D-printed ukuleles ...
Seriously though, as far as I understand the PR, the difference in sound detected is not an improvement, so the answer to the headline question would be a no, so far.


From the news media:

Thursday, December 05, 2019

science news 5.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


First giant planet around white dwarf found
... a glimpse of the far future of our solar system?

This illustration shows the white dwarf WDJ0914+1914 and its Neptune-like exoplanet. Since the icy giant orbits the hot white dwarf at close range, the extreme ultraviolet radiation from the star strips away the planet's atmosphere. While most of this stripped gas escapes, some of it swirls into a disc, itself accreting onto the white dwarf.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Signs of life: New field guide aids astronomers' search


Record-size sex chromosome found in two bird species
Researchers in Sweden and the UK have discovered the largest known avian sex chromosome. The giant chromosome was created when four chromosomes fused together into one, and has been found in two species of lark.

Birds are shrinking as the climate warms
This is based on 40 years of collecting birds that ran into Chicago buildings ... so I could imagine alternative explanations. For instance, changing climate (local microclimate even) may have altered the thermal uplift in the city and thus shifted the subset of birds at risk of colliding with buildings?


How enzymes reign supreme in worldwide carbon recycling
this is about the role of fungi on decaying wood.


Call for cooperation as 'blue boats' rob Pacific reefs
A flotilla of Vietnamese fishing boats with crews suffering in harsh conditions is stripping Pacific coral reefs of seafood as the poaching escalates to become an international human rights and security issue.


Capital costs: Yale research offers truer calculation of 'footprint' of purchases


Asia-wide genome mapping project reveals insights into Asian ancestry and genetic diversity
After a global genetic comparison, a team of international scientists has discovered that Asia has at least 10 ancestral lineages, whereas northern Europe has a single ancestral lineage.

Springy bamboo poles help villagers carry more than their own body weight


From the news media:

The town of Asbestos, Canada, considers changing its name, reports the Guardian.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

science news 4.12.2019

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


A study of Saturn's largest moon may offer insights for earth
Scientists studying the weather and climate of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, have reported a significant seasonal variation in its energy budget, a finding which could yield new insights into climate on Earth.


Compound eyes: The visual apparatus of today's horseshoe crabs goes back 400 million years
The extinct sea scorpion species Jaekelopterus rhenaniae had eyes comparable to those of today's horseshoe crabs. The two-and-a-half-meter predator was particularly apt at perceiving contrasts and contours under water.

Female fish can breed a new species if they aren't choosy about who is Mr. Right
Fish will mate with a species outside their own if the male's colouring is attractive enough or if the female can't see him properly, according to new research. Such 'mistakes' in mate choice can lead to the evolution of new species, an international team of scientists found after they analysed the DNA of more than 400 cichlid fish.


For some corals, meals can come with a side of microplastics
... some corals are more likely to eat microplastics when they are consuming other food, yet microplastics alone are undesirable.

Under a black light, fluorescent green microplastics are seen in the water during a small demonstration experiment. In the actual 2018 experiment discussed in this paper, the cauliflower coral seen above ingested microplastics when prey was also present in the water, but avoided eating microplastics when no prey was there.
Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Characterizing whale vocalization can help map migration


Electron correlations in carbon nanostructures

Hiring antibodies as nanotechnology builders
... to assemble nanoscale structures made of synthetic DNA.


How does language emerge?
Researchers ... have tried to simulate the process of developing a new communication system in an experiment - with surprising results: even preschool children can spontaneously develop communication systems that exhibit core properties of natural language.
Not that surprising, as it has happened before, eg Nicaraguan sign language - but here's an attempt to reproduce the process under conditions where it can be studied from the beginning.

The art of the Roman surveyors emerges from newly discovered pavements in Pompeii

dystopian futures

Building a better breast with eye-tracking technology
aka reshaping the female body to fit the desires of the male gaze.


From the news media:

COP 25 climate summit is on now.

Monday, December 02, 2019

climate fail

Today is the first day of the COP 25 climate conference at Madrid. The numbering really gets to me as it means that the international community has now been trying and mostly failing to agree on meaningful climate action for more than a quarter of a century. Personally, I've been aware of the issue for 30 years now - I remember it came up when we were preparing a Green party manifesto for local elections in late 1989. So if we had changed course then, we would see the benefits now.

As today also happens to be the publication date for issue 23 of Current Biology, I prepared a climate feature to mark the beginning of the conference, which is out now:

Time to change course on climate

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 23, R1211-R1214, December 02, 2019

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Own photo, taken at the Fridays For Future demo at Düsseldorf this September.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

rattle and hum

All our instruments series, episode 19

Some time back in the early 00s, I visited the PMT shop on Cowley Road, with a view to buy an electronic keyboard for the young musicians, but was left more confused than I had been before (I did buy a keyboard eventually but not on that day and not in this shop, will get back to that further down the line). So while I was wondering about touch-sensitive keys and pre-programmed accompaniments, I spotted an array of brightly coloured tambourines, and bought the yellow one as a displacement activity. I remember the shop assistant was amused by the plot twist.

It's from a US company called RhythmTech, and the range is called True Colors - looks like they still make them in 5 different colours and you can still buy the yellow one eg from Amazon (although I think it was a lot cheaper back then). Apparently the company's founder invented the crescent shape tambourine in an effort to have the centre of gravity of the instrument closer to the wrist and make playing less tiring, see the company's about page.

Although I haven't played it much (and certainly not enough to feel the pressing need for an energy-saving crescent shaped one), the tambourine has enjoyed its moments in the spotlight, as I brought it to the Misa Campesina, where the conductor used it a few times in the rehearsals and in the performance.

For the video I just gave it a quick shake - these things are really quite loud ...