Saturday, May 30, 2020

memorising Bach

In month three of my Plague Year Bach Project I have managed to memorise a complete movement of the cello suites for the first time, namely the gigue 1.6. Of the two previous movements I've learned to play, the bourrees 3.5 and the minuets 1.5 I picked a favourite (the first bourree and the second minuet) and memorised that completely, but the other one only in parts.

Memorising still is the hardest part, although it is getting a little easier as I learn the language of the suites and recognise recurring patterns more readily. I'm hoping that I can keep up memorising with the next movements at the rate of one a month. Looking for help I found a video by pianist Tiffany Poon showing how she's struggling to memorise a pair of bourrees from one of the harpsichord suites. Which is kind of reassuring to know, and she does pull cute faces when things go wrong, but she doesn't reveal a magic recipe on how to do it.

So, I'm now moving on backwards through the first suite, which brings me to the sarabande 1.4, with a little help from the usual sources:

The video of Patrycja Likos is a helpful starting point as she plays the movements very straight and the fingerings are clearly visible at all times.

For a slightly more engaging performance and more artistic videography, try this recording from Denise Djokic.

And then consider the helpful hints from Inbal Segev. She's done a short tutorial (or two in some cases) for every single movement.

I'm also adding these videos to my youtube playlist "cello repertoire".

I now also have the CD with Inbal Segev's recording of the complete suites, and have been listening to the first and third suite a lot. I like the arrangement of odd numbers on one CD and even numbers on the other, you always know where to find what you're looking for, and I feel it makes a surprising amount of sense musically. (As the suites 4-6 are longer than 1-3, they wouldn't fit on two CDs in numerical order.)

Here's my materials collection:

The Siblin book I've reviewed here.

The studies book includes quite a few artistic choices that I don't agree with, but I still find it helpful to play through some of the studies to get a different angle on the notes I'm learning, as well as for fluency practice.

Friday, May 29, 2020

science news 29.5.2020

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.


ESPRESSO confirms the presence of an Earth around the nearest star
The existence of a planet the size of Earth around the closest star in the solar system, Proxima Centauri, has been confirmed by a team of scientists including researchers from the University of Geneva. The planet, Proxima b, has a mass of 1.17 earth masses and is located in the habitable zone of its star. This breakthrough has been possible thanks to measurements using ESPRESSO, the most accurate spectrograph currently in operation.

This artist's impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System.
Credit: © ESO/M. Kornmesser


World's oldest bug is fossil millipede from Scotland

Chinese pterodactyl wings its way to the United Kingdom
The first ever specimen of a pterodactyl, more commonly found in China and Brazil, has been found in the United Kingdom.


Two bacteria allow spittlebugs to thrive on low-nutrient meals

New Zealand blue whale distribution patterns tied to ocean conditions, prey availability

food and drink

New report discusses coffee's effect on digestion and digestive disorders
A new report from the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC), entitled 'Coffee and its effect on digestion' reviews the latest research into coffee's effect on digestion, and indicates a potential protective effect against gallstones and gallstone disease and pancreatitis. The report also highlights other beneficial effects that coffee consumption may have on the process of digestion, including supporting gut microflora and promoting gut motility.


Balancing the economy while saving the planet
A new research-based framework lets companies make informed decisions balancing economic and sustainability factors when producing bio-chemicals.

Gold mining with mercury poses health threats for miles downstream


Genomic analysis shows long-term genetic mixing in West Asia before world's first cities
Scientists analyzed DNA data from 110 skeletal remains in West Asia dated 3,000 to 7,500 years ago. The study reveals how a high level of human movement in West Asia during the Neolithic to late Bronze Age not only led to the spread of ideas and material culture but to a more genetically connected society well before the rise of cities, not the other way around, as previously thought.
Different PR on the same paper:

Human mobility and Western Asia's early state-level societies

Who were the Canaanites? New insight from 73 ancient genomes
See also my ancient (2017) feature on antiquity's genomes, which also included a section on the Canaanites.
And another new paper covering the same geographic area:

4,000 years of contact, conflict & cultural change had little genetic impact in Near East

New research reveals Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Biblical Arad


From the news media:

Richard Horton on the "scientists" still being used to prop up the UK govt. failing in its pandemic response. Personally, I stopped taking Whitty and Vallance seriously on March 13 when they were talking herd immunity.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

science news 27.5.2020

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.


Synthesis of prebiotic peptides gives clues to the origin of life on Earth

MAVEN maps electric currents around Mars that are fundamental to atmospheric loss

Astronomers create cloud atlas for hot, Jupiter-like exoplanets


Chromosomal speciation in wild house mice
... large-scale chromosomal rearrangements play an important role in speciation.

Musical rhythm has very deep evolutionary roots and is present in some animals


Warming climate is changing where birds breed

Neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), have experienced massive population declines in recent years. Researcher Clark Rushing and colleagues at USGS wanted to know if climate change was responsible.
Credit: Clark Rushing


Nanodevices show how cells change with time, by tracking from the inside

Kirigami/origami: Unfolding the new regime of advanced 3D micro-/nanofabrication with 'folding'


Dementia gene raises risk of severe COVID-19
specifically, this is about the ApoE gene, which is linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Beware of false negatives in diagnostic testing of COVID-19


Study reveals substantial quantities of tyre particles contaminating rivers and ocean

Why are we still failing to stop deforestation?
good question


Ear infections discovered in remains of humans living in levant 15,000 years ago

Women with Neandertal gene give birth to more children
One in three women in Europe inherited the receptor for progesterone from Neandertals -- a gene variant associated with increased fertility, fewer bleedings during early pregnancy and fewer miscarriages.

Study investigates sexual activity in lockdown
New research indicates that only four in 10 UK adults have been sexually active during the COVID-19 lockdown - a finding that could have important physical and mental health implications.


From the news media:

The man in the iron lung - very scary long read about a survivor of the 1950s polio epidemic.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

science news 26.5.2020

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.


Scientists find genes to save ash trees from deadly beetle

Bristol scientists see through glass frogs' translucent camouflage


A new Critically Endangered frog named after 'the man from the floodplain full of frogs'
A pioneering printer named Christoph Froschauer

Life colouration of Stumpffia froschaueri sp. nov., dorsolateral view of holotype ZSM 169/2019 (ACZCV 0940) from Anketsakely (Anabohazo Forest)
Credit: Gonçalo M. Rosa

climate change

There is no escaping from climate change, even in the deep sea
Even though the deeper layers of the ocean are warming at a slower pace than the surface, animals living in the deep ocean are more exposed to climate warming and will face increasing challenges to maintain their preferred thermal habitats in the future.

Marine species are outpacing terrestrial species in the race against global warming
Global warming is causing species to search for more temperate environments in which to migrate to, but it is marine species ... that are leading the way by moving up to six times faster towards the poles than their terrestrial congeners.


uOttawa researchers discover new sex hormone


7,000 years of demographic history in France
scientists ... have shown that French prehistory was punctuated by two waves of migration: the first during the Neolithic period, about 6,300 years ago, the second during the Bronze Age, about 4,200 years ago.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain


From the news media:

The glass frogs story also covered in the Guardian - I have to say it isn't very translucent to me, but I haven't looked at the paper.

Monday, May 25, 2020

all eyes on atoms

I've rounded up some exciting science on how to image and manipulate atoms in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry, including the atom manipulation work from Harry Anderson's group here in Oxford together with Leo Gross in Zurich, as well as a collaborative effort from the universities of Nottingham and Ulm (Germany) using carbon nanotubes as test-tubes to analyse bond formation between metal atoms.

The feature is out now:

All eyes on atoms

Chemistry & Industry 84, No. 5, pp 22-25.

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (members)

Oh, and my feature made the cover which looks amazing:

Couldn't find a decent sized jpg of the cover, so had to take my own photo of the actual paper magazine.

Friday, May 22, 2020

science news 22.5.2020

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.


When plant pollen scarce, bumblebees biting leaves causes flowers to bloom early

Long-term resilience of Earth's tropical forests in warmer world
A long-term assessment of the sensitivity of hundreds of tropical forest plots to increasing temperatures brings encouraging news: in the long run, Earth's tropical forests may be more resilient to a moderately warming world than short-term predictions have suggested.

Marine biology: Spiny lobster noises may be heard up to 3 km away


The self-synthesizing ribosome
Synthesis and assembly of a 30S subunit on a chip - sadly arrived too late for my feature on the evolution and assembly of the ribosome


Scientists finally crack nature's most common chemical bond
Ignore the bluster, this is about functionalising the terminal CHa3 of hydrocarbons by introducing a boron.

A catalyst (center) based on iridium (blue ball) can snip a hydrogen atom (white balls) off a terminal methyl group (upper and lower left) to add a boron-oxygen compound (pink and red) that is easily swapped out for more complicated chemical groups. The reaction works on simple hydrocarbon chains (top reaction) or more complicated carbon compounds (bottom reaction). The exquisite selectivity of this catalytic reaction is due to the methyl group (yellow) that has been added to the iridium catalyst. The black balls are carbon atoms; red is oxygen; pink is boron. (UC Berkeley image by John Hartwig)
Credit: John Hartwig, UC Berkeley


Weizmann Institute scientists develop 'sniff test' that predicts recovery of consciousness in brain
If you're unconscious but a waft of smell makes your nose twitch, you're not dead yet. 100% of patients that passed the sniff test recovered consciousness.

Immunity to coronaviruses: What do we know so far?


Earliest evidence of Italians' genetic diversity dates back to end of last glacial period

Autistic burnout
Autistic adults use the term to describe a chronic state of exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus. These characteristics are long-lasting and permeate peoples lives.


From the news media:

Sunshine and social distancing photo gallery in the Guardian

Thursday, May 21, 2020

science news 21.5.2020

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.


ESO telescope sees signs of planet birth
Observations made with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (ESO's VLT) have revealed the telltale signs of a star system being born. Around the young star AB Aurigae lies a dense disc of dust and gas in which astronomers have spotted a prominent spiral structure with a 'twist' that marks the site where a planet may be forming. The observed feature could be the first direct evidence of a baby planet coming into existence.

This image shows the disc around the young AB Aurigae star, where ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) has spotted signs of planet birth. Close to the centre of the image, in the inner region of the disc, we see the 'twist' (in very bright yellow) that scientists believe marks the spot where a planet is forming. This twist lies at about the same distance from the AB Aurigae star as Neptune from the Sun. The image was obtained with the VLT's SPHERE instrument in polarised light.
Credit: ESO/Boccaletti et al.


Researchers reveal origins of complex hemoglobin by resurrecting ancient proteins


Grasshoppers are perfectly aware of their own coloration when trying to camouflage
Not sure how much they're aware of anything, but I guess that is a philosophical question ...


Hunting threatens one of the world's most amazing wildlife migrations
As the world looks to tighten up the illegal capture of wildlife, migratory birds are being threatened by widespread and unsustainable hunting across the Asia-Pacific region. University of Queensland-led research has revealed that three quarters of migratory shorebird species in the region have been hunted since the 1970s.

food and drink

Heating poppy seeds, but not baking them in muffins, reduces opiate levels
Oooh, morphine muffins, that has a ring to it ...


Supercomputer model simulations reveal cause of Neanderthal extinction
Competition of our ancestors sufficed to drive them out of business, according to modelling study.

Oldest connection with Native Americans identified near Lake Baikal in Siberia

Birth control pills affect the love hormone
... women who take birth control pills have a much higher level of the hormone oxytocin, also called the love hormone, in their blood compared to non-users.


From the news media:

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

science news 20.5.2020

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.


NASA's Curiosity rover finds clues to chilly ancient Mars buried in rocks


Ribs evolved for movement first, then co-opted for breathing
A major transformation in vertebrate evolution took place when breathing shifted from being driven by head and throat muscles -- like in fish and frogs -- to the torso -- like in reptiles and mammals. But what caused the shift? A new study posits that the intermediate step was locomotion. When lizards walk, they bend side-to-side. The ribs and vertebrae are crucial to this movement, and the mechanics follow the same pattern as when they inhale and exhale.

Ancient giant armored fish fed in a similar way to basking sharks

Fishing rod 'selfie stick' and scientific sleuthing turn up clues to extinct sea reptile
London's Natural History Museum let him walk in with a fishing rod and mess around with it? Shocking.

An artistic life reconstruction of Nannopterygius.
Credit: Andrey Atuchin


Scientists dissect the complex choices of animals
specifically: shell-dwelling cichlid fish

Researchers go cuckoo: Antarctic penguins release an extreme amount of laughing gas
penguins in Antarctica emit copious amounts of nitrous oxide via their feces. So much so, that the researchers went "cuckoo" from being surrounded by penguin poop.


Migratory secrets of recovering whale species

light and life

Feisty squid and fish fight back by dazzling attacking elephant seals
... with a bioluminescent flash, which disorientates the predator and could buy time for their escape.


Emerging viral diseases causing serious issues in west Africa

Children not immune to coronavirus; new study from pandemic epicenter describes severe COVID-19 response in children

Rolling 50/30 day cycle of lockdown and relaxation could help manage COVID-19


Walking or cycling to work associated with reduced risk of early death and illness

dystopian futures

Comedy club performances provide insights on how robots, humans connect via humor


From the news media:

Parts of Antarctica are turning green, the Guardian reports.

Monday, May 18, 2020

the ribosome assembled

Today's issue of Current Biology has a special theme, namely the cell in evolution. My contribution to the theme section is a feature on the evolution and assembly of the ribosome as a key example of how complexity arises (both on evolutionary timescales and in terms of structure assembly in the cell). Read all about it:

How to build complexity

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 10, 18 May 2020, Pages R454-R456

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Cover of the special issue.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

numbers crunched

I do wish I didn't have to do this, but ... desperate times ...

So by today, the official coronavirus related death toll in the UK is 34,636. Comparing it to 31855 on the 10th of May, the figure has gone up by 2781 in 7 days. So averaged over a week (which is necessary as there is a dip around the weekend), we have 397 new deaths per day.

Beyond the obvious and avoidable tragedy for everybody caught up in this, the figure spells disaster for a number of reasons:

* it is still limited by the scarcity of tests, so expect the real number to be significantly higher
* it means that on the order of magnitude of 40,000 new infections per day happened three weeks ago (in the middle of lockdown)
* which means way too many infections still happening to allow any thought of going back to normal
* it hasn't gone down in the last three days, making things worse
* it only has 2 more weeks to drop further before the "stay alert" mess kicks in, and it won't go far in that time.

The figure has been dropping an average of 20% per week over the last couple of weeks, so if this trend continues despite the apparent stagnation in the last three days, we'll be at 250 average daily deaths at the beginning of June. Which is when the effect of the loosening of measures at the beginning of this week will show up in the death tolls, and they might rise again, or if we're lucky they will ony stagnate or drop more slowly.

Let's say they choose the middle way and stay more or less the same (R=1), so we'll be living with 250 people dying per day and 25,000 people getting infected per day until somebody does something about it. This situation will be workable in terms of hospital capacity, but not a good place to be in. And not easy to get out of either.


The British Medical Journal on the failings of the UK govt response to the pandemic: Too little, too late, too flawed

(Correction made 17.5.: initial version said 250 deaths per day "at the end of June" - I meant beginning of June, i.e. 3 weeks after the May 11 Stay Alert phase.)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

the great deception

Madame Mills, une voisine si parfaite
(France 2018, dir: Sophie Marceau)

This movie is currently showing on TV5Monde, possibly as part of a series on Sophie Marceau (they showed Arrêtez moi last week, which was interesting as well). I wouldn’t normally watch a comedy with Pierre Richard, but since seeing La Boum when we were both a few decades younger, I have watched quite a few films with Sophie Marceau and I was keen to expand my collection, especially as she’s directed this one as well.

So, for people who know about this kind of comedy, it would probably be easy to dismiss this as a Pierre-Richard-does-Tootsie kind of dinosaur. My angle, however, is: Aren’t we all inventing our own reality? So here’s what I think the film is about.

The naming of Mrs. Mills character is of course a reference to Mills & Boon. Sophie Marceau plays Hélène, who has inherited a publishing house that used to be successful in romantic novels, but is struggling to adapt to the 21st century, as an investor based in Toronto is breathing down her neck. (It’s on the checklist for French movies being made these days: you have to have a few sentences in English in the dialogue, and at least one city outside the Francophonie.)

Pierre Richard moves in next door to her in the disguise of Mrs. Mills. The charming old lady starts invading Hélène’s life, claiming she’s a superfan of the romantic novels her house produces. Hélène has a eureka moment and hires Mrs. Mills as the Instagram-friendly, relatable, public face of her outmoded brand of escapism.

But who is really deluding whom, apart from everybody deluding themselves? Most will agree that romantic novels, comedians and conmen are deceiving us, but how about publishing in general, social media, modern art? And the whole globalisation thing? Perhaps we’re all being deceived all the time, it’s just that some deceptions, like Pierre Richard in drag (what big hands you have!), are more obvious than others.

According to IMDB, it was released in Germany on July 4, 2019 as well as in Greece. No other cinematic releases outside of France.

PS Looking up filmographies to work out how many of her films I've seen (current estimate: 19/46) it struck me that she regularly works with female directors. Since 2000 she starred in 21 films, of which 11 were directed by women. That includes 2 she directed herself but still a very impressive record.

Friday, May 15, 2020

science news 15.5.2020

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.


Clever new robot rover design conquers sand traps
Built with wheeled appendages that can be lifted, a new robot developed at Georgia Tech with US Army funding has complex locomotion techniques robust enough to allow it to climb sand covered hills and avoid getting stuck. The robot has NASA interested for potential surveying of a planet or the Moon.


The carnivorous plant lifestyle is gene costly
The genomes of three carnivorous plants -- the Venus flytrap, spoon-leaved sundew and the waterwheel plant -- have been decoded. The result has caused some surprises.

The genomes of the carnivorous plants Venus flytrap, spoon-leaved sundew and waterwheel (from left) are decoded.
(Picture: Dirk Becker and Sönke Scherzer / University of Würzburg)


Scientists report on crucial reduction of Indian lion genome diversity
Scientists analyzed the genomes of extinct and living lions. They managed to determine when the divergence took place, as well as come to several other conclusions on genetic diversity of the modern lion population in India.


Further evidence does not support hydroxychloroquine for patients with COVID-19


Ozone-depleting chemical alternatives getting into our food and water
An international environmental agreement to regulate the use of chemicals depleting the ozone layer may have inadvertently allowed higher levels of other harmful chemicals to flourish, new research co-led by York University and Environment and Climate Change Canada has found. These replacement compounds degrade into products that do not break down in the environment and have instead continually increased in the Arctic since about 1990.


A lost world and extinct ecosystem
The field study site of Pinnacle Point, South Africa, sits at the center of the earliest evidence for symbolic behavior, complex pyrotechnology, projectile weapons, and the first use of foods from the sea, both geographically and scientifically, having contributed much on the evolutionary road to being a modern human. A special issue of Quaternary Science Review has compiled research on this pivotal location.

Archaeology: Fossilized footprints suggest ancient humans divided labor
The largest collection of footprints from the human fossil record in Africa is described in Scientific Reports this week. The findings, which further our understanding of human life during the Late Pleistocene period (126,000 to 11,700 years ago), suggest a division of labor in ancient human communities.

Ancient DNA reveals genetic history of China


From the news media:

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

science news 13.5.2020

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.


Can we really tell male and female dinosaurs apart?
I know I can't

Ancient reptile had mammal-like tooth enamel, study shows


Alaskan rainforests are a global lichen hotspot, new study shows

Moths have a secret but vital role as pollinators in the night

Ants use collective 'brainpower' to navigate obstacles


Over-harvesting could wipe out water frogs in parts of Turkey


Testing suggests 3% of NHS hospital staff may be unknowingly infected with coronavirus

Vitamin D determines severity in COVID-19 so government advice needs to change


Geometry guided construction of earliest known temple, built 6,000 years before Stonehenge
Researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority have now used architectural analysis to discover that geometry informed the layout of Göbekli Tepe's impressive round stone structures and enormous assembly of limestone pillars, which they say were initially planned as a single structure.

Göbekli Tepe, Enclosure C.
Credit: Gil Haklay/AFTAU.

What we can't see can help us find things
Anyone who's ever tried to find something in a hurry knows how helpful it is to think about the lost item's color, size and shape. But surprisingly, traits of an object that you can't see also come into play during a search, Johns Hopkins University researchers found.

Children with autism face higher risk of eating disorders
Children with autistic traits are more likely than their peers to develop an eating disorder, according to a new UCL-led study.

dystopian futures

AI techniques in medical imaging may lead to incorrect diagnoses


From the news media:

Transparency is key in a crisis - so why isn't the British government being straight with us?

asks Stephen Reicher, member of the SAGE subcommittee on behaviour, in the Guardian.

Monday, May 11, 2020

keep calm

Open Archive Day

I'm not particularly stressed right now, but I still get a feeling that it may be a good time to revisit my 2014 feature on how the blue mind (the relaxed state of mind we cultivate eg when we're enjoy doing nothing next to a body of water) relates to the red mind (the high-adrenaline state of mind we need to respond to danger).

So adapting the message to today's situation in the UK: Keep calm, stay home, ignore the Prime Minister.

Anyhow here's the feature:

Chronic stress means we’re always on the hunt

It was published with one of my own photos:

which I still like so I'll use it again. It's also at the top of my twitter profile page. The view is of Frankfurt seen from the banks of the river Main.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

the cello suites

The cello suites: In search of a baroque masterpiece
Eric Siblin
Vintage paperback 2011

I remember seeing this book on a special display at Blackwells Music shop when it came out in hardback in 2009. I think they put up Steven Isserlis’s recent recording of the suites on a display stand next to it. At that point the suites went way over my head, so I didn’t buy it then.

Years later, the young cellist prepared the pair of bourrées from the third suite for her grade 7 exam and I got to learn a little bit about how these things work, and then I watched a masterclass where Natalie Clein taught three Oxford students who had prepared different movements of the suites, and her explanations still resonate. Now with the corona crisis shutting down my normal schedule of musical activities, I’ve started tackling the suites myself, starting with those bourrées, and now working through the first suite. At some point I remembered the book I saw back in 2009 and ordered a copy. In the swing of my lockdown cello obsession I read it immediately.

The book is a nicely intertwined braid of three strands, including the lives of Johann Sebastian Bach and Pablo Casals (who famously dragged the suites out of obscurity) and the voyage of discovery of the author. Siblin isn’t a cellist himself, he plays guitar and managed to learn the famous prelude of the first suite on this instrument, but very quickly gave up an attempt at learning the cello. He also joined a choir workshop to sing a Bach cantata for a weekend. (Heck, I’ve been singing the B minor mass for a whole term, I win!) Other than that, it’s very much a journalistic effort based on extensive reading and interviewing a few relevant people like the cellist Mischa Maisky, who recorded the suites and also played one of them for Casals.

Siblin had a particularly lucky break when an old man he overheard saying the word cello in a Montreal café turned out to be Walter Joachim (1912-2001), the former principal cellist in the city's symphony orchestra, who told him about how he saw Casals playing the suites in Düsseldorf in 1927. (Which is a very significant date for me, as I have photos of my great-grandfather playing cello in a string quartet in nearby Elberfeld in the same year. Did he also go and see Casals? I’ll probably never know.)

All this makes for a lovely story of multiple discoveries, connections, losses as well – Bach’s original manuscript of the suites has never been found! I was encouraged to learn that Casals, who discovered the suites at age 13, spent more than 10 years working on them before he started playing them in public. As for Bach, I feel the book helps me a little bit to get closer to understanding his mind. Although it is no substitute for actually playing his music.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

maths for dummies

So tomorrow the UK govt. is to announce some loosening of coronavirus restrictions. They are already quite loose, not nearly as draconian as what was happening in Spain and in France, but hey, I'm all in favour of letting people sunbathe in the nearest park, and if there isn't enough space, force the golf clubs to open their gates. But are we ready to come out of lockdown?

As the government is clearly struggling with elementary maths, I have taken to keeping track of numbers myself, based on the official death counts (probably only half of the real number of casualties, but let's stick with the firm figures).

So where do we stand with the figures now? By yesterday, 8.5. we had 31,241 official deaths announced. That's 3731 up within 7 days, giving an average of 533 per day (weekly averaging is necessary, because the weekend figures are artificially low).

Two weeks ago, week ending 25.4., that figure was 693
, so it is coming down, but it hasn't even halved. Close to peak deaths, for the 7 days ending 18.4., I calculated an average of 798 (at that point it was hospital deaths only), there may have been higher numbers nearby, but the average didn't reach 1000. So it's come down by a third in three weeks, and at this rate it will come down by another third by the end of May, so we'll be at 357 daily deaths by the end of the month (and approaching a total of 40,000).

So what does that tell us about coming out of lockdown? If mortality among those infected is 1%, the new figure tells us that three weeks ago, right in the middle of our 6-week lockdown, there were still more than 50,000 people getting infected every single day. Applying our 33% decay from above, we should now be at 33,000 per day. Which is way too many to control.

In order to control and contain new infections, you will perhaps need 10 times more tests than you have new infections, to be able to test the contacts of each new case identified. So right now we would need 330,000 tests per day (and the people to handle them). At the moment there is no chance of that happening, so no exit from lockdown possible.

How about the end of the month? In another 3 weeks, coming down 33% again, we might be at 22,000 new infections per day, and the government promises 200,000 tests per day, so at that point it would be a struggle, but it could work under competent management. Which we don't have. But good luck if you want to try.

Oh, and one more thing, we now see very clearly that the infection rate is coming down much more slowly than it went up - essentially because the R value, even though below 1, is a lot closer to 1 than it was on the other side, when it was around 3. Which completely invalidates the govt. argument that introducing restrictions too early would mean people get tired of them too early and the lockdown would fail. On the contrary, if they had introduced the same measures 10 days earlier, when daily infection rates were ten times lower, we would have a much smaller hill to climb down from, maybe 10,000 new infections instead of 100,000 (as calculated from deaths 3 weeks after, not from the tests which are insufficient) per day, so at that point, a six week lockdown would have easily brought down the new infections from 10,000 by 33% in three weeks, then by 33% again in another three weeks to 4,400, which would be manageable with the testing capacity we have right now. And we would already be in a post-lockdown regime of testing and tracking right now.

That thing in early May about the perceived risks of locking down early may have been an error. It may very well have been a lie.

In case you need inspiration for your holiday activities, last week's Spiegel cover was quite funny.

Update 14.5. watching the decay of the death rate this week, it appears that it is coming down a bit faster than I estimated above, by 22% in seven days, which could give us a 50% decline in the three weeks from 7th to the 28h of May, so average daily deaths could drop below 275. After that, the effect of this week's chaotic loosening of restrictions will kick in and who knows what happens. Death rates may very well go up again. Last summer, when Johnson chose his first cabinet, my first thought was "deatheaters". Didn't think that this would come true quite so fast.

Friday, May 08, 2020

science news 8.5.2020

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.


Benthos in the Antarctic Weddell Sea in decline
between 1988 and 2014, total benthic biomass on the continental shelf of the northeast Weddell Sea declined by two thirds


Dendrimers finally have what it takes to break into the laser scene
Dendrimers were so exciting in the 90s and I covered them in my nanoworld book, but then all those futuristic applications failed to materialise and these days I very rarely see papers about them. I really wanted to show the image here, but it said "Unauthorized use is prohibited" so that's too bad. Click through to the PR to see it.

High color purity 3D printing
a new method to obtain high color purity 3D objects with the use of a new class of nanoparticles.


Bioethicist calls out unproven and unlicensed 'stem cell treatments' for COVID-19
Back in mid March, when I was writing my feature on stem cell "cures", searches already brought up the occasional offer of a cure for covid-19.

Vitamin D linked to low virus death rate
Good excuse to do some more sunbathing.

Study finds breathing and talking contribute to COVID-19 spread

By the third day most with COVID-19 lose sense of smell


Planting trees is no panacea for climate change, ecologist writes in Science commentary

Using digital twins to design more sustainable cities


Beer was here! A new microstructural marker for malting in the archaeological record

Genomes of the ancient Andes, analyzed

An international research team has conducted the first in-depth, wide-scale study of the genomic history of ancient civilizations in the central Andes mountains and coast before European contact. The analysis included representatives of iconic civilizations in the Andes from whom no genome-wide data had been reported before, including the Moche, Nasca, Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca. Shown here is a detail from the Tiwanaku Gate of the Sun.
Credit: Miguel Angel López


From the news media:

Thursday, May 07, 2020

science news 7.5.2020

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.


Fossil reveals evidence of 200-million-year-old 'squid' attack

Arctic Edmontosaurus lives again -- a new look at the 'caribou of the Cretaceous'


Outsmarting the enemy: Treefrogs rely on [auditory] illusions to find a mate without being eaten
Camouflaging your call by synchronising with others - kind of like singing in a choir when you're not all that strong a singer, to avoid being eaten by the musical director ...

Researchers at Purdue University have discovered that male treefrogs reduce their attractiveness to predators and parasites by overlapping their mating calls with their neighbors.
Credit: Purdue University photo/Henry Legett

Bat 'super immunity' may explain how bats carry coronaviruses

light and life

Scientists shed light on essential carbon-fixing machinery in bacteria
This is about the carboxysomes of cyanobacteria.

food and drink

Scientists revealed usefulness of culinary herbs
... a fast and cost-effective method of detecting and identifying bioactive compounds in complex samples such as plant extracts. They successfully applied the method to examine Mediterranean and Australian native culinary herbs.


Police stop fewer black drivers at night when a 'veil of darkness' obscures their race
All cats are grey by night ... maybe police officers could me made to wear glasses that have the same effect?

Workers happy despite crisis and uncertainty
In general, workers in Switzerland and Germany are coping well with the COVID-19 crisis and the associated social disruption. They are feeling happier and finding it easier to unwind and balance work and private life. They are also more engaged at work than last year, a survey among 600 participants carried out by researchers of the University of Zurich shows.


From the news media:

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

science news 6.5.2020

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.


Yellow-legged gull adapts its annual lifecycle to human activities to get food
Intrigued to see the species is called Larus michahellis - it puts the hell into michael since 1840!

The experts warn it is necessary to better know the ecological impact of opportunist species in natural ecosystems
Credit: Isabel Afán (EBD-CSIC)


An artificial 'tongue' of gold to taste maple syrup
a new test using gold nanoparticles to establish the flavour profile of maple syrup and help producers evaluate its quality.


Unraveling one of prion disease's deadly secrets
In a new paper in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology by Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UMass Amherst, and others, report an unanticipated role for prion nucleation seeds that enhances their ability to appear and resist curing.


Coronavirus structure clue to high infection rate

Mutations in SARS-CoV-2 offer insights into virus evolution
By analyzing virus genomes from over 7,500 people infected with COVID-19, a UCL-led research team has characterized patterns of diversity of SARS-CoV-2 virus genome, offering clues to direct drugs and vaccine targets, in a study published today in Infection, Genetics and Evolution.

Early government intervention is key to reducing the spread of COVID-19
Researchers compared the spread of COVID-19 infections between Hunan province in China and Italy. They found early and strict government intervention is a key factor in reducing the number of infections caused by the novel coronavirus. The team developed a mathematical model that demonstrated how the speed of the transmission can change as governments implement different preventive measures at varying timeframes.


Oceans should have a place in climate 'green new deal' policies, scientists suggest

Fossil fuel-free jet propulsion with air plasmas


Spending time in the garden linked to better health and wellbeing


From the news media:

A very interesting obituary appeared belatedly in yesterday's print edition of the Guardian: William Frankland, pioneer of allergy treatments and the pollen count. He was 108 years old and still worked at age 105. The obit is a bit messy, I assume it's been sitting in the files for 40 years and was just dug out and updated a bit. I wanted to know, for instance, what happened to Frankland's identical twin.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

science news 5.5.2020

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.


Life on the rocks helps scientists understand how to survive in extreme environments
This is about life in the Atacama Desert of Chile, one of the driest places on Earth, and a model for habitats on Mars.

In the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest places on Earth, microorganisms live beneath a thin layer of rock to gain some protection from harsh winds, solar radiation and heat. Nooks and crannies in the rocks is also where water, while limited, may collect.
Credit: Jocelyne DiRuggiero/Johns Hopkins University

Exoplanets: How we'll search for signs of life
An interdisciplinary team of researchers, led by Arizona State University, has provided a framework called a 'detectability index' to help prioritize exoplanets to study and provide scientists with a tool to select the best targets for observation and maximize the chances of detecting life.


New ancient plant captures snapshot of evolution
Researchers have discovered an ancient plant species whose reproductive biology captures the evolution from one to two spore sizes -- an essential transition to the success of the seed and flowering plants we depend on.


Predators help prey adapt to an uncertain future
What effect does extinction of species have on the evolution of surviving species? Evolutionary biologists have investigated this question by conducting a field experiment with a leaf galling fly and its predatory enemies. They found that losing its natural enemies could make it more difficult for the prey to adapt to future environments.

Last supper: Fish use sharp barbs and spines to fight off hungry seals

Magnetic pulses alter salmon's orientation, suggesting navigation via magnetite in tissue


To make an atom-sized machine, you need a quantum mechanic

Imaging technology allows visualization of nanoscale structures inside whole cells


Activation of the SARS coronavirus 2 revealed
A viral spike protein mediates entry of SARS-CoV-2 into host cells and harbors an unusual activation sequence. This sequence is cleaved by the cellular enzyme furin and the cleavage is important for the infection of lung cells. These results define new starting points for therapy and vaccine research. In addition, they provide information on how coronaviruses from animals need to change in order to be able to spread in the human population.

dystopian futures

Robot vacuum cleaner conveys seven dwarf personalities by movement alone
Researchers used a vacuum cleaner and the personalities of three of the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White to demonstrate that people can correctly infer a robot's personality solely by how it moves.
I'm sure Disney will be pickung up this idea in no time.


From the news media:

The UK is now certain to exceed my prediction of 33,000 deaths from Covid-19. Today, figures from the Office for National Statistics combined with results from Scotland and NI amount to more than 32,000.

Monday, May 04, 2020

before Neanderthals and Denisovans

I have written quite a few pieces about Neanderthals and Denisovans in recent years, but not all that much about the earlier stages of human evolution. This was mainly because I usually covered molecular / genetic studies into prehistoric populations, beginning with the first attempts at the Neanderthal genome and leading up to today's remarkably rich, genetically based accounts of our prehistory.

The limited shelf life of DNA means that we aren't likely to see any comparable details regarding the populations and species that came before Neanderthals and Denisovans, the likes of Homo erectus and Australopithecus afarensis. However, researchers have now succeeded in getting protein sequences from teeth of human relatives up to 800,000 years old, which drives the molecular investigation of human evolution much deeper into the past than has been possible before. Which was a good excuse to expand the range of my coverage as well and look into the deeper layers of our evolution in my feature which is out now:

Digging deeper into human evolution

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 9, 04 May 2020, Pages R371-R374

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Homo erectus remains have been found in Africa, Europe and Asia. This skull is from the Dmanisi cave in Georgia, where samples for successful proteomic analyses were also obtained. (Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 FR).)

Sunday, May 03, 2020

a railway man

We know shockingly little about my greatgreatgrandfather in the paternal line, the father of Heinrich the cellist. We do know that he worked for the railways (Bahnassistent it says on some documents), and we know of four different places of residence in different phases of his life, so I now checked up when these places got their railways, and it so happens that the dates when they were connected match the dates when my ancestor was there, so I am assuming he was involved in setting up the railways more than running it, until he reached his terminus, which was Tangermünde. This is reminiscent of another railwayman ancestor in the same generation who had five daughters, whose birthplaces follow the development of the Alsace railwayline very neatly, moving northwards from Mulhouse.

For Richard the railwayman the moves are a bit less tidy and we have a lot less information, but here is a glimpse of his moves:

Johann Friedrich Richard Groß (1852-1913)

1852 born in Breslau (Wroclaw). His parents are orphans in the sense that we don't know their parents, so I'm throwing out their names here in the hope of catching something: Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Groß born 1830, a carpenter, and Rosina Faudner from Chursangwitz. They had married in June 1852 in Breslau.
1874 he was spared military service due to crossed legs and height - not sure if he was too tall or too short but looking at his descendants as well as the literal meaning of our name being tall, I don't think he can have been too short.
1877 - 1879 he married twice-widowed Maria Louise Mentzel, presumably between the birth of her son from her second marriage, in 1877, and the birth of their daughter, below:
1880 daughter Gertrud born in Neurode, which was connected to the lines leading to Glatz and Waldenburg in 1879 and 1880, respectively
1882 son Heinrich (the cellist) born in Zella St. Blasii, where the local part of the mainline connecting Erfurt to Schweinfurt (and Berlin to Stuttgart, in fact if you look at the big picture) was completed in the years 1881-84.
1888 son attends school at first in Stendal, then in nearby Tangermünde. The railway line linking both places was completed in 1886. (Tangermünde had the important river port on the Elbe, but Stendal was bigger and eventually won the competition to get the mainline rail connection to Berlin).
The family remained in Tangermünde, where both children jointly celebrated their marriages in 1908, until Richard's death in 1913.

So at least that kind of explains his geographic mobility. Not quite sure what he did for the railways, but one document referred to him as an office clerk so it must habe been on the admin side rather than on the tracks.

And here's his signature from one of his son's school reports:

(not sure about the middle word in his job title here, but it could be "Bur." for Bureau, right? In which case we have Eisenb. Bur. Ass., or Railways office clerk.)

Update 15.10.2021: The railway families master post is now online.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

two decades of taking the mickey

Rounding up the science journalism published in German in March and April we have biodegradable plastics, molecular Ferris wheels, and the completion of my second decade of making scientifically-minded fun of things:

Umwelt: Biologie gegen Plastikmüll
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 68, Issue 3, March 2020, Pages 76-78
Access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Erkenne deine Grenzen

Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 68, Issue 3, March 2020, Page 106
Access via Wiley Online Library
(peer review helps authors to appreciate the limitations of their findings)

20 Jahre Ausgeforscht: Auf der Suche nach dem verlorenen Sinn
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 68, Issue 4, April 2020, Page 14-15
Access via Wiley Online Library
This is my regular column celebrating its 20th birthday in the context of the April pages which are generally in the spirit of advanced tongue-in-cheekery; the second decade's worth of the column is collected in the Tabakschwärmer book, out now.

Aromaten: Ein Hückelsches Riesenrad
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 54, Issue, 2 April 2020, Page 76-77
Access via Wiley Online Library
Related content in English

Hey, I haven't done enough trumpet-blowing for the Tabakschwärmer book so I'll re-use it as illustration here ...

Friday, May 01, 2020

science news 1.5.2020

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.


Astronomers capture rare images of planet-forming disks around stars

Astronomers could spot life signs orbiting long-dead stars
To help future scientists make sense of what their telescopes are showing them, Cornell University astronomers have developed a spectral field guide for rocky worlds orbiting white dwarf stars.


Coffee plants have a small but consistent core microbiome of fungi and bacteria

Naked mole-rats need carbon dioxide to avoid seizures and here's why
Good for them that humans are changing the atmosphere to meet their needs.
A second PR for the same paper in Current Biology highlighted neuro-behavioural aspects:

Mole-rats' failure to social distance offers clue for treating some neurological disorders

This image shows an African naked mole-rat
Credit: Roland Gockel


Study helps arboreta, botanical gardens meet genetic diversity conservation goals
See also my feature on botanic gardens and their role in conservation (free access).

light and life

Eyes send an unexpected signal to the brain
a subset of retinal neurons sends inhibitory signals (circadian-related)


Water is key in catalytic conversion of methane to methanol
Scientists reveal new details that explain how a highly selective catalyst converts methane, the main component of natural gas, to methanol, an easy-to-transport liquid fuel and feedstock for making plastics, paints, and other commodity products. The findings could aid the design of even more efficient/selective catalysts to make methane conversion an economically viable and environmentally attractive alternative to venting or flaring 'waste' gas.
Flaring should just be banned full stop.


African skeletons from early colonial Mexico tell the story of first-generation slaves


From the news media: