Monday, February 22, 2021

something in the air

With all the worries about airborne viruses these days, we shouldn't forget that the air that we breathe in our cities isn't all that healthy in normal times either. Recent reports based on 2019 data provided detailed mortality burdens for pollution on a state level for India and for cities in Europe, so I rounded these up along with some studies on what parts of the body are damaged by pollution (spoiler alert: possibly all of them), for my latest feature which is out now:

A breath of deadly air

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 4, 22 February 2021, Pages R161-R163

FREE access to full text and PDF download <

Air pollution is affecting the health of most people around the globe, but problems are particularly severe in megacities, such as Hyderabad, India, shown here. (Photo: Daniel Dara/Unsplash.)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

spa break

#lostcities episode 9: Bad Nauheim

We're approaching the end of the series and coming to cities which I actually remember from my childhood. Memories left me with a soft spot for Bad Nauheim, even though when I was there as a child everybody was about a hundred years old and seeking spa treatment for some horrible diseases. My great-grandmother and great-aunt lived in a crumbling art nouveau villa which I've raved about before, and which in the whole series is the only property to mourn. Although the Frankfurter Str. is the main through road and quite noisy, the location is quite central and within walking distance of the railway station and the historic spa facilities. Cafe Bienenkorb in the Hauptstrasse is another reference point I remember.

Let's take it chronologically, though, this is what happened:

After fleeing from Königsberg (see episode 6) and rejoining the rest of the family in the sticks, my great-grandfather remembered that he quite liked the spa town of Bad Nauheim where he had spent time as a reconvalescent decades earlier. In July 1945 he moved there, initially to a room in Frankfurter Str. 26. By November he had moved to Frankfurter Str. 12 (the villa mentioned above), found space for the family, and started relaunching his trade with textiles. He died in March 1950, however, aged 66. My great-grandmother stayed at that address until she died in 1972. My great-aunt had continued the textile business until 1960, then bought the property with funds from the compensation for the lost factory in Königsberg. At that point she gave up on the textiles and operated a bed-and-breakfast for spa guests, but she hadn't inherited the business sense of her father, clocking up debts to wipe out the value of the property.

When I was visiting there as a child, we used to make fun of the fact that my great-aunt changed the layout of the flats all the time, so the running joke was that the loos are now where the kitchen used to be. Which may explain where the money went. She also hired a carpenter to build shelves for a customised floor-to-ceiling library (which I inherited, so mustn't grumble) and had a habit of taking taxi rides everywhere.

Of the town, I remember the swimming pool which included a heated outdoor basin even in winter (maybe not the most sustainable thing on climate grounds). I also went ice skating there (I believe Bad Nauheim used to be successful in ice hockey) and saw a lot of the historic spa buildings, like the ones in the post card below. Funnily enough I don't remember the lake at all, maybe that was too far, being on the other side of the town.

Re-visiting the town in 2010, I found the town layout built around the spa rather than a proper town centre slightly odd, but then again, the sheer wealth of art nouveau architecture that survived there makes up for that. Although it's still relatively small (amazingly, in 1970, only 14,000, but now upwards of 32,000), I could walk around a few days just looking at the houses. And it does have direct trains to Frankfurt, if one gets fed up with the small town thing.

Bad Nauheim 1956 (still looked very much the same when I spent time there in the 1970s). Source

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935-1945
  7. Aachen 1936-1940
  8. Idar-Oberstein 1940-1962
  9. Bad Nauheim 1945-1972

Thursday, February 11, 2021

some viral stories

Quite Covid-heavy this round-up of German pieces, with the variants covered in December (just before the issue exploded) and the vaccines in February (see the cover below), as well as a tongue-in-cheek appreciation of the dog-led diagnostics. Other topics available include soil biodiversity, ammonia emissions from human skin, and protein crystals found inside the glass needles of marine sponges.

The Covid stories are on open access, and some of the others appear to be too, not sure why.

Ausgeforscht: Wir Emittenten
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 68, Issue 11, November 2020, Page 98
Access via Wiley Online Library

Der Stammbaum der Pandemie
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 68, Issue 12, December 2020, Pages 64-65
FREE access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Pandemic genomics

Verflixt verschachtelt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 87-88
FREE access via Wiley Online Library

Der Covid-Schnuppertest
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 1, January 2021, Page 114
FREE access via Wiley Online Library

Biomineralisation: Im Innern der Glasnadeln
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 55, Issue 1, February 2021, Page 12
Access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Sponges feature

Impfen gegen Covid-19
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 50-53
Access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Vaccines feature

cool cover of the Feb issue of Nachrichten aus der Chemie, although not quite a representation of how the vaccines work ...

Monday, February 08, 2021

vaccines revolution

By mid January, a year after the novel coronavirus was formally identified and sequenced, eight new vaccines of three different types were approved in full or in emergency mode by at least one country. So I though this was a good time to have a look at how this miracle happened. Especially here in the UK we're still rubbing our eyes a bit as it is about the only aspect of the Covid response that has worked better than expected (so far).

As part of the special treatment for Covid related information, my feature has been available as an open access preprint for the last two weeks, but today it is officially out in the proper format, and still on open access:

How to develop 8 vaccines in 12 months

Current Biology Volume 31, issue 03, pages R101-R103, February 08, 2021

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Although the new vaccines have materialised at record speed, they have been tested as thoroughly as any previous vaccines. (Photo: Lisa Ferdinando/US Secretary of Defense (CC BY 2.0).)

Looking ahead, I do hope that the success story of vaccine developments also translates into successful elimination of the disease, but it's too early to start victory celebrations. One thing I worry about here in the UK is the large gap between first and second dose which produces two problems:

1) patients feeling somewhat protected by the first dose increasing their risk behaviour may very well overcompensate the extent of protection they have. So if their infection risk is reduced by a factor of 2 but they are having 3 times as many risky encounters, they may in the end be more likely to catch it. So the only relaxing (of rules and precautions) should be happening as a function of second doses given, not of first ones.

2) having a vast population partially protected and still exposed to the virus could be a breeding ground for mutants resistant to the vaccine.

So, in the UK in particular, given how Johnson's government has mishandled and amplified the first and the second wave, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that they are cutting corners again and thereby facilitating the third wave.

PS In nerdy note-taking news, this feature completes 10 years since I started writing a feature for every issue of CB. Since issue 4 of 2011, there have been 235 features in 240 issues, so it worked out quite nicely, even if I say so myself.