Wednesday, August 25, 2021

the crazy history of Germany

some thoughts on


A personal history of Germans ancient and modern

Simon Winder

Picador 2010

Like the authors of fun history books for children such as the horrible histories series, Simon Winder treats history with all due disrespect. He exposes the lies in nationalist narratives, the madness of feudal rulers, and the crazy coincidences that make unfortunate events happen.

Following a vaguely chronological route through the history of German speaking lands (minus Switzerland), from Tacitus’s eponymous book through to the end of the Weimar republic, he revels especially in his visits to the monuments and curiosities left behind by hundreds of insignificant small feudal states, which all felt compelled to build a Schloss to mimic Versailles (the author uses Schloss and insists there is no good translation, which is a relief, as we’ve been looking for ages). Incidentally, these very same deluded mini-monarchies also provided suitable (because protestant and coming without major power political strings attached) marriage partners to British royalty for centuries. Go figure.

The fates of these mini states varied wildly. In the wars before the foundation of the Empire, some rulers placed their bets against Prussia and lost, including the kingdom of Hannover. Meanwhile, next door, the tiny principality of Schaumburg Lippe, with its very sumptuous mini capital Bückeburg survived until 1918. This was lucky for my grandmother in nearby Minden, because she got the opportunity to study at the conservatoire which the duke of Schaumburg Lippe had founded in 1913 in a last firework of cultural exuberance.

Winder is adept at making connections and parallels that you don’t normally find in history books. Karl Marx and Prince Albert moving to London at around the same time. Louis XIV burning down the Palatinate while everybody else was busy fighting off the Ottomans outside the gates of Vienna, showing that the unity of Christian Europe wasn’t as strong as we are often told. One tiny, unreferenced remark about composers Mahler and Strauss meeting in a Strasbourg piano shop led me to a journey of discovery which I have already reported here.

All in all an extremely enjoyable “horrible history” for grown-ups. Words like “demented” and many synonyms thereof occur on every page. An immaculate sense of place provides many ideas of towns and cities that one should really visit. The only serious blind spot I noticed is Wuppertal – it is mentioned only once, and then anachronistically, in the 19th century (page 359) when its position was still held by the separate, rapidly industrialised cities of Barmen and Elberfeld. Looking up the author’s details, I found that he has written two sequels covering the Danube watershed and Lotharingia, the middle bit in the tripartite heritage of Charlemagne. I will look out for these.

Monday, August 23, 2021

followers of fishes

I'm not a scuba-diving kind of person, but from my armchair studies of marine biology I recall seeing many photos of larger fish species apparently being followed by smaller ones. Never thought much about it, until I came across a publication referring to the followers of manta rays as hitchhikers. That sounded like an interesting feature topic, so I had a closer look and discovered all sorts of marvellous things I hadn't known. In addition to the obvious ecology implication, the social network of marine species if you will, there are also interesting bits of physics about the suckers allowing hitchhikers to hold onto fast moving transport vehicles.

All this in my latest feature which is out today (I love the title, even if I say so myself):

Friends, foes and followers of fishes

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 16, 23 August 2021, Pages R973-R976

FREE access to full text and PDF download

See also my twitter thread with all 2021 features that are now in the open archives.

Manta rays are often seen with other species attached to them or following them closely. The image shows a giant ocean manta ray with some passengers. (Photo: Simon Fraser University/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Mahler and Strauss in Strasbourg

Reading Simon Winder's excellent book Germania (about which I rave in more detail here), I stumbled across the surprising statement (on page 369):

... the vigour and pleasure of the pre-1914 world [...] can be summed up in the image of Mahler and Strauss in 1905 happily playing through the score of the latter's forthcoming opera Salome in a piano shop in Straßburg, ...

Which struck me as it falls in the period when both Heinrich the cellist and his then fiancée Maria were living in Strasbourg. Presumably they weren't so astronomically lucky to wander into that piano shop at the right time, but it made me wonder what Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949), then based in Vienna and Berlin, respectively, were doing in the faraway and musically less illustrious town.

As it turns out they were both guest conductors at the first Elsass-Lothringen Music festival, which aimed to build cultural bridges by featuring both French (Franck, Charpentier) and German composers (Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner, and the two famous guests). Mahler conducted his 5th Symphony on May 21, 1905, and an all-Beethoven programme the next day (the Mahler Foundation provides full details for both days here and here). Assuming that Strauss also had a couple of concerts, and then a few for the French guest conductor, Camille Chevillard (1859-1923), this adds up to a whole week worth of music. The festival happened just one month after Strauss had completed the score for Salome, so at the time of that piano shop meeting, nobody in the world knew the music.

The whole event took place at the Sängerhaus in Sankt-Julianstraße, a huge venue built in 1903, which today is the Palais des Fetes in rue Selenick. Located in the Neustadt (German quarter), this location is literally only one block away from where Heinrich the cellist lived. So I'll henceforth assume that he did pop over to watch Mahler and/or Strauss do their thing.

Source: Wikipedia

PS: Here are some lovely postcards from the first decade of the Sängerhaus.

Stop press: I found the shop! It's Wolf Musique, it even had a plaque commemorating the one-man premiere of Salome, but it sadly closed down in June 2020 after 195 years in business. That news item was in French, but here's one in English. The French source mentions Mahler and his young wife Alma (along with baffled clients of the shop) as the audience, whereas Winder had only mentioned Gustav and left me with the impression that he and Strauss had played the orchestral score four-handed. The shop was located on the main island, 24 Rue de la Mésange.

Friday, August 13, 2021

real life art

Art exhibition with works by Alexander Calvelli about real life (working lives) opening in real life today:

The venue, Kunstraum Eigelstein, does not seem to have a web presence outside Facebook - find them there if you must.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

professor leather trousers

Coming back to the biography of Heinrich our family cello after a couple of months being busy with other things. Heinrich the cellist and his wife Maria had met at Strasbourg in 1903/04. He had come from faraway Tangermünde (joining the army), she came from the other side of the river Rhine (Bruchsal), to train as a secretary at the main hospital of Strasbourg. Like the rest of the city, the university and its hospital had benefited from a major programme by the newly founded German Empire to make the city a showcase for the world.

Maria's niece recently told me that she remembered her mother saying that Maria worked for "Professor Lederhose" at Strasbourg, which the children found understandably funny. It was almost true, though, add an extra "d" that is not part of the German word for leather trousers, and you get:

Professor Georg Ledderhose (1855-1925)

a prominent surgeon who, like Maria, had arrived from the other side of the river as a youngster, studying medicine at Strasbourg and then rising through the ranks there. After WW I, he ended up in Munich. He even has a syndrome to his name, Ledderhose's disease or plantar fibromatosis, which I understand is just a bump under the sole of your feet.

He also has a Gedbas entry - no children listed, but you can find his wife, parents and several generations of ancestors here. His paternal grandmother was Sophie Susanne Dupré, and her ancestry and relations are the main focus of the online genealogists who gave us the Ledderhose entry. A name that neatly links back to the cello theme ...

Source: Wikipedia

So where did Maria and Professor Ledderhose work? Presumably in the Hôpital civil (the French wiki is very interesting on its history, the English version less comprehensive). As I understand it, the Hôpital civil under German governance became closely connected to the medical faculty at the university, even though it wasn't a university hospital as such. It expanded dramatically using up former military land just south of the main island. This map shows the location in 1921:

Source: Wikipedia

I think Professor Ledderhose must have worked as a surgeon in building number 6, ie Clinique chirurgicale A, in place since 1881 (Clinique chirurgicale B was only opened in 1914). Not much hope of finding the place today, as Wikipedia says it has been turned into a car park, but I'll take this map the next time I visit Strasbourg.

Historically, every department was housed in a separate building, but many of these have now been demolished, and the new hospital, opened in 2008, aims to combine all services in one block. Today, the facilities are employing some 11,000 people.

As always, all hints appreciated ...

Monday, August 09, 2021

cat gods and coexistence

The recent paper on how worshipping cat gods helps people in India to coexist with leopards and even tigers inspired me to look for other examples. Naively, I assumed I would find similar stories around the world, but most of the surviving cultures codifying coexistence with dangerous wildlife led me back to India. So it became a slightly lopsided tour du monde, but I also have mentions of Central America, Australia, and Nigeria in there. The feature is out now:

A culture of coexistence

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 15, 09 August 2021, Pages R931-R934

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Children play with Waghoba at Manali temple
(this picture didn't quite make it into the published article)

Sunday, August 08, 2021

goldilocks instruments

Discussed alto flutes and other size variations at a session earlier today and it struck me that I have a very clear preference in several instrument groups, but they don't line up. Basically, I like to make deep sounds, but there are limits to the amount of suffering I am willing to take for that, such as straining my arm to lift a bass flute, or spreading my fingers more than a comfortable width to play low recorders. So the balance works out as follows:

* strings: cello (obviously)

* flutes: concert flute (I just don't feel the few extra notes added at the bottom are worth the suffering with heavier flutes).

* recorders: alto (a discovery I only made a few years ago, when I saw an alto recorder at a fleamarket and bought it on the spot - basically, it feels exactly right, presumably because it scales to the adult hands exactly like the soprano recorder to primary school kid hands).

* saxophones: tenor (haven't tried any of the other sizes, but the tenor feels so right, I can't imagine any of the others being a better fit).

Based on this, I should try low whistles, which I haven't done yet. And while I never cared much for trumpets, I am curious about tubas, euphoniums and such like.

Different sizes of recorders, from bass to sopranino. Image source: Wikipedia

PSA: this is blogpost no. 2000, and also a reminder to myself that I will resume the all our instruments series once the plague years are definitely over.

Friday, August 06, 2021

palaeo beyond genomics

I've been covering the very exciting progress in ancient DNA studies for nearly 20 years now, and I'm not complaining, but, in order to persuade editors that they should publish even more of my ravings, I need to introduce new elements every once in a while. So it was rather handy that recent developments in palaeoanthropology have featured a few things that were molecular but not based on the genomes retrieved from ancient people's bones, including proteomes read from tooth proteins (which may allow us to travel a lot further back in time), microbiomes, and DNA from dirt with absolutely no trace of fossil remains.

And the Neanderthal teeth used in the dental microbiome study come from the cave of Sima de las palomas (near Murcia), where I've also been scraping around in the dirt for a while, a few years before the site started coughing up some very impressive Neanderthal skeletons.

Looking at it from an analytics perspective for a chemically minded audience, I've discussed these developments in my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry, which is out now:

Chemistry & Industry Volume 85, Issue 7/8, July-August 2021 Pages 23-26

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI - appears to be on open access right now

Lateral view of the mostly-complete skull of Zlatý kůň, which cannot be carbon-dated but has now been identified as the earliest modern human from Europe, based on recent admixture of Neanderthal ancestry.
Credit: Martin Frouz

Oh, and Blogspot tells me that this is my 1999th published post. So let's party like it's 1999, and watch out for the millennium bug!

Thursday, August 05, 2021

astrobiology out now

I was slightly busy with other things and missed the actual publication day (Tue 3rd), but I can confirm that the third edition of

Astrobiology: an introduction

is out now across the habitable parts of the Universe. A lot of things happened since the second edition came out in 2011, so the page count has gone up, and it is no longer called "brief" in the title. Apart from that, the good old structure still stands, just with new findings added.

More details from:

* the publishers, Johns Hopkins University Press

* Blackwells bookshop

* my (slightly neglected) website

I seem to have acquired some grey hairs since the last edition ...