Thursday, August 25, 2022

molecules and microbes

In the round-up of German pieces April to August 2022 we have microbes in cold geysers and on plants, as well as molecules from space, from early Earth, in suncream and on surfaces:

Diels-Alder Reaktion: Tanz der Elektronen
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 56, Issue 2, April 2022, Page 85
Restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Diels-Alder reaction directly observed under the microscope

Ausgeforscht: Arachäen im kalten Sprudel
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue 4, April 2022, Page 98
restricted access via Wiley Online Library

This tongue-in-cheek piece is about archaea found in the cold water geyser at Andernach:

Image source: Wikipedia / Bungert55

I must have passed the site a hundred times going up and down the river Rhine on trains, but have never seen the geyser in action.

Das Mikrobiom der Pflanzen
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue 5, May 2022, Pages 79-80
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: How plants grow their microbiome

Astrochemie: Moleküle aus dem Weltraum
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 56, Issue 3, June 2022, Page 153
Restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Chemical ecosystem of Murchison meteorite molecules revealed in snapshots

(Blau)3 blüht der Ozean
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue 6, June 2022, Page 92
restricted access via Wiley Online Library

Paläobiologie: Lebensspuren oder chemischer Garten?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue , 2022, Page 106
restricted access via Wiley Online Library

Monday, August 22, 2022

from plague to covid

I noticed recently that the ancient DNA researchers are finding out lots of fascinating things about historic plague pandemics and other diseases, and it occurred to me that we are catching up with those pandemics of the past, while also still handling our present pandemic. And how lucky we are that at least we can very quickly figure out what our problem is and what to do to fix it, whereas people hit by the Black Death had no clue and could do nothing. Now we only have to find a cure for misinformation ...

So anyhow, out of these thoughts grew my latest feature which is out now:

Pandemics past and present

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 16, 22 August 2022, Pages R855-R857

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

The National COVID-19 memorial in London commemorates the 200,000 who died with the disease in the UK. (Photo: Geoff Henso/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

Friday, August 19, 2022

this is lycanthropy


Peter and the Wolff

My Krefeld Clan is very well documented, but the prehistory of the families before they arrived at the booming silk-weaving town of Krefeld is quickly lost in obscurity. The earliest date we have from Krefeld is the marriage of Christophel Wilsberg from Hamm and Anna Sybille Wolff from Mülheim on Aug 5, 1764. Wilsberg is also a place name in the district of Neuwied, where the name is still common today, so no worries there. But Wolff is a name too widespread to be useful, and the trace goes cold with Anna Sybille’s grandfather Peter Wolf (as in the children’s opera).

Now I had a chat with somebody who also has Wolff ancestry elsewhere in Germany and afterwards I felt inspired to google the details of my Wolffs again, and got lucky. In a very detailed family history of the Vorster family of paper mill owners, I found the origin of my Wolff lineage.

It turns out Peter Wolf’s father was called Hermann Hofstadt, the second son of a farmer from Unna. In 1652, he bought the Wolffskotten farm at Styrum (today divided between Mülheim and Oberhausen), and was known as Wolff ever since. Although some descendants may have reverted to the Hofstadt name, I do get search results for Hofstadt people born in Styrum. Sadly the Wolffskotten farm seems to have disappeared, the only search results I get are to the Vorster family source.

After turning into a Wolff, Hermann married Trine von der neuen Mühle (I suspect that is a description rather than a proper family name, it just says, from the new mill, and as the name of the town Mülheim suggests, there must have been plenty of mills around). Their son Peter married Elsgen, about whom I knew nothing but the first name before, but the Vorster chronicles reveal an interesting story.

Adolf Vorster, the first of the clan to arrive at Mülheim from Olpe (Sauerland) where the reformed protestants from the Netherlands had found refuge a few generations earlier, was widowed twice. After his second wife died, he took on a maid, Catharina aus dem Bieg, to help with the kids and the household, but ended up marrying her as well. He died after only ten months of marriage, but Catharina gave birth to their child Elsgen after he died. The Vorster clan rejected Catharina and Elsgen though and they went back to Catharina’s home farm, the Biegerhof (a medieval site today part of Duisburg). By 1680, Catharina found a second husband, Thiel Weinhaus, and had another child. Elsgen got to marry Peter Wolff.

Canis lupus. Photo: Bernard Landgraf, CC BY-SA 3.0

PSA Now introducing the tag #düsselmann for the ancestry (and extended family) of my great-grandfather Julius Düsselmann from Krefeld. I'm doing this rather belatedly, so there are now a lucky 13 entries with the new tag. Julius's maternal family is the Imig clan from Simmern.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

reinventing Alice

Some thoughts on

The looking-glass house
by Vanessa Tait
Corvus paperback 2016

Alice Day in Oxford is normally celebrated with an events programme that not only includes entertainment for kids but also some thoughtful lectures for adults which I usually attend. Although the topics may sometimes look eclectic on paper, I’ve always learned something interesting.

This year, one of the presentations was by Vanessa Tait, who has the USP of being Alice Liddell’s only great-granddaughter – being the only daughter of her only grandchild. So the whole Carrollian heritage came down heavy on her, and she made light of it by writing it up as a novel informed by the unique insights gained from family tradition and the memorabilia inherited by her mother but eventually sold at auction.

This was all so intriguing that I bought her book on the spot – I was also a bit embarrassed that I missed the memo when it was published. It did not disappoint. Mixing the well-documented information about the historic characters (Alice, her parents, her governess, Lewis Carroll, Queen Victoria and her sons) with a few invented ones to provide colour and plot, she does paint a convincing tableau of how the events that led to the telling of the Alice stories on that famous boat trip may have unfolded.

While I personally wouldn’t go as far as inventing dialogues to put into my dead ancestors’ mouths, I fully understand that this is a reasonable thing to do here, as the factual backbone has been established by a legion of researchers and every single stone has been turned over by committed fans. To add anything new to that, I suppose you have to rely on well-informed invention. The author does add a helpful afterword to help readers with the separation of facts and fiction.

I was particularly intrigued by the reminder that Lewis Carroll’s main interest in these contacts was that of a pioneering photographer. He told the children stories in order to get them in a better mood for posing for his photos. And of course it’s fun to catch the atmosphere of Victorian Oxford with places like Christ Church and the department store Elliston and Cavell taken over by Debenhams a century later. In some ways one could say it hasn’t changed a bit, and culturally speaking, Alice still is very much alive around here.

See also my twitter thread listing books I read in 2022.

PS Just one tiny little moan: I am fairly sure the Victorians didn't know the horribly agrammatical phrasing "just because ... doesn't mean", which occurs at least twice in the book, including once as allegedly spoken by one of the characters. I believe I haven't heard this before the year 2000. Am I wrong?

NB I am tagging this "memoir" although it isn't one, because it demonstrates one of the options we have in processing family history, so it helps me thinking even if novelisation is not a path I'm likely to take.

Monday, August 15, 2022

the great 9-euro adventure

From June through to August 2022, Germany offered a "flat rate" ticket for local and regional public transport for 9 Euros per calendar month. I used one in June, but was only there for a couple of days, so it didn't make much difference, although it did inspire me to revisit Wuppertal and travel the entire length of the Schwebebahn (suspension railway) up and down the valley. I think the Schwebebahn day pass alone would have cost something like 9 euros in normal times.

At the beginning of August, I was there for ten days and used the ticket to explore a few cities. There were three I hadn't seen before, namely Rheydt (featured in my lostcities series), Krefeld, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The latter I wouldn't have dared normally, as it is a globally famous tourist destination and I was kind of expecting it to be overrun, but on the day it turned out just fine, with fewer tourists than you'd see in Oxford on a normal summer day, and it was quite lovely. I also spent time in Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Würzburg, and Xanten. That's 9 cities for 9 euros.

It did take me some time to get my head round the fact that this thing really works, that I was really allowed to go anywhere. It does change the geography of a country significantly if you can just hop on a train without worrying whether it will be worth the expense. And after many years of routinely using the intercity and high-speed network, it was nice to rediscover some of the little train stations that the ICE doesn't serve. The Regional Express (RE) trains that you are allowed to use with the ticket cover considerable distances though, including one of the first long-distance rail lines in Germany, Cologne to Minden, or a 200km stretch of the river Rhine from Koblenz to Wesel. With air-conditioned electric double-decker trains, they often offer a level of comfort that compares favourably with what Great Western would call an intercity train. (There was also a heat wave going on, so the AC came in handy.)

Some trains were crowded (but mask discipline was good, so no covid worries), some were late or cancelled, but hey, if it's basically free, you can't complain, right? It's all part of the big 9-euro adventure. I read that 31 million tickets were sold for June, so it's kind of a one off nation-wide summer experience you just have to enjoy. Designed in haste as a counterweight to the very non-green fuel subsidy (Tankrabatt), it may not have moved the dial on car usage, but it certainly helped many who would otherwise have struggled to pay for travel by any means.

I took a zillion photos, some of which are slowly turning up in this new flickr album.

The regional railway station Düsseldorf-Bilk, where all my adventures started. It used to be an S-Bahn station with only the platform on the left, but has been expanded and upgraded to serve regional express trains of four separate lines. Basically every RE that crosses the river Rhine at Düsseldorf now stops at Bilk (plus three lines of the local S-Bahn trains). That's more trains and destinations than you get from Oxford main station, and they are electric.

Media coverage of the 9-euro ticket:

Friday, August 12, 2022

under the sea

Earlier this week it was reported that the International Seabed Authority (ISA) closed its meeting without reaching agreement on regulations on deep-sea mining. In the absence of such regulation, uncontrolled mining could start at the end of June next year. Ahead of this development I looked into deep-sea mining again and at one particular problem that I hadn't covered in my previous features on the subject (2015, 2014), namely noise pollution. The feature is out now:

Mining noise set to rock the oceans

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 15, 8 August 2022, Pages R807-R810

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

Polymetallic nodules found on the seafloor at depths between four and six kilometres are the target of planned seafloor mining operations. Formerly known as manganese nodules, they also contain cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earth metals. (Photo: James St. John/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)