Tuesday, March 31, 2009

double life of nicotine

One intriguing thing I found in the current issue of Nature is that nicotine has very different effects on acetylcholine (ACh) receptors in the brain and in the muscles. As the CalTech researchers X. Xiu et al. put it on page 534:

"If nicotine activated ACh receptors found in muscle as potently as it does brain ACh receptors, smoking would cause intolerable and perhaps fatal muscle contractions."

The authors find that extremely subtle differences between these nearly identical receptors, which both respond the same way to their intended messenger, namely ACh, make that nicotine can mimic the non-covalent interactions of ACh with the brain receptor, but not with the muscular one. Specifically, it's one hydrogen bond and one interaction between pi electrons and a cation which are to blame for the difference.

While it is not yet clear why and how nicotine causes addiction, researchers believe this goes via such ACh receptors, and specifically via the receptor type that Xiu et al have studied.

Now what I find intriguing is that many people (like me, for instance) don't get addicted to nicotine. I rather enjoy the sensual experience of a good tobacco, but I can take it or leave it at any time, and as there is no place left in this world where one can enjoy it, I end up leaving it. It may be genetic, as my parents have similar experience.

So does this new research mean that I (and non-addicted people like me) have a more muscle-like ACh receptor in my brain ? In the post genome age this should be really easy to answer. And if this addiction effect depends on such extremely subtle and weak interactions, wouldn't it be easy to disrupt this and stop the addiction from happening (well, OK, I know we don't want to interfere with the ACh's natural interaction, so it may be tricky)? I tend to think that if people had really tried to solve this problem, rather than terrorising the people affected by it, it would have been sorted out by now.

Monday, March 30, 2009

bad science of prostate cancer test

In his "Bad Science" column of March 21, Ben Goldacre dissected the reporting of two papers, both published in New England Journal of Medicine, of which one seems to suggest that the PSA (prostata specific antigen) test saves some lives:

European Trial of Prostate-Cancer Screening and Mortality
In this trial, investigators tested the effect of prostate-specific–antigen testing on the death rate from prostate cancer. A significant reduction in prostate-cancer mortality was found after a median follow-up of 9 years.

... while the other suggested it doesn't:

Effect of Screening on U.S. Death Rates from Prostate Cancer
Investigators analyzed the effect of screening with prostate-specific–antigen (PSA) testing and digital rectal examination, as compared with usual care, on the rate of death from prostate cancer. After a follow-up of 7 years, the death rates from prostate cancer did not differ significantly between the two study groups

Goldacre bemoans that papers in the UK only reported the European study which appears to show that the PSA screening is beneficial. What he overlooks in his fury is that there is a very good reason why the studies of the PSA test were reported differently in different countries:

* in the UK, the test is generally not used (my GP very firmly told me that in this country we don't believe in it), hence the first study suggesting that it might save lives counts as newsworthy, while the second study, suggesting that it doesn't, wouldn't be newsworthy.

* in other countries (I know this specifically about Germany), the PSA test is widely used, so the general assumption is that it is useful. In those countries, the study with the positive result would not qualify as news (as it just confirms widely held assumptions) but the study suggesting it doesn't help is important news.

In either case, of course, the non-newsworthy study should have been mentioned along with the newsworthy one. I do, of course, agree with Ben Goldacre's general opinion that science reporting in the mainstream media isn't as good and as clear as it could be. My own recent analysis of how and why science reporting is in decline has appeared here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"best" sellers

March/April is a very important time of year for authors, because we receive royalty statements from our various publishers. If we're lucky, we even receive a small amount of royalties, though the more likely version is that the statement will inform us that we still owe money.

This year, I have finally managed to create a spreadsheet of all my book sales, which is endlessly fascinating, as I can now get the sheet to calculate all kinds of statistics for me. For instance, the best year (so far) for sales of my books was 2001.

I've also taken this opportunity to update my personal "best" sellers list (note that none of my books ever came close to troubling any real bestsellers lists!). Maybe I should call it the leastpoorsellers list. Anyhow, to avoid confusion I have now combined different editions of identical title (e.g. hardback and paperback ed. of Life on the Edge) and come to the following top 5:

1. Travels to the Nanoworld
2. Life on the Edge
3. Light and Life
4. Exzentriker des Lebens
5. Astrobiology

Note that Astrobiology may still rise in the charts as it is still selling. Amazingly, if I listed the books by the sales in the first year of publication of a given edition, I would arrive at exactly the same top 5. So their fate is sealed by the end of the first Christmas sale period!

Also, congratulations are due to Ken Derham of Plenum Publishing (now part of Kluwer, which has probably been swallowed up by some even bigger fish), as he commissioned the top 2 titles of this list.

Friday, March 27, 2009

titan reviewed

My review of the book "Titan unveiled" has just appeared in Chemistry & Industry, issue 6, p. 30.

Here's a snippet:

"The story of Titan exploration clearly deserves to be told in a popular science book (or even in several books), and Cassini veteran Ralph Lorenz and astronomy writer Jacqueline Mitton have had a good go at telling it from the very beginning to the mid-point of the primary mission, which is June 2006. The chronological account is lightened up by “blog entries” giving Lorenz’s experience at the research front line first hand. The most memorable of these describes how, in 2005, he retrieves a computer program he wrote for the Huygens landing some time in the early 90s. As he goes through the motions of firing up a half-dead PC, we realise just how much time it takes to get a mission to the Saturnian system. "

Which reminds me it will be decades before any further visit to Titan may take place. What a shame.

Titan Unveiled by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton
Princeton University Press 2008
ISBN 978-0-691-12587-9
$ 29.95

Thursday, March 26, 2009

astrobiology for aliens

Good news for all those aliens who are picking up our electronic communications but haven't dared to get in touch yet. They can now read

Astrobiology: a brief introduction

in Kindle format. Assuming, of course, they have abducted a few Kindle readers or figured out how to build the thing on their own.

My previous experience with electronic formats has been rather mixed. Way back in 2000 or so I was contacted by a company that wanted to publish my nanoworld book as an e-book and got as far as signing a contract before the company went bust in the dotcom crash.

Then there was the curious case of "Was Biotronik alles kann", which had to be pulled from the shops because of a lawsuit against the use of the B-word in the title. While the case was open, the publishers issued the content as an online book (pdf files of chapters to download separately, or institutional licences for the whole thing), with the offending word replaced by Biotronic. The publishers won the case in the end and the k could be restored.

PS: I almost forgot to mention that the current generation of ebook readers uses a display technology, e-ink, which I wrote about when it was first published in 1998. It took less than a decade to move from the lab bench into the shops. One of the rare cases where my optimistic "predictions" have actually come true.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

footprints in the forests

There is an Earthwatch event coming up tomorrow, with two lectures about

Forests and Climate Change

Dan Bebber, head of climate change research at Earthwatch Europe will talk about how forests (including the ones we consider pristine) are always linked to human activities, and how we must manage our relationship with forests to mitigate the effects of climate change. This talk is also related to my recent feature in Oxford Today about the European Climate Centre at Wytham Woods near Oxford.

Mika Peck from the University of Sussex at Brighton will present his conservation research in the cloud forests of northwestern Ecuador, an aerea of extremely high biodiversity, which is also highly sensitive to the impact of human activities. Like most Earthwatch projects, his work depends on volunteers. Anybody can join in and help conservation at the front line.

I've heard rehearsals of both talks and they are both fascinating. The real event will be on tomorrow,

Thursday 26th March, 7pm-8.30pm at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR

Numbers are limited so call +44 (0)1865 318856 or email events@earthwatch.org.uk today to avoid disappointment!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

something old, something new

One of mankind's oldest inventions, tea, can help to turn one of its newest, nanoparticles, into a therapeutical tool of the future, according to this press release from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which just came in:

Fresh pot of tea strikes anti-cancer gold

Researchers might one day brew up a cancer treatment in their afternoon cuppa, says a study in a Royal Society of Chemistry journal.

Researchers report in the Journal of Materials Chemistry that chemicals in tea are the best yet discovered to make consistent, biologically-safe gold nanoparticles, which show promising anti-cancer properties.

The team from University of Missouri , Columbia , literally brewed a fresh pot of Darjeeling and added gold salts, which get reduced by phytochemicals already known for their health benefits.

The tea chemicals that regulate the size of these nanoparticles also increase their likelihood of being taken into breast and prostate cancer cells, improving their potential for targeted anti-cancer drugs.

Kattesh Katti, lead author of the article, says that discovering tea’s non-toxic formation of nanoparticles is of paramount importance for medical and technological applications.

Gold nanoparticles have many potential medicinal and technological uses, such as targeted anti-cancer drugs, but currently their synthesis needs toxic reagents which make them unsuitable for use in the body.

The natural chemicals used in this new method are harmless in the body and the reaction produces no toxic by-products – only some slightly dodgy-tasting cold tea.

Monday, March 23, 2009

vampires rejoice

... at the prospect of unlimited supplies of human blood from the tap at their local:

British scientists to create 'synthetic' blood

But seriously, this was about time, as people are dying when blood reserves are running out, or getting too old, or lacking nitric oxide, or have been infected with some pathogen that nobody expected. This endeavour is a brilliant example of how cells from a single "leftover" embryo from IVF -- remember this is a clump of identical cells, which has never been inside a human being, and which would otherwise be thrown away -- can save hundreds of lives. According to the report in the Independent, cited above, we're three years away from clinical trials.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


From 1993 to 2001 I used to work at the New Chemistry Laboratory, South Parks Road, OX1 3QT, so I'm just a little bit irritated to see that the place has turned into a big muddy hole in the ground, which last week looked like this:

I understand that this hole will eventually be filled with a new building for Earth Sciences. I took this picture from the windows of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, while I was there interviewing people for a feature about their work. The red brick building behind the hole is the Dyson Perrins Laboratory which used to house organic chemistry research until the new research building opened across the road.

Friday, March 20, 2009

the case of the vanishing science reporters

There is an interesting feature on the general disappearance of science reporters from the mainstream media (newspapers and telly) in yesterday's issue of Nature, page 274, accompanied by a comment on p 260. Their main concern seems to be that the communications that are replacing old-fashioned science reporting are either PR-driven and thus dumbed down beyond recognition, or, in the blogosphere, so specialised that they only reach those people who are looking for such information and presumably have a science education already.

I have addressed similar concerns from my personal experience in my recent piece Is science journalism turning into fast food?. I guess I am more concerned about the dumbing down than about the "preaching to the choir" part of the problem. Even in the good old days of the science-pullouts in the newspapers, there will have been many people who binned the pullouts straight away. All we can do is to offer the chance to find out about this world (on a reasonably meaningful level). Can't force people to read it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

open up wide

In porous inorganic materials such as zeolites, the pore width normally determines what goes in and what stays out. Now, however, chemists have demonstrated that hollow capsules made of molybdate complexes can import molecules that are larger than the pores through which they enter, pointing to a surprising degree of flexibility for an inorganic structure.

Read my news story in Chemistry World.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the spirit level

There is an interesting new book looking at lots of parameters relating to quality of life, and coming to the conclusion that inequality harms not only the poor but creates damage across all layers of society:

The Spirit Level
Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
published by Penguin in March 2009.

It is reviewed in the Guardian. While one always has to be careful with attributing simultaneous statistical changes to a causal relationship, the wealth of data pointing in the same direction suggests that inequality really is bad for everybody's wellbeing.

What needs explaining is the observation that even richer people are suffering in unequal societies (US and UK always at the top of these charts!). The one hypothetical explanation that might account for that paradox is status anxiety. When you live on such a steep slope that the mere thought of sliding down makes you sick or drives you to crimes, life is unhealthy even at the top.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shakespeare and Company

I can't believe that I missed this, but according to Jeanette Winterson there is an intriguing independent bookshop in Paris where penniless writers like me can stay on condition that they read a book per day. It's called Shakespeare and Company. My only excuse is that it's an English language bookshop, and when I'm in Paris I look for French books, not English ones, so it would never have occurred to me to look for English language shops. Will check it out next time though.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

proper platypus and funny dinosaur

With the National Science Week and all this going on, I've been to the University Museum a few times in the last two weeks, and took the chance to take pix of a proper platypus (as opposed to the soft toy I've been using for previous photos):

And my daughter snapped this T.rex rednoseiensis:

as the end of science week coincided with Red Nose Day, where people do silly things trying to raise money for the charity children in need.

Friday, March 13, 2009

history lessons

There is an interesting seminar series on the history of chemistry here, which appears to be underappreciated. It is organised by 4 institutions (both universities, Maison Francaise, and a Society for the history of chemistry and alchemy) and the two events I went to were attended by less then a dozen people.

Some German universities have a tradition of "Studium Generale" where interdisciplinary lecture series that may be of interest to lay people in other departments or indeed from the general public are advertised separately from the general teaching programme and are promoted with things like leaflets in bookshops etc. I think this kind of support might be warranted here as well ...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

mum's antibodies

Pamela Bjorkman's Dorothy Hodgkin memorial lecture last night was quite interesting -- I didn't even know (or maybe I forgot) that babies get mum's antibodies from breast milk, let alone how they manage to transfer them from the guts to their blood stream. Intriguing stuff. Plus she's also involved in the project with David Baltimore trying to engineer an efficient immune response against HIV.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kepler travelling around the Sun

NASA's planet-spotting probe Kepler has had a successful launch on Friday and is now in its orbit around the Sun, looking at some 100,000 stars for signs of extrasolar planets with Earth-like sizes and orbits. Last week, the exoplanet count stood at 342, but watch this space ...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

how to harvest the tides

UPDATE 19.10.2010: The government has now dropped the Severn hydroelectric plans entirely. Shame they still didn't look at the lagoons version.

Quiz question: Which is Great Britain's longest river? Handy hint, it's not the Thames. In fact it is the Severn, which also happens to end at the place which has one of the largest tidal movements on our planet. Therefore, the UK government is considering to meet a large chunk of its renewable energy target by building a barrage across the Severn estuary. Environmentalists and especially Friends of the Earth are critical of the proposal and have suggested tidal lagoons instad, where a certain volume of the estuary is walled in but the rest is left open to the tides.

I have to say I was skeptical of the FoE idea at first (as it would take a lot more concrete to build a circular wall around a given water volume, compared with building just the base of a triangle), but the simple diagram on their web page won me over -- with a walled-off circle one could exploit the tidal cycle much more drastically than with a barrage, hence produce at least as much, if not more, power per mile of wall built, so it would be no more expensive and definitely greener than the barrage. But try to explain such complicated things to a UK government.

Read my story in Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 5, R180-R181, 10 March 2009:

Muddying the waters

Monday, March 09, 2009

structural biology inside the cell

I've often said that, after the very successful half-century that researchers spent taking cells apart and studying the smallest parts, now is the time to put it back together again. A very encouraging step in this direction is reported in two papers in this week's edition of Nature. Researchers in Japan have managed to solve a protein structure by NMR while the protein in question was inside the living bacterium. In a separate paper, an overlapping group of people reports NMR measurements (but not yet the structure) of a protein inside a human cell. Both papers are discussed in an excellent News & Views commentary. While these studies are only the beginning of a whole new era for structural biology, they have already shown up interesting differences between the structures proteins adopt in the cell and those adopted in the test tube.

Protein structure determination in living cells by in-cell NMR spectroscopy p102
Daisuke Sakakibara, Atsuko Sasaki, Teppei Ikeya, Junpei Hamatsu, Tomomi Hanashima, Masaki Mishima, Masatoshi Yoshimasu, Nobuhiro Hayashi, Tsutomu Mikawa, Markus Wälchli, Brian O. Smith, Masahiro Shirakawa, Peter Güntert & Yutaka Ito


High-resolution multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopy of proteins in human cells p106
Kohsuke Inomata, Ayako Ohno, Hidehito Tochio, Shin Isogai, Takeshi Tenno, Ikuhiko Nakase, Toshihide Takeuchi, Shiroh Futaki, Yutaka Ito, Hidekazu Hiroaki & Masahiro Shirakawa


Saturday, March 07, 2009

kunst am bau

Some rather horrible buildings only reveal their inner beauty after dark, as for instance, the Oxford Zoology / Psychology building, which has this charming side entrance reminiscent of Mondrian's art:

I also admire the huge cube of unused space behind these windows ...

Friday, March 06, 2009

national science week

The UK National Science and Engineering Week starts today, and as scientists can't count to 7, it lasts until March 15th. Lots of events just about everywhere, mostly organised locally by enthusiastic researchers, teachers, etc.

Here in Oxford we like to be different, so we have a two-week celebration of science: Oxfordshire Science Festival.

The one event I normally attend each year is the Dorothy Hodgkin Lecture. This year it's by Prof. Pamela J Bjorkman PhD, Max Delbruck Professor of Biology and Investigator, HMMI Caltech, USA. Her title is:
'Your mother's antibodies: How you get them and how we might improve them to combat HIV'

Oh, and of course I'll have to see the Science Fair at my children's school.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

dancing molecules

Just one German publication in March:

Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 3, pp 20-22
Tanz der Moleküle zeigt lebendiges Bild der Zelle

This is about using advanced methods of Raman spectroscopy for label-free biomedical imaging. I have reported this advance in this blog entry.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

strangers or friends

This week's edition of Der Spiegel has a cover story on how social networking changes life in general, the new aspects of friendship, privacy, public life, etc.:

The headline Fremde Freunde is absolutely untranslatable, unless you slot in an "or" or something similar: strangers/friends, unfamiliar friends ...

The article is kind of interesting as an overview, although tinged with a vague lack of understanding, and spiced with the usual offering of horror stories. I mean you can find mindless idiots in your local pub, and you can get murdered by somebody who first contacted you by telephone or by knocking on your door, so I don't quite see why the appearance of social networking sites in the context of crimes or other problems is supposed to mean they are a bad thing. They are just the way people communicate in this day and age, so they come with all the good and bad things that communication between people can lead to. (And I have a higher spam rate in the phone calls I receive than in the MySpace messages.)

Well, at least I am quite happy with the whole Web2.0 thing, strange friends and friendly strangers included ...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

world book day

Two book marks to mark World Book Day coming up on Thursday:

The day is a big thing in primary schools and in the media here, and I naively assumed it is celebrated around the world, but as far as I can tell from the website it is mainly a UK and Ireland thing. Unless somebody knows of WBD celebrations elsewhere?

Activities are designed to encourage young children to read, so they get tokens for books, they can come to school dressed up as their favourite character from a book, etc. Not much use for us, as our little one, from whom I borrowed the books and cuddly bookmarks above, reads a book per day anyway. Oh, sorry I forgot to introduce you, the grey mouse is called "Mr Fish", and the other one is named after a parrot whose name I forgot, but in German we address him as "Herr Papagei". Obviously.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Alzheimer surprise

I was intrigued to read in the current issue of Nature that a genome-wide search for a receptor for the Alzheimer culprit A-beta has identified a protein notorious for another type of neurological disorder. Around half of the A beta binding has been attributed to the prion protein -- a misfolded version of which is the infectious principle in mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt Jacob disease (CJD).

It is still unclear how exactly the link between these two works, and what accounts for the other half, but this is definitely a big surprise that opens up new possibilities for Alzheimer research and ultimately for its therapy.

ref: J. Lauren et al., Nature 2009, 457, 1128

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Strada family

Among my ancestors in the lower Rhine area there is a lineage of people with the Italian sounding name of “de la Strada”, sometimes also written Delastrata, de la Strather, etc. As the name is extremely rare north of the Alps, I am suspecting there may be connections to historic Strada families, such as those at the court of emperor Rudolf II. I'm not trying to bask in reflected glory here, just following an ancient scientific tradition -- the drunkard's method of searching the key underneath the street light, where one can see it better than in the dark alley where one probably lost it!

Here are the pieces of the jigsaw which don’t fit together yet:

Johannes Baptista de la Strada, born Diez, oo 7.1.1728 to Anna Katharina Jacob at Nievern. Their son Philipp, (1742-1802) eventually moved to Krefeld, where there have been quite a few de la Stradas in the 19th century.

We believe Johannes Baptista de la Strada is the son of Johann de la Strada (estimated time of birth around 1680) who was employed as a gardener at Schloss Oranienstein, Diez from 1712 – 1724. Word of mouth passed down the generations suggests that one of the de la Strada ancestors working as a gardener came from the island of Capri originally, which belonged to the kingdom of Naples (under Spanish rule 1504-1707, except for a very short-lived republic 1647-48).

Find a MISSING LINK (or 3) here ?!

We suspect there may be a link to the Strada family that served the Habsburg emperors Ferdinand, Maximilian II and Rudolf II over generations (see, for instance: R.J. W. Evans, Rudolf II. and his world, and numerous articles by Dirk Jacob Jansen).

The main representatives are:

Jacopo Strada, born Mantua 1507, died Prague 1588. Art buyer for the Habsburgs and the Bavarian court, artist, architect, writer, numismatist. Subject of a famous portrait by Titian. I’ll post a detailed biography separately (so far, only biographies in German are available on Wikipedia etc.).

Jacopo’s children: Paulo, Octavio, Martino, Lavina, Sicilia, Tobias. Octavio Strada (1550-1606) followed in his father’s footsteps and served as art buyer to Rudolf II. Also subject of a portrait, by Tintoretto. However, Jacopo’s testament (available on http://documenta.rudolphina.org/ disinherits Octavio in favour of the much younger illegitimate son Tobias Strada.

Octavio’s children (Jacopo’s grandchildren): Anna Maria, also known as Katharina Strada (1579-1629), mistress to Rudolf II., Carolus, Octavianus Junior.

Octavio Junior ended up in France where he married Catherine Hoeufft, daughter of Dutch engineer Christophe Hoeufft, and their descendants became quite successful in France, where the male line were later known as the "Marquis de Strada d'Arosberg".

Oh, and if we want to go really crazy we can try to incorporate

Giovanni da Strada, from the village of Strada, near Florence, who was young Boccaccio’s tutor, and Giovanni’s son:

Zanobi da Strada (1312/15 – 1361/64) poet laureate, professor of grammar at Florence, moved to Naples, then to Avignon in the service of the Pope during their exile.

and / or:

Filippo della Strada, a writer and calligrapher in Venice at the end of the 15th century, famous for being very rude about this new-fangled printing technology.

I'm also wondering where the jesuit and historian Famiano Strada (1572-1649) fits in.

Which is to say, if anybody has any information about Strada people living in the 17th century or earlier, I’d be very grateful for a hint.
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