Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Geekpops: Wave or a Particle?

I've just found a podcast for 'Am I wave or a particle?' from Geekpops! (I heard this on the Nature podcast last week).

The lead singer of 'Spirit of Play', Wendy Texas, has a beautifully smooth voice - she reminds me of one of the singers from The Mamas and the Papas.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Counting snails for science

I rather like the idea that anyone can play a useful role in science. You don't have to be in a laboratory with lots of expensive equipment or even have access to a library full of books and journals (though it helps, I say wistfully). All you need these days is access to a computer and the internet and you can take part in a grand Darwinian experiment.

It involves going out to your nearest green space and looking for snails and cataloging them for colour and banding. The hypotheses being tested are these:
(i) the proportion of lighter coloured snails have increased due to global warming;
(ii) there are generally more snails because their arch enemy (or main predator), the thrush, have declined in number over the last thirty years.

(It is my impression that thrushes are coming back again - I often hear them tapping away on snail shells. It is the sparrows that have declined. I used to see a flock of them descend onto the grass, but nowadays there seem to be very few).

With thanks to Eric-the-blogless for pointing out my typos.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cocoon Count at 14.40 Sunday 29 March


Sunday Salon: A Duality of Art and Science.

On the train last week I listened to the Nature and Chempod podcasts. I find it exciting to have the chance to hear all these eminent scientists talk about their latest discoveries. It is put in straightforward terms and is easily understandable by the non-specialists. It is also free. All you have to do is go to this Nature page or itunes and download. I highly recommend.

This particular podcast ended with scientific pop. 'Am I wave or a particle?' the singer asked. 'Do I follow my mind or my heart?' This chimed very well with what I was about to see: an exhibition of Picasso's work, the well-known cubist. I remember reading somewhere (I think in Insights of Genius by Arthur I Miller) that just as a cubist aims to portray two sides of a person's face at once, so physicists theorise that light also has two sides: from some 'angles' it is a particle, from others it is a wave. The art movement inspired the science, and according to another book by Miller (Einstein, Picasso), science influenced Picasso too. Reading through Miller's review of the book Surrealism, Art and Modern Science by Gavin Parkinson it seems like the two were linked by the work of Poincaré (another favourite of mine).

The point of this exhibition in the National Gallery was not cubism but to show how Picasso took paintings from the past and used them to develop his own work. Amusingly, there were plenty of young art students there copying Picasso's work, so I imagined the whole thing as one of those halls of mirrors, the reflection going on and on, transformed each time by imperfections in the glass to something different, sometimes monstrous.

The originals were shown in a small brochure that accompanied the exhibition, which I suppose you were supposed to consult as you walked around. It makes interesting reading in its own terms.

However, since this brochure was very small and I am no longer young this was an unsuccessful combination in my case (I need to bite the bullet an buy myself some varifocals). However, if there had been more information on the walls then maybe there would have been a viewing grid-lock. ('Ah, you can't win,' an Art Gallery curator would think if he were to read this, 'there'll always be some idiot grumbling.') Also I suspect there was more information on the audio-tour, but since I usually find those irritating, I didn't indulge - maybe I should have this time.

Since I now have the (imagined) attention of the National Gallery curator I would also like to say that it would have been better if the pictures were displayed in chronological order so I could have seen how the young Picasso developed into the middle-aged and elderly Picasso. There was a sense of this, but since they were arranged thematically (still life, muse etc) it was not obvious. 'But everyone always does that!' My imagined curator would reply. 'Yes, for good reason,' I would answer back. I like to get the last word.

Despite all this it was great to see the pictures before me and peer at them closely. I was surprised at how rough and unfinished they appeared to be, with dribbles of one colour over another. Standing back they disappeared, or rather were still there, indiscernible on their own but adding to the overall effect. All of Picasso's works seem to have a solidity about them which I really like. Even the thin sad people that he painted in his Harlequin period seemed to have a presence. Each one grabbed my attention and made me look and look. There were small tantalising details about his life: one woman and then another and another, and children appearing then being swept away with their mothers as another woman came on the scene. My interest now piqued in the genius of Picasso (and his outrageous love-life) I indulged myself even further and bought this book.
The excellent art publishers, Taschen, some of whose output is scattered on the downstairs Dudman bookshelves, are selling this book on Picasso at a reduced price to celebrate their silver jubilee. Apart from the familiar cubist pictures, there are many more conventional portraits, including several with the chubbiness of some of Beryl Cook's figures (though probably he was her inspiration rather than the other way round). It's a gorgeous book and I have enjoyed myself since looking at the pictures.

Since I had a little time left I was able to visit the National Portrait Gallery and saw another exhibition I wanted to see (actually recommended to me by someone I've met on Twitter from Nature, Grace Baynes). This was on the portraits of Gerhard Richter. Gerhard Richter takes evocative photographs and then reproduces them with astonishing realism in paint. Several are of his family, and some, like Picasso's are inspired by past masters.  There is more about Gerhard Richter on Artsy - an excellent resource.

I recognised some images from the internet, and I particularly like these which I think would make excellent covers for books.

I finished off the day by meeting a few bloggers from Nature Network at the pub (including Matt Brown and Stephen Curry), which takes me back to Nature and another side of science.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Silkworm Dreams

Normally silkworms are indolent, moving just enough to find a little more food, however, before they spin their cocoon they start to wander quite persistently.

I noticed this last night

a white glimmering object on the floor of the airing cupboard, its outline diffuse with bur. An unnoticed escapee had somehow dropped the floor and then begun to spin. I am letting it stay there until it is properly finished.

Even though I am fond of my silkworms I don't like the thought of them escaping. I imagine them crawling swiftly to my pillow in the night, like that mouse that once brushed my head when a child. Then I'd woke dreaming of lying at the bottom of a well, drops of water falling rhythmically onto my face - where, it turned out, the mouse was touching me as it ran around in circles on my pillow.

But what dreams could be induced by a silkworm? Maybe the sensation of floating in a cocoon-like womb, or maybe something more sinister and enclosed, like being buried alive and struggling for breath. Or maybe it would be something in my hair, the touch of the wind, or the dry cold stickiness of the caterpillar's feet, as it tangles like a teazle, then rips apart, tiny hooks and loops...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cocoons that glow in the dark

I have found the perfect use for the salad tray of our fridge. I've removed the human food that was in there and replaced it with this...

aromatic twigs of bay, mashed up mulberry leaves and... silkworms (of course!).

I think they look very contented in there. In fact, if they were capable of smiling I am sure they would be. I love the way they pick out the branches and crawl along to the top then pause there, their heads circling in the air in their quest to move ever higher. I suppose they are searching for the perfect spot, with their silk already beginning to spill from them.

The reservoirs for the silk are two glands located either side of the intestine, and by this 'ripe' stage of the fifth instar these two glands are a quarter of the silkworm's mass. The silk is extruded by spinnerettes below the silkworm's mouth and their output is astonishing. In this Nature paper from 2003 Professor Florian Wurm (such a wonderfully appropriate name) from the University of Technology in Lausanne, describes how the one thousand cells in these two glands manage to produce 300mg of protein in four days. That is 80 micrograms per cell per day. He puts this in context: the productivity of mammalian cells, for example, comes nowhere close - the best that they can muster is only 50 picograms of protein a day. That is a million times more from the silkworm (according to my calculations).

The silkworm, then, is a veritable little protein-making factory, and Professor Tomita and co-workers from the Japan Science and Technology Corporation in Hiroshima (report in another Nature paper) have joined in the quest to encourage the silkworm to produce something even more valuable than silk - that is various human proteins. Human albumin, for example, is in short supply. Even in a small country like Switzerland 1.2 tons are needed annually. This is usually obtained from processing 50 000 litres of blood plasma. And then there are other, even more valuable proteins like antibodies, which also require large cultures of human cells for their production. The silkworm is a potential provider of these too.

Apart from the greater productivity of the silkworm cells, there are other benefits of using insects as protein factories: the protein is produced in a pure form (and so does not require expensive and environmentally-draining purification), and there is virtually no risk of contamination by dangerous (to humans) viruses or prions.

Professor Wurm reports that the genetic make-up of silkworms is altered by injecting a 'piggybac vector' into the egg of a silkworm. The piggybac vector is a way of changing the DNA of the embryo (without using a virus) so that the resulting larvae will produce silk that contains human protein (a form of collagen). To keep track of the larvae which carried the altered DNA a couple of markers were included: red-fluorescent eyes when the larvae were young, and green fluorescent silk (as well as the human protein). Glow-in-the-dark eyes and silk - my 'traditional' silkworms are beginning to seem a little boring in comparison.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cocoon time again.

I woke up this morning to find four silkworms making cocoons. That is 30 days since they hatched. That is about a week longer than given in the literature.

The interesting thing is that in two boxes there are two silkworms busily making cocoons; whereas there are none in the other boxes. I am wondering if hormone from one silkworm induces cocoon-making in a neighbour.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day : An Interview with Debra Hamel

I am dedicating this post to Ada Lovelace Day (a series of events to celebrate women in technology) organised by Suw Charmin-Anderson who tweets in Welsh! ( So she already has won my slavish admiration and respect.)

Another person who has won my slavish admiration and respect is Debra Hamel. I first encountered Debra via her excellent review of Lynne Truss's surprise best seller on punctuation: EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES.

I think this was in 2006, shortly after I had entered the blogosphere. I commented on the review, we got 'talking', and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon afterwards we got round to looking at each other's books, so I had the pleasure of reading TRYING NEAIRA. In this book Debra has managed to do something I would never have thought possible - make what I thought was a very dry academic subject, namely Ancient Greece, not only interesting but very funny too.

My father is a reluctant traveller, but one of the highlights of the trips he made with my mother, when he was mobile enough to still do so, was to Pompei. There he managed to pick up a book on the spicier Roman artefacts, which was so 'interesting' that it actually attracted the attentions of an Italian waiter who asked him where he could get one too. There are similar artefacts mentioned in Debra's Neaira. Apart from this the book conveys the society and legal system of Ancient Greece, and these are gradually uncovered as Neaira's trial is explained.

Of course we shared an interest in reading other books too, and it is the way in which Debra has developed this interest in tandem with her interest in technology that made me think she would be an excellent candidate for Ada Lovelace Day. She has developed several 'bookish' ideas that have become very successful: 'Book-blog', Buy A Friend A Book, Twitterlit, Kidderlit and finally Sunday Salon. They are all ways of using the new technology to the full to share a love of books. But I'll let her explain what they involve herself.

The following interview is in three sections: a special technological one for Ada Lovelace Day and my usual Literary and General Sections.

Debra studied classics as an undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University and again as a graduate student at Yale, where she specialized in ancient history. Since receiving her Ph.D. in 1996 she has published a number of scholarly articles and reviews as well as publications for a general audience, including several articles that have appeared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. (For a complete list of her classics publications, click here.) Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, Connecticut.

Technological Questions.

CD: What did you first start posting on the internet, and how did it come about?
DH: In the fall of 1996, when I was spending most of my time breastfeeding my daughter, I found that one thing I could do while feeding her was play around on the web. And so during that time I taught myself some rudimentary html from an online resource I've long since forgotten the name of. I created my first web page then, a sort of fan site for the TV western Rawhide, which has moved over the years and grown into a larger site. But that was created before the blogging phenomenon, of course, which made it so much easier for people to start web sites. If I were creating such a site now I would almost certainly do it as a blog. (E.g., see my sadly not-updated-for-a-long-time site Blogging Bewitched

CD: Can you give me a quick resume of your technological 'output' to date (twitterlit, Sunday Salon etc) - what they involve and why you started them.

DH: A complete list of my many web sites can be found here. But the sites that are most important to me are:

book-blog.com -- My book review site and first blog, which I started in 2003. I started it because I was lamenting that while I read so much, I could hardly remember any of it. People would ask me what good books I'd read recently, or what I thought of a particular book, and my mind would go blank. At the same time, I'd just heard of blogging and found the idea interesting and thought I'd give it a try. So I started to write book reviews as a means of recording my thoughts about what I'd read before all memory of them vanished.

the-deblog.com -- Having started the book review site, I eventually found that I sometimes wished I had a forum for non-book-related observations. Hence I started a second blog,
about a year later, in 2004.

Buy A Friend a Book -- Roughly one year after that (in the summer of 2005) I was woken in the middle of the night by the unmistakable sounds of urination--that is, as I described it here, by
"the sound of a driving torrent of urine beating against the inner layers of my younger daughter's diaper as she slept, oblivious, a foot or two from where I lay."
So I woke up, and I had an idea about book promotion for some reason, and I lay awake in bed and mapped out the idea for Buy a Friend a Book Week (a quarterly book-giving holiday that's coming up again soon!) and its associated web site.

TwitterLit -- Roughly one year later (there seems to be a pattern developing), in April of 2007, I got the idea for TwitterLit. TwitterLit is a blog to which I post the first lines of books every day, one line in the morning and one at night (currently at 9:00 AM and PM EST, though when I started it was 5:00). These blog posts are also sent to Twitter, which is how most people see the lines. The post/tweet consists of the first line of a book without the author or book title, but with a link to Amazon.com. Anyone who clicks the link will be taken to the book's detail page on Amazon, where they can find out what book the line is from. There are also UK and Canadian versions of TwitterLit, which link to Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca respectively. The links contain my affiliate ID, as I explain on my site, so that purchases made on Amazon through my links earn me money. TwitterLit was a product of my ongoing interest in books coupled with my relatively new excitement with Twitter. I'm quite pleased with myself for having come up with the idea and having figured out a way to make it work. (I had to fiddle with my site's RSS feeds, for example, and I know close to nothing about such things so was happy to figure out how I had to do things.)

KidderLit -- KidderLit is a children's version of TwitterLit, with one first line from a children's book posted per day.

The Sunday Salon -- The Sunday Salon is an idea that Clare and I had together. Simply put, book bloggers are invited to post about books on Sunday, to read one another's posts and comment on them, the idea being that we would create a sort of online reading room. But as it's developed it's
become larger than either of us quite expected. We thought participation would be confined to just a few of us virtual friends, but the idea somehow caught on and we now have more than 350
participants. On the technical side of things, creating the site involved figuring out how to merge the RSS feeds of all the participants into one feed using Yahoo Pipes. The Pipe must then filter out non-Salon posts. That part was pretty simple, but as the number of participants grew, updating the Pipe became horribly laborious. Happily someone pointed me to a way of simplifying the process which has so far worked well. If you're interested, I describe it here.

CD: What has been the most impressive technical innovation you have come across recently (webwise)?

DH: I don't understand the mechanics behind things, so a site that I find impressive may not really be more technologically advanced than something which is ostensibly uninteresting. But I do believe that my jaw literally dropped the first time I saw TwitterVision. TwitterVision is simply a means of reading the Twitter timeline, with recent tweets imposed on a map of the world. The globe spins around as the tweets are plotted on the map--from the U.S. to the U.K. to Japan to Niger to South Africa to Ontario in the last few seconds I've been looking at it. I discovered TwitterVision right around the same time I discovered Twitter, as I remember, and the idea of watching a global conversation go by immediately struck me as a fantastic thing. So I suppose it's not TwitterVision per se that excited me, but Twitter itself and its implications.

CD: How much upkeep do you need to do each day (or week)?

DH: That's hard to say.... If you neglect your blogs they don't take up much time :) When I post a review to book-blog.com it probably takes me--apart from writing the review, of course--20 or 30 minutes to finish all my related tasks (sending a copy to Amazon, mailing out a copy as a newsletter, updating my navigational menus, etc.). But that's irregular, depending on how quickly I'm reading. What I mainly have to keep on top of are TwitterLit and KidderLit, which together require that I post three first lines a day. This may not sound like much, but there is some labor behind it. I have to track down first lines and make sure I haven't posted them before and get my links to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.ca in the proper format. Then
there's the post to my blog and scheduling the tweets and keeping track of when I need to add more. I'm not precisely sure how much time this takes me, because I work on it piecemeal, but it's hours per week rather than minutes.

Literary Questions.

CD: What is the origin of your Neaira book?
DH: At the time (in 2000) I'd been trying to figure out what I could possibly undertake as a project to justify my time in graduate school. I'd started and given up on a project or two, so I was feeling rather defeated. But anyway, this wanting/needing to write something was in the back of my mind. What I find amazing is how sometimes ideas will just click, seemingly without effort. What did it for me was a blurb on the back of a book I was reading. The blurber wrote--I just looked it up--that "Trials have provided some of the best examples of 'micro-history' or the 'new narrative'...." And that was it. I knew about the case against Neaira--a prostitute who was tried in Athens in the fourth century B.C., a case from which the prosecution speech survives. And after all that agonizing over what I could do with my time I had the idea at once to write an account of Neaira for the "general reader." I started on it the next day. (I think in retrospect that jumping into it at once was a good idea. If you think about the work involved in undertaking a project like this, it becomes daunting.)

CD: How did you go about getting the book published?
DH: I lucked out on getting the book published. (I had previously tried to get a YA novel published, without success, so I know how hard this can be.) In researching literary agents I did what the books tell you to do: I looked at the acknowledgments page of a book that was similar to mine. Happily, that author thanked his agent. I looked up the agent on the web and found out that he not only represented authors writing books similar to mine, but I knew some of his clients! So, I sent in the manuscript, and they decided to represent it. My agent did all the
heavy lifting where finding a publisher was concerned, and he's been able to sell it also to a number of foreign publishers, which has been very satisfying.

CD: What is your favourite part of the story?

DH: It's brief, but what leaps to mind is my radish section ("The Versatile Radish"), in which I describe what an Athenian male was licensed to do should he come upon a man in flagrante delicto with one of his dependents. Among the options he had was physically abusing the offender. This could mean beating him or whipping him, but your more imaginative cuckold had other options, e.g., anal penetration of the inappropriately libidinous male with a carrot-sized radish. There is also scholarly debate over the question of whether fish were sometimes inserted in such cases rather than radishes.

CD: Do you actually speak Ancient Greek or it is like Latin?

DH: No, it's like Latin in that it's not spoken anymore but read and written (with great difficulty) in dusty classrooms. Though of course it's different from Latin in that its modern descendant is still spoken. But there is no modern Latin, which instead morphed into the
various Romance languages.

CD: Which do you enjoy most - the writing or the research?

DH: Research is all well and good, but I definitely enjoy writing the most. I will happily sit at my computer and work on a single paragraph for hours. And there's no better feeling than when your writing is going well.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
DH: You know, my life has been sadly lacking in snails. I can't clearly remember any first-hand encounters. The best thing I can come up with is second-hand, a passage in Jacques Pépin's autobiography (The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen) in which he describes prying snails from the terrace of his vacation home and cooking them up for dinner.
(Note from CD: Debra also recommended to me Patricia Highsmith's short stories which contained several snail-themed stories including a hugely memorable one about a man who was locked in a room with his snail collection and was slimed to death. I found this story even more interesting when I learnt a little more about Patricia Highsmith - apparently she was a snail devotee and regularly carried many of them around with her.)

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

DH: Well, certainly the births of my daughters. And meeting my husband, because my path in life would have been wholly different if we hadn't met (which we did over a Trivial Pursuit game in 1984). I'm always impressed that as we go through life most of the stuff we do doesn't matter that much, at least not ostensibly: you go to the grocery store, you work, you go to school. If any of that were omitted, most days, it wouldn't matter much. And then every now and again your
life's course can turn on one simple thing, some small decision the import of which isn't at all obvious at the time.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?

DH: Well. What leaps to mind is my mother's decline and death from Alzheimer's, but that's not a single event.

CD: What is happiness?

DH: The life-long accumulation of moments of contentment. Maybe.... These days I'm probably happiest when I see my two daughters loving one another.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

DH: After the morning laving I have to wake up daughter #1, and then I head to the kitchen where I settle in with my iPod Touch and check my email, Twitter accounts, and RSS feeds while waiting for her.

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BROKEN GLASS by Alain Mabanckou (A Tribute)

Broken Glass comes at you like a train, it bears down on you and you read and read without looking up, kind of mesmerised by the flow, as if someone near by is talking, talking, talking and you know you should be listening, and most of your head is, and yet some of it isn't, because if it did, it would be too much, your brain would fry, and yet not to fully listen is enough, not to fully listen is what Alain Mabanckou wants, it is his way of talking his way of telling, an unending stream that soaks rather than waters, persuades like the scratched record that somehow skips tracks quite perfectly, the important thing is not to end, not to stop, not ever, the important thing is not to care but to let yourself sink into the story of the Stubborn Snail and how he came to own a bar and why he does what he does and will not stop even if the world is against him pretty much like the chapter or this review

there is nothing like Broken Glass, nothing that I've ever read, it is like seeing into someone's mind, seeing their thoughts swirl and form and disperse as if the sky is breaking up too with a mother of storms, and it doesn't matter if you don't exactly know, or can't exactly see because who can know what is inside another man's mind, who can tell how another sees, all I know is that somehow it makes sense and it is because of this I keep reading without stopping

or maybe it is because I am in the mood for this, because last night I didn't sleep, I swear it, didn't sleep at all, and all I could think about was the pointlessness of everything and how it would all end without anything mattering which is just the kind of dismal thing that always nestles in my head like a self-perpetuating prion when I lie awake, and the only thing to do is get up as quietly as I can and read but maybe I shouldn't mention this though of course I have, and really what is the harm because everyone on the planet knows this truth - that all we seem to do each day is fill our lives with words and movement and noise so much that I think it is just a blocking out

and so I go on, and so I force myself to concentrate on the thing I am supposed to be saying, the point of this piece - because you see it has liberated something in me, maybe it is the effect of the man called Broken Glass, how he loiters at the bar and gets other people to talk, and I know that there are some people that have this skill because people sometimes say even to me 'why am I telling you all this? I don't usually say this to anyone', and I think that maybe some people's faces look like a drain or a sponge and you know that what you tell them will just get soaked away, until what is left is something small and harmless,

but getting back to Broken Glass, I think it must be the way he listens which gets them to talk, and the things they tell him, how they like to screw around, how people tell lies, how they get what they want by pointing the finger, how easy it is to convince everyone else of another person's insanity and criminality, and it's as if the person that talks the loudest or the longest, or doesn't pause for breath is the one that's doing the convincing, and maybe that's why Broken Glass talks in this book, and that's why Stubborn Snail gave him a voice in his bar and a notebook to write down his thoughts, just as I am now in front of this computer screen

but Broken Glass sees more than me, and most notably and vividly he sees Robinette, and through Broken Glass I can see her too, and having seen her am unlikely to forget her because of Alain Mabanckou I can appreciate her massive thighs and monstrous cheeks and relish the unexpected victory of a man called Casimir Highlife,

it is hilarious but also profound, it took me to a place I'd never been before and I enjoyed every minute, each character is startling and unique and come together like some exotic bunch of flowers

but of course Broken Glass is mainly a book about Broken Glass - the man of sixty-five who used to be a teacher, who knows he drinks too much and still yearns for the little bitty women, and Broken Glass thinks he knows what he is and that Diabolica was wrong, and so was the school, and that people tell lies and towards the end he realises what makes him happy and it is this:

'when I let myself go, and forget this is something I've been asked to do, I feel at ease in the saddle, I can jump and buck and I can talk to a reader other than the Stubborn Snail, a reader I have never met because anything can happen, and the Stubborn Snail did say to me once 'I promise not to read what you write until your reach the last full stop'

and of course there isn't one because there never is...is there

A Venetian Snail

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Advent of the Giant Silkworm

One of my silkworms seems to be struggling with his skin. Normally I never see a moulting in progress. All I see is the silkworm motionless at the side of the box, his head raised from the floor rather like a sphinx with its skin shiny and taut. Then, a few hours later, I find the discarded skin - flat, brown, small and striped - stuck to the paper lining the box. It is the end result of a complicated process.

The moutling process starts with the silkworm losing interest in its food. The caterpillar then has to become still as the new skin is formed beneath the old one. At the same time the old skin must separate from the body; some of this is reabsorbed to form the new skin, while the rest becomes hard and brittle and eventually slips off. During this time the silkworm is vulnerable. The new skin must be 'cured' and finished before the old skin is sloughed.

But what causes the silkworm to lose its skin? It turns out that it almost the same thing that causes it to pupate. It is the result of some fairly simple chemicals coursing around the silkworm's body. I have been finding out a little more about their discovery - it makes dramatic reading.

In February 1941 a Polish scientist called Stefan Kopec was arrested. He was an eminent entomologist and several years earlier his work had caused a stir. In 1915, he had discovered that two hormones were essential for pupation. However Kopec clearly did not confine his thoughts to insect physiology. He was also a member of the Polish Underground. For this liberal-thinking Kopec and his son would be shot. His death, in March, was a great loss to science and reported in Nature the following year.

Kopec's work had already led to Muroga's experiments (that I mentioned in an earlier post), and also Fukuda's in 1940. Between them they worked out the origin and sequence of hormones required to turn a silkworm into a moth.

Like all living things, insects respond to their surroundings. Silkworms react to the shortening of the day or a drop in temperature by secreting a hormone from the brain which then travels to a gland in the thorax. This causes another hormone, a steroid similar to cholesterol, to be released and this circulated throughout the insect's body. This steroid-hormone tells the tissues of the insect to change - but the 'change' that results (either a moulting or pupation or metamorphisis into adult) depends on the levels of another hormone, called the 'juvenile hormone'.

The 'juvenile hormone' is secreted directly to the insect's body from a gland close to the insect's brain. This 'juvenile hormone' stops the larvae growing up. A high level of 'juvenile hormone' prevents metamorphosis and the steroid simply causes the caterpillar to moult; with lower levels of 'juvenile hormone' the caterpillar becomes a pupa, and then with another burst of steroid-hormone, the insect metamorphoses from the pupa to adult insect.

Although Kopec had discovered that these two hormones were involved long before the start of World War Two it was not until the mid-nineteen fifties that scientists managed to extract the hormones from the silkworm and determine their chemical structure.

As soon as Kopec's two insect hormones were isolated scientists started to experiment with them. An American scientist called Williams found that if a silkworm was dosed with sufficient 'juvenile hormone' it could be prevented from pupating indefinitely. The silkworm would simply keep eating and growing until it became enormous. If he then gave this giant caterpillar the steroid-hormone it would immediately start to pupate and start to spin a cocoon large enough to envelop its huge bulk. The cocoon that resulted was as large as a hen's egg. In this way silk production could be controlled - just by juggling those two chemicals Kopec had found fifty years earlier.

But these hormones are not just found in insects. Interestingly, a very similar hormone to the moulting and pupating steroid is found not only in other animals - Crustacea and Arachnida - but in plants too (the Togariha-maki, a type of black pine, and the root of the Hinata inokozuchi, a variety of Achyranthes). Astonishingly, it was found that when this plant hormone is injected into a silkworm, the silkworm begins to moult then too. Furthermore, if a tray full of larvae in their last instar is sprayed with the moutling steroid, all the caterpillars begin to spin their cocoons at the same time. This is very useful, and to be honest I wish I had a little of that chemical now. The house is beginning to smell of mashed-up mulberry leaf, and I am starting to wish that my dear little silkworms would just get on with things.

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Sunday Salon: Venice by Jan Morris

We had just three nights in Venice, but this book stretched out the visit to a whole week.

It is an extraordinary piece of travel writing. Jan Morris knows Venice. She lived here with her family, and uses this experience to the full in this book.

She explored, it seems, each part, each obscure 'calle' or lane,

each minor canal.

Somehow Jan Morris seems to become Venice. It is almost a merging of flesh and masonry. If a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, Jan Morris, in this book, becomes an urbanorg.

She is fond of the tattiness of the place, and its decaying splendour.

She tastes the food

the tiny hidden restaurants,

and the eccentricities of the people.

She describes the famous places

with her own idiosyncratic view-point, which makes them even more memorable (remarking, for instance, that the second horse along in St Mark's, whinnied softly to her once in the quiet of a winter's morning)

and affection (the gondoliers have their own code of practice and are not as extortionate as they appear because during winter they make barely a Euro).

The history of the place is gently administered to the reader in the form of fascinating anecdotes (for instance the fact that some of the lions set into the walls of the Doge's Palace have letter-box mouths which used to swallow rumours and accusations that could send an innocent citizen to the gaol-house).

But the overall impression is of a place where East meets West, domes sit alongside spires,

exotic merchants of one religion meet the traders of another,

where an ancient heritage is carelessly acknowledged in private gardens (because there is so much of it littered around)

and the brashness of the modern day is tolerated, but mostly ignored.

When the time comes to leave she is sad, but has somehow conveys that she has had enough. Venice is too rich to imbibe for long, she seems to imply. Even so - it must have been a poignant final scission.

I am going to try and read the book again before I return - like the addition of a little spice it makes a marvellous experience even more memorable, and three nights was no where near enough.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Silkworm Housing Crisis

Despite Hodmandod Minor's somewhat nonchalant attitude to sericulture (throwing in a bit of silkworm diet after being nagged on the phone, then ramming down the lid and running away fast) there were surprisingly few silkworm casualties on my return. The night I got back I spent until midnight picking out withered grey corpses, putting them on fresh paper and grating in more food. Altogether there were about six - mostly in the box that was streaming with condensation - but there have been more casualties since. At one stage there seemed to be so many corpses every time I looked that I was thinking that my little colony was suffering from a plague (like the one that afflicted most of Europe in the nineteenth century) and could understand how desperate the sericulturists must have felt as generation after generation of silkworms succumbed no matter what anyone did.

However, since it is mainly the small ones that have died, I think a lot of this must be natural wastage and there are about two hundred left. They are now eating very well and getting a lot larger. Even though they are as large as the twenty or so I had at the start they are still shedding skins (which my original ones never did) so I think they are in their fourth or fifth instar. They are easier to handle now, but the accommodation is becoming a problem. Yesterday I made one of my rare journeys into town and found that the cheap household store Wilkinsons sell ideal 7 litre plastic boxes for sericulture, so I came home with three. Hodmandod Senior then drilled hundreds of holes in their lids and the silkworms now look a lot more comfortable.

The only drawback to all this is that although the silkworms have acquired more room so our towels have less,

Silkworms at home in the Hodmandod Airing Cupboard - there are a second layer of boxes behind.

and it is taking me a good hour twice a day to clean them out and feed them. Still, I'm sure it will be worth it (though can't think how, just at the moment).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Out of Print

I just got an email from lovereading telling me I was a featured author on their website and inviting me to link back, so I went to have a look, but unfortunately could not find me nor my books.

Since they invited me to ring them if I had a query, I did. A moment of puzzlement followed, eventually solved when it was realised my books were all out of print and so have been eliminated from their database.

It is a sad reality for an author today, especially one of the literary fiction variety, that a book is in print for a far shorter time than it takes to write (and in my case research).

However, the sun is shining and I refuse to be downhearted. My books had their day, and maybe my new novel will have its day too. The important thing is to not look back and keep going (and maybe try to persuade my publishers to look into print on demand).

And lovereading is a very good website....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A few days break.

I have been away: to where domes meet spires; where the Byzantium citizens held off marauding nomads; and where there was so much awe-inspiring artistry in all directions that it was like something too piquant on the tongue. Eventually I couldn't taste at all.

'You've fallen in love with it.' My mother said, and I think I have. The rest of the world fell away. Gold leaf glittered on the walls and narrow lanes ended abruptly in the gentle green of jade.

Light flickered off roofs and I was woken each morning by bells peeling across the square and the smell of spiced bread rising from someone making deliveries below. A Vivaldi and then a Bach violin concerto in the hall of a medieval prison had such beauty and yet evoked such painful memories that I had to force myself to stay.

Now I feel I have lost track. I keep thinking about that place and wondering what I'm doing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Control of Pupation in the Silkworm

In 1939, while the rest of the world was at war, a Japanese scientist called Muroga was busy performing some peculiar experiments on silkworms. He was trying to find out what caused the silkworm to pupate - and his experiments were simple but conclusive.

What he did was to tie pieces of thread (presumably silk since it is so strong) around various parts of a silkworm's body. The silkworm in question was on the point of making a cocoon, that is at the end of its fifth instar. When he ligated the head from the body, so that no fluids could pass from one to the other, he found that the lower, posterior part of the animal pupated as normal (as in d above). However, when he ligated the head and the first segment down of the thorax, he found that the animal failed to pupate at all (as in b). The source of the hormone that controlled pupation was clearly somewhere in the first segment - and not the brain.

Left: front view of head of silk with cutaway section showing brain (green) and corpus allatum (red) and subesophageal ganglion(blue). Right: view from side.

As you can see from my crude diagrams (I hope) there were several contenders. To find out which was responsible he ligated another silk worm, again separating the head and first segment from the rest of the body, and transplanted each organ in the lower part of the body in turn. Given how the size of these caterpillars this must have been skilful work. He found that only when he transplanted the subesophageal ganglion (shown in blue) did the caterpillar pupate. Therefore the hormone that controls pupation is in this subesophageal ganglion.

There was more to come. Similar experiments on younger caterpillars showed that the subesophageal ganglion was implicated in moulting too. In fact both the subesophageal ganglion and the Corpus allatum was necessary for moulting, but the effect of the Corpus allatum died away as the larva in its fifth and final instar matured. Perhaps this is why pupation can occur. Maybe the hormone from the Corpus allatum dies away leaving the hormone from the subesophageal ganglion in charge and the caterpillar can now turn into a pupa without another moult.

There were some even more bizarre experiments done on some more hapless silkworms involving brain transplants however I shall have to leave those for now. Just now I have to show Hodmandod Minor how to feed the silkworms.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Silkworms at 15 days old

Still my silkworms grow. They shed their skin leaving an image of themselves impressed there like the shroud of an icon or a holy relic. Then they eat again and grow.

Silk worms at 15 days old. The scale is in centimetres.

According to the book I received yesterday, which I am going to have to go through carefully since it is translated from the Japanese in the style usually reserved for instruction manuals, it says that moulting depends on a hormone secreted from a pair of small organs called Corpus allutum. These protrude backwards from the insect's brain like a pair of internal antennae inside its head. I have drawn a crude little sketch here:

Sketch of silkworm's head showing the location of the brain and Corpus allutum.

The fact that they are not integral to the brain was of interest to a Frenchman called Bouhniol. In 1937 he managed to excise the Corpus allutum from some silkworms in their fourth instar (that is caterpillars before their fourth and final moult) and found that they then changed into pupae without moutling. Similarly, if he removed the Corpus allutum from silkworms in their third instar they missed out two of their moultings.

This experiment was extended by a Japanese scientist called Kin. He removed the Corpus allutum from a silkworm early on in its fourth instar and then replaced it. He found that if he did this quickly enough all was well and the silkworm moulted as usual. However, if he delayed the transplant a few days the moulting didn't occur and the silkworm went straight to pupa. Clearly enough time had elapsed for the hormone that initiated the pupation process to come into play. Futhermore this pupation hormone was not secreted by the Corpus allutum but by something somewhere else.

This result obviously piqued the interest of the entomological world because they then performed some more interesting experiments, but I am still trying to understand these and shall write another post when I do.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Kindle Reviews.

Yesterday Debra Hamel gave an informative and interesting review of the Kindle application on her ipod touch. Today I came across another review by Jakob Nielsen, substantiating much of what Debra said. They are both worth reading.

At the moment I think I shall stick to print, but I have to admit that I am starting to waver a little...

Happy Monday

Just come back from the gym (treadmill, step machine, rowing machine and everything I could find to challenge my quads - still working on my knee) and found this on the doormat: 'IMPROVEMENT OF BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS IN THE SILKWORM' by Yataro Tazima (translated from Japanese) swiftly dispatched by the Book Depository. I've been so looking forward to reading this. I don't really see how this day could get any better.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Great Master of Ecstacy by Glenda Beagan

The Great Master of Ecstacy is Glenda Beagan's third collection of short stories. The cover of the volume I have here is different from the one shown on Amazon but I like them both. This one reminds me a lot of the silhouettes which illustrate Gillian Clarke's poetry, and so for me has promising connotations.

The first long 'short story' (75 pages) has the same title as the book, and I really enjoyed it. It starts with a shaman called Kieren and the young girl he takes in. Soon Kieren is murdered but the story is not about this; it is about who Kieren was and how he came to be who he was - a story that delves into Welsh folklore and unorthodox spirituality - a fusion of ancient and modern ghosts.

The sense of place is strong: the Clwydian hills and the Welsh borderlands, a place of mountains and mountain-farming and old traditions. But it is a world that is changing, and this is brought in subtly with the mention of mobile phones and lakes that have evaporated in the warmth of the last twenty years. It is a world that I have encountered often, and I found the descriptions wonderfully evocative:

'Together they stand by the sycamore tree that grows out of the tumbledown stones of Hafod. The light is in the tree breathing and flickering. It feels like there thousands of bewildered sheep up there. The sound of their bleating reverberates all around, only now it is a chorale of something akin to bellowing. They watch as the men take hold of the sheep in their strong arms, their capable hands. Briefly Olwen cries. She thinks they're hurting the sheep. Reassured by her big brother she watches a demonstration of what looks so easy but isn't. She watches as the fleeces pile up on the truck in soft sad smudged magnificent piles. And then the sheep are out through the hurdles , scrawny and vulnerable on their suddenly too thin legs, shrugging their strange light shoulders.'
The characters in this story are also a product of this place: both the sacred and the more profane. The sacred ones are the shamans, the 'masters of ecstacy' according to the well-known expert Mircea Eliade, and can arise in a family without warning. It is a calling to the past and the landscape and cannot be denied, even when it causes suffering and family scission.

This is just the first story, although the rest are much shorter. I am looking forward to dipping in and reading more.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Snow on Halkyn Mountain

Last night, somewhere between Mold and Flint (which are the names of towns in north Wales and not metaphors - although they might as well be) I crawled along at slower than a walking pace, testing my clutch control (and also it turns out this morning, my runner's knee), watching the lights of the cars in front of me brighten and fade, and the clock count away minutes in the dark. There is a point when anxiety falls away, a realisation that happens next you are going to be so ridiculously late and you might as well let your mind wander. And I remembered, more than ten years ago now, crawling forward as slowly in exactly the same spot, snow on the road, mobile phone the size of a small book in my hand, ringing on ahead to the school where I taught and asking if it was worth continuing and being told yes.

Six hours later I was still in the same spot. Around me cars had been abandoned and the occupants had taken to making snowmen and pelting each other with snow balls, but I sat where I was. Around twelve-thirty I had eaten my packed lunch but I was thirsty, and dusk was falling. I'd rung Hodmandod Senior and asked him to pick up the boys from the child minder and I was wondering how cold it would get at night. But then, ahead of me, the traffic started moving. I turned on the engine again and crept slowly up the slope, guided by the police, the wheels not engaging, and my legs trembling as I attempted to apply the gas, the clutch, the brake.

At the top of Halkyn mountain they'd opened up the crash barriers which allowed us to turn back, but last night we just crawled on, mile after mile, eventually reaching the point where roadworks had caused two lanes to merge. That was all it was. All that crawling because of this.

I arrived at the book launch in Rhyl precisely five minutes before the end, but I was glad I hadn't decided to turn back - I enjoyed seeing people I knew but hadn't seen for a long time: Penny from that same school in the snow, Dewi another writer, Chris from the Academi and another Penny my editor. To console myself for my journey I bought three books : THE GREAT MASTER OF ECSTACY by Glenda Beagan (whose launch it was) which is a novella and collection of short stories; MY FIRST COLOURING BOOK by Lloyd Jones (who I met last year) and BLUE SKY JULY by Nia Wyn which I have been meaning to read for some time.

ECSTACY starts with a reference to shamanism so I am immediately interested, and COLOURING BOOK is 'themed on all the colours of the rainbow' which sounds an excellent precept too. Since I still haven't read Lloyd Jones's first book 'Mr Vogel' I think I might well indulge myself in a Lloyd Jones fest very soon.

BLUE SKY JULY was book of the month on radio 5, book of the week on radio 4, runner-up in the Wales book of the year and has recently been published in the United States where it has been picking up more accolades. It is an extraordinary poetic memoir about a mother whose child has severe physical disabilities and her fight to do the best she can for him. It is a short book and makes compelling reading so I swallowed it whole last night when I got back. It's one of those books that fills you with admiration for the author - not only because of the way it is written but because of her attitude to her child and the world. Despite the tragedy it is uplifting and reminded me very much of what David Cameron said about life with his own child, and also of what my brother says about his son. In some ways, it seems, these children can make you love them more.

'He's a great boy, Mikey.' My brother sometimes says about Michael who is severely autistic. My brother is not as eloquent as Nia Wyn, but the sentiment is the same. Like Nia my brother, his ex-wife and all the people at his school keep trying. They know there'll be no miracles but the important thing to do is to appreciate the small signs of progress. It is an important message for life I think, and the message in Nia Wyn's book. We have to keep going - up the snowy hill, past the seemingly interminable roadworks - making the most of the feeble taps and signs that some of what we do will some day make sense.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My Two Lists

In this Nature News item there is a brief description of something I think should be happening in the UK. Why keep producing cars that no one wants? Why supplement the industries making the cars? Instead use that expertise to produce something that will help the planet - in this Swedish case wind power. Why not extend this excellent idea to other useless items?

So I have been trying to think of two lists: 'do need' and 'don't need' and wondering how many skills can be diverted. Maybe I'm being naive here - but surely that would go some way to solving two crises - the economic one as well as the climatic one. In fact it seems so obvious to me there must be some good reason why it's not happening.

Here is the start of my two lists - any other contributions gratefully received.

(As you can see I have included some items (marked with an asterisk) that aren't strictly necessary for physical survival but with the idea that the heart too must be fed).

Do Need
Medical supplies
Refuse collection
Educational supplies
Renewable power for heating and cooking
Good public transport systems
Clean Water
Clear-thinking leaders in it for the long term
Four TV channels (either satellite or terrestrial as long as it is good)
Comfortable Clothing
Fresh food supplies

Don't Need
Politicians (local or national)
Non-local food stuffs except for coffee, tea, chocolate and wine
More than 4 TV channels
Most plastics
Fashion (in clothing and other items)

Inside the cocoon

What's inside? I knew there was something. I could hear it rattle, and peering through the moth's escape hole I could see something dark. So I cut one open. It was satisfying, like breaking into a tomb, and the compacted layers of silk just the right thickness and resistance to my sharp, thin-bladed knife. It revealed this

the discarded outer casing of the pupa like darkly polished breast plates of some ancient hardwood, and something less discernible, maybe excreta of a sort...

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Silk worms at 9 days old.

At first glance they look like cinders. They have the same greyness against the barely-green feed. Before they move they look a little like the remains of twigs, or maybe the fossilised remnants of coral or brachiopods. It takes a short time for my eyes to adjust. It is like looking into the dark. Then, perhaps in response to the lid coming off and a short rush of cool clean air, they stir a little. Some are like cobras; they lift the swelled and slightly flattened head-ends of their thoraxes, and sway before me. Only then does my eye truly fasten upon them and I can see them.

Silkworms with scale at 1 cm intervals

They are about a centimetre long now and their bodies have filled out a little more so they look like real caterpillars. It is becoming easier to distinguish them. There are different colours and different markings. Some are a pale brown, but the rest are varying shades of grey. Some don't move at all, and on closer inspection these immobile silk worms are clearly moulted skin. Perhaps they are the first moult. However it is difficult to see which have moulted and which have not because there is no dramatic change in appearance.

Silkworm with moulted skins

I read somewhere that they only make silk in their last instar, but maybe that should read they only make copious amounts of silk in their last instar. The silk glands are clearly there from the start because apart from the fine mat of silk that soon coats their food, they dangle from my tweezers like a spider when I try to clear out their box. But whereas such a captured spider would frantically spool out more silk and escape, the silkworm is more nonchalant. It doesn't struggle. In fact it barely moves. Instead it seems to wait patiently (or mindlessly) to be placed somewhere else. After all, a silkworm is close to being a manufactured animal. For years they have been bred in captivity and cannot exist in the wild. They exist because men have made them so. It is as though they passively accept their lot, ponder over us a short while with their raised heads, and then continue grazing.

Silk coating food

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