“The universe in a nutshell” (Stephen Hawking)

Why create just another blog with a funny title?

Over the last decades, I have made the observation as a scientist and amateur musician with a certain interest for history, politics and the fine arts, that a lot of people I met were restricting themselves to a limited view of things be it in their profession, their hobbies, their opinions or their way of life.

In our present time, we are facing a lot of problems with uprising nationalism, racism, intolerance and egotism which in my opinion arise from such restrictions to look over or pass borders – whether they are self-inflicted or caused by a lack of education.

This blog is intended to freely cross borders of all kinds and provide – hopefully – inspirations and a fruitful basis for discussions in many directions.

Why write in English?

Being German I realize the danger of poor expression and style, nevertheless I would like to reach people in Europe and other parts of the world, and English is – we might like it or not – the lingua franca of our time. Comments, however, will also be welcome in either German or French.

What will be the topics of the blog?

As the subtitle suggests, there will be entries on science (biology, chemistry, medecine, physics, astronomy), music (contemporary and ancient), art (literature, painting) and politics (ancient and modern history, economy, social problems, wars).

You are welcome to share and discuss!

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Peter Rühmkorf – Lost Lyrics for Our Time?

My age, you are not only prone to reflect on the present, past and future in the usual superficial and advanced-age would-be-wise way, but from time to time, you might get incited (or even trapped) in a discussion with a good friend to think in the direction of the “life, the universe and everything” (remember that one? Douglas Adams…).

You might quickly get to a point then to ask yourself about aims accomplished, plans dismissed, successes and failures and future activities in your own life.

Doing just that on a long Saturday afternoon (after a long Friday night discussion), I remembered an old favorite of mine from the late 1970s addressing these questions in a quite peculiar way: Peter Rühmkorf.

In that decade, he published a vinyl record (still available) called “Kein Apolloprogramm für Lyrik”, declamating his verses in a special conjunction with the jazz musicians Michael Naura, Wolfgang Schlüter and Eberhard Weber.

Many of his poems remain touching and up-to-date in our current political, social and cultural situation, and show a deep understanding of the human question. And they are very special in their wording and musicality.

So I would like to quote some of these pearls in the hope they might not get lost over time.

Komm raus

Komm raus aus deiner Eber-Einzelbucht,
aus deiner Ludergrube.
Komm raus aus deiner kaskoversicherten Dunkelkammer!
Auch dein Innenleben
findet öfter statt, merk ich grade —
(Komm raus aus deinem Farbbandkäfig)
Im Prinzip — ja? — P r i n z i p
sind doch längst alle Schleusen geöffnet, Gitter gefallen …

Immer noch vierlerlei Licht hier, wo sich
keine Anzeigenseite dazwischenschiebt,
keine Helium-Annonce –:
D I E  S O N N E
straff, mit angezogenen Strahlen —
(Komm raus aus deinem Leichen-Entsafter)
Vor dir das Meer und hinter dir
die Waschmaschine …
(aus deinem Metzelwerk, aus deinem Familien-Gefrierfach)
Hier nichts gewollt zu haben,
ist soviel wie verspielt, das weißt du, oder?

Heda, du eingerahmtes Tier, du kriegst
den Kopf wohl gar nicht mehr raus aus dieser Paste, laß sehn!
Unbeugsam reflektierst du dich
gegen die Schreibtischkante —
(eisern nach innen blickend, ein Vesuv mit geschlossenen Augen)
Komm raus aus deinem handversiegelten Hockergrab!
A u c h  K u l t u r
ist nur eine unmaßgebliche Schutzbehauptung.

Eine Schlacht im Sitzen gewinnen:
s c h ö n  w ä r `s ! ?
Und schön der Gedankeda wer sich nicht rührt,
hat wenigstens Anspruch auf Schicksal — Aus deiner Tropfsteintruhe!

Komm raus aus deinem Todeskoben, überleg dir das Leben:
Die Morgenschiffe rauschen schon an —
Ein Tag aus Gold und Grau:
willst du mit rein? —

MEINE STELLE AM HIMMEL

Komm an die Theke, Besiegter, heute abend
v e r b i r g
dich nicht hinter Mumienbinden –
Wir werden im kapitalistischen Tollwutbezirk
schon noch einen Barhocker finden

Schmeiß du die Lage, ich sing dir ein Liedchen dafür
v o n  d e n  f a s t  s c h o n
z e r t r e t e n e n  F l a m m e n . . .
Kopf hoch, Genossen, mit noch was Obstler bringen wir
genug kritische Masse zusammen.

Was man uns abband, steht deshalb nicht still;
selbst hier nicht im freundlichen Feuchten:
ich will meine Stelle am Himmel
w i e d e r h a b e n , i c h  w i l l
noch einmal von vorne leuchten.

Daß sich die eine minderjährige
u n d  m e i n e  U – P e r s o n
vielleicht doch noch finden und mischen…
Offen Ihr, rede ich Blödsinn oder dichte ich schon,
oder lieg ich, unhaltbar, dazwischen?

Wo ich schon nichts mehr beherrsche,
hassend was ich bediene,
liebend was ich verlor,
zöge ich selbst noch die rasende robespierresche
G l e i c h m a c h e r m a s c h i n e
diesem Konkurrenzkäfig vor.

Wo waren wir stehengeblieben?
K a p i t a l i s m u s  i s t  K i e z :
einer betreibe des anderen Unterwerfung –
Warte nur balde – die Krise – die Lageverschärfung –
die inneren Widersprüche – dann unsre Klassenjustiz

Alle verbrüdert – verschwistert –
gib mir den Gnadenschluck, Lotti, ein Letztes, ein Bier:
Schön wie von unten die Sonne steigt,
wie die Krone zerknistert:
wenn ich noch etwas lebe, les ich es,
hoffnungsleichtes chinesisches
Milligramm-Zauberpapier…

Von mir – zu euch – für uns

Auf-auf, meine bettlägerigen Gespenster,
meine abgestandene Windhose!
Dieses gewaltige Zeitalter des Verfalls
kann man doch nicht so einfach unberufen
an sich vorbeirauschen lassen-
E n t w e d e r  d a s  S c h i c k s a l  h a n d e l t
o d e r  d u  s e l b e r !

Hier wo sich so manches
schon bei bloßem Hinsehen zersetzt,
noch Niveau gehalten?
Soweit kommt’s!
Da wolln wir doch lieber noch mal ein paar alte neue
M a ß s t ä b e  a n l e g e n .

Eine Stimme, meine Herrschaften, eine Stimme!
Müssen wir denn alles
wieder alleine machen? noch am Grabesrand
d e n  D e c k e l  h o c h
und das rote Tuch rausgezogen?!-
O wir wenigen Engel, die wir die Welt beflügeln.

Sich den Kopf zergrübeln,
auch ne Leistung-
Aber du kriegst ja nichts raus.
Wo waren wir stehengeblieben,
d a m a l s ,
Sommer Siemundsechzig?

Nein, ich will weg von hier und zwar:
wie dieser Kugelschreiber, wenn er auf den Rest
geht, nochmal richtig loskleckst,
werd ich ungebremst
auslaufen wie verrückt und offen hinschmieren:
Richtig, i c h  r e d  v o n  m i r ,
z u  e u c h ,
f ü r  u n s .

 

For the interested listener, an MP3 link

Favorite Poems VII (Winter & Spring)

Christian Morgenstern

Die drei Spatzen
In einem leeren Haselstrauch
da sitzen drei Spatzen, Bauch an Bauch.
Der Erich rechts und links der Franz
und mitten drin der freche Hans.
Sie haben die Augen zu, ganz zu,
und obendrüber da schneit es, hu!
Sie rücken zusammen dicht an dicht.
So warm wie der Hans hats niemand nicht.
Sie hören alle drei ihrer Herzlein Gepoch
Und wenn sie nicht weg sind, so sitzen sie
noch.
Lewis Carroll
The Lobster Quadrille (from: Alice in Wonderland)

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my
tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the
dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the
dance?

“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out
to sea!”
But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!” and gave a look
askance—

Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join
the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join
the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join
the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied.
“There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the
dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the
dance?”

 

Don’t miss the music from Steely Dan!

Glyphosate: How To Form An Opinion Despite of Emotional Manipulations

As friends and facebook contacts keep sending me very moving links and videos about dangers and risks of glyphosate launched either by NGOs or TV channels, I decided to undertake a final try to summarize the scientific background and current knowledge in the matter.

First, we have to understand one thing: the current political decision of the EU to allow the further use of glyphosate was mainly based on its evaluation as a risk for human health, especially its cancerogenic potential.

It was not a decision about the future of agriculture, i.e. should we use herbicides at all, or what might be the ecological consequences, like accumulation of herbicides in soil or food, or effects on microorganisms or wild plant communities.

These things often get mixed up by NGOs and other media. Hearsay and speculations are linked to facts and sources of scientific proof are obscured or omitted.

Let us start with assumption #1: glyphosate causes cancer and is genotoxic.

The main confusion was caused by contradicting publications of official agencies EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), BfR (Bundesinstitut für Riskobewertung), and the  WHO/FAO pesticide report, stating no risk in future use of glyphosate and WHO/IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) stating glyphosate to be probably cancerogenic. In addition, some studies from the lab of the much disputed professor Séralini claimed toxic effects, but were dismissed by the scientific community due to methodical weakness, his publication had to be withdrawn from the scientific journal.

But, how can the interested citizen form an opinion, if the experts seem not to agree? I admit this is difficult and even as a scientist I have some difficulty weighing the controversial literature. On one hand, we have some evidence from animal studies (rats and mice), that glyphosate formulations might cause cell damages and even cancer and smaller case-studies (1000 cases in Sweden) implied statistical coincidence of glyphosate exposure and B-cell lymphomas in humans, on the other hand large scale control studies in the U.S. with cohorts of farmers (>10,000) did not result in statistical significant effects. How can that be? Such studies are much biased by different factors, like exact determination of an exposition to the chemical (mostly found out by interview), other influences on health like alcohol, smoking, use of other herbicides at the same time, insecticides, etc.. You can imagine, how difficult it is to distill out of these manifold influences a clear effect of one chemical. How to decide then? I must admit that at present we can not completely rule out a possible cancerogenic effect of glyphosate, but as long as no clear mechanistic evidence is found and as long as the apparent risk as monitored by more than 30 years experience of intense use in the U.S. seems to be negligible as it has not led to an explicit significant increase of cancer, I find it difficult to legally ban a substance that is still  the basis of existence for many farmers worldwide. We are dealing here with statistical risks and that has always been challenging for humans (should I enter an aeroplane, although it is much safer than a car?). We have to put all that in sort of a perspective. I recommend to study the IARC list of cancerogenic compounds and risks, from which I extracted the following examples:

classes examples
1 : cancerogenic formaldehyde (chipboards in furniture), ethanol in alcoholic beverages, benzene (5% in gasoline), engine exhaust (diesel), asbestos, tobacco smoke (second hand)
2a : probably cancerogenic glyphosate, dieldrin, DDT, acrylamide (french fries!), anabolic steroids, malaria, red meat, shiftwork, hot beverages >65°C
2b : possibly cancerogenic phenobarbital, chloroform, caffeic acid (unripe fruits)
3 : not classifiable coffee, tea
4 : probably not cancerogenic caprolactam (monomer of perlon, nylon)

We continue with assumption #2: glyphosate causes health problems, like deformations in pigs and cows, and severe illness in humans (i.e. film in FAKT).

There is exactly one retired professor of the University Leipzig, Monika Krüger, who is claiming that glyphosate is responsible for these problems in farm animals and humans. The cause should be the disturbance of the microbial intestine flora favoring the growth of pathogenic bacteria, especially toxine producing anaerobic Clostridium species (known i.e. as botulism). She published some peer-reviewed papers with some evidence in in-vitro tests, but there was no final proof that glyphosate really causes these effects. She focussed on cases occuring in German farms and she built her argument on the fact that she could find glyphosate in animals suffering from botulism, which apparently is no proof. The sick farmers had not become ill due to their exposition to glyphosate, but due the contact with diseased, Clostridium infected cows and showed classical symptoms of botulism. Interestingly, we have no supporting reports in the epidemiological studies of the U.S., where glyphosate has been largely used in the last 30 years.  Instead of striving for more scientific proof, the cited professor chose to travel around in the Republic and give popular speeches in NGO and GMO opponent meetings.

Then we proceed to assumption #3: glyphosate reduces biodiversity.

Here, we might find a serious argument against the use of total herbicides. Of course, the extermination or reduction of “weeds” (due to our awakened ecological conscience they are called agronomic systems accompanying flora (“Ackerbegleitflora”) since the 1990s) leads to a reduction in insects, birds, frogs, lizards and snakes. But this is a general consequence of conventional agriculture and even most organic farming, because planting a field in most cases means planting it with just one species and not a natural plant mix. Of course, species reduction is much more pronounced in conventional than in organic farming not only due to the use of herbicides like glyphosate, but also of insecticides. But we must be aware that even an organic farmer must do weeding in his fields – meaning reduce biodiversity – to be able to harvest a crop in the end. In arguments, I sometimes read, that glyphosate also causes the emergence of herbicide resistant super-weeds. Very true, as always, natural systems react by developing survival strategies, so do the weeds. But these are by no means monsters or super-weeds, these are just plants that modified one of their enzymes a bit, so they are no longer killed by glyphosate. These resistances have been discovered in natural habitats in some plant species, anyway, nothing to worry about (the only one who worries is Monsanto, because that destroys its economical basis).

If we summarize the current knowledge as decribed above, we can state:

  1. there is only weak evidence for cancerogeneity of glyphosate in common agronomic use
  2. there is no proof for severe health risks in the agronomic use of glyphosate
  3. biodiversity is reduced by any farming system, especially in monocultures independent of glyphosate use, herbicide resistent weeds are no danger for the environment

I’ll quit you with my final recommendations:

Please try to read the source literature, respect the ethical code of scientists, distrust emotionally pimped TV or NGO broadcasts, don’t believe in conspiracy theories and try the old dialectic method of fair discussion weighing all pros and cons.

It is o.k. to mistrust large multinational enterprises and too powerful politicians, but the information flow worldwide has reached a state where true conspiracies and crimes will not remain undetected for a long time (mostly uncovered by GOs and the free press and not necessarily NGOs).

Don’t give post-factual, mere belly-based political decisions a chance!

 

 

 

Symphonic Impressions in Rendsburg

Yesterday I was invited to the Stadttheater Rendsburg where symphonic pieces of Brahms, Haydn and Tchaikovsky were performed by the Schleswig-Holsteinische Symphonieorchester.

I was immeditely taken by the intimate, living room-like atmosphere of the small theater and the warm chamber orchestral sound of the first piece, Brahm’s Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn. What a fantastic composition, displaying the major theme in so many different contexts, with complex under- and countercurrents, masterly orchestrated!

The second piece, a Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra ascribed to Haydn, could not attain such musical complexity. The soloist, however, captivated the audience by her passionate playing and imaginative cadenzas. The music itself made a bit of a strange impression on me with its mixture of Mozartesque and Austrian folk tune passages à la Haydn. For the audience, it was a favorite.

The last piece was the Symphony No. 1 of Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, a composer often accused to have been too much influenced by Western European courtly music, some of his pieces played almost to death, smoothed down in a kitschy way. But here, there was something to discover! Much use of Russian folk tone, exciting changes of soloist and tutti parts, a moving fugue and a brillant finale.

What a nice ending of an entertaining evening.

The Glyphosate Hype

Much ado has been made in the last weeks about banning or allowing the use of the herbicide glyphosate in the European Union. Fearing about voters’ decision, in Germany SPD followed the example of the Green Party to support the ban. Some of my Facebook friends followed that vote and supported NGO campaigns in that direction, others favored the opposite.

Unfortunately, the discussion in the media does not follow a rational scheme and many half-truths have been spread to influence people.

Two newspaper articles are worth reading in that respect: Böse, böser, Glyphosat (Die ZEIT, No. 46, S. 26) and Die Neuzulassung von Glyphosat ist richtig (SDZ, 28.11.17).

So, what is glyphosate doing, what determines its toxicity?

In plants, it blocks one enzyme, that is essential for the synthesis of aromatic amino acids, an effect that can be reversed or cured by point mutations in that protein, yielding glyphosate (herbicide) tolerant plants. In animals and humans, this biosynthetic pathway is lacking and a very low toxicity was found in rats (LD50 = 5,000 mg/kg). However, certain formulations containing glyphosate were found to be cancerogenic in high doses, whereas an effect at conventional doses has not been proven until now (see Wikipedia).

Hence, should we act according to the “Vorsorge-Prinzip” (precautionary principle) and ban this substance? And why are so many emotions involved in this decision? For the latter the reason is clear: glyphosate (as Roundup) is a major economic basis of the unloved agrochemical enterprise Monsanto and European NGOs and GMO opponents strive for means to weaken its influence. They forget, that Roundup is also used in our conventional agriculture as field pretreatment prior to sowing crops like rapeseed. A ban of glyphosate would most probably lead to the use of other equally or even more toxic herbicides.

In the last 20 years, many potential cancerogenic substances have been in the media, and were soon forgotten: I remember the outcry when nitrosamines were discovered in beer, not an entirely different situation, as here also only very high doses (like longterm consumption of 8 l beer per day) would probably be effective.

Other compounds are not banned because of their economic relevance (not even the Green Party would dare to put that on their program): alcohol is clearly proven to cause oesophagus, stomach and liver cancer, the cancerogenic effect of cigarette smoke is without any doubt, same applies to diesel particulates. Would we ever forbid alcohol, cigarettes or diesel motors for that reason?

Let’s be rational. A cancerogenic effect of glyphosate in its standard application has not yet been proven, so there is no substantive argument to ban it, as the risk for the consumer is negligible (in contrast to regular consumption of red wine, Cuban cigars or use of a nice VW diesel car!).

 

Concerto to the Memory of a Dear Friend

This Sunday (Christians call it Ewigkeits – or Totensonntag) I played some classical and contemporary music for friends and family in a saxophone orchestra. The pieces covered a wide range from Bach, Händel and Grieg to Smith, Wirth and a Sound Impovisation. It was a very happy event, like a performance of live music always is for me, uplifting me and transforming me to a different level of wahrnehmung.

Some of the pieces had a special touching quality like Praeludium and Portals from Carl Anton Wirth, the latter describing the door we pass through when we die.

Nearly a year ago, a very good friend passed away, so I am dedicating this post to his memory, to him who once played together with me in the orchestra and would have very much cherished the music.

 

 

 

 

Favorite Poems VI: German Nonsense

Joachim Ringelnatz

Der Bumerang

War einmal ein Bumerang;
War ein Weniges zu lang.
Bumerang flog ein Stück,
Aber kam nicht mehr zurück.
Publikum – noch stundenlang –
Wartete auf Bumerang.

Die Ameisen

In Hamburg lebten zwei Ameisen,
die wollten nach Australien reisen.
Bei Altona, auf der Chaussee,
da taten ihnen die Beine weh,
und da verzichteten sie weise
dann auf den letzten Teil der Reise.

Christian Morgenstern

fisches_nacht

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Der Werwolf

Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib und Kind, und sich begab
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab
und bat ihn: Bitte, beuge mich!

Der Dorfschulmeister stieg hinauf
auf seines Blechschilds Messingknauf
und sprach zum Wolf, der seine Pfoten
geduldig kreuzte vor dem Toten:

»Der Werwolf«, – sprach der gute Mann,
»des Weswolfs« – Genitiv sodann,
»dem Wemwolf« – Dativ, wie man’s nennt,
»den Wenwolf« – damit hat’s ein End’.

Dem Werwolf schmeichelten die Fälle,
er rollte seine Augenbälle.
Indessen, bat er, füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!

Der Dorfschulmeister aber mußte
gestehn, daß er von ihr nichts wußte.
Zwar Wölfe gäb’s in großer Schar,
doch „Wer“ gäb’s nur im Singular.

Der Wolf erhob sich tränenblind –
er hatte ja doch Weib und Kind!
Doch da er kein Gelehrter eben,
so schied er dankend und ergeben.