Who

I

am

A mercifully short autobiography

baby photo
1964: facing the cameras
photo: J. Groß

I'd be extremely proud to be thought of as eccentric,
but I don't think I've done enough yet to deserve it.
David Weeks (author of "Eccentrics").

When I was born in November 1963 my parents were students living in a two-room flat in the city centre of Würzburg, Germany. As they failed to appreciate the romantic side of having a baby in somewhat improvised settings (as described in the bible, for instance), I ended up being born at Kirn in the Hunsrück area, where my grandparents lived, and where 3/16 of my ancestors came from.

Returning to Würzburg a few months later, where we soon had to leave those two rooms and move into the attic of the same house, I attended a nursery school in this neighbourhood, a stone throw away from the grave of singer-songwriter Walther von der Vogelweide (~ 1170-1230).

privilege check

At age five I was promoted from student poverty to middle-class affluence and moved to a less poetic place in the middle of nowhere. As we have somehow landed in times of absurd inequality and privilege has become an explosive issue, I'll just run a quick check: As far as I'm aware, the perks of my affluenza years included fancy short-term thrills like restaurant meals and skiing trips (but less than glamorous summer hols and no air travel), along with access to books and photography equipment.

The perks did not extend to education beyond standard provision, so the only privilege I enjoyed in that realm was the availability of educated people to listen to and lots of intelligent books on the walls, many of which I read when I got bored of the steppe extending beyond the garden fence. As I have lots of French relatives, I got accidentally exposed to French at an early age, but nobody really explained to me how it works (I will return to my accidental bilingualism later).

I attended a really old-fashioned Gymnasium (not a gym, but a secondary school), which happened to be the nearest school geographically, although my parents would have preferred to send me to a comprehensive school, which were an experimental rarity at that time. At the Gymnasium, formerly a boys school specialising in classics, I learned quite a bit a of Latin, which I dusted off 30 years later to teach my youngest child who was keen to learn it (and then passed on the torch by setting up a classics club at her school). As there was a teacher shortage during my school years and sciences were not among the school's priorities, I learned a lot less biology than everybody should know. During the last two years there I spent more time on the school's magazine than on homework, writing on general cultural topics ranging from Asterix to Picasso. The name of this mag, "spectrum", anticipated what I would do later in life, but my ideas of possible careers were rather vague at the time and mostly involved sitting in a Parisian pavement cafe writing books. I mean, it worked out for Sartre and Beauvoir, didn't it?

 

Dr Jekyll ...

As there was no obvious path leading from my Latin-loving school to that aspired status of coffee-house intellectual, I settled for the boringly pragmatic option of studying chemical engineering at Karlsruhe. (Note that a trace of my more romantic aspirations survived in the choice of location, as Karlsruhe is on the French border and only a short train ride away from Strasbourg, where I spent quite a few of my Saturdays and bought an inordinate number of paperbacks from the "collection folio".)

After one term, however, my country called, so I moved back to my parents' place and served as a factotum for a local charity. Returning to university in 1984, I switched to chemistry (with some extracurricular courses in the life sciences and languages) first at Marburg, then at Regensburg, where I obtained my doctorate in physical biochemistry in April 1993, working with Professor Rainer Jaenicke on the influence of high hydrostatic pressures on proteins and ribosomes.

During my seven years of post-doctoral research at the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences, I investigated different aspects of protein folding, including the action of molecular chaperones, and the misfolding leading to amyloid fibrils in diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

I've always had a relaxed attitude towards my academic "career," and when my alter ego, Mr Hyde, came to dominate my life, I gave up research without too many regrets. Still, once a year, I check the science citation index, and every time I am amazed and chuffed to bits that people still cite my work after all these years.

 

... and Mr Hyde

For almost a decade after leaving school, I kind of disappeared from the writers radar, as I was busy with other things, including studies, starting a family, and trying to change the world by thinking globally, acting locally, and all that. However, the fun of writing up my first research papers reminded me of my previous enjoyment of high school journalism, and the idea of writing about science slowly established itself in my mind.

Since the beginning of 1993, I have been writing science journalism as a night-time hobby, at first for Süddeutsche Zeitung and Spektrum der Wissenschaft (not to be confused with the "spectrum" mentioned above, this is the German edition of Scientific American). These pieces eventually agglomerated into two general science books (Life on the Edge and Travels to the Nanoworld, published by Plenum in 1998 and 1999, respectively and later re-released as paperbacks by Perseus Books), each of which I prepared in an English version following the original German edition. My third book (Light and Life) is an English original published by Oxford University Press in 2003.

I have also contributed chapters on molecular computation to two books published by Wiley-VCH, co-authored an introduction to astrobiology (with Kevin Plaxco), and translated a book on the chemistry of love. My most recent books include a compilation of my favourite science stories, The birds, the bees, and the platypuses (2008); German version: Der Kuss des Schnabeltiers (2009), a collection of my humour and opinion pieces in German: Neun Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums, and the fully revised second edition of Astrobiology (both published in 2011). The 2012 harvest included "Von Geckos, Garn und Goldwasser: Die Nanowelt lässt grüßen" (a collection of recent nanoworld-related stories) and the German translation of the astrobiology book. A collection of biology stories (Invasion der Waschbären) appeared in September 2014, and an Arabic translation of the platypuses book in July 2015.

sunflowers photo
2002: promoting "Light and Life"
photo: I.J.Kosmowsky

While books have remained a nightly activity throughout, I switched my daytime activity to full time writing in May 2000, at first remaining at the OCMS, then (since October 2001) as a science writer in residence at the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, London, but now mostly based in a converted garage at the back of my garden (a space which has previously accommodated a very small publishing company).

I am now a regular contributor to Chemistry and Industry, Current Biology, Chemie in unserer Zeit, Nachrichten aus der Chemie, Spektrum der Wissenschaft and Trillium Diagnostik, and have also published science journalism in a number of other periodicals including:
Bioforum Europe, BioIT-World, Biological Sciences Review, Chemistry World, Education in Chemistry, The Guardian, The Independent, Nature, New Scientist, Oxford Today, Prospect, Science's Next Wave;   Berliner Zeitung, Biologie in unserer Zeit, Gehirn und Geist, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt;   BioForum France, Biofutur, La Recherche, Darwin, Galileo, EOS, Mundo Cientifico ...
I write in English and German, have also tried French (with a little help from my friends and family). Parts of my work have been translated into Arabic, Dutch, French, Italian, and Spanish.

My topics come from the life sciences and physical sciences and range from quantum computation through to psycholinguistics. (Science journalists, as one of us cleverly remarked, are people who can explain to others what they don't understand themselves.) While the topics are spread out quite a bit, there are noticable lumps and bulges around the subject areas defined by my books, plus some special interests, such as stem cells or Cuban biotech. I also write opinion pieces about bioethics, science policy, and the public understanding of science, as well as columns about whatever happens to cross my mind, including the science of The Simpsons, and the chemistry of love. Is there anything I don't write about? Hm. Let me think ... I haven't covered black holes or dinosaurs yet (although in the photo shown above I am partially covering a dinosaur's footprint). But anything can happen.

In December 1996, when it dawned on me that any idiot can create a website and put it out for the world to see, I developed a serious addiction to web design on top of my writing addiction. To appreciate just how bad this problem has become at times, you need to know that the current structure of the site is the result of two downsizing exercises. The first in 2002, when I felt that the 150+ html files of my old site, "ONLY CONNECT!" were getting out of hand, and the second in 2006, when I slimmed down the front page to the current "book shelf" design. (For those who care: With the exception of the blog, I write all html code in WordPad, there is no specialised editor or other gimmick involved.)

In April 2006, I joined the Web2.0 revolution, setting up a page in MySpace and a regular blog covering science, culture and everything in between. The blog is my main online medium, but you can also find me on twitter, facebook, youtube and tumblr.

Occasionally I also try my luck as a web designer for others, translator, editor, lecturer, online tutor, consultant, mentor, or literary agent. Busking, painting, and getting a novel published are ambitions I keep for later.

 

home and away

I am married with three children (born in the 1990s, all grown up now!), one of whom has autism (which has for this reason also cropped up as the topic of some of my articles). The bilingual language development of my children -- they used to speak strictly German at home, English at school -- was a major interest during the first years in England. From 1994 through to 1999 I organized a group of parents with bilingual children in and around Oxford and served as a local agony aunt for all things bilingual. Not that there is much to agonize about, because the children clearly benefit -- as long as the language inputs are vaguely balanced and kept separate. Learning about bilingualism, I realized that my own language processing is more similar to that of bilingual children than to that of monolingual late language learners, even though my childhood exposure to two languages (German and French) was anything but balanced, and I only became fluent in French at around 17. For example, when I learn a new word in Spanish, I don't necessarily link it to a German translation. Instead I hook it up to whatever is closest and most meaningful, e.g. to a Spanish antonym, to a French analogue, or to the context where I encountered the word. Thus, when I read or write in another language, I virtually never translate from or to German, but I always think in the language I use.

If you've learned anything from the previous paragraph, it's probably that you should never get me started on languages -- I can get carried away. Back to the family -- we live in a stand-alone copy of a Victorian terraced house (illustrating the eternal struggle between individualism and uniformity in our society!) within walking distance of Oxford city centre and the meadows of the river Cherwell. Accordingly, the vehicles of our household include a canoe and various bicycles (including a tandem!), but I am rather proud of not owning a car (although once every three years or so I let my hair down and rent a convertible to zoom around on the continent). Being a town mouse by nature, I enjoy random walks in civilized cities. Those I have (re)visited in recent years include: Strasbourg, Lyon, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Frankfurt, Venice, Aachen, Luxembourg, Sevilla, Córdoba, Havana, Madrid, Paris, Cologne, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Bogotá, Berlin ...

However, I am of course aware of the fact that air travel is bad for our planet, so I keep flights to a minimum and only travel if I can find several good excuses to do so. Some of my excuses arise from the fact that my closest friends tend to be distant geographically. This aspect of my eccentricity has already manifested itself at the time when people used envelopes and stamps to keep in touch, but of course with the email revolution it has become much easier to stay close with people in the distance (and vice versa). Moreover, Oxford tends to act as a magic roundabout with large centrifugal forces. You get to know somebody and next time you hear from them they have landed a job in Hong Kong or Mexico City. Add to that a few amazing people whom I have encountered by sheer good luck on my travels or via the internet, and you get a circle of friends that is anything but circular and extends to at least eight countries. I don't believe in forcing complex human beings into short descriptions, but I trust that those I was thinking of when I wrote this paragraph know who they are and what they mean to me.

 

play time

I play a variety of musical instruments with a lot more enthusiasm than technique, and not helped by my clearly non-privileged early education in music, which involved half a year of recorder group at the tail end of primary school, followed by three years of double bass lessons starting at age 16. In between, I also played around with guitars. Undeterred by my patchy track record I have been learning to play the flute and (within limits) the family cello, hitching a ride when my children learned these instruments. From 2011 to 2016, I have appeared as a flautist (in a duet with the young cellist in the family) at the Oxford Music Festival each year. Since August 2015 I have joined (with the folk-crazy young cellist) various folk sessions in Oxford, helped by a previous 1.5-year apprenticeship at the monthly Oxford Slow Session. As of March 2016, there are only about a dozen non-trivial tunes that I could conceivably lead in a session, but I've learned to play by ear and will ruthlessly join in with virtually anything. I discovered this rather late in life, but I do love the fact that you can walk into a pub where people play music and just join in. In these times when all entertainment is manufactured, streamed, metered and paid for, this is almost a revolutionary act and I'm sure the home secretary is secretly thinking about how to ban it.

If you check my CD player at a random time, you are most likely to find an album by a female artist with a gruff voice and an eclectic taste in songwriting. If it's not Colombian goddess Shakira, it might be somebody like Alanis Morissette, Mor Karbasi, Bat for Lashes, Marina and the Diamonds, A fine frenzy, Coeur de Pirate, Halsey or a female-fronted band such as Within Temptation, Halestorm, Katzenjammer or Warpaint. I also like to catch these people playing live when I can. Before I got hooked on girls with guitars, my musical trajectory through life has also visited 70s rock, classical music, jazz, chanson, early music (Regensburg has a rather amazing festival for that in late spring!), flamenco ...

I also like to express myself visually in some form or shape. Painting or sculpting would be very attractive if time and space were available, but seeing that in recent years I spent a lot of time walking around with my son, photography was the natural medium to use, and also a hobby I have practiced, on and off, since the age of ten. I share some of my photos with the world on my flickr photostream.

Shakira and I
2003: bitten by the mongoose
photo: mg

Sporting achievements: none. I'm quite hopeless at anything that involves running or a team size of more than two people, so you won't see me anywhere near a football pitch, or even a football. To really get me moving, some kind of technical equipment is required, such as skates, skis, a boat, or a bicycle. I used to go skiing quite regularly between age ten and 22, and I like to think that I didn't do too badly for a resident of a flat region. As a slight consolation, I sometimes go ice-skating, preferably on natural ice, of which we had plenty in the (relatively) cold winters of 2008-10.

Apart from the science books I get to review, I also enjoy reading novels (by female authors with a gruff voice etc. ... you get the picture!). I read most books by Isabel Allende, but I skipped the "golden dragon" trilogy she wrote for readers even younger than me, which my daughters know inside out. Other favourite writers include Gabriel García Márquez, Gioconda Belli, Anna Gavalda, Esther Freud, Hong Ying, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sarah Waters, ... In 2008, I started to review most of the books I read on my blog (my compliance with this plan has been a bit patchy, but you will find a few reviews there).

Their home and office [...] was found in a recent scientific analysis to be 48 percent books by weight.
John Rennie (Ed. in chief, Sci.Am., about Phylis and Philip Morrison).

I used to watch around a dozen movies per year on the big screen, mostly off-Hollywood, preferably either in French or in Spanish. However, by 2010 I started to notice that the movies I like to see no longer get a cinema release in the UK (see my growing list of films not shown) and the 2015 continuation, so I'm increasingly forced to watch DVDs instead. Julio Medem, for example, is a writer/director whose creativity I admire and envy in equal measure (and whose last two feature films were not released here!). Talking about movies, another favourite is "L'auberge espagnole" by Cédric Klapisch. In the final scene, the protagonist, Xavier, who has just spent an eventful year sharing a flat in Barcelona with six other students from as many different European countries, goes through a random pile of photos, starting with those of himself as a baby ("that's no longer me") and ending with those of his six international flatmates, first the three males then the three females, each time concluding: "that's me, that's me, that's me too." Well, maybe that's the best description I've seen so far of Who I Am.

PS: In case you wondered what happened to my parents: after the attic years, my father worked in the chemical industry (first as a research chemist, then for nearly three decades in environmental protection, a concern that has of course grown explosively during that time) and is now retired; my mother has after many twists and turns become a literary translator specializing in the literature of francophone Africa. So my personality split between science and literature might well have genetic causes (apologies to my children!).


Do come back, as this page continues to evolve (and I hope I do, too - an early version is here). Meanwhile, for further gory details from my life, try the following links:

  • Shakira and I (I tried this piece on the Guardian, but never heard back. A month or so later they printed a similar piece by someone called Gabriel García Márquez.)

  • Prequel: the previous 300 years (an attempt at family history)

     

or find me in: blogspot, tumblr, twitter, flickr, facebook, myspace, wikipedia, youtube...

 

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last update:

10.03.2017