Tag Archives: History + Insights

Science elite in Germany

Three German universities that have been elected into an excellence cluster. This oracle isn´t too bad for me ;-) as I have been raised close to the first and teached at both other universities.
Yes, I agree, there are some differences but – as science is done mainly by individuals or at least local teams – the differences are not so large and this election (for whatever criteria) doesn’t have so much meaning.
I believe, however, there will be some self-fulfilling prophecy, as on the longterm run these Universities will attract more excellent people – a point being missed in the current discussion. Yea, yea.


Another 8 universitites enter the club: HU Berlin, FU Berlin, Göttingen, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Konstanz, Aachen and Bochum.

Three things can not hide for long: the moon, the sun and the truth

This is the slogan of Wikileaks a website under construction that

is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interests are oppressive regimes […]. We aim for maximum political impact; this means our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by non-technical people.

We also have some experience in science with whistleblowers leading to further investigations. How will this site guarantee the correctness of any information?

I require 1,000,000 dollars

Most scientists are urged to spend much of their time for getting research funds. Here is a another anecdote about Otto Warburg reported by Hans Krebs / p 57:

One day he [Warburg] asked the office of the Director-General [of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft, later Max Plack Society] to allocate 10,000 marks for his research. He was told that that the organization had no spare money; he should therefore write an application, which the Director-General would support, to the Notgemeinschaft (an emergency fund made available by the government for the promotion of research). Warburg replied that he had no secretary; the Director-General should put a secretary at his disposal. This was agreed. Warburg handed the secretary a sheet of paper and told her to type ‘Top left: Dr.Otto Warburg; top right: the date; underneath this: I require 10,000 (zehntausend) mark.’ This Warburg signed. The ‘application’ was succesful.

Yea, yea.


No, this is not about H.G. Wells’ book, but about Paul Pearsall (who quotes Wells) and what he has to say about the ever increasing self-help-, Dr. Phil-, Dr. Laura- and Dr. Ruth- and whatsoever market The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child.

Publisher Weekly says that he is

… arguing against the “platitudes of self-empowerment” that dominate the self-help bookshelves. Their relentlessly upbeat tone and unrealistic idea of happiness will only make you feel worse, he says. Using research studies to bolster his points … Dr. Phil. Pearsall, an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wants readers to stop being so self-centered. It’s more important, he says, to love others before oneself, and appropriate guilt and anxiety are essential to learning to live a better life.

I enjoyed every sentence of this book, the inner pages fulfill what the title promises: A realistic approach that follows sound scientific principles.

I swear by God that I will speak the pure truth

Will you state your full name?
Will you repeat this oath after me?
I swear by God, the Almighty and Omniscient, that I will speak the pure truth, and will withhold and add nothing.
You may sit down.

I have heard this sentence now eight times – on eight new CDs from the Nuremberg trials with original material by the American Record Group 238 “Die NS-Führung im Verhör” documented by Ulrich Lampen with an introduction by Peter Steinbach. The introductory remarks are well balanced, the sound quality excellent, translation and dubbing artists outstanding, but there seems to be no documentation in the CD box in particular for CD 7, the interrogation of Prof. Dr. med. Karl Gebhard.

I am giving therefore some links here – as otherwise you will not really understand what this man did. None of the other interviews recorded such an aggressive, rude and loud tone – a big-headed, omnipotent medical professor that still believes that winning of the war would have enobled his medical research.

www.shoa.de, the largest German portal on the Holocaust has an article about Herta Oberheuser that contains some information about Gebhard; more at German Wikipedia but the most detailed account may be found in Klee, Auschwitz pp 152. Gebhard was one of the few German physicians that were hanged after the war.

Born in 1897, he studied as Mengele here in Munich, habilitated 1935 as a scholar of Sauerbruch and became associate professor in Berlin. As of 1937, he held a chair of orthopedic surgery, became head physician at the sanatorium (Heilanstalt) Hohenlychen and “Oberster Kliniker beim Reichsarzt SS”. Ravensbrück was only a few kilometer from Hohenlychen. Klee has all the terrible details of his medical research: artificial infection with Clostridium, wood and glass implantation into the lower legs, explantation of limbs, trepanation with artifical brain injuries, phosphor burning of the perineum as punishment, consecutive murdering of patients with evipan or by shooting. Gebhard was medical attendant of Heinrich Himmler and president of the German Red Cross (sic!)


The protocols are available as microfilms. I am currently checking with the editors if they can be copied to PDF format.

Cell podcast with an interesting fact

Cell has a first podcast online. It features interviews with two of this year’s Nobel Laureates, Dr. Craig Mello and Dr. Roger Kornberg, as well as a talk to Dr. Paul Nurse about current funding prospects in the US ( “dont give up”). It is quite easy to hear that on my morning ride – and liked very much Craig Mello saying (please wind forward to 6:19) “the entire genome is probably described in some level” which is quite different to the prevailing junk theory. Yea, yea.

A tragedy if you don’t feel pain

A highly successfull study of the molecular pathways of nociception (and identification of a loss of function mutation in the alpha subunit of SCN9A, a voltage gated sodium channel) has a sad story from Northern Pakistan

The index case for the present study was a ten-year-old child, well known to the medical service after regularly performing ‘street theatre’. He placed knives through his arms and walked on burning coals, but experienced no pain. He died before being seen on his fourteenth birthday, after jumping off a house roof.

It is so difficult for us humans to accept that pain has an important function in life, yea, yea.

He can run slowly

if you want to see Crison and me in the same stadium, you must bid him slacken his speed to mine, for I cannot run quickly, and he can run slowly.

(from Platons Protagoras dialogue English|German).

firstmonday has a wonderful paper “More, Faster, Better: Governance in an Age of Overload, Busyness, and Speed” basically arguing that the vast sources of information has a rather paradoxical effect: the abundance of information rather disconnects and distances us from ourselves and the world around us.

Immersed in a sea of media, information sources, technologies and devices, many of us are now becoming aware of the downside — some would say the dark side — of these powerful new modes of communicating and acting.

The mere number of papers being published even in my most genuine area of interest is impossible to monitor at the end of 2006 – bioscience looses more and more scientia. Although papers still have a “discussion” section, there is no more discussion as references are getting more and more eclectic.

The Levy paper in firstmonday is a “must read” – in particular the chapter on

Vannevar Bush, an American born in 1890, was trained as an electrical engineer and for the first part of his career worked as a professor and an administrator at MIT…. Bush was famous enough to appear on the cover of Time in April of 1944. Yet today he is best remembered not for his technical work or his contribution to winning the war, but for an article he published in the Atlantic Monthly in July, 1945, titled “As We May Think”

and what he says about two kinds of thought: routine or repetitive or logical thinking along an accepted groove – literature scan, arithmetic operations all that technical stuff that can be automated: In contrast there is mature, creative thought, deep, original thinking, reasoning – without any mechanical substitute. Levy makes the point that

Certainly the easy availability of information and the increasing pace of life can at times be empowering and even exhilarating, but too much stimulation can lead to numbing, a loss of focus, and withdrawal: it can dumb down, enervate and even stupefy.

the information overload (with less reliable, often questionable) information leads to a deprivation of mature thinking that severely affects now the academic world

Yet today’s universities — their faculty, students, and staff — are increasingly caught up in the current cultural frenzy; academics are now busier and more overloaded than ever before. The pressure on faculty to obtain outside funding is intense and increasing as the pool of available funds shrinks; time spent searching for potential funding sources, writing grant proposals, and shepherding them through intricate bureaucratic procedures is simply added on to the other expectations of the job…. increased student expectations that instructors should and will be available for consultation at all hours of the day and night, weekends included. E–mail has also made professors that much more reachable by the general public, the press, and academics at other institutions…

What can be done? Prescreening of relevant science by (institutionalised) editors or (anarchic) blogs? And by which criteria?

Proteomics 73 years ago

Otto Warburg was not only lucky to win a Nobel prize but also three of his scholars. On of these, Hugo Theorell, describes the discovery of nicotinic acid amide as picrolonate in December 1933. The initial yield of the substance was poor – crystals of a few miligrams were obtained from 200 l of horse blood. Warburg estimated that they would have to kill all horses in Germany to find out the constitution. Theorell continues (quoted from Krebs: Warburg. 1981, p32)

Fortunately, they had the elementary analysis, melting point and the molecular weight. Now a friend of Warburg’s, Walter Schöller, who was the head of the Schering Kahlbaum Company Laboratory, made the simplest trick in the world: he looked into ‘Beilstein’ for substances with the same composition and melting point and within no time he said: “Well, this is nicotinic acid amide, synthesized by Mr so-and-so in 1878 or something like that.” Warburg’s comment was as laconic as usual: “Yesterday we could not buy it for any money in the world, today we can buy it for two marks a pound.”

Nicotinamide had powerful inhibitory effects on mycobacteria and led to the synthesis by Hoffman-La Roche of isonicotinic acid hydrazide or isoniazid – and Warburg had the chance to read his own obituary in The Times (Krebs, p.67) where he complained that the discovery of nicotinamide had been deliberately omitted (his former institute is here).
Looks pretty much that this discovery worked along the same strategy as proteomics today: 2-DE to tandem MS (MS/MS) and database lookup. Yea, yea.

What would you choose?

At the moment I am reading the biography of Otto Warburg eloquently written by Hans Krebs. Here is a nice story about the banking house M. M. Warburg in Hamburg: Aby Warburg renounced his right to share in the banking business on the condition that his brothers would pay the bills for all the books that he deemed necessary for his library. The brothers enormously underrated the magnitude of this financial obligation – Aby Warburg (1866-1929) assembled a unique art history library which is now at London University. Would you like to have a brother who is a banker or would you like to be a banker with such a brother?

Philosophy, the voice of rationality in the dialogue with biological sciences (podcast)

Last week I attended a meeting in Neuherberg about the future of science and ethics in medicine and biology. Prof. Jürgen Mittelstraß (Konstanz) gave the introductory lecture, Prof. Herwig Hulpke, Prof. Friedrich Wilhelm Graf and Prof. Klaus Peter participated in the discussion moderated by Fraua Ferlemann (BR). The lecture by Prof. Mittelstraß was remarkable, I am offering here a 60 MINUTE PODCAST [in German only] while the manuscript will follow later in January 2007. Please let me know if you want the full audio records of the 2 hour meeting.

Prof. Mittelstraß (left) and Prof. Graf (right) during the discussion

Human breeding

There have been always attempts to make humans better – an idea that attracted people nearly every century. Ovid created Galatea from a statue, Goethe’s homunculus originated from a test tube, Mary Shelly created her monster from corpses, Bulgakows proletarian derived from a dog and Sloterdijks Menschenzüchtung by a fancy idea. There is only a minor difference at the end of 2006 – technical possibilities of genetic testing and genetic engineering are much higher developed. Yea, yea.

Early biology blog

Sydney Brenner has written for many years a column in Current Biology called Loose Ends (Nature called him a man who talks a lot which is certainly unfair or at least not empirically proven – we are talking between 20,000 and 40,000 words every day). Loose ends seem to have influenced a whole generation of biologists – kitsch biology included. Yea, yea.

Epidemiology in wartime

What was the best paper in 2006? I am voting for a Lancet paper by Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy and Les Roberts. Between May and July, 2006, they did a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq. Data from 1849 households was gathered, 1474 births and 629 deaths were reported. As of July, 2006, there have been 654 965 excess Iraqi deaths occured as a consequence of the war.
If you can’t imagine what it means to work in war regions you may read the biography of Robert Capa (1913 –1954) who worked as a photographer in the many wars, and died in the First Indochina War. He did wonderful photos together with his girl-friend Gerda Taro, one of the first woman photographers who died by a tank accident already in the Spanish civil war at the age of 26. I will pay for the flowers if you visit her grave at Père Lachaise in Paris.

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As expected, the study raised criticism: scienceblog:doi:10.1126/science.316.5823.355a