When My Grandma Asked Her Königsberg Pen-Pal About Hitler

An Unexpected Meeting

aira christel wenk Nie ja Tera

May 1934 in Vasa Finland. From the right: Aira, Christel, and two of Aira’s friends. Photo by Kurt.

It was spring 1934 in Vaasa, Finland. My grandmother was out on her lunch-break from school, when a German couple stopped to ask her for directions. Aira, who was 15 years old at the time, knew German, and was happy to help them. Delighted to find a such an obliging local, the couple’s attempt to locate the county museum turned into an afternoon of making new friends. The couple introduced themselves as Christel W. and Kurt K.

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A Tribute to My Grandmother, A Survivor of War, and a Pioneer Science Communicator 1950-1980

aira young seriousIt appears that passion for popularising science is in my blood. This is a rather personal post compared to what I usually write, which came about when I recently learned more about the impressive legacy of my grandmother, and I want to share her story with you. Although she lived in a very different time, Aira Ruishalme felt a very similar calling to mine: she wanted to help science reach a greater audience.

I did know that my grandmother was a journalist and a writer, but as is typical of youth, I was never much interested in the details. That all changed this summer. I took over some old family documents for safe-keeping, and, in an off-hand fashion, opened the thick typewritten manuscript titled ‘Years that rolled by’ (or Vuodet pois vierineet in Finnish) – a family history written to my father. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating to read about my ancestors’ life in the 1920s (and in part all the way back to the 1640s!), but as the book went on I also came to realize that my grandmother had difficulty limiting her interests (which I find very familiar) – her German pen-pal in Königsberg in 1934 called her tausendsassa, a Jack of all trades, when she was only sixteen. Throughout her life, Aira was deeply engaged in various topics of culture, society, and technology, and what was most fascinating to me was how she felt much like I do about the art of writing and science, particularly the medical sciences. Continue reading

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Coop Forbidden to Use “The Organic Effect” Marketing Video Under Threat of Fine of One Million Krona

Quick news: Swedish media seem very silent on the topic (EDIT: it appears I was just fast – several news pieces have come since), as court rules grocery chain Coop is forbidden from continued use of its marketing video “The Organic Effect” launched 2015, or the arguments from that campaign, including lines like ‘we’re eating pesticides’ and ‘chemicals removed from my kids bodies’ or ‘organic food is grown without chemical pesticides’. If they use the arguments or the video, but continue to fail to provide evidence for such claims, they are threatened by a fine of whooping one million krona (about 100 000 Euro / almost 120 000 US dollars). In addition, they must cover the claimant’s court costs.

Swedish court rules COOP must pay 1 million krona if they use the misleading marketing video 'The Organic Effect'Or the arguments from that campaign, claiming organic food to be 'healthi

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New Study Finds Neonicotinoids May Have Harmful, Beneficial, or No Effects on Bees


Bumblebee. This is the handiwork of U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Two new bee papers were published just a few days ago. Below I will take a closer look at one of them, the larger European study, partly funded by pesticide companies but performed by an independent research lab, and it was was aimed to be a more comprehensive test of neonicotinoids. The other one was five month field study in Canada, completed with a year-long lab study where they observed some negative health effects under field-similar but constant exposure conditions, especially when combined with a fungicide. More about the Canadian study can be read in an analysis by The Mad Virologist.

The European study went on for two years in three countries, spanning over 33 sites. A whooping 88 variables were measured (different health measures, different bees, etc). but only eight of them came out with a statistically significant difference. Three variables actually showed a significant beneficial correlation between neonicotinoid treatments and bee health, whereas five correlated with more harmful results. However, 18 results had to be dismissed altogether because the Varroa mite killed off many UK hives. But the study did not choose to track disease rates as variables.

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From Ideas to Evidence, an Interview: My Organic Crisis and the Birth of This Blog

In four short years, since I started looking at the science of farming more closely, the topic of organic vs conventional has felt very worn out to me, several times. I already know how it will go: some people have a field day bashing any organic supporters as idiots, while others just keep declaring their choice to buy organic as superior, ignoring any evidence I or others may provide. Then sometimes you find people who have really just not looked at it very thoroughly before, and are actually interested in hearing more – and for once, talking about it is worth it again!

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I was interviewed over at the Little Zürich Kitchen!

I am really glad that the Swiss blogger Fran over at the Little Zurich Kitchen had the openness of mind to read my pieces on agriculture even though they challenged her views. I know it can be really hard to be in that situation. Not only did she read, but she also reached out to me and asked for an interview, which I will also include here. It originally appeared on her food blog, under the title The Interview: The Organic Crisis. Per her request, I tried to be really short and refer to my pieces for more in-depth information… and then I cut down another 1000 words.

For better of worse, when it comes down to it, this is still a very real, current, and impactful topic. Developing our agricultural systems in environmentally friendly directions is important, and we really need to connect the awesome motivation of many organic consumers (like mine before) to do their best for the environment, with the information about where the best potential for improvements can be found. Continue reading

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Innocent Questions

My daughter demanded I draw another comic, so I’m sharing with you this macabre moment of innocent deduction, which invited some reflection on why we care so deeply for the bodies of our dead.
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The Bacterial Cutting Board – What’s Actually Going On In My Stomach?

Armed gut bacteria (1)

I am a biologist, and I love to tell my kids about the ways their bodies work, including how fascinating it is that millions of strange little organisms live inside their gut and help with the digestion of their food.

It’s priceless when you later get these questions that show just how much they think about the things we have discussed, and how they try to apply their knowledge-of-the-world-so-far into the new concepts they’ve learned.

Our original conversation about enzyme scissors was a bit longer than a comic easily permits, so let me elaborate:

It’s not exactly like a knife, but there are many different kinds of little molecular machines, that bind to their very own specific bits of food, that add little molecules that persuade parts of the big food molecules to go their separate ways.

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