Author Archives: Eva Amsen

Beatles-inspired author photos

In 1994, Bruce Alberts and his co-authors released the third edition of their popular textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell. On the back cover, all the authors are photographed crossing Abbey Road, because they worked on the book just around the corner from the famous crossing.


When they published another text book, Essential Cell Biology, they stuck with the joke and took a photo in the style of With The Beatles.


Now committed to a running gag, almost all subsequent editions of both textbooks have included author photos in the style of a Beatles album. I’ve listed them all on, with sliders to compare them to the corresponding album. I couldn’t get the sliders to work on this blog, unfortunately, but I will leave you with my favourite author photo, of the fourth edition of MBOC. Who do you recognize in the collage?


Images: Abbey Road parody: I photographed the back of my copy of Molecular Biology of the Cell, 3rd edition (1994). With The Beatles parody: This image comes from the blog of Svenn, who misidentifies it as the second edition of Essential Cell Biology – it’s the first (1997). Sgt Pepper parody: I found this posted on Reddit by a user called hookp. Don;t know if they took the photo, but it’s the back of the 4th edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell. All books published by Garland Science, and obviously all images are inspired by the Beatles.

650th anniversary party for University of Vienna

The University of Vienna is celebrating its 650th birthday this year. Happy birthday!

As part of the festivities, the university organised a three-day festival from June 12 to June 14. I happened to be in town for part of this, so I had a look at some of the booths on Saturday.

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Other parts of the programme included some public lectures, and a “music and science stage”, which included some Austrian science cabaret groups. Here the stage is being set up for Science Busters.

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This week, the University of Vienna continues its birthday celebrations with a film festival.

Interrailing through Europe with Borodin and Mendeleev

Long ago, in a kingdom that no longer exists, a bohemian traveller was mistaken for a fugitive revolutionary, and arrested.

Borodin (left) and Mendeleev (right)

Borodin (left) and Mendeleev (right)

The traveller was Russian chemist and composer Alexander Borodin. He was on his way to Italy with his friend Dmitri Mendeleev. Both men were researchers in the chemistry department of the University of Heidelberg, where they learned the ropes from Robert Bunsen (inventor of the bunsen burner) and Emil Erlenmeyer (inventor of the erlenmeyer flask). In a few years, Mendeleev would develop his own classic staple of chemistry labs – the periodic table – but now he was taking a break from science, and making his way to Italy with his friend.

They travelled light, and brought very little clothes with them. “We wore only blouses, so that we would look like artists”, Mendeleev has said of this trip. “That’s not a bad idea in Italy, because you can get along very cheaply that way. We took hardly any shirts with us, and had to buy new ones when the need arose; we gave these away to the waiters in place of tips. We absolutely let ourselves go in Italy, after the stifling cloistered life of Heidelberg.”

Picture these two men, dressed in their artists blouses, walking across large parts of Switzerland. Looking nothing like the academics they were in Heidelberg, they reached the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. This kingdom no longer exists. The area is now Northern Italy, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, and Austrian police were on the lookout for a political fugitive.


Seeing a bohemian figure who matched the description of the revolutionary they were told would cross the border that day, the police arrested Borodin.

He was not at all the man they were looking for. Borodin had led a quiet and privileged life, filled with books, music, and education. After graduating from medical school in St Petersburg, he moved to Heidelberg to study chemistry. He spent all of his free time making music, and had already composed several pieces for piano, voice, or string ensembles. Much later, years after his untimely death at a costume party, Borodin would posthumously win a Tony Award for composing the original score used in the musical Kismet. He was a chemist, a musician, a Russian prince’s illegitimate son, a women’s rights activist, and an educator – but not a member of an Italian revolutionary movement.

By the time the police realised their mistake, the real fugitive had taken advantage of the distraction, and crossed the border. When Borodin and Mendeleev finally boarded their train, they were greeted with cheers and applause by the Italian passengers, for unwittingly helping a member of the revolution escape.

We don’t know the identity of the mysterious fugitive, but at the end of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was no more. The region became part of Italy, which it still is. And somewhere along the way, two Russian chemists on a low budget holiday may have played a very minor role in shaping the political situation in 19th century Northern Italy.

Source: the book “Borodin”, by Serge Dianin, translated by Robert Lord (1963). Mendeleev’s words about their outfits are quoted in the book, but originally from another book by M.N. Mladentsev and V.E. Tischenko, called “Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev. His Life and Work, Vol I.” (1938). The photo of Borodin and Mendeleev is a crop from a larger photo including two other chemists – Gitinsky and Olevinsky. The original photo was taken in 1860 – the year this story takes place. Lombardy-Venetia map in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

An inch off the top

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Climbing Mount Everest is now slightly less impressive than it used to be. After the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, Mount Everest sank by about an inch.

The reason Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayas are there in the first place is the same force that caused the earthquake that shrunk it: India is slowly pushing against the Asian continental plate.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was one of the ones heavily damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

We tend to think of plate tectonics as something that happened in the past to shape the continents as they are now, with features like the matching coast lines of Africa and South America just a remnant of an ancient continental break. But the recent earthquake – as any large earthquake does – reminds us that these shifts are still happening, and that geological features we take for granted, like the height of Mount Everest, are still changing. Usually very gradually, but sometimes with a big and abrupt shift.

The earthquake on April 25, and another big one this past week, haven’t just shifted Mount Everest by an inch, but also caused the region around Kathmandu to rise by a few feet. And this was the shift that caused the most damage.

Kathmandu is an old city with a rich history and a poor population. It has the most UNESCO World heritage sites of any city in the world, but more than half of them suffered extensive damage in the earthquakes.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Thousands of people have died, and even more have been made homeless, or suffered a loss of income. I visited Kathmandu a few years ago and I love the city and its people. So I’m simultaneously impressed by the forces that changed the height of Mount Everest and worried for the local community. Earthquakes are pretty impressive, but not always in a good way!

If you would like to help support the rebuilding of Nepal, please consider donating to a reputable organisation. There are too many to list, and they’re different depending on where you live and what kind of support you want to provide (medical, heritage rebuilding, children, etc), but feel free to ask me on Twitter for recommendations.

All photos by me, and I can never take similar photos again, because even Mount Everest no longer looks exactly like that…

P.S. If the photo captions are confusing, there are THREE places called “Durbar Square” in Kathmandu neighbourhoods. All three are UNESCO sites, and all three were destroyed in the earthquake :(

Musicians and scientists

Can you name a “musisci” – a person involved in both music and science? This was a question I asked over seven hundred people in a survey, and the answer looked like this:musisci

Without the top five answers, you can more clearly see some of the other ones:


As you can see, there are a lot of people who have both music and science in their life, and this includes about a third of survey respondents, as well.

Survey responses musisci.007

For the full results of the survey, see my blog post on I’m also starting a quarterly newsletter about the musician/scientist overlap. First issue will go out today (with more survey results, some music, and related links), and the next one in August. You can sign up here if you’d like to receive it.