Archive for March, 2010


By Ed Yong | March 26, 2010 10:18 am


And so commences the third phase of the Not Exactly Rocket Science life cycle, where I say goodbye to my ScienceBlogs body and jump into a new host. I’m honoured to be joining Carl, Sheril, Phil, Sean, Razib, Chris and co, and I’m pretty sure that sharing a community with Carl psychologically primed me into writing the parasite metaphor in the previous sentence.

For all my existing readers, come in, come in, make yourselves comfortable and get ready for the usual influx of cool stories. You’ll notice that all the old posts and comments have travelled with me and the blog’s content will be virtually indistinguishable, except that there’s more orange, the font has serifs (boo) and I’m now over there on the right. The new feed URL is

For any newcomers, here’s an introduction. Formally, Not Exactly Rocket Science is a science news site; informally, it’s a bit like an excitable child jumping up and down and pointing to things, but with more syntax. This is my attempt to portray science as the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky field that it is, to as many people as possible. You shouldn’t need a science degree to be able to dive into the stream of new discoveries, and on this blog, you won’t need one.

Every week, I will be serving 4-5 meaty portions of newsworthy stories, sourced from the entire breadth of biological sciences, supplemented with spoonfuls of opinion pieces on science journalism and drizzles of satire. Feel free to browse through the archives and at the end of this post, there’s a selection of some of my favourites to whet your appetite. You can also follow me on Twitter or on Facebook, or check out a recent interview I did about how and why I blog.

I join Discover from ScienceBlogs, fresh from a cool trio of wins at the Research Blogging Awards. I’m looking forward to my tenure here and I hope that you’ll stick around for more. I would also be incredibly grateful if anyone could help to give the blog a bit of extra publicity during the first weeks of its new life. Having done a move like this before, traffic always dips as people update their feeds, Google catches up and so on. Any extra nudge, whether it’s a tweet, a blog post, a Stumble, or even a good old-fashioned email to a friend, would go a long way.

As a final piece of geekery, I was trying to find the most appropriate metaphor is for this move. Evolution applies to populations rather than individuals, so that’s out. The old ScienceBlogs version still exists, so migration’s not quite right. Two grimmer but better candidates include metastasis, where cancer cells break off from a primary tumour to set up new ones elsewhere in the body, and retrotransposition, where small, parasitic chunks of DNA duplicate themselves and insert the replicas into other parts of the genome. But in both cases, the old versions are still living and changing, whereas the ScienceBlogs incarnation of NERS is henceforth frozen in time. All this being said, I think the best analogy is probably insect metamorphosis – a new form emerges from a larval one, leaving a shell behind and flying off to pastures new. That sounds about right.


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Another teaser…

By Ed Yong | March 24, 2010 2:00 pm


"Exactly, Ed Yong" – an interview by Dave Munger

By Ed Yong | March 24, 2010 9:30 am


To tie in with this week’s Research Blogging Awards announcement, I spent an enjoyable half-hour on Monday being interviewed by Dave Munger, who organised the awards. The interview is now up on the SEED website, with a title that made me smile. In it, I talk to Dave about winning the award, why and how I blog, and interactions between blogging and mainstream media.

Here’s an excerpt with the question that I get asked most frequently:

Munger: You’ve got a full-time job in addition to being a blogger–and you’re one of the most prolific bloggers on How do you manage to balance your blog and your work life?

Yong: Everyone asks me this and I never really have a good answer. I’m going to start making stuff up: There are actually two of me. There’s an Ed Yong and a Fred Yong, who does most of my blogging.

Feel free to check out the full interview and let me know what you think, or ask any follow-up questions here. In the meantime, don’t forget to check back tomorrow afternoon/evening for some news…


PS: The photo above, which accompanies the interview on SEED’s homepage, was taken by my wife just last weekend at Cambridge University’s wonderful Museum of Zoology, a great, tranquil space with a giant ground sloth, a fin whale, an orca, a mutant two-tusked narwhal, a leatherback turtle, Megaloceros antlers, and this beautiful specimen. Guess the species…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism, Personal

Research Blog of the Year

By Ed Yong | March 23, 2010 10:30 am

Image, ironically, from FailBlog

Warning: this post contains sentiment. If you are cynical and/or British, you might want to avert your eyes. Alternatively, read this and then go watch some Charlie Brooker. For those of you still around, bear with me. It is really hard to write something like this without falling into an abyss of clichés.

rb_badge_winner.pngA couple of days ago, Dave Munger, under a veil of tightest secrecy, told me that I’ve won the big prize in the first ever Research Blogging Awards. Not Exactly Rocket Science is apparently the Research Blog of the Year, as well as Best Lay-Level Blog and home of the Best Post of the Year (for duck sex). The announcements have just been made public and there’s an interview between Dave and myself coming up shortly on the SEED website.

Needless to say, I’m incredibly honoured, especially given that the awards were voted for by a jury of peers and colleages. I’ve been blogging for 3.5 years now. Right from the start, writing Not Exactly Rocket Science has been a labour of love, and often a lonely one carried out in the solitary hours of the night. I certainly enjoy what I do, but it’s always gratifying to learn that other people think well of it.

Plus I get a nice badge (see above), although it’s legitimacy as a blogging award badge is seriously questionable given the use of only one exclamation mark. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the Research Blogging Awards, they deal with blogs that describe scientific research, the prizes are sponsored by SEED, the nomination lists were drawn up by a panel of superstar bloggers and the final votes were cast by registered members of the ResearchBlogging community. In my mind, they are a fantastic idea. It is baffling that even now, bloggers often have to justify ourselves against straw-man accusations that we are nothing more than vitriolic agitators, when, in fact, the blogosphere is awash with excellent content. Getting bloggers together to celebrate that quailty can only be a good thing.

I’d like to congratulate and plug the other winners, including excellent blogs like Neurotopia, Highly Allochthonous, Respectful Insolence and A Blog Around the Clock. I’d encourage everyone to check them out as well as the full nominee list, which is full of writers that deserve your attention. To steal a phrase, customers who like Not Exactly Rocket Science might also like Laelaps, Observations of a Nerd, The Lay Scientist, Neurophilosophy, The Primate Diaries, Terra Sigillata, and more.

And finally, to everyone who voted, I offer my sincere and humble thanks. I can only say that I have every intention of continuing with Not Exactly Rocket Science and trying to improve the quality of material that appears here.

And while we’re on that topic, I have a big announceme.. oh look, is that the time?


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Fast food logos unconsciously trigger fast behaviour

By Ed Yong | March 22, 2010 8:30 am

McDonalds.jpgLike it or not, the golden arches of McDonalds are one of the most easily recognised icons of the modern world. The culture they represent is one of instant gratification and saved time, of ready-made food that can be bought cheaply and eaten immediately. Many studies have looked at the effects of these foods on our waistlines, but their symbols and brands are such a pervasive part of our lives that you’d expect them to influence the way we think too.

And so they do – Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe have found that fast food can actually induce haste and impatience, in ways that have nothing to do with eating. They showed that subliminal exposure to fast food symbols, such as McDonalds’ golden arches, can actually increase people’s reading speed. Just thinking about these foods can boost our preferences for time-saving goods and even nudge us towards financial decisions that value immediate gains over future returns. Fast food, it seems, is very appropriately named.

Zhong and DeVoe asked 57 students to stare at the centre of a computer screen while ignoring a stream of objects flashing past in the corners. For some of the students, these flashes included the logos of McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King and Wendy’s, all appearing for just 12 milliseconds. We can’t consciously recognise images that appear this quickly and, indeed, none of the students said that they saw anything other than blocks of colour. 

The students were then asked to read out a 320-word description of Toronto and those who had subconsciously seen the fast food logos were faster. Even though they had no time limit, they whizzed through the text in just 70 seconds. The other students, who were shown blocks of colours in place of the logos, took a more leisurely 84 seconds.

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Richmond park photos

By Ed Yong | March 21, 2010 4:32 pm

A couple of photos taken today, during a lovely spring stroll through Richmond Park

Ring-necked parakeet

Red deer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animals, Personal

Requests work better than orders, even when we're asking or ordering ourselves

By Ed Yong | March 19, 2010 8:30 am

We like to be in control of our own lives, and some of us have an automatic rebellious streak when we’re told what to do. We’re less likely to do a task if we’re ordered to do it than if we make the choice of our own volition. It seems that this effect is so strong that it even happens when the people giving the orders are… us.

In a set of three experiments, Ibrahim Senay from the University of Illinois has shown that people do better at a simple task if ask themselves whether they’ll do it than if they simply tell themselves to do so. Even a simple reversal of words – “Will I” compared to “I will” – can boost motivation and performance.

Therapists and managers alike are taught to ask people open questions that prompt them to think about problems for themselves, rather than having solutions imposed upon them. Senay’s work suggests that this approach would work even if we’re counselling or managing ourselves. When we question ourselves about our deeds and choices, we’re more likely to consider our motivations for doing something and feel like we’re in control of our actions. The effect is small but significant.

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MORE ABOUT: i will, question, senay, will i

Sperm war – the sperm of ants and bees do battle inside the queens

By Ed Yong | March 18, 2010 2:00 pm

One night of passion and you’re filled with a lifetime full of sperm with no need to ever mate again. As sex lives go, it doesn’t sound very appealing, but it’s what many ants, bees, wasps and termites experience. The queens of these social insects mate in a single “nuptial flight” that lasts for a few hours or days. They store the sperm from their suitors and use it to slowly fertilise their eggs over the rest of their lives. Males have this one and only shot at joining the Mile High Club and they compete fiercely for their chance to inseminate the queen. But even for the victors, the war isn’t over. Inside the queen’s body, their sperm continue the battle.

If the queen mates with several males during her maiden flight, the sperm of each individual find themselves swimming among competitors, and that can’t be tolerated. Susanne den Boer from the University of Copenhagen has found that these insects have evolved seminal fluids that can incapacitate the sperm of rivals while leaving their own guys unharmed. And in some species, like leafcutter ants, the queen steps into the fray herself, secreting chemicals that pacify the warring sperm and ease their competition.

The amazing thing about this chemical warfare is that it has evolved independently several times. Social insects evolved from ancestors that observed strictly monogamous relationships. Even now, the queens from many species mate with just one male during their entire lives. With just one set of sperm in their bodies, they have no problem with sperm conflict. The trouble starts when species start mating with several males during their nuptial flights, as honeybees, social wasps, leafcutter ants, army ants, and others do today. 

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Attack of the killer tomato fungus driven by mobile weapons package

By Ed Yong | March 17, 2010 5:25 pm

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story, Dr Henry Jekyll drinks a mysterious potion that transforms him from an upstanding citizen into the violent, murderous Edward Hyde. We might think that such an easy transformation would be confined to the pages of fiction, but a similar fate regularly befalls a common fungus called Fusarium oxysporum.

A team of scientists led by Li-Jun Ma and Charlotte van der Does have found that the fungus can swap four entire chromosomes form one individual to another. This package is the genetic equivalent of Stevenson’s potion. It has everything a humble, Jekyll-like fungus needs to transform from a version that coexists harmlessly with plants into a Hyde-like agent of disease. In this guise, it infects so many plant species so virulently that it has earned the nickname of Agent Green and has been considered for use as a biological weapon. It can even infect humans.

These disease-making chromosomes came to light after Ma and van der Does sequenced the genome of a variety of F.oxysporum called lycopersici (or ‘Fol’), which infects tomatoes. Its genome was unexpectedly massive, 44% bigger than its closest relative, the cereal-infecting F.verticillioides. Looking closer, Ma and van der Does found that most of this excess DNA lies within four extra chromosomes, which Fol has and its relative lacks. Together, they make up a quarter of Fol’s genome.

Ma and van der Does demonstrated the power of this extraneous quartet by incubating a harmless strain of Fol with one that causes tomato wilt. Just by sharing the same space, the inoffensive strain managed to acquire two of the extra chromosomes found in the virulent one. And, suddenly, it too could infect tomatoes. In a single event, the fungus had been loaded with a mobile armoury and changed into a killer. It seems that the fungus needs just two of the four chromosomes to cause disease; the others probably act as accessories, boosting its new pestilent powers.

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Pregnant male pipefish abort babies from unattractive females

By Ed Yong | March 17, 2010 2:00 pm


For most men, the thought of taking on the burden of pregnancy from their partners would seem like a nightmare, but it’s all part and parcel of seahorse life. After mating, female seahorses and pipefish lay their eggs into a special pouch in the male’s belly and he carries the developing babies to term. They may seem like a shoe-in for a Dad-of-the-year award but this apparent display of paternal perfection has several macabre twists.

A recent study showed that pregnant pipefishes can also become vampiric cannibals, absorbing some of their brood for nutrition if their own food supplies are running low. Now, Kimberley Paczolt and Adam Jones from Texas A&M University have found that male pipefishes are also selective abortionists. They’ll kill off some of the youngsters in their pouches if they’ve mated with an unattractive female, or if they’ve already raised a large group of young in an earlier pregnancy.

The pouch isn’t just an incubator for the next generation. It’s a battleground where male and female pipefish fight a war of the sexes, and where foetal pipefish pay for this conflict with their lives.

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