Archive for May, 2010

Drunken monkeys reveal how binge-drinking harms the adolescent brain

By Ed Yong | May 31, 2010 3:00 pm


Most of us will be all too familiar with the consequences of night of heavy drinking. But alcohol’s effects on our heads go well beyond a mere hangover. The brain suffers too. A penchant for incoherent slurring aside, alcohol abusers tend to show problems with their spatial skills, short-term memory, impulse control and ability to make decisions or prioritise tasks. Many of these skills are heavily influenced by a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Now, Michael Taffe and researchers from the Scripps Research Institute have shown how binge-drinking during adolescence can cause lasting damage to this vital area.

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A biological basis for acupuncture, or more evidence for a placebo effect?

By Ed Yong | May 30, 2010 1:00 pm


In the past, I have criticised science journalists for not providing enough background in their reports. Both news stories and scientific papers obviously focus on new events and achievements, but they do so in the knowledge that new discoveries stand on giant shoulders. For this reason, when I cover new papers for this blog, I try to describe some of the research that led up to it, a tactic that fits with the growing cries for more context in modern journalism.

And yet, it’s perhaps churlish to expect this to be a routine part of science journalism when many scientists themselves don’t take up the practice. I bring this up in the light of a new paper, published today in Nature Neuroscience, about the controversial topic of acupuncture. I was going to do this as a straight write-up but actually the omissions in the paper are probably just as interesting than the science within it.

The gist is this: Nanna Goldman from the University of Rochester Medical Center claims to have found a biological explanation for the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture. She worked with mice that had inflamed paws, and managed to alleviate their pain by using a needle to pierce a traditional acupuncture point near the knee. This painkilling effect only happened when she rotated the needles after insertion.

This effect depended on a chemical called adenosine, which typically surges in concentration after any stress or injury. Adenosine works by docking at a protein called the adenosine A1 receptor, which has well established roles in suppressing pain and is found on neurons that transmit pain signals. Indeed, other chemicals that stimulated this protein had the same pain-relieving effects as acupuncture. Drugs that prevent the body from breaking down adenosine led to even more potent pain relief. And mice that lacked the A1 receptor altogether experienced no pain relief from the needles.

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MORE ABOUT: acupuncture, analgesic, pain

Saturday links

By Ed Yong | May 29, 2010 12:00 pm

Listen to a fascinating debate between Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian and John Witherow of the Times about whether paywalls with save journalism.

These photos of Saturn and its attendant moons from the Boston Globe are astronomically beautiful.

Male topi antelope scare females into staying for sex by feigning alarm calls. This will features in a sex advice column somewhere within months.

Baby sloths. Like adult sloths, only smaller and younger.

British poll shows declining interest in climate change, supposedly due to Climategate, indecisiveness at Copenhagen, and a spate of cold weather.

Dr Petra gives us a thoughtful analysis of a new “abortion ad” causing controversy in the UK, and dissects a lot of the media myths around abortion.

There’s more on Craig Venter’s synthetic life breakthrough. Venter himself debunks some of the hype around the study at the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, Charlie Brooker wins the internet at the Guardian. “Bits of yeast and E coli… eventually knitted the strand into a complete million-letter-long DNA sequence, which you’re probably incorrectly picturing right now.” And more superb satire here: journalists create world’s first artificial news story.

Science journalist Christine Ottery has started a new blog called Women’s Mag Science that analyses science coverage in women’s magazines and tries to better it.

“It’s not quite as easy as putting thermometers under their tongues and waiting 30 seconds, but scientists have discovered a way to measure the average body temperature of animals that lived millions of years ago.” Michael Price at ScienceNOW describes a new palaeothermometer.

A wonderful report by the Pew Research Center showed that between January 2009 and January 2010, science accounted for 10% of news stories on blogs but just 1% in traditional press. Science was the 3rd most popular news topic on blogs and the 23rd most popular in traditional press.

Carl Zimmer describes the world’s ultimate ultra-marathonner – the bar-tailed godwit, which flies 7,000 miles non-stop without a single pretzel. I love how his NYT piece and his blog post complement each other (and have slightly different writing styles).

In the NYT, Andy Revkin discusses a study claiming that a warming world won’t have more malaria in it. The author of the paper responds in the comments.

My name is DarWIN, not DarLOSE.” Dana Carvey actually made me laugh.

10% of sharks are luminous, and some can effectively use their lights to turn invisible, according to Discovery News.

An awesome feature by Steve Silberman in Wired, on the problems of human tissue storage. Science writers take note: this is how you do it.

Schoolchildren review the UK’s science curriculum. Worth a read.

XKCD has a legendary survey about how people perceive and name colours. The list of disproportionately popular colour names by gender is hilarious, as is the final list of colour descriptions.


The development of fairness – egalitarian children grow into meritocratic teens

By Ed Yong | May 28, 2010 9:00 am

Children_fairnessTwo children, Anne and Carla, have worked together to make a cake and they have to split it between them. Anne says that she’s the bigger cake aficionado and deserves the lion’s share. But Carla demands the bigger slice since she did most of the cooking. A nosy third party, Brenda, argues that the only fair call would be for the two girls to split the cake equally. Which is the right path?

There’s no obvious right answer and different people will probably side with different viewpoints. Dilemmas like this have been the subject of much philosophical debate, and they’re a common part of everyday life. How do you allocate pay rises between your staff? How should the UK’s new government split its budget among its various departments?

According to Norwegian scientist Ingvild Almås, our attitudes to such questions change during our childhood and adolescence, as we start changing our opinions on what counts as ‘fair’. Children tend to shun any form of inequality – they’d agree with Brenda. But as they enter the turmoil of adolescence, they become more meritocratic and are happier to divide wealth according to individual achievements, as Carla suggested. As their teens draw to a close, they (like Anne) pay greater heed to efficiency, making choices of maximum benefit to the group.

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Nominations open for the 3 Quarks Daily prize in science blogging

By Ed Yong | May 27, 2010 12:05 pm

3quarksdailyThe excellent blog 3 Quarks Daily have opened nominations for their second Prize in Science. This, year, the prize will be judged by Richard Dawkins and there will be three winners.

If any of you would like to nominate a post from Not Exactly Rocket Science for this prestigious award, I would obviously be very grateful. Here’s how:

  • Place the URL for the blog post of your choice in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win.
  • Each of you can only nominate one blog post.
  • The post must have been written after May 23, 2009, which gives you around 250 to choose from.
  • Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries so get in there quickly.
  • Try not to choose duck sex. That’s been done 😉

Thanks folks.


Racial bias weakens our ability to feel someone else’s pain

By Ed Yong | May 27, 2010 12:00 pm

HandsYou’re watching a video of a needle piercing an anonymous hand, sinking slowly into the web between the thumb and index finger. You wince as you imagine the pain that the other person must feel, and for good reason. As you watch, you nervous system essentially duplicates the experience, responding as if you were vicariously feeling the pain yourself. This is typical of what happens when people see others in pain, but Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti has found an important exception to the rule. Racial bias can negate this ability to feel the pain of someone from a different ethnic group.

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MORE ABOUT: bias, hands, needle, pain, prejudice, Race

Nectocaris: mystery fossil was actually a 500-million-year-old squid relative

By Ed Yong | May 26, 2010 1:00 pm


In the Canadian Rockies, a horde of 91 squid-like animals have risen from the depths, millions years after their demise. This isn’t the plot of a terrible B-movie; it’s the doing of Martin Smith and Jean-Bernard Caron from the University of Toronto. Together, they have solved a mystery some 500 million years in the making.

Smith and Caron have been giving a makeover to an enigmatic creature called Nectocaris. Until recently, only one specimen had ever been found. Its poor state and puzzling combination of features made it nigh impossible to classify. But not anymore – by finding a staggering 91 extra specimens, Smith and Caron have revealed that Nectocaris is the earliest known cephalopod. It’s the great-great-great-(etc)-granduncle of today’s octopuses, squids and cuttlefish.

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Money weakens ability to savour life’s little pleasures

By Ed Yong | May 25, 2010 10:00 am


Today is Towel Day, where fans around the world celebrate the works of beloved author Douglas Adams, a master of witty prose and observational humour. Consider his description of money:

“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

Adams was right to highlight the perceived link between money and happiness. Many people dream of the life they could lead if they won the lottery, a world of mansions, fine restaurants, and first-class travel. But few consider the costs. These fineries could lead to enjoyment overload, compromising our ability to savour life’s simpler pleasures, whether it’s a walk on a sunny day or the taste of a bar of chocolate. This idea of wealth as a double-edged sword is widely held and while it’s easy to suggest that it springs from jealousy, a new set of experiments supports the idea.

Jordi Quoidbach from the University of Liege showed that richer people aren’t as good as savouring everyday pleasures than their poorer counterparts. Even the mere thought of money can make us take mundane joys for granted. Normal people who were reminded about wealth spent less time appreciating a humble bar of chocolate and derived less enjoyment from it.

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Protect biodiversity, alleviate poverty: the surprise benefits of protected areas

By Ed Yong | May 24, 2010 3:00 pm


Last Saturday, on the United Nation’s International Day for Biodiversity, an open letter from hundreds of British organisations warned of the importance of our rapidly eroding biodiversity, while a UN report discussed the economic consequences of this erosion. The general principle of conserving biodiversity has inarguable value but there’s much more debate about how best to do it.

Take national parks and reserves –these protected areas save wildlife but they stop local people from using the land for farming and from using its resources. The argument that such limitations prioritise “cuddly animals” over “poor people” is particularly sharp in developing countries, where rural communities are said to bear the costs of protected areas without reaping their benefits.

But a new study in Costa Rica and Thailand says that such objections are unfounded. By actually comparing similar communities on a small scale, Kwaw Andam from Washington’s International Food Policy Research Institute has shown that protected areas actually help to alleviate poverty.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservation, Environment

“Weedy” mice dominate a warming world while other small mammals suffer

By Ed Yong | May 23, 2010 1:00 pm

Deer_mouseToday’s mammals are facing the twin threats of a rapidly warming planet and increasingly intrusive human activity. As usual, the big species hog the limelight. The world waits on bated breath to hear about the fates of polar bears, whales and elephants, while smaller and more unobtrusive species are ignored. But smaller mammals are still vital parts of their ecosystems and it’s important to know how they will fare in a warmer world. Now, thanks to Jessica Blois from Stanford University and a hoard of new fossils, we have an idea. As they say, all this has happened before

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