Archive for October, 2010

I've got your missing links right here (30th October, 2010)

By Ed Yong | October 30, 2010 12:00 pm


By far my favourite story of the week: drunken 19th-century cobra-wrangling. “Girling, emboldened by gin, had walked past the railing in the reptile house and proceeded to lift out a Morocco Snake from its glass-fronted cage. Despite the protests of his friend, he draped this snake around the unfortunate Stewart, crying “I am inspired!”… Stewart went about his work only to hear his friend cry “Now for the cobra”–a statement which must have chilled him into instant sobriety.”

“Deep in your brain there are probably several thousand neurons that will respond only to the sight of Lady Gaga.” Carl Zimmer teaches you how to harness your Marilyn Monroe neurons, while the BBC covers the same story with some crap about dream-recording.

“When I opened the new certificate, I found that the name of my mother was in fact my sister’s.” How Nobel Prize-winner Paul Nurse got the greatest genetic insight of his life, by Robin McKie.

An excellent and personal overview of the successful Science is Vital campaign by Della, one of its ringleaders.

A robot with pudgy, beanbag-like hands can grip a variety of objects (and would still have made a better bench scientist than me).

Mark Henderson covers the 1,000 Genomes Project, the study that shows how nobody’s perfect.

Where did all these monkeys come from? – Fossil teeth may hint at an Asian origin for anthropoid primates, says Brian Switek.

A giant virus has been found in a Cafeteria. Meanwhile, Ars Technica’s coverage attracts a grammar idiot, and an absolutely legendary takedownA great interview with an awesome headline. Katherine Harmon talks to the folks who sequenced Ozzy Osbourne’s genome.

A great analysis at Neuroanthropology about the role of cooking in human evolution.

A fifth of animals with backbones are endangered. England’s footballers are in the clear then.

“Young New Caledonian crows learn to use tools by going to “tool-school“, where they can observe their parents at work.”

More after the jump

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links, Uncategorized

Two ways of spotting mistakes while typing

By Ed Yong | October 28, 2010 2:00 pm


I’m typing about typing. As my fingers flit over the keyboard, my brain is hard at work. It is accessing my knowledge of language, processing the information taken in through my eyes and fingers, and coordinating the movements of my fingers. And all the while, I’m looking for errors. Spotting mistakes is a crucial part of typing (and indeed, life) and according to Gordon Logan and Matthew Crump, it’s a more complicated business than it might first appear.

Using some clever digital trickery, the duo from Vanderbilt University found that the brain has two different ways of detecting typos. One is based on the characters that appear on the screen, and the other depends on the strokes of our fingers, as they tap away at the keys.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology
MORE ABOUT: errors, mistakes, typing

The strumming assassin that hunts spiders on their own webs

By Ed Yong | October 26, 2010 7:25 pm


For most insects, walking onto a spider’s web and disturbing the sticky threads would be a very bad idea. The distinctive vibrations of wriggling prey only serve to draw the spider closer and inevitably ends in the insect getting bitten, wrapped in silk and digested.  But this story doesn’t always unfold in the spider’s favour. Some vibrations aren’t made by helpless prey, but by an assassin lurking on the web.

The assassin bug (Stenolemus bituberus) is a spider-hunter. Sometimes, it simply sneaks up to spiders on their own webs before striking, plunging its dagger-like mouthparts into its prey. But it also has a subtler technique. Sitting on the web, it plucks the silken threads with its legs, mimicking the frequency of weakly struggling prey. These deceptive vibes are an irresistible draw to the spider, who rush towards their own demise. The bug effectively has a way of ordering for delivery when it doesn’t want to go out for a meal.

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Photo safari – Californian wildlife

By Ed Yong | October 26, 2010 9:00 am

I’ve just come back from a three-week jaunt in the US. While I recover from the jetlag (yes, I sleep, try not to faint), here are some photos, all wild and all taken by me and my wife during our loop around northern California. Fresh science will resume tomorrow.



30 minutes of fame

By Ed Yong | October 25, 2010 3:55 pm

Here are some photos from the award ceremony for the National Academies Science Communication Prize, which I attended at Washington DC last Friday. All photos are credited to Paul Kennedy, who did an incredible job at making me look like a non-idiot. His full selection of photos are here and here.

The whole thing was very sincere and classy; my wife was there to share it with me; I managed to avoid tripping, breaking the certificate or insulting anyone very important, and I actually got to say the words, “I’d like to thank the Academy for this great honour”. It was a great moment, so forgive the rather unBritish indulgence of posting the photos.



New languages evolve in rapid bursts

By Ed Yong | October 22, 2010 10:00 am


This is an old article, reposted from the original WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science. I’m on holiday for the moment, but you can expect a few new pieces here and there (as well as some exciting news…)

The birth of new languages is accompanied by a burst of rapid evolution consisting of large changes in vocabulary that are followed by long periods of relatively slower change.

Languages are often compared to living species because of the way in which they diverge into new tongues over time in an ever-growing linguistic tree. Some critics have claimed that this comparison is a superficial one, a nice metaphor but nothing more.

But the new study by Quentin Atkinson, now at the University of Oxford, suggests that languages evolve at a similar stop-and-start pace, which uncannily echoes a long-standing theory in biology, known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’. The theory’s followers claim that life on Earth also evolved at an uneven pace, full of rapid bursts and slow periods.

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Malawi cichlids – how aggressive males create diversity

By Ed Yong | October 21, 2010 10:00 am


This is an old article, reposted from the original WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science. I’m on holiday for the moment, but you can expect a few new pieces here and there (as well as some exciting news…)

Certain groups of animals show a remarkable capacity for quickly evolving into new species to seize control of unexploited niches in the environment. And among these ecological opportunists, there are few better examples than the cichlids, a group of freshwater fishes that are one of the most varied group of back-boned animals on the planet.

In the words of Edward O. Wilson, the entire lineage seems “poised to expand.” The Great Lakes of Africa – Tanganyika, Malawi and Victoria – swarm with a multitude of different species; Lake Malawi alone houses over 500 that live nowhere else in the world. All of these forms arose from a common ancestor in a remarkably short span of time. Now, a new study suggests that this explosive burst of diversity has been partly fuelled by rivalry between hostile males.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animals, Evolution, Fish, Speciation

The origin of complex life – it was all about energy

By Ed Yong | October 20, 2010 1:00 pm


The 21st century is all about conserving energy. The push towards energy-efficient buildings, vehicles and lifestyles is both fashionable and necessary, but it’s also ironic. Our pattern of ever-increasing energy consumption is deeply rooted in our history, not just since the Industrial Revolution, but since the origin of all complex life on Earth.

According to a new hypothesis, put forward by Nick Lane and Bill Martin, we are all natural-born gas-guzzlers. Our very existence, and that of every animal, plant and fungus, depended on an ancient partnership, forged a few billion years ago, which gave our ancestors access to unparalleled supplies of energy and allowed them to escape from the shackles of simplicity.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Evolution, Select

When in doubt, shout – why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates

By Ed Yong | October 19, 2010 11:00 am

EndisnearYou don’t have to look very far for examples of people holding on to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands still hold to the idea that vaccines cause autism, that all life was created a few thousand years ago, and even that drinking industrial bleach is a good idea. Look at comment threads across the internet and you’ll inevitably find legions of people who boldly support for these ideas in the face of any rational argument.

That might be depressing, but it’s not unexpected. In a new study, David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University have found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. The duo carried out three experiments involving issues such as animal testing, dietary preferences, and loyalty towards Macs over PCs. In each one, they subtly manipulated their subjects’ confidence and found the same thing: when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.

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Editing Ebola – how to tame one of the world’s deadliest viruses

By Ed Yong | October 18, 2010 9:00 am


This is an old article, reposted from the original WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science. I’m travelling around at the moment so the next few weeks will have some classic pieces and a few new ones I prepared earlier.

In a list of the most dangerous jobs in the world, ‘Ebola researcher’ must surely rank near the top. But if new research is anything to go by, it may soon fall by several places. An international team of scientists have recently found a way to neuter the virus, making it easy to study without risking your life. The altered virus looks like Ebola and behaves like Ebola, but it can’t kill like Ebola. It should make studying the virus easier and most importantly, safer.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health, Viruses

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