Archive for January, 2011

When teaching restrains discovery

By Ed Yong | January 18, 2011 11:00 am

I have no formal training in journalism. The most instruction I ever received came from a two-day science communication course when I was still a hopeful research student in a molecular biology laboratory. The course was a whirlwind tour through the elements of good science writing – avoiding jargon, the value of active sentences, good openers, and so on. I have learned everything else on my own, through seven years of practicing regularly, experimenting with new approaches, and watching what others do well.

That two-day course might seem trivial in the face of everything that’s happened since. But it exemplifies what I have always found to be the most effective style of teaching. It left me enthused enough to go off and explore on my own, and it provided just enough instruction that I could do so from a running start. It launched a run of exploration, learning and fun. And this experience is relevant a longstanding debate about the best way to teach children, especially very young ones.

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Scattered reflections on Science Online 2011 (#scio11)

By Ed Yong | January 17, 2011 10:08 am

ScienceOnline 2011 is over and the daze of normality resumes. It’s hard to describe the feeling to people who have never been to the conference. Put it this way: you spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.

As I said last year, ScienceOnline was a valuable chance to meet friends for the first time. It gave us a chance to take relationships that had begun on a screen and cement them in the flesh. It allowed us to trade ideas with like-minded people, and to gaze deeply into our navels so that we can do better at the things we love. As someone said on Twitter, it’s more like a family reunion than a conference.

The sessions were consistently great and the unconference format works wonders. Even when I wasn’t a panellist, I felt no less involved in the sessions I attended. (I’ll stick some write-ups later after catching up with regular blogging and I’ll collate some links to what others write.)

Some people have criticised Scio11 for selling out so quickly, with the implication that it must cater for a cliquey audience. But many of the delegates were first-timers; at least half of the people I talked to weren’t there last year. The reason why ScienceOnline is so successful is that the people who are there are the ones who really want to be. They regularly engage with the online community, they take part in discussions throughout the year, and they are ready and waiting to sign up. This doesn’t weaken the conference; it makes the conference. It creates a fantastic grassroots, everyone-mucking-in atmosphere. It’s a conference by the community for the community. I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Most inspiring moment: The keynote speech from Robert Krulwich from NPR’s RadioLab, who combines storytelling, sound effects and humility into a singular type of aural poetry. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure, the talk was a great reminder of how far I have yet to go.

Biggest fanboy moment: The aforementioned Robert Krulwich (him again?) came up to me after the Friday night dinner and told me that he reads this blog and really likes it. Outside, I was the epitome of smooth gratitude. Inside: crazy happy skippy dance. <waves at Robert>

Most startling moment: During the visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I can only assume that I antagonised one of the ruffed lemurs in some way because with no warning, it started making an alarm call that sounded like a sonic nuke going off in a narrow echoing corridor. “Show us on the lemur doll where the science writer touched you…”

Best souvenir: An awesome It’s Only Rocket Science mug that Karen James bought for me from the Kennedy Space Center.

Autograph score: Three. I have signed copies of Written in Stone by Brian Switek, Superbug by Maryn McKenna and The Science of Kissing by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Best opening line to a conversation I walked into: “Why does Chewbacca have a crossbow?”

Worst opening line to a conversation I walked into: “We’re discussing Noam Chomsky.”


Once again, I am utterly indebted to Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker for giving me the chance to take part and for putting their blood, sweat and tears into making such an incredible event.

And finally, it was great to catch up with old friends and colleagues, to put some new faces to familiar names. For their amicable chat and great company, I thank  Carl Zimmer, SciCurious, David Dobbs, Alice Bell, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Christie Wilcox, Janet Stemwedel, John Rennie, Kaitlin Thaney, Maryn McKenna, Virginia Hughes, Steve Silberman, David Kroll, Brian Switek, Ivan Oransky, Hillary Rosner, Emily Anthes, Tom Levenson, Amos Zeeberg, Richard Grant, Jenny Rohn, Alok Jha, Liz Neeley, Arikia Millikan, DeLene Beeland, Sophia Collins, Karen James, Clifton Wiens, Kate Clancy, Seth Mnookin, Carmen Drahl, Colin Schultz, Jason Goldman, Christine Russell, Andrea Kuszewski, Olivia Koski, Hannah Waters, Craig McClain, Kevin Zelnio, Miriam Goldstein, Joanne Manaster, Marie-Claire Shanahan, John Timmer, Chris Rowan, Lucas Brouwers, Brian Mossop, Glendon Mellow, , James Hyrnyshyn, Jag Bhalla, Taylor Dobbs, Jamie Vernon, Robert Krulwich, Tyler Dukes, Catherine Anderson, Dan Ferber, Robin Lloyd, Tim de Chant, Paul Raeburn, Mark Hahnel, Scott Rosenberg, Diane Kelly, Matt Soniak, Amanda Moon, Eric Michael Johnson, Dave Mosher, John Logsdon, Nancy Shute, Zuska, Catherine Zivkovic, Chris Mooney, Peter Janiszewski, Emily Finke,Allie Wilkinson, Viv Raper, Dave Munger, Josh Rosneau, Misha Angrist, David Orr, Melody Dye, Greg Gbur, Lisa Jarvis, Holly Bik, Stacy Baker, Carin Bondar, John Hawks, Brian Malow, Mike Lisieski, Jeremy Yoder, Jim Hutchins, Psi Wavefunction, Holly Tucker, Walter Jessen, Steve Mirsky, Emily Willingham, Maia Szalavitz, Lyndell Bade, Robert Mitchum, Karyn Traphagen, Michael Barton, Pascale Lane, Jason Thibeault, Krystal D’Costa, Rhitu Chatterjee, Darlene Cavalier, Lou Woodley, Stephanie Zvan, David Shiffman and the many, many other people who I’ve undoubtedly forgotten because it’s late and I’m jetlagged. If I have forgotten you, you’re probably called Emily or John.

Photo by Lou FCD


Photo safari – Duke Lemur Centre

By Ed Yong | January 17, 2011 7:49 am

On Friday, I visited the Duke Lemur Centre, as part of the Science Online 2011 conference. Given that it was winter, we didn’t get to see the lemurs out and about, but even indoors, they were fun to watch.



Writing about exam worries for 10 minutes improves student results

By Ed Yong | January 13, 2011 2:00 pm

It’s a feeling you’ve almost certainly experienced before – the fear of waiting for an exam to start, heart thumping, palms sweating and brow furrowing. You worry about whether you’ve prepared adequately, and about the consequences of failure. So why not write these worries down? Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock have found that students do better in exams if they spend the prior ten minutes writing about their worries. Even better, the most anxious students showed the biggest improvements.

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Flipper bands impair penguin survival and breeding success

By Ed Yong | January 12, 2011 1:00 pm

In the wild, you may occasionally see a penguin wearing a metal band around the base of one of its flippers. These bands aren’t the latest in penguin bling – they’re tools used by scientists to track the lives and movements of individuals. The bands are controversial – some say that they are innocuous, while others argue that they slow and hurt the very birds that scientist are trying to conserve. Now, Claire Saraux from the University of Strasbourg has evidence that might swing  the debate – a ten-year study showing that banded birds die sooner and raise fewer chicks.

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Foxes use the Earth’s magnetic field as a targeting system

By Ed Yong | January 11, 2011 7:00 pm

It’s winter on a British meadow, and a red fox is on the prowl. The snow-covered ground masks the sight of its prey but the fox can still hear the telltale rustle of a mouse. It creeps forward slowly, listening intently with erect ears. Once it pinpoints the mouse’s location, it leaps into the air to surprise its prey with a strike from above. This pounce, known as ‘mousing’, is a common sight but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Jaroslav Červený has found that when red foxes pounce, they mostly jump in a north-easterly direction. He thinks that they’re using the Earth’s magnetic field to hunt.

Červený spent over two years studying wild red foxes in the Czech Republic, with the help of a 23-strong team of wildlife biologists and experienced hunters. The team recorded almost 600 mousing jumps, performed by 84 foxes at a wide variety of locations and times.

They found that foxes strongly prefer to jump in a north-easterly direction, around 20 degrees off from magnetic north. This fixed heading was important for their success as hunters. They were more likely to make a kill if they jumped along their preferred axis, particularly if their prey was hidden by high cover or snow. If they pounced to the north-east, they killed on 73% of their attacks; if they jumped in the opposite direction, they success rate stayed at 60%. In all other directions, only 18% of their pounces were successful.

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ScienceOnline 2011, here I come

By Ed Yong | January 11, 2011 5:41 pm

On Thursday, weather permitting, I’ll be flying over to North Carolina for ScienceOnline 2011, undoubtedly my conference highlight of the year. It’s a chance to catch up with some good and far-off friends and to meet some others for the first time. It will also be a busy trip. At last year’s conference, I chaired one session and this year, I appear to be inflicting myself on the other delegates no less than four times. Poor, poor people.

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No love for outsiders – oxytocin boosts favouritism towards our own ethnic or cultural group

By Ed Yong | January 11, 2011 9:00 am

Few molecules have a reputation as glowing as that of oxytocin. Often billed as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin has been linked to virtually every positive aspect of human behaviour, including trust, social skills, empathy, generosity, cooperation, and even orgasm. And to this extensive list, we can now add racial and cultural bias.

Despite its misleading labels, oxytocin has a dark side. Just two months ago, Jennifer Bartz showed that it can make people remember their mothers as less caring and more distant if they themselves are anxious about social relationships. Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin makes people more cooperative in a social game, if they had met their partner beforehand. If they played with an anonymous partner who they knew nothing about, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative. “Oxytocin does not unconditionally support trust,” she says.

Now, Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam has found that sniffs of oxytocin make us more biased towards peers from our own ethnic or cultural group, versus those from other groups. Bartz commends the new study, saying, “Along with other recent reports, [the new study] suggests that although oxytocin clearly plays a role in prosociality and empathy, the way it does this is more nuanced than previously thought. This is not entirely surprising given the complexity of human relations.”
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The sexual battles of flatworms: barbed sperm, mating rings, traumatic insemination, and going down on yourself

By Ed Yong | January 10, 2011 3:03 pm

In the wet sands of Italy’s beaches, an epic battle of the sexes is playing out. The combatants are flatworms and though their bodies are simple, their sexual habits are anything but. Take the common species Macrostomum lignano. After sex, if a female has been filled with unwanted sperm from an undesirable partner, it can double over, put its mouth over its genital opening, and suck the sperm back out. It’s an easy fix that gives the female control over who fertilises her eggs.

But the sperm can put up a fight. It has a very different shape to the tadpole-like figure of human sperm. At its front, it has a sinuous ‘feeler’ that is uses to anchor itself into the walls of the female genitals. Further down, two large backwards-pointing bristles also help to hold the sperm in place. These barbed sperm can’t be sucked out easily. Even after the worm tries, you can often see several sperm sticking out of the genital opening.

There is another twist to this tale. For this flatworm, every individual is both male and female – they are hermaphrodites. When two of them mate, their male organs (the stylets) penetrate each other’s female organs (the antrums) at the same time. They form a little sexual ring, often spinning as they mate. Watch them go at it here.

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I've got your missing links right here – 08th January 2010

By Ed Yong | January 8, 2011 12:00 pm

Top twelve picks

Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Science of Kissing is finally out. I wish I had time to write a full review, but here’s the gist: the book is one of the most accessible works of popular science I’ve read in a while. It takes a whirlwind tour through the world of kissing, from cultural studies to animal behaviour to neuroscience. Every chapter is perfectly judged for a general reader, with enough detail to stimulate the mind but without getting bogged down in anything. The prose is crisp and light-hearted but no less scholarly for it. The result is  a quick, fun and informative read – a great example of taking a fascinating topic and running with it. For a taster, try this excerpt, read Razib Khan’s full review, or read Sheril’s latest piece in the New Statesman about why a kiss still outperforms a dating website.

OpenLab 2010 is here, collecting 50 of the best blog posts of the last year. I helped to judge it and I’m honoured to have an entry among the 50. It’s a great list and includes some favourites of mine from the last year by Steve Silberman, Carl Zimmer, Eric Michael Johnson, David Dobbs, Brian Switek, Deborah Blum, Emily Anthes, Christie Wilcox and PalMD. On top of that, you have posts by such illustrious folk as Phil Plait, SciCurious, Olivia Judson, Lucas Brouwers, Hannah Waters, Mo Costandi, DeLene Beeland, Darren Naish and Jason Goldman (who edited and coordinated the whole thing). It’s worth your time.

The Internet was clogged by reports of birds dying en masse and falling from the sky, followed by similar reports about fish and crabs. Google is tracking the deaths on a map. Alexis Madrigal was one of the first to point out that “it’s actually really strange how often thousands of birds die at once” and others have pointed out that these die-offs aren’t uncommon. Meanwhile, I took a shocking photo that reveals the latest tragic victim of the Aflockalypse, and the Hairpin decodes the pattern of the deaths.

What if people die because of your research? Synthetic chemist David Nichols describes how his research on psychedelic compounds has been abused — with fatal consequences. David Kroll has a great follow-up on the social responsibility of scientists.

“The placenta was neither washed nor dried.” Out-of-context science: in which science articles are badly quoted in ways that are interesting but completely meaningless

“Once upon a time, infants were quietly removed from orphanages and delivered to the home economics programs at elite U.S. colleges, where young women were eager to learn the science of mothering.” Emily Anthes investigates the story of “practice babies”.

When life DOESN’T find a way: Hannah Waters muses on the instances when living things don’t adapt.

A 10-yr-old girl becomes the youngest person to discover a supernova, the little overachiever.

Vanity Fair has a great feature by Sara Ellison about Wikileaks, and how it’s still critically dependent on mainstream media organisations. The Atlantic has a great piece on Assanage, the Guardian and the back-story behind the leaked leaks. And this excellent analysis of the Vanity Fair piece says, “”Wikileaks is like the blogosphere before it became partially integrated with traditional media.”

The now-infamous Andrew Wakefield paper on vaccines and autism has been branded as a “fraud” by the BMJ. There’s really nothing new here, but it’s a chance to look at a fascinating case study in journalism. Here are two pieces by CNN – same network, same story. One excellent broadcast interview by Anderson Cooper; one god-awful he-said-she-said report by various unidentified reporters. Meanwhile, you might as well read Brian Deer’s summary of the fraud, if you haven’t heard about it a million times already. Have a look at Seth Mnookin’s interesting pop at the BMJ for their PR burst. And Emily Willingham breaks new ground by actually asking an interesting question: Where are the two other non-retracting authors on that Wakefield paper?

“I’m not playing God!” insists bearded, thunderbolt-wielding Scientist” and other tales in Dean Burnett’s hilarious satirical roundup of 2010

“Like a Gray’s Anatomy colouring book, come to life” Google Body lets you search, zoom, rotate body parts

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