Archive for March, 2011

Science writing I’d pay to read – March 2011

By Ed Yong | March 31, 2011 3:07 pm


It’s that time of the month again – time to select ten blog posts for my Science Writer Tip-Jar initiative. For those new to this, here’s the low-down:

  • Throughout the blogosphere, people produce fantastic writing for free. That’s great, but I believe that good writers should get paid for good work, or at least that people should be willing to pay for good writing. I am.
  • Every month, I choose ten pieces that I really enjoyed and donate £3 to the author. There are no formal criteria other than I found them unusually interesting, enjoyable and/or important. Pieces where writers were paid for their work are excluded.
  • There are buttons on the sidebar for you to contribute too if you wish. The “Support Science Writers” button goes to the writers. At the end of April, the chosen ten will get equal shares of the pot. The “Support NERS” button goes to me; I’ll match a third of the donations and send that to the chosen writers too.

So without further ado, here are the picks:

And just in case people are interested, last month, the tip-jar initiative raised exactly US$200, which I have split among the writers I chose in March.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Tip jar

Pocket Science – wasps airlift ants away from food

By Ed Yong | March 31, 2011 9:00 am

It’s not a very fair fight. In one corner is a tiny ant. In the other is a large wasp, two hundred times heavier and capable of flying. If the two of them compete for the same piece of food, there ought to be no contest. But sometimes the wasp doesn’t even give the ant the honour of stepping into the ring. It picks up the smaller insect in its jaws, flies it to a distant site and drops it from a height, dazed but unharmed.

Julien Grangier and Philip Lester observed these ignominious defeats by pitting native New Zealand ants (Prolasius advenus) against the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). The insects competed over open cans of tuna while the scientists filmed them.

Their videos revealed that ants would sometimes aggressively defend their food by rushing, biting and spraying them with acid. But typically, they were docile and tolerated the competing wasp. Generally, the wasp was similarly passive but on occasion, it picked up the offending ant and dropped it several centimetres away. In human terms, this would be like being catapulted half the length of a football field.

The wasps never tried to eat the ants, and they never left with one in their jaws. They just wanted them out of the picture. Indeed, the more ants on the food, the further away the wasps dropped them. This may seem like an odd strategy but at least half of the dropped ants never returned to the food. Perhaps they were physically disoriented from their impromptu flight, or perhaps they had lost the chemical trail. Either way, the wasps could feed with fewer chances of taking a faceful of acid.

Reference: Grangier and Lester. 2011. A novel interference behaviour: invasive wasps remove ants from resources and drop them from a height. Biology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.0165

The writing process

By Ed Yong | March 30, 2011 3:00 pm

On Twitter, John Pavlus recently asked me which bit of the writing process I like most – researching and collating information, or actually getting it down on paper.

So to answer that question more fully (and because it’s been a bit of a slow week), here’s a graph depicting my process of writing a feature. Enjoyment’s on the vertical axis, time runs along the horizontal. This applies to longer features rather than blog posts – those are more straightforward and less emotionally variable.

(And yes,  I know “regurgitated” is spelled wrongly in the image. I can’t be bothered to change it)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism, Personal

A year at Discover

By Ed Yong | March 29, 2011 6:57 pm

I like noting anniversaries, even belated ones. I hopped across to Discover from ScienceBlogs a year ago last Saturday and as if to mark the occasion, it’s been a record-breaking month in terms of traffic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being here among illustrious company, and it’s given me a lot of impetus to up my game, and play around with new ways of talking about science.

My sincere thanks to Amos Zeeberg for recruiting me, Gemma Shusterman for providing speedy and kick-ass tech support and Eliza Strickland, Andy Moseman, Joe Calamia, and many other Discover staffers for helping to promote this blog. And of course, an even bigger shout-out to everyone who continues to read Not Exactly Rocket Science and who have passed links to their social circles.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal

Why is aspirin toxic to cats?

By Ed Yong | March 29, 2011 11:00 am

One animal’s cure can be another animal’s poison. Take aspirin – it’s one of the most popular drugs on the market and we readily use it as a painkiller. But cats are extremely sensitive to aspirin, and even a single extra-strength pill can trigger a fatal overdose. Vets will sometimes prescribe aspirin to cats but only under very controlled doses.

The problem is that cats can’t break down the drug effectively. They take a long time to clear it from their bodies, so it’s easy for them to build up harmful concentrations. This defect is unusual – humans clearly don’t suffer from it, and neither do dogs. All cats, however, seem to share the same problem, from house tabbies to African lions.

Now, Binu Shrestha from the Tufts University School of Medicine has found that cats may have developed their strange sensitivity because of their lifestyle as specialist hunters. Their penchant for meat could have ultimately turned aspirin into their kryptonite.

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Antarctic lake hints at a world of virus-attacking viruses

By Ed Yong | March 28, 2011 3:00 pm

At first glance, Antarctica’s Organic Lake looks hostile to life. Its water is expectedly cold, extremely salty and starved of oxygen. But look at it under the microscope, and you’ll see teeming masses. There are bacteria and algae. There are viruses that infect the algae. And most astonishing of all, there are viruses attacking the viruses. These are virophages – literally “virus eaters” – and they are third of their kind to be discovered.

The first virophage, known affably as Sputnik, was discovered by Bernard La Scola and Christelle Desnues in 2008. It was an incredible find, and the first time that anyone had seen a virus targeting another virus. La Scola and Desnues found Sputnik in the unlikeliest of places – the dirty water of a Parisian cooling tower. There, it targets one of the world’s largest viruses, known as “mamavirus”, which in turn infects an amoeba.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics, Viruses

Spider-boarding insect preserved in amber

By Ed Yong | March 28, 2011 10:00 am

You’ve heard of extreme ironing. You’ve heard of extreme sitting. Both are fairly new inventions, but the craziest extreme sport of all has been around for at least 44 million years. It’s spider-boarding.

Spider-boarding is practiced by a group of insects called mantidflies. The larvae of most mantidfly species are fussy diners – they only eat the eggs of spiders. That seems like a dangerous enough strategy, for spiders are formidable hunters. But it gets crazier – some mantidflies find spider egg sacs by hitching a ride on the backs of adults.

Now, Michael Ohl from Berlin’s Museum of Natural History has found a beautiful example of this behaviour amidst the museum’s collections. It’s a 44 million year old piece of amber with a spider inside it. And there, latched onto its underside just as its modern relatives do, is a mantidfly larva. In the photos above, it’s facing to the right and you can clearly see the three legs on its right side.

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I've got your missing links right here (25 March 2011)

By Ed Yong | March 27, 2011 12:23 pm

Top ten picks

As with last week, the Japan/Fukushima coverage counts as “one”:

Wow. Just wow. An interactive timeline of Middle East protests at the Guardian. I’ve been waiting for something like this since they started.

We know how human populations react to two nuclear bombs. How does a coral reef deal with 23 of them? Thomas Hayden reports.

Nuralagus rexgiant extinct bunny, couldn’t hop, tiny ears, once mistaken for a tortoise. Pass me the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch… Meanwhile, Brian Switek discusses the giant “bear otter” that got much less publicity.

Hannah Waters on the danger of appealing stories and anecdata, featuring spider-saturated trees and Chernobyl.

Listen to Adam Rutherford’s excellent Science Betrayed, a radio documentary about scientific fraud, featuring Piltdown Man, Marc Hauser and an interview with the still unrepentant Andrew Wakefield. It’s possible that you won’t be able to listen to this outside of the UK…

Imperial Sci-Comms students have completed their group projects and the results are wonderful.

Houdini versus the paranormal, featuring Scientific American, fisticuffs and Arthur Conan Doyle

“Scientists take the wonder and beauty out of everything.” XKCD debunks a common trope

“It was rather like finding a tiny star buried in the dirt” – Deborah Blum on the discovery of radium, in a stunning three-part series.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links

Beetle turns itself into a wheel (that's how it rolls)

By Ed Yong | March 25, 2011 10:00 am

The southern beaches of Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, USA, are part of a national park. To protect the area, only residents and staff are allowed to drive their vehicles on the sands. But there are plenty of wheels nonetheless – small, living ones.

The beaches are home to the beautiful coastal tiger beetle (Cicindela dorsalis media). Tiger beetles are among the fastest of insect runners, but their larvae are slow and worm-like. If they’re exposed and threatened, running isn’t an option. Instead, they turn themselves into living wheels. They leap into the air, coil their bodies into a loop, and hit the ground spinning. The wind carries them to safety.

The fact that a long, worm-like animal can jump and roll is amazing in its own right. The ability is even more remarkable because the tiger beetle is “one of the best-studied insect species in North America” and until a few years ago, no one had ever seen it doing this. Alan Harvey and Sarah Zukoff were the first. They write, “[Sarah] was walking through some unusually loose sandy drifts on Cumberland Island and happened to kick up some C. d. media larvae, which promptly started wheeling.”

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Is that a double helix round your neck or are you just pleased to see me?

By Ed Yong | March 24, 2011 9:00 am

In which we take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to celebrate… a scarf. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary strip of black and grey wool, but if you look down its length, an iconic hidden pattern emerges (see below).

Yes, thanks to this present from my awesome friend Alice Bell, I now get to wind an illusory double helix around my neck. There’s probably a joke about histones to be made.

The DNA illusion scarf is Alice’s own design (video here). In her own words:

DNA and illusion knitting seemed to be made for one another. The ladders of the striping pattern twist round those of the helix as purls and knit-stitches collect  to display a regular shape. I also like that you have know how to look at the scarf to really see the pattern. There’s an “OH!” moment when you spot it. Symbolic of the science it reflects, the pattern isn’t self-evident.

If you’re not already doing so, you can and should read Alice’s sharp musings on science communication at Through the Looking Glass, and on knitting at Slipped Stitch

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal
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