Archive for April, 2011

I've got your missing links right here (30 April 2011)

By Ed Yong | April 30, 2011 12:00 pm

Top thirteen picks

Euthanasia Coaster – how to design an actual killer coaster, by Jennifer Ouellette. Note, this post features Fabio vs a goose

Smash moons together rip Saturn’s rings off destroy universes yeeaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh

A neurologist finishes his last paper, on the disease that’s killing him.

Beautiful stuff about lyrebirds as historians, by Robert Kruylwich. Nature’s Living Tape Recorders May Be Telling Us Secrets. This is how it’s done, folks.

Inspired and appalled by this atrocity from Cell, I give you Not Exactly Royal Wedding Science. Now can we all please shut up about it? Except for Heather Pringle and John Rennie who have provided some wonderful tie-ins – one on inbreeding among bees and another involving axe murders and death pits

“One of the most important decisions a writer makes is one a reader never sees” – to do a story or not. I couldn’t agree more with Paul Raeburn that the New York Times’s profile of Andrew Wakefield (another one?) is a story that shouldn’t have been written.

Tiger Moms v Orchid Children. A post about nature of nurturance and resilience, by David Dobbs.

How sorting out hookworm infections boosted the economy of the southern US. (This looks like a fascinating new blog)

Jonah Lehrer makes the psychological case for knowing more about wine

Is it possible to analyze DNA from Egyptian mummies? Jo Marchant investigates.

Measles: it’s incredibly hard and expensive to stop. Here’s Maryn McKenna vividly describing the cost of vaccine refusal.

Absolutely stunning origami X-ray animals

In tribute to the legendary Tom Eisner, Jennifer Frazer’s takes us on a tour of the chemical world of insects & plants, featuring bombardier beetles, bolas spiders and more

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links

In African rivers, an electric Tower of Babel

By Ed Yong | April 28, 2011 2:00 pm

The rivers and lakes of Africa are filled with conversations that you cannot hear or take part in. These chats are conducted by fishes called mormyrids or elephantfishes, which can produce and sense electric fields. They use their abilities to navigate through murky waters, hunt their prey, and talk to one another. It’s clearly a successful lifestyle, for there are over 200 species of mormyrid alive today.

Bruce Carlson from Washington University in St Louis thinks that the origin of these diverse species lay in the diversity of their electric songs. Different species of mormyrid communicate with different electric signals, which work as badges of identity. When they’re ready to mate, they find partners of their own kind by listening out for their preferred electric dialect.

The evolution of these diverse signals hinged in turn on changes in the mormyrids’ brains and sense organs. These allowed them to pick up subtler differences in their electric signals and talk to each other in more varied ways. This opened up a world of communication, but it was also the mormyrid equivalent of the Tower of Babel. By gaining the ability to communicate in different dialects, the species of mormyrid grew apart.

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Why box jellyfish always have four eyes on the sky

By Ed Yong | April 28, 2011 12:00 pm

In the mangrove swamps of Puerto Rico, four eyes are permanently fixed on the sky. These eyes are surprisingly similar to yours. They’re assembled using the same genetic building blocks, and they have lenses, retinas and corneas. But their owner couldn’t be more different – it’s a box jellyfish, and it’s looking for some shade.

The box jellyfish (Tripedalia cystophora) is far from a simple blob with tentacles. It’s an active, manoeuvrable predator, and it finds its way around with no fewer than 24 eyes. Scientists have known about these for over a century, but people are still trying to work out what they do.

The eyes are grouped into four clusters called rhopalia, each containing six eyes. Four of these are simple pits or slit that can do little more than detect the presence of light. But the other two – the “upper lens eye” and “lower lens eye” – are far more advanced. They can actually see images, with the aid of light-focusing lenses.

Now, Anders Garm from the University of Copenhagen has found that the jellyfish always keeps its upper lens eyes pointing towards the sky. Each rhopalia sits at the end of a flexible stalk. The upper lens eye sits at the top of the cluster, and there is a heavy crystal called a statolith on the bottom. The whole structure is a weighted ball, dangling from a string. As a result, it’s always vertical and the upper lens eyes are always pointing upwards, no matter how the jellyfish’s body is angled. This animal is perpetually looking straight up, even if it’s swimming upside-down.

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The eyes have it – incredible ways of seeing the world

By Ed Yong | April 27, 2011 6:38 pm
heteronectes
bobtail-squid
box_jellyfish
cavefish
chiton
eye
eye_intro
mantis_shrimp
raccoon
spookfish
sunburst_beetle
zebrafish

Individual neurons go to sleep while rats stay awake

By Ed Yong | April 27, 2011 1:00 pm

We all know people who look like they can nod off with their eyes open. These exceptions aside, we generally think of sleep as a switch with two settings – you’re either asleep or awake. But Vladyslav Vyazovskiy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that sleep is more complicated than that.

By studying the brains of sleep-deprived rats, Vyazovskiy found that individual neurons can effectively fall asleep, going “offline” while those around them carrying on firing. Even if the rats are awake, parts of their brain can be taking a nap. What we know as “sleep” is the global version of something that happens throughout the brain at a local level.

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IQ scores reflect motivation as well as 'intelligence'

By Ed Yong | April 26, 2011 10:00 am

Ever since there have been IQ tests, people have debated what they actually measure. Is it “intelligence”, is it an abstract combination of mental abilities, or is it, as Edwin Boring said, “the capacity to do well in an intelligence test”? Regardless of the answer, studies have repeatedly shown that people who achieve higher scores in IQ tests are more likely to do well in school, perform well in their jobs, earn more money, avoid criminal convictions, and even live longer. Say what you like about the tests, but they have predictive power.

However, Angela Lee Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania has found that this power is overrated. The link between our IQs and our fates becomes muddier when we consider motivation – an aspect of test-taking that is often ignored. Simply put, some people try harder in IQ tests than others. If you take this into account, the association between your IQ and your success in life becomes considerably weaker. The tests are not measuring intelligence alone, but also the desire to prove it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology
MORE ABOUT: intelligence, IQ, tests

The real story about space bacteria

By Ed Yong | April 26, 2011 5:00 am

Of late, space and bacteria have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First, there was the wanton speculation about aliens that preceded the “arsenic life” controversy (NASA fanned the hype with a poorly described press conference). Then, the Journal of Cosmology made headlines with claims about fossilised bacteria in meteorites (NASA disavowed any participation).

But to me, the real story involving space, bacteria and NASA is very different, but far more important. The gist is simple: when bacteria are sent into space, they become better at causing disease. This poses a big problem for the long-term space missions planned in the future, but cracking that problem could have big benefits for public health back on the ground.

I’ve told this story in a feature for this month’s Wired UK, which has finally come online. The feature focuses on Cheryl Nickerson, an American scientist who is spearheading research in this field. I talk about Nickerson’s motivations, her latest fascinating results on how bacteria change in space, why this has already been a problem for space missions and why it’ll get worse, what it’s like to do science in space, and finally, what this means for human health back on Earth. Here’s a taster:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Personal

Fire ants assemble into living waterproof rafts

By Ed Yong | April 25, 2011 3:00 pm

What happens when you dump 8,000 fire ants into a tray of water? Nathan Mlot from the Georgia Institute of Technology wanted to find out. Mlot scooped the ants into a beaker, swirled it around to roll them into a ball, and decanted them into a half-filled tray.

Over the next three minutes, the ball of ants slowly widened and flattened into a living, waterproof raft. By trapping air bubbles trapped among their interlocking bodies, the ants boosted their natural ability to repel water and kept themselves afloat. Humans build rafts by lashing together planks of wood or reeds; the fire ants do so by holding onto each other.

The experiment might seem odd, but it mirrors conditions that the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) regularly has to cope with in its natural environment. The ant hails from the Brazilian rainforest floodplains of Argentina, where rising water regularly submerges their nests. They respond by weaving their own bodies into rafts. The ants also come together to construct bridges, ladders and walls, but the rafts are the longest-lasting of these living structures. In this form, they can float and sail for months.

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I've got your missing links right here (23 April 2011)

By Ed Yong | April 23, 2011 1:53 pm

Top twelve picks

Adam Rutherford’s documentary The Gene Code was an utter triumph – complex and cutting-edge science rendered clear and compelling. Let’s pause for a second and note that the UK is a country where we talk about Archaea and recombination in detail on national TV. For this alone, Adam is my hero.

Eric Michael Johnson’s superb piece on chimps, bonobos, the Tempest and the “killer ape” concept is one of the highlights of the week. David Dobbs’s follow-up is well worth your time too.

Brian Switek is on incredible form this week with no fewer than four superb posts: on primate “grief”, on the evolution of mammal ear bones from reptile jaws (with the perfect headline), on the world’s oldest toothache, and on exhorting people to stop comparing every dino to T.rex. I have immortalised his sentiments in T-shirt form.

Chris Mooney writes about the science of science denial for Mother Jones.

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers. A wonderful, witty and compelling piece by Madhusudan Katti.

“Well-read isn’t a destination; there is nowhere to get to.” Linda Holmes urges you to embrace sweet surrender

This excellent piece looks like it’s about roller-derby, and then morphs into an awesome medical story. By Sally Adee.

Eric Kandel uses the HHMI iPad app, featuring the sea slugs he works on. A wonderful cheeky film by John Pavlus.

A really good explanation of that retina-in-a-dish paper by Ambivalent Academic at Scicurious’s blog.

Warming up, turning sour, losing breath – Carl Zimmer on the fate of the world’s oceans

In Brazil, scientist saves forests with data. Great positive story for Earth Day (tomorrow), by Thomas Hayden.

I did not see a dinosaur you call yourself a museum!” 10-yr-old Annabelle complains to MOMA.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links

The many yous in you – what Lydia Fairchild has in common with a sponge and an anemone

By Ed Yong | April 21, 2011 10:00 am

Lydia Fairchild was confused. She had applied for state benefits to look after her three children, but according to DNA tests, she was not their mother. It was ridiculous – she knew full well that the children were hers, but she was being taken to court nonetheless.

This happened in 2002, but Fairchild’s case has striking parallels with one that cropped up just this year, involving a Mediterranean sponge called Scopalina lophyropoda. French scientists Andrea Blanquer and Maria-J Uriz found that around a quarter of the sponge’s larvae are genetically distinct from the parents that they come from. Somehow, they had inherited genes from a different source.

Sponges are about as far away from humans as you could imagine an animal being – their bodies are just two layers of cells, curved and folded into tubes and chambers. But even though their bodies are worlds apart, the mysteries of both Lydia Fairchild and S.lophyropoda had the same answer.

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