Archive for July, 2011

Genetic snooze button shows that broken sleep impairs memories

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

Many mental disorders can disrupt the sweet embrace of a long, continuous sleep, including alcoholism, depression, Alzheimer’s and parenthood. And that’s bad news. We know that a good night’s sleep helps to solidify our memories of the previous day’s experiences. And according to a new study, we need a certain amount of continuous sleep for those benefits to kick in.

From an evolutionary point of view, it seems strange that we sleep for hours on end. Rather than leaving ourselves unresponsive and vulnerable for large chunks of time, why not simply sleep over several shorter fragments?

This is not an easy question to answer. Until recently, it has been all but impossible to break up the continuity of sleep without also affecting its quality, or stressing out the animals in question.  But Luis de Lecea from Stanford University has found a way. He has engineered mice with in-built silent alarm clocks. These animals can be woken up at will with a pulse of light delivered directly to their brains.

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

By Ed Yong | July 23, 2011 12:00 pm

Top picks

Every Shuttle mission, in order, set to music. Adam Rutherford’s incredible tribute to the Shuttle is moving, uplifting, at times heartbreaking, and unmissable.

Amos Zeeberg chimes in on the Shuttle with a no-holds barred take on the programme as an objective failure

A “beautiful study” on placebo and asthma shows the difference between placebos and real treatments. Great write-up by Pal MD

Jonah Lehrer riffs off one of my pieces and creates a hypothesis on why beauty exists, And David Dobbs riffs of Lehrer, with a beautiful tribute to London

We saved a humpback whale! WOOOO!” Absolutely wonderful video.

Right under our noses, dolphins have been evolving their own healing factors. Phase 2 now complete

The US Army wants soldiers to communicate just by thinking. Synthetic telepathy could make that happen

Read Imperial College’s new analysis of the BBC’s science reporting (the actual paper and not the news reports of it, natch).

When fish fail – a wonderful blooper reel of suction-feeding fish screwing up their attacks

Tomorrow’s role models. These girls who won Google Science Fair are amazing. It started when she was 8 & tried to make blue spinach…

The Kiki/Bouba effect, or why Humpty Dumpty sounds round. A wonderful New Scientist piece on linguistic fossils.

Seven experiments that would be really illuminating, albeit morally objectionable. Excellent Wired feature

Punter asks “What would happen if I swallowed a ball bearing and went for an MRI scan?” on Reddit. Physicist replies

Did the civilization behind Machu Picchu really fail to develop a written language? Or did they tie themselves in knots?

Why I will never pursue cheating again – A Computer Scientist in a Business School

The laws underlying physics of everyday life are completely understood, says Sean Carroll, with a somewhat wearier sequel

“Every so often—perhaps once every 18 months—the veteran Guardian writer Nick Davies comes into my office, shuts the door with a conspiratorial backward glance, and proceeds to tell me something hair-raising.” Alan Rusbridger on how the Guardian broke the News of the World scandal.

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Moon wanes, Leo rises – lion attacks more common in week after a full moon

By Ed Yong | July 22, 2011 8:13 am

It’s been a week since the last full moon on 15th July. During this time, the odds of being attacked by a lion are highest than at any other point in the month, which is why I’ve been walking around the neighbourhood with two guard bears and a platoon of ninjas. The fact that I live in a leafy suburb of London is inconsequential. You can never be too careful. Constant vigilance.

Of course, lion attacks are more of a problem in other parts of the world. In Tanzania, lions have attacked more than a thousand people between 1988 and 2009, and eaten around two-thirds of them. Now Craig Packer from the University of Minnesota has shown that the frequency of these attacks is tied into lunar cycles.

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House mice picked up poison resistance gene by having sex with related species

By Ed Yong | July 21, 2011 12:00 pm

Since 1948, people have been poisoning unwanted rats and mice with warfarin, a chemical that causes lethal internal bleeding. It’s still used, but to a lesser extent, for rodents have become increasingly resistant to warfarin ever since the 1960s. This is a common theme – humans create a fatal chemical – a pesticide or an antibiotic – and our targets evolve resistance. But this story has a twist. Ying Song from Rice University, Houston, has found that some house mice picked up the gene for warfarin resistance from a different species.

Warfarin works by acting against vitamin K. This vitamin activates a number of genes that create clots in blood, but it itself has to be activated by a protein called VKORC1. Warfarin stops VKORC1 from doing its job, thereby suppressing vitamin K. The clotting process fails, and bleeds continue to bleed.

Rodents can evolve to shrug off warfarin by tweaking their vkorc1 gene, which encodes the protein of the same name. In European house mice, scientists have found at least 10 different genetic changes (mutations) in vkorc1 that change how susceptible they are to warfarin. But only six of these changes were the house mouse’s own innovations. The other four came from a close relative – the Algerian mouse, which is found throughout northern Africa, Spain, Portugal, and southern France.

The two species separated from each other between 1.5 and 3 million years ago. They rarely meet, but when they do, they can breed with one another. The two species have identifiably different versions of vkorc1. But Song found that virtually all Spanish house mice carry a copy of vkorc1 that partially or totally matches the Algerian mouse version. Even in Germany, where the two species don’t mingle, a third of house mice carried copies of vkorc1 that descended from Algerian peers.

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Children share when they work together, chimps do not

By Ed Yong | July 20, 2011 4:00 pm

We are a cooperative ape, and a fair one. We work together to put food on the table and once it’s there, social rules compel us to share it around equitably. These two actions are tied to one another. In a new study, Katharina Hamann from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has shown that three-year-old children are more likely to fairly divide their spoils with other kids if they’ve worked together to get them.

The same can’t be said of chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives. Sharing comes less naturally to them, and it doesn’t become any more likely if they’ve worked together to get a meal.

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One gene keeps Mickey from turning into Minnie

By Ed Yong | July 20, 2011 1:00 pm

On the surface, it looks as if our identity as male or female is determined in the womb. The decision seems final – a genetic switch flicks towards either setting, and locks into place for the rest of our lives.

This tidy image is wrong. Two recent studies in mice have shown that the switch isn’t locked – it’s held under constant tension by two rival genes – DMRT1 and FOXL2. It’s a tug-of-war fought over sexual fate, which goes on throughout our lives. Take away either contestant, and its adversary pulls the switch to the opposite setting. Ovaries can transform into testes and vice versa, even in adults.

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I'm a fulltime freelancer

By Ed Yong | July 20, 2011 12:00 pm

Today is a big day.

As of this moment, I am a full-time freelancer. I’ve just left the job I’ve had for seven years and entered the world of the vagrant scribe.

Wait, what? You had a job?

Yeah, I’ve been working at Cancer Research UK, leading a small team of information officers. This blog, and all the various things I do on the side have purely been a nights-and-weekends affair. Now, they’re moving from the periphery to the centre. It’s a bit like taking off a clamp and losing a foot in the process. I say goodbye to meetings, sign-off, commuting and office politics, but I’m also leaving some truly amazing people and some really good friends.

You’re just jumping on the bandwagon, aren’t you?

Look, I handed in my resignation notice three months ago, way before it became fashionable and everyone started doing it.

So what are you doing to do?

The basic plan is to sit on my sofa in a dressing gown, watching daytime TV and stuffing my face with crisps do more of what I do on the side: writing and talking about science, and about writing and talking about science. I’m working on four features at the moment, a few smaller but regular projects, something fun for Radio 4, a few talks, a spot of teaching at City University’s Science Journalism course, and more.


You don’t say. It’s a tough market. The pieces I collate in the weekly links are constant reminders of the sheer number of amazing science writers out there. And I’ve been led to believe that freelancing is not just about fast cars and untold riches. (It’s about unbridled power too, right? Right?) That being said, this is absolutely what I want to do and I think it’s a good time for it.

Will the blog continue?

Yes, absolutely. There shouldn’t be any dip in the frequency of posts, and if anything, I hope to make it better. The blog is a proper part of my income now, and any help with promotion – emails, Reddit submissions, tweets, shares, whatever you prefer – would be appreciated.

What would Peter Falk say?

And just one other thing…

A massive thank you to everyone who has given me invaluable advice about this, including Rebecca Skloot, David Dobbs, Jonah Lehrer, Carl Zimmer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Frank Swain, Steve Silberman, and others I’m undoubtedly forgetting. But most of all, thanks to my wife Alice for her unerring support.


To win at rock-paper-scissors, put on a blindfold

By Ed Yong | July 19, 2011 7:00 pm

In 2007, one Jamie Langridge became $50,000 richer after winning intense national tournament in Las Vegas. Langridge beat his opponent decisively, with a classic open-hand technique. The sport? Rock-paper-scissors.

Rock-paper-scissors seems deceptively simple. Pairs of opponents display one of three hand gestures. Paper covers rock, rock blunts scissors, and scissors cut paper. It’s so straightforward that children the world over learn to play it. But this is not just a game of chance. Played at the highest level, it becomes a game of psychological strategy, one that justifies five-figure trophies in large competitions and even the publication of strategy guides.

Such advanced games are possible because people don’t choose their hand shapes randomly. They are affected by moves that have gone before, and what other people are doing. Consider a new experiment by Richard Cook at University College London. Cook asked 45 people to face off against each other in several rounds of rock-paper-scissors, in exchange for real money. In every game, either one or both players were blindfolded.

Cook found that the players drew with each other more often when one of them could see (36.3% of the matches) than when both were blindfolded (33.3% of them). The latter figure was exactly the proportion of draws you’d expect if the players were choosing randomly; the former was significantly higher than chance.

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The power of nouns – tiny word change increases voter turnout

By Ed Yong | July 18, 2011 3:00 pm

Countries around the world have tried many tactics to encourage people to vote, from easier access to polling stations to mandatory registration. But Christopher Bryan from Stanford University has found a startlingly simple weapon for increasing voter turnout – the noun. Through a simple linguistic tweak, he managed to increase the proportion of voters in two groups of Americans by at least 10 percentage points.

During the 2008 presidential election, Bryan recruited 34 Californians who were eligible to vote but hadn’t registered yet. They all completed a survey which, among other questions, asked them either “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” or “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”

It was the tiniest of tweaks – the noun-focused “voter” versus the verb-focused “vote” – but it was a significant one. Around 88% of the noun group said they were very or extremely interested in registering to vote, compared to just 56% of the verb group.

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I've got your missing links right here (16 July 2011)

By Ed Yong | July 16, 2011 12:00 pm

Top picks

“I feel the percussive roar on the skin of my face, chest, arms. I am physically connected to Atlantis now.” This is my post of the week. Karen James’s magnificent description of watching the Shuttle launch is better than anything else I’ve read on this topic. And more on why I love the piece here.

“We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.” Jennifer Ouellette on Laika, the space dog

Bear paternity tests – why were they expensive, what was the point? Great post from Kevin Zelnio, where he calmly & brilliantly sticks up for science

“This is the National Health Service. It’s free.” We in the UK like to bitch about the NHS, but here’s what it looks like to someone who has never had one. Steve Silberman on his run-in with socialised medicine

I am LOVING Google+. This is me.

“As a reporter, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath.” Beautiful, brave piece from Kai Nagata on why he quit TV journalism.

40 yrs later, a comprehensive reflection on the Stanford prison experiment, with Zimbardo, a prisoner, guards whistleblowers and more. A must-read.

How China’s “suddenly wealthy” are triggering an “extinction vortex” among Africa’s elephants. Sad, thought-provoking piece.

Two photos of father and son, 30 years and 134 shuttle launches apart.

“It looks like the ripple of piano keys… it feels like anxious butterflies trying to get out.” A heartbreaking account from a man with ALS as he chooses to take his own life.

No land animal has ever become as big as the biggest dinosaurs. Here’s a great Nature piece about how these titans evolved (hint: they experimented when small). And don’t miss the cool interactive graphic

Will being skinny save a woman’s marriage? Could it possibly be more complicated than that? Yes, says Kate Clancy

The woman who threatens one of the most successful public health programmes ever – newborn screening. And why she has a point. This is a really important piece by Mary Carmichael that successfully navigates a very complicated issue.  (Nature News is now under a registration wall. I say this unreservedly: you should register. It’s no price to pay for one of the most consistently excellent sources of science news anywhere. Proper news, not rehashed press releases or inaccurate fluff.)

A typically long, considered, and sweeping post by Bora Zivkovic on telling different types of stories with different structures at different lengths.

“It’s a tangle that has to be sorted out, lest we have no fish and no fisherman.” When fishing regulations backfire

The CIA organised a fake vaccination drive to get Osama bin Laden’s family DNA. Shocking story, especially for real vaccination drives.

A beautiful post from Alice Bell on Google Science Fair – come for the great stories about how the kids thought up their (bloody impressive) projects, and stay for the thought-provoking discussion on how scientists can learn from them.

The Jellyfish that Conquered Land – a great story about a largely unknown group of animals, by Jennifer Frazer.

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