Archive for December, 2011

A round-up of the year

By Ed Yong | December 31, 2011 10:00 am

It’s been a good and somewhat momentous year. In July, I left my job of seven years to become a fulltime freelancer. Before, the blogging and feature-writing were all leisure-time activities, and they’re now my bread and butter. With just five months in, it’s working out nicely so far and I get to spend a bit more time on the stories I write for this blog. I hope that the quality of the content here is, if anything, improving as a result. Some events of note:

  • I wrote 272 posts for Not Exactly Rocket Science, excluding the weekly “missing links” collections, and including my 1000th post milestone.
  • I started a new blog called Nature Wants to Eat You, celebrating nature’s terrifying mouths, jaws, tongues and teeth.
  • I started a new tip-jar initiative, where I pay the ten writers whose work I most enjoyed in each month. It’s worth noting that reader contributions increase the amount I actually end up donating by around 5 times.
  • Not Exactly Rocket Science became one of the first blogs to feature in the Best American Science Writing 2011.
  • I got to host this incredible commencement speech from Robert Krulwich about the people who don’t wait, and the future of journalism.
  • I learned that I really do have all I need for a blog.
  • I turned 30.

I did other stuff too! Some long-form features…

These are some of my proudest work. They’re where I really get to flex my writing muscles. There are six here, but I’ve actually written ten this year. Four of them will be out in early 2012.

…and lots of news stories and columns

And even a spot of radio…

In which I tell the collected listeners of BBC Radio 4 that they’re sacks of bacteria


As always, I owe a huge amount to the editors who have kicked my pieces into shape, the friends and colleagues who have supported me, and the readers who have deigned to read the messy piles of words that I bash out at my desk. Writing is a lonely and sometimes dispiriting business, and every kind word helps. I’m grateful to all the people I connect with, from all over the world, who make it worthwhile.

And, as has become obligatory but never any less important, my utmost thanks to my wife, Alice, who continues to make it all possible

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Year in review

I've got your missing links right here (31 December 2011)

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

 Top picks

Amy Harmon’s beautiful piece about two teens with Asperger’s navigating love and intimacy is surely one of the highlights of the year. Seth Mnookin really nails why it’s so unfeasibly good, and I also love that NYT ran a correction about a misidentified My Little Pony character in the piece.

Don’t miss The Browser’s selection of 48 long features from the year. They have superlative taste.

Everyone’s putting together lists of their best work in 2011 and John Rennie is collecting them all. Check it out for some truly great work from some truly talented folk. I particularly want to highlight lists by Alex WildRennie himself, Jennifer Ouellette, Ivan Oransky and Kate Clancy.

From a Christmas argument to four-eyed fish: why can’t we see underwater? By Michael Holcombe

A science writer’s take on the famous Christmas poem. “Twas the nocturnal time of the preceding day…” Bravo to Edward Willett.

The Elephant in the Room: How Contraception Could Save Future Elephants from Culling, by Rose Eveleth.

NYT on the tangled history of science & censorship, in reference to the latest story about flu. Meanwhile, Michael Eisen clearly analyses the risks and benefits.

Twins and epigenetics: “Same keyboard, different tunes.” Great Peter Miller feature on what twins tell us about life.

The bloggers at Last Word on Nothing are doing a great series on the seven deadly sins. I particularly love Erika Check Hayden’s piece on sloth (and cancer screening), and Virginia Hughes’ piece on pride (and hype in science writing). See also: lust and envy.

How the Frozen Planet’s wonderful ‘ice finger of death’ sequence was filmed

“One of the first pieces I improved was the infrared sensor mounted on Stephen’s cheek.” The man who saves Stephen Hawking’s voice

Kudos to Rebecca Watson for calling out the condoned awfulness among Reddit’s atheists, and to Kate Harding for picking up on some of the awful reactions.


Panda filmed eating meat in the wild. Fascinating, but it’s not a gnu, is it?

10 images that change the course of science (and one that’s about to)

It’s not a domestic animal. It’s a wild one that hasn’t killed you yet.

Ha! The sentence that psychologists must inevitably write

Mmm… “decomposing algal matter”: weird mystery foam engulfs seaside town

Mayo Clinic to sequence patients’ genomes to personalize care

Chem prof faces criminal charges after researcher’s death

MIT develops a suit that makes you feel 75 years old so that young people can empathise with the elderly

Congratulations, it’s an island! You must be so proud. Say hi to the world’s newest island.

Millipedes have set up a 150 mile long demilitarized zone

What happens in the brains of doctors when they look at brain scans? “Only then will we be able to… find the brain’s looking-at-a-blob blob.”

Samoa is going to leap forward in time by switching sides of the International Date Line

Deep-sea creatures at volcanic vent

Housing boom in Monterey > leaky septic tanks > algae bloom > poisoned seabirds > Hitchcock’s “The Birds”

Extra chromosome set = larger cells = deeper voice = awesome. Deep Frog Voice Signals His Chromosome Number

Pavlov’s lion – taste aversion could solve predator problem

Larry Witmer explains why it’s been a good year for Archaeopteryx on its 150th anniversary

Sea snails learn better in staggered lessons. Nice bit of modelling work predicting real behaviour

Wearable camera helps stave off memory decline by capturing an entire day.

Nick Bilton myth-busts ridiculous airline regulations about not using e-readers during takeoff/landing

How Robert Redford got a beetle named after him

Study suggests antidepressants reduce fear in adult mice by increasing synaptic plasticity

Animals like you’ve never seen them before, through the eyes of 5 fine art photographers


The TSA nabs the world’s least effective ninja

The hits and misses of female fantasy armour

A psychology experiment in an elevator – what happens when everyone stands the wrong way?

Earth’s history as a 24-hour clock. Alive since 4am, having sex since 6pm, human infestation for 17s

Creationists find an unassailable loophole in science. Time to pack up.

What happens to checked-in baggage?

Are you planning on destroying the world? If so, this is the course for you.

Hilarious episode of RadioLab explaining how US toy importers saved tax money by classifying X-Men toys as non-human

How to Deal With Slow Walkers


Why “Yes, But” Is the Wrong Response to Misogyny

“As a child, he never dreamt of becoming a communist ruler & fell into the role almost by accident.” On the sadness of Kim Jong-Il’s double

How to become a PR laughingstock

Little girl rails against gendered toys. Awesome

Wow, that’s VERY different. I kinda love it. A look at the new London bus design.

Gladwell vs. Shirky: A Year Later, Scoring the Debate Over Social-Media Revolutions

Mobile phone review site sues former writer for leaving company with his 17,000 Twitter followers

When only 1 in 130 applications results in a job, how do you ace a Google interview?




Not Exactly Rocket Science – Favourites from 2011

By Ed Yong | December 30, 2011 10:02 am

By now, you are no doubt tired of reading “Best of 2011” lists. I offer up no such animal. Instead, this is just a list 30 of my favourite posts of the year. It are not a list of breakthroughs or important events – you won’t find any mention of the Higgs boson, Fukushima, neutrinos or exo-planets here. Importance has never been a criterion for me in deciding what to write about. Instead, I am drawn to science that excites and inspires me, or that allows me to tell interesting stories. It’s these stories – quirky or jaw-dropping, eye-opening or smile-raising – that comprise this list.

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OpenLab: The Renaissance Man, and how to become a scientist over and over again

By Ed Yong | December 29, 2011 10:00 am

I originally wrote this feature about the amazing Erez Lieberman Aiden back in June. It’s been one of the most popular posts on Not Exactly Rocket Science over the past year, and it was recently nominated for inclusion in the latest edition of Open Lab, the anthology of the world’s best science blogging. For that reason, I’m giving it another airing.


Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”

It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”

It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard. In 2010, he won the prestigious $30,000 MIT-Lemenson prize, awarded to people who show “exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness”. He has seven publications to his name, six of which appeared the world’s top two journals – Nature and Science. His friend and colleague Jean-Baptiste Michel says, “He’s truly one of a kind. I just wonder about what discipline he will get a Nobel Prize in!”

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Skin bacteria affect how attractive we smell to malarial mosquitoes

By Ed Yong | December 28, 2011 5:00 pm

Your skin is teeming with bacteria. There are billions of them, living on the dry parched landscapes of your forearms, and the wet, humid forests of your nose. On your feet alone, every square centimetre has around half a million bacteria. These microbes are more than just passengers, hitching a ride on your bodies. They also affect how you smell.

Skin bacteria are our own natural perfumers. They convert chemicals on our skin into those that can easily rise into the air, and different species produce different scents. Without these microbes, we wouldn’t be able to smell each other’s sweat at all. But we’re not the only ones who can sniff these bacterial chemicals. Mosquitoes can too. Niels Verhulst from Wageningen University and Research Centre has just found that the bacteria on our skin can affect our odds of being bitten by a malarial mosquito.

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Larger monkey groups lose fights because they contain more deserters

By Ed Yong | December 27, 2011 9:30 am

In the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 150 or so British troops defended a mission station against thousands of Zulu warriors. At the Battle of Thermopylae, around 7,000 Greeks successfully held back a Persian army of hundreds of thousands for seven days. Human history has many examples of a small force defeating or holding their own against a much larger one.

Among animals too, the underdogs often become the victors. One such example exists in the rainforests of Panama. There, capuchin monkeys live in large groups, each with its own territory. The monkeys often invade each other’s land. Numbers provide an obvious advantage in such conflicts, but small groups can often successfully defend their territory against big ones. Unlike human underdogs, they don’t win because of superior tactics or weapons. They win because their rivals are full of deserters.

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Ocean bacteria glow to turn themselves into bait

By Ed Yong | December 26, 2011 3:00 pm

On 25 January 1995, the British merchant vessel SS Lima was sailing through the Indian Ocean when its crew noticed something odd. In the ship’s log, the captain wrote, “A whitish glow was observed on the horizon and, after 15 minutes of steaming, the ship was completely surrounded by a sea of milky-white color.” The eerie glow appeared to “cover the entire sea area, from horizon to horizon . . . and it appeared as though the ship was sailing over a field of snow or gliding over the clouds”. The ship took six hours to sail through it.

These glowing seas have featured in sailor stories for centuries. The crew of the Nautilius encountered the phenomenon in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And in 2006, Steven Miller actually managed to recover satellite images of the very same patch seen by the crew of the SS Lima – it stretched over 15,000 square kilometres, the size of Connecticut or Yorkshire.

The glowing waters are the work of bioluminescent bacteria – microbes that can produce their own light. They are found throughout the oceans, although usually in smaller numbers than the giant bloom responsible for the SS Lima’s sighting. In many cases, they form partnerships with animals like fish and squid, taking up residence inside their hosts and paying their rent by providing light for navigation or defence.

But many glowing bacteria live freely in the open ocean, and they glow nonetheless. Creating light takes energy, and it’s not something that’s done needlessly. So why do the bacteria shine? One of the most common answers – and one that Miller proposed to explain his satellite images – is that the bacteria are screaming “Eat me!” at passing fish. A fish’s guts are full of nutrients, and it can carry bacteria across large distances. The bacteria, by turning themselves into glowing bait, get a lift and a meal.

This idea has been around for more than three decades, but it has never actually been tested. Margarita Zarubin from the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences has finally done so.

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I've got your missing links right here (24 December 2011)

By Ed Yong | December 24, 2011 12:00 pm

Top picks

Nature and Science have been asked to withhold data on lab-made strains of flu by US govt. Carl Zimmer analyses the risks.

The last paragraph in this piece on radioactive spider-webs by Sally Adee is my favourite end to a piece. Ever

There are endless Best Of lists this year, but do have a look at The Browser’s choice of 48 top articles. They have exceedingly good taste.

Zeno’s Advent Calendar.

Do read Maryn McKenna’s wonderful piece on sepsis (and a woman who overcame it).

A fantastic animated history of fossil fuels – 300 years in 5 mins

The price of superstition: how traditional Chinese medicine is a threat to wildlife

How much does the internet weigh? Robert Krulwich is wonderful. Don’t miss: “Look what weightlessness can do”

Some of my favourite science writers – Ann Finkbeiner, Deborah Blum and Jennifer Ouellette – came together for a series on the science of mysteries. Don’t miss it.

War reporter discovers that he has Huntington’s: I will die the most horrible death

Social Networks Matter: Friends Increase the Size of Your Brain, by Eric Michael Johnson

Cloning vs. conservation: viable strategy, flawed fantasy, or Swiftian modest proposal? Great piece by John Rennie

How big is Saturn? This staggering picture will give you an idea

Jonah Lehrer speaks of a “fundamental mismatch between how the world works & how we think about the world”. And Elie Dolgin replies at Nature Medicine.

That’s the answer to light pollution: a dictatorship. Satellite images captures Kim Jong Il’s legacy.

Bizarre Kelvin-Helmholtz Waves Appear Over Alabama

World’s oldest rocks could weigh a man down. Great story. Worth it for the one para that sums 4.5bn yrs of history

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My top 12 longreads of 2011

By Ed Yong | December 24, 2011 10:35 am

The wonderful site Longreads is collating people’s picks of the best long features of the year. Some say that the internet is triggering a renaissance for long-form writing and I very much agree. Over the past 12 days, I’ve been tweeting my picks and the full list should be up soon. Here it is:


The world of science offers great opportunities for journalists to flex their writing muscles by fusing rich storytelling and reporting with deft explanatory skill. After all, what could make for better stories than intelligent people trying to understand how the world works?

Here are my top dozen stories from the year, originally tweeted as daily treats in the run-up to Christmas. Yes, I know everyone else has picked five, but we bloggers hate word restrictions – I’ll pick my Top 67 of 2011 and you’ll like it. Each of these features left a firm impression so, taking my lead from Jodi Ettenberg, each choice comes with a note about where I was when I read it.

Here they are, in no particular order:

The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus by Adam Rogers (Wired; read at my desk during an uneventful work day)

This is a superb whodunit featuring James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungus – an old-school scientist in the modern world, trying to solve the mystery of the “angel’s share”. It’s packaged with confident wit and vivid, sensory prose (check out that lede), and Rogers finds space to take in a brief history of distillation and a look at the dying art of mycology. The best piece about fungus you’ll likely ever read.

Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind? by Susan Dominus (New York Times, read in a Lake District cottage)

Tatiana and Kristina Hogan are four-year-old twins, joined at the head. Over the course of five days spent with their family, Dominus asks whether they share their thoughts and senses. It’s a moving and thoughtful piece about neuroscientists struggling to explain a bizarre phenomenon, and a family raising their unique members. It is also, of course, a portrait of two extraordinary girls. By the end of the piece, you feel privileged to have met them, if only in words.

A man-made world, by Oliver Morton (Economist; read in an Islington cafe)

There is a staggering density of ideas in this piece about humanity’s impact on our world. In sentences, Morton encapsulates issues that other writers could dwell on for entire books.

The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger (New Yorker, read on a Boston subway train)

Bilger tells the story of time-lord David Eagleman, a man who collects jokes and anecdotes, chucks volunteers off tall buildings, counts Brian Eno as a research collaborator, and studies how our brain perceives the passage of time. It is a nigh-perfect blend of solid protagonist, fascinating science, and rich, biographical reporting,

The Mouse Trap, by Daniel Engber (Slate, read on a plane to Cairo)

To write one great feature about laboratory rats may be regarded as skill; to write two looks like vanity; to write three looks like genius. In this trinity of long-reads, Engber discusses why our reliance on fat, lazy rats might be holding back medical progress,  how a strain known as Black-6 came to dominate research, and how a blind naked “anti-mouse” could be our secret weapon against cancer.

Number One with a Bullet by Rowan Jacobsen (Outside, read in Heathrow airport)

In India’s lush Kaziranga National Park, a new policy allows rangers to shoot wildlife poachers on sight. As a result, rhinos and tigers are thriving. Jacobsen introduces us to guards, conservationists and poachers to find deeper stories beyond a simple heroes-versus-villains narrative. This is essentially a superlative piece of war reporting, but with tigers.

Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World by Amy Harmon (New York Times, read in Heathrow airport, immediately after Jacobsen’s piece)

Autism gets a lot of column inches, but usually in the context of silly controversies and far-off medical promises, none of which tell you anything about people with autism themselves. For that reason, Harmon’s take on Justin Canha, a young autistic man trying to find his place in the world, is wonderfully refreshing. It’s eye-opening, compassionate, and features a masterful use of dialogue. It took a year to report, which shows.

E.O.Wilson’s Theory of Everything by Howard French (Atlantic, read on the Victoria Line between Vauxhall and King’s Cross)

How do you write a worthy profile of E.O.Wilson, a man whose work spans decades and whose own writing is tinged with greatness? Apparently, you ask Howard French. Controversies over Wilson’s latest theories notwithstanding, French crafts a portrait of an inspirational figure, entranced by nature at the age of 82 as a boy would be at the age of 8. It also has the year’s best final line.

Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus by Sy Montgomery (Orion; read in bed)

Octopuses must be some of the easiest animals to write about captivatingly. They have acute intelligence, alien physique and a wondrous array of superpowers. But Montgomery does much more with this piece, which invites you to consider what life must be like with an utterly different mind and body. She is less narrating a natural history programme as inviting you to meet a friend. By the end, you get the feeling that Montgomery has slightly fallen in love with the octopus and that it’s really quite okay if you have too.

The Human Lake by Carl Zimmer (Loom, read on a bus heading for Waterloo)

The best science writers can see their beat through wide-angle lenses, finding common themes that run through seemingly disparate areas. This is a prime example of that skill – a long-form blog post that goes from the residents of a Connecticut lake to those within human intestines, told in Zimmer’s trademark simple-but-beautiful brand of storytelling.

Beautiful brains by David Dobbs (National Geographic, read on my sofa)

Starting with a great lede where his boy-racer son gets thrown in jail, Dobbs unpicks the impulsive, maddening teenage brain in his standard mix of pithy explanations and colloquial flourishes. You’re not reading a piece in National Geographic; you’re sitting by a campfire while a professor tells you a story.

What Made This University Researcher Snap? by Amy Wallace (Wired, read in a burrito joint)

In 2010, scientist Amy Bishop gunned down six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama. Just over a year later, Amy Wallace explores what made her snap. It is consistently gripping, often chilling, and frankly impossible to stop reading after the segment about her brother. It’s also the type of piece that is so intensely reported that it almost hurts to think about the rest of the iceberg.




Why do scorpions glow in the dark (and could their whole bodies be one big eye)?

By Ed Yong | December 23, 2011 9:00 am

If you’re the type of person who looks for scorpions, rather than runs screaming at the thought of them, then you’re in luck. Scorpions are easy to find. Just go into the desert in the middle of the night, and switch on an ultraviolet (UV) light. Under the beam, scorpions glow a vibrant blue-green, lighting up like beacons against the darkness.

No one knows why scorpions glow. Some have suggested that it’s accidental – the two chemicals responsible for the glow could be by-products of normal chemical reactions. Others proposed that scorpions could glow to lure their prey, although it seems that insects actually avoid fluorescent scorpions. The glow could warn predators or help scorpions to recognise each other, although neither possibility has been tested.

But Douglas Gaffin from the University of Oklahoma has a more intriguing idea. He thinks that scorpions glow to convert the dim UV light from the moon and the stars into the colour that they see best – blue-green. This could explain why scorpion eyes are so exquisitely sensitive, to the point where they can detect the faint glow of starlight against the background of the night sky. They amplify those faint signals by turning their entire bodies into light collectors.

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