Archive for October, 2012

In which I chat to the MIT science writing class about science writing

By Ed Yong | October 31, 2012 11:12 am

See the Storify below:

[View the story “MIT: “So, science writing?” Me: “WAH WAH WAH”” on Storify]


12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad with his research

By Ed Yong | October 30, 2012 8:00 pm

Image by Steven James,

Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, had a problem: all humans have their eyes in the middle of their faces, and there’s nothing that Kingstone could do about it. His 12-year-old son, Julian Levy, had the solution: monsters. While some monsters are basically humanoid in shape, others have eyes on their hands, tails, tentacles and other unnatural body parts. Perfect. Kingstone would use monsters. And Julian would get his first publication in a journal from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most august scientific institutions.

In 1998, Kingstone showed that people will automatically look where other people are looking. Other scientists have since found this gaze-copying behaviour among many other animals, from birds to goats to dolphins. It seems fairly obvious why we would do this—we get an easy clue about interesting information in the world around us. But what are we actually doing?

There are two competing answers. The obvious one is that we’re naturally drawn to people’s eyes, so we’ll automatically register where they’re looking. Indeed, one part of the brain – the superior temporal sulcus – is involved in processing the direction of gazes. The equally plausible alternative is that we’re focused more broadly on faces, and the eyes just happen to be in the middle. After all, we see faces in inanimate objects, and we have a area in our brains—the fusiform face area (FFA)—that responds to the sight of faces.

One evening, Kingstone was explaining these two hypotheses to Julian over dinner. “A colleague had said that dissociating the two ideas — eyes vs. centre of head — would be impossible because the eyes of humans are in the centre of the head,” Kingstone said. “I told Julian that when people say something is impossible, they sometimes tell you more about themselves than anything.”

Julian agreed. He thought it would be easy to discriminate between the two ideas: just use the Monster Manual. This book will be delightfully familiar to a certain brand of geek. It’s the Bible of fictional beasties that accompanied the popular dice-rolling role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Regularly updated, it bursts with great visuals and bizarrely detailed accounts of unnatural history. It has differently coloured dragons, undead, beholders… I think one edition had a were-badger. Parts of this blog are essentially a non-fictional version of the Monster Manual.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

Breaking habits with a flash of light

By Ed Yong | October 29, 2012 3:00 pm

In a lab at MIT, a rat enters a T-shaped maze, hears a tone, and runs down the left arm towards a piece of chocolate. It’s a habit. The rat has done the same thing over so many days that once it hears the tone, it’ll run in the same direction even if there’s no chocolate to be found. Humans are driven by similar habits. Every morning, I hear my alarm go off, put some clothes on, and shamble into the kitchen to brew some coffee.

Habits, by their very nature, seem permanent, stable, automatic. But they are not, and the MIT rat tells us why. Earlier, Kyle Smith had added a light-sensitive protein to one small part of its brain – the infralimbic cortex (ILC). This addition allows Smith to silence the neurons in this one area with a flash of yellow light, delivered to the rat’s brain via an optic fibre. The light flashes for just three seconds, and the habit disappears. The rat hears the tone, but no longer heads down the chocolate arm.

The experiment shows that even though habits seem automatic, they still depend on ongoing supervision from the ILC and possibly other parts of the brain. They’re ingrained and durable, but subject to second-by-second control. And they can be disrupted in surprisingly quick and simple ways.

“We were all stunned by how immediate and on-line these effects really are,” says Smith. “Changing the activity of this small cortex area could profoundly change how habitual behaviour was, in a matter of seconds.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

Ten million

By Ed Yong | October 28, 2012 12:00 pm

Sometimes, when you have insomnia and you’ve read the entire internet and you idly check your blog stats, something nice pops up. Not Exactly Rocket Science has been with Discover since March 2010, and at some point today, it will hit it 10 millionth page view since being with the site. Hooray! I have the smile of a proud father.


I've got your missing links right here (27 October 2012)

By Ed Yong | October 27, 2012 12:00 pm

Top picks

Five Italian scientists were sentenced to 6 years in prison for failing to properly communicate the risk of an earthquake that devastated the town of l’Aquila. Here are several pieces about the ill-judged decision:

“People will… hypothesise invincible, transsexual, border-hopping serial killers just to keep the story coherent…” Vaughan Bell on the subjectivity of forensic science.

The genetics of stupidity are more interesting than those of intelligence, says David Dobbs.

Why do children hide by covering their eyes? The answer is really complicated, and very cool. By Christian Jarrett.

Really enjoyed Alice Roberts’ Prehistoric Autopsy – a great documentary about prehistoric hominids. Brits can watch on iPlayer. Everyone else can use an anonymiser.

On prosthetics: “If your leg isn’t comfortable, who gives a crap how expensive or amazing your foot is?”

Big, Smart, Green: A Vision for Modern Farming. Brandon Keim covers a fascinating approach in his typically excellent fashion.

You don’t buy e-books from Amazon; you rent them under an unlimited, but easily revoked, licence

Another yawning dogs study, but Alexis Madrigal finds little to yawn about. He muses instead on science’s zig-zags

Scientist tries her hand at journalism for a few weeks, and finds that it’s really hard. Love this.

“Tracing the backstory can be just as intriguing as reporting the news.” Top post on the baby-DNA-in-mum’s-brain story

Really huge planets could apparently survive being swallowed by a star. “It’s still good! It’s still good!”

Did T.rex eat Triceratops by *pulling off its freakin’ head*?? Bonus: an illustrated step-by-step guide!

Ski slopes vs. craggy mountains – good balanced piece by Dan Fagin on the controversial behaviour of hormone disruptors

Saudi Arabia fires top virus-hunter after he finds virus – that new coronavirus that had everyone worried a while back. Great reporting from Debora Mackenzie

I like this a lot: it’s an ad guy talking to other ad guys, but totally applicable to science communication.

Really good take on the discovery of those feathered ostrich-dinosaurs that I wrote about. Veronique Greenwood goes into the details about how they were actually found.

Big parts of Wikipedia are basically completed & that’s something of a problem for the encyclopedia, says Rebecca Rosen

If you’ve ever wondered what doing research feels like…

Good piece from Bora Zivkovic about a recent fossil-fest conference, and what palaeontologists actually talk about

Rewrite the textbooks! Penis worm develops anus-first.



Surprisingly beautiful: the half-erased blackboards of quantum physics labs

10 most horrible deaths in a DIY space project. “Complete rocket explosion” is only #10

Hilarious list of 5 reasons why “cleansing” your colon is nonsense. I liked “It’s rude to firehose your friends”

This Atlantic piece, about creating a personalised virus that targets leaders of state, connects a good summary of several current scientific trends, and some stirring science-fiction, with some huge logical gaps. It never justifies the “personalised virus” angle, which means that the lede becomes a red herring that subverts the rest of piece

CNN retracts a story on hormones and voters – should the story have been dropped in the first place? Meanwhile, Kate Clancy and SciCurious eviscerate the paper

When you’re almost extinct, your bounty goes up

How archer fish create super spit

How Scientific American’s Bec Crew was plagiarised by the Daily Mail’s Damien Gayle. What. A. Prat.

Harvard hospital apologizes for promoting “weak” data on aspartame, cancer. A win for responsible journalism, PR and more.

Neanderthal vs modern human: who would win?

I rather like this – straight NYT profile of a guy who likes nature.

Vic Charlton on the science of tobacco and “harm reduction

Big splashy medical results are probably too good to be true—new Ioannidis work

Why we can’t get along with our future selves. My future self’s burning through all my savings, that’s why.

A strong wave of new bloggers over at SciLogs. I’m particularly looking forward to Amy Shira Teitel, Nathalia Holt and Matt Shipman’s contributions.

21 words that could clear up the recent methods-reporting issues in psychology

Climate scientist Michael E Mann sues for defamation

How did 4-winged dinosaur Microraptor fly? Kate Wong covers a new study.

New evidence for dinosaur protein preservation, but the DNA claims really are just taking the piss, surely?

Nature sums up the recent furore on a rogue iron fertilization experiment

A celebration of biological blues

Badgers live to badge another day

Never Go Into the Sea, Part #38108 – the Bobbit worm

On oxytocin and The Walking Dead

Fossil scars capture dinosaur headbutts

Brain scans during sleep can decode visual content of dreams. Sort of. Not well.

The mysterious origins of the “8 glasses of water a day” rule. Which is nonsense.

Watch sea lice devour a pig from the inside-out

Fish use skin crystals to swim around law of physics

The Assoc of the British Pharma Industry to Ben Goldacre: “LALALALALALALALALAICAN’THEARYOU”

So, it turns out urine isn’t actually sterile.

Japanese Cabinet members chip in to buy Shinya Yamanka a new washing machine, following his Nobel win. (You’d have thought Yamanaka could just reprogram a dishwasher into a washing machine…)

The Ukrainian Navy teaches dolphins how to kill people, says an… anonymous source. Right. Are they also training journalists to jump the shark?



Here’s world-renowned geneticist Eric Lander dancing to Gangnam Style.

Most terrifying cause of death ever?

Amazing photos of small and microscopic things. I especially love the fruit fly eye.

Herpes cupcakes! Smoker’s lung cake! The world’s most revolting (anatomically correct) cakes

Why field biologists shouldn’t get their feet wet (literally)

An amusing trawl through Wikipedia



Bora Zivkovic on beats vs. obsessions, columns vs. blogs, generalists vs. specialists

Rebecca Watson sums up her experience of misogyny, harrassment and rape threats among the “skeptic” “community”

Really good presentation about Impostor Syndrome

Some good tips on pitching stories, from the Open Notebook

How a parody Twitter account resurrected a god-maker

So… how DID Google bring Street View to the Grand Canyon? With these guys

“What It Was Like to Be a Telephone Operator on the Night Orson Welles Broadcast ‘War of the Worlds”

Very sad to learn of the Radiolab “Yellow Rain” controversy. Here’s a cogent summary and viewpoint, and a response from RadioLab.

Pregnancy via rape: all part of god’s beautiful plan. Said–yes, you guessed it–a Republican Senate nominee

Be sure to check out Deborah Blum’s new e-book. It’s a true crime story, but be warned – some truly disturbing stuff here.

I rather love this post explaining why The Avengers was really Black Widow and Friends.

Oddly moved by hearing the laughter of 19th-century people who are definitely all dead

Matter is about to launch, with its 1st story in Nov 15.


‘Bird mimic’ dinosaur hints that wings evolved for show not flight

By Ed Yong | October 25, 2012 2:00 pm

In 1890, the fossil-hunter Othniel Charles Marsh described a new species of dinosaur from Colorado. He only had a foot and part of a hand to go on, but they were so bird-like that Marsh called the beast Ornithomimus – the bird mimic. As the rest of Ornithomimus’ skeleton was later discovered, Marsh’s description seemed more and more apt. It ran on two legs, and had a beaked, toothless mouth. Despite the long tail and grasping arms, it vaguely resembled an ostrich, and it lent its name to an entire family – the ornithomimids—which are colloquially known as “ostrich dinosaurs”.

Now, the bird mimic has become even more bird-like. By analysing two new specimens, and poring over an old famous one, Darla Zelenitsky from the University of Calgary has found evidence that Ornithomimus had feathers. And not just simple filaments, but wings – fans of long feathers splaying from the arms of adults. (More technically, it had “pennibrachia” – a word for wing-like arms that couldn’t be used to glide or fly.)

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To find out why this beetle has a spiky penis, scientists shaved it with lasers

By Ed Yong | October 25, 2012 12:00 pm

The thing in the photo above, I’m sad to say, is a penis. It belongs to the male seed beetle. And just in case you’re holding out hope that appearances are deceiving, I can assure you they are not. Those spikes are hard and sharp, and they inflict heavy injuries upon the female beetles during sex. Why would such a hellish organ evolve?

This isn’t just about beetles. The animal kingdom is full of bafflingly-shaped penises adorned with spines, spikes, and convoluted twists and turns. In some animal groups, like certain flies, penis shape is the only clue that allows scientists to distinguish between closely related species.

For a male, sex isn’t just about penetration. After he ejaculates inside a female, his sperm still have to make their way to her eggs to fertilise them and pass on his genes. If she mates with many suitors, her body becomes a battleground where the sperm of different males duke it out. Females can influence this competition by being choosy over mates, storing sperm in special pouches, or evolving their own convoluted genital passages. Males, meanwhile, have evolved their own tricks, including: guarding behaviour; self-castration; barbed sperm; chemical weapons in their sperm; mating plugs; ‘traumatic insemination’; and having lots of sperm.

And spiky penises. That too.

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Bacteria unite to form living electric cables that stretch for centimetres

By Ed Yong | October 24, 2012 1:00 pm

The bay at the Danish port of Aarhus is pretty enough, with the usual fare of beach-goers, holiday homes and yachts. But the bay’s most spectacular residents live in the mud beneath its water. Back in 2010, Lars Peter Nielsen found that this mud courses with electric currents that extend over centimetres. Nielsen suspected that the currents were carried by bacteria that behaved like electric grids. Two years on, it seems he was right. But what he found goes well beyond what even he had imagined.

Nielsen’s student Christian Pfeffer has discovered that the electric mud is teeming with a new type of bacteria, which align themselves into living electrical cables. Each cell is just a millionth of a metre long, but together, they can stretch for centimetres. They even look a bit like the cables in our electronics—long and thin, with an internal bundle of conducting fibres surrounded by an insulating sheath.

Nielsen thinks that each cable can be considered as a single individual, composed of many cells. “To me, it’s obvious that they are multicellular bacteria,” he says. “This was a real surprise. It wasn’t among any of our hypotheses. These distances are a couple of centimetres long—we didn’t imagine there would be one organism spanning the whole gap.”

The bacteria are members of a family called Desulfobulbaceae, but their genes are less than 92 percent identical to any of the group’s known members. “They’re so different that they should probably be considered a new genus,” says Nielsen. They’re only found in oxygen-starved mud, but where they exist, there’s a lot of them. On average, Pfeffer found 40 million cells in a cubic centimetre of sediment, enough to make around 117 metres of living cable.

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MORE ABOUT: Bacteria, cables, electric

Editing women into Wikipedia

By Ed Yong | October 23, 2012 12:00 pm

Last Friday, a group of volunteers gathered in the Royal Society in London to edit female scientists into the history books—or at least, into Wikipedia. Their goal was to start fixing the online encyclopaedia’s comparatively thin information about women in science and technology.

I attended the “edit-a-thon”, reporting for Nature. Before I turned up, I wondered about the rationale behind holding a specific event to edit Wikipedia, which can be done at any time and place. I also wondered how much the editors could accomplish in just 3.5 hours. Both concerns were addressed on the day, and in the piece. Take a look. Also, there was an Ada Lovelace/Wikipedia cake.

Q: Why don’t apes have bigger brains? A: They can’t eat enough to afford them

By Ed Yong | October 23, 2012 9:00 am

As animals get bigger, so do their brains. But the human brain is seven times bigger than that of other similarly sized animals. Our close relative, the chimpanzee, has a brain that’s just twice as big as expected for its size. And the gorilla, which can grow to be three times bigger than us, has a smaller brain than we do.

Many scientists ask why our brains have become so big. But Karina Fonseca-Azevedo and Suzana Herculano-Houzel from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro have turned that question on its head—they want to know why other apes haven’t evolved bigger brains. (Yes, humans are apes; for this piece, I am using “apes” to mean “apes other than us”).

Their argument is simple: brains demand exceptional amounts of energy. Each gram of brain uses up more energy than each gram of body. And bigger brains, which have more neurons, consume more fuel. On their typical diets of raw foods, great apes can’t afford to fuel more neurons than they already have. To do so, they would need to spend an implausible amount of time on foraging and feeding. An ape can’t evolve a brain as big as a human’s, while still eating like an ape. Their energy budget simply wouldn’t balance.

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