Category: Uncategorized

Reading without understanding: baboons can tell real English words from fake ones

By Ed Yong | April 12, 2012 2:00 pm

‘Wasp’ is an English word, but ‘telk’ is not. You and I know this because we speak English. But in a French laboratory, six baboons have also learned to tell the difference between genuine English words, and nonsense ones. They can sort their wasps from their telks, even though they have no idea that the former means a stinging insect and the latter means nothing. They don’t understand the language, but can ‘read’ nonetheless.

At its most basic level, reading is about recognising patterns. We look at letters (or other symbols) and identify them based on their number, position and angles of lines. This is a trivial task, and one that doesn’t require any language. Letters are no different to any other object in our environment that we can recognise. A pigeon can be trained to do discriminate between letters.

The next step is harder. We unite letters into words by looking at their positions relative to one another. This is called “orthographic processing”. It’s the stage where, according to general consensus, language kicks in. As we see clusters of letters, we think about the sounds they represent and we read the word aloud in our heads. But Jonathan Grainger from Aix-Marseille University has shown that orthographic processing can happen without any knowledge of language, or how words are meant to sound.

Grainger trained baboons to recognise English words, and tell them apart from very similar nonsense words. The monkeys learned quickly, and could even categorise words they had never seen before. They weren’t anglophiles by any stretch. Instead, their abilities suggest that the act of reading words is just a more advanced version of the pattern-recognition skill that lets us identify letters. It’s a skill that was there long before the first human had scrawled the first letter.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Select, Uncategorized

Tiny insect soldiers with butch forearms are actually medics

By Ed Yong | April 11, 2012 9:00 am

Many insect colonies have troops of soldiers, which defend their nests with special weapons like massive jaws or chemical guns. Kladothrips intermedius is no exception – this tiny insect, known as a thrips, has soldiers that supposedly crush their enemies to death with butch forearms. But contrary to appearances, these big arms aren’t all that useful for fighting. Instead, they’re living pharmacies. Christine Turnbull from Macquarie University and Holly Caravan from Memorial University of Newfoundland have found that the thrips warriors are actually healers.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Select, Uncategorized

What goes on in my head…

By Ed Yong | March 23, 2012 2:32 pm

I tweeted a link to a video of a talk I did, and asked people to caption the screengrab. Joe Hanson did an uncannily accurate job…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Uncategorized

My bad – on accountability in science journalism

By Ed Yong | March 6, 2012 9:05 am

There are many reasons why errors creep into science journalism, beyond what the journalist happens to write. Scientists can publish fraudulent papers, draw false conclusions from their experiments, or give misleading quotes. Press officers can paint results in a skewed light, omit or strip out context, and make up quotes entirely. Editors can assign reporters to tenuous stories. Sub-editors can introduce errors.

You already know this. I’m explicitly pointing it out because I have seen several instances where journalists have attempted to defend shoddy reporting – either by themselves or their colleagues – by citing this laundry list of reasons as mitigating factors.

The latest prominent example comes from no less than Paul Dacre himself – editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail. Ananyo Bhattacharya from Nature has a good piece in the Guardian where he singles out Dacre’s attempt to defend a piece of indefensible “reporting” in the Mail. The story, by the unfortunately named “Daily Mail Reporter”, claimed that switching on a light for a night-time toilet visit could “cause changes that might lead to cancer”. Testifying at the Leveson enquiry, Dacre argued that the story was legitimate because it was reworked from wire copy that included a quote from one of the scientists involved.

Bhattacharya writes, “[Dacre] is wrong to imply that it constitutes acceptable journalistic practice. It does not.” Big tick.

There are many reasons why errors creep into science journalism, but as far as the accountability of an individual journalist is concerned, they are all irrelevant. They are not mitigating factors. If we write something, and we put out names to it, the buck stops with us. If there is a mistake, it is our fault.

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One man and his superorganism – a review at Download the Universe

By Ed Yong | March 2, 2012 10:44 am

Writer, blogger and parasite-lover extraordinaire Carl Zimmer has created a new blog called Download the Universe, dedicated to reviewing science e-books. Says Carl:

It was clear that ebooks were becoming an extraordinary new medium, rivalling print books in the marketplace and offering opportunities that printed books could not. We saw great things in the future of science books. There was just one thing missing: a way for readers to find out about new ebooks about science. Book reviews were showing little interest; blogs offered scant, diffuse attention. We agreed that what was needed was a science ebook review. Here it is.

Carl assembled his own Justice League of science writers to help with the project, including several names that should be familiar to readers of this blog. There are already several great reviews – don’t miss David Dobbs’s merciless uppercut – and I’ve just contributed my first. It’s a look at one of the Atavist’s first offerings – a piece about ant-loving scientist Mark Moffett. Go read it.


Science writing I'd pay to read – February 2012

By Ed Yong | March 2, 2012 10:17 am

It’s time for February’s Science Writer Tip-Jar picks. 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. To set an example, I choose ten pieces every month that were written for free and I donate £3 to the author. There are no formal criteria other than I found them unusually interesting, enjoyable and/or important.

I also encourage readers to support these writers through two buttons on the sidebar. There are two ways to help. Any donations via “Support Science Writers” are evenly distributed to chosen ten at the end of the month. Donations via the “Support NERS” button go to me; I match a third of the total figure and send that to the chosen writers too.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the picks (there are only 8 this month, because I’ve been travelling and haven’t been able to read as much as usual):

  • Rachel Sussman for a thoughtful post on the world’s longest-lived creatures, and what the death of a 3,500-year-old tree teaches us about impermanence.
  • Lali for her moving #Iamscience post on being a science teacher: “I accept their dissonance and scepticism, and I repay them with evidence and data”
  • Rob Dunn for a fresh look at symbiosis with a list of five fungi that farm animals.
  • Sally Adee for a funny and electrifying illuminating look at what jolts of electricity does to the brain: “Everything in my head finally shut the f**k up.”
  • Jeffrey Marlow for a great story about how a piece of Mars ended up in London, thanks to Moroccan nomads, a meteorite curator and a mystery donor.
  • Brian Switek for narrating the growth of an elephant. “Every elephant that has ever lived started off as a single cell.”
  • Carl Zimmer for one of the best-reported pieces yet on the mutant bird flu controversy. “When it comes to viruses can we really calculate ratios of costs to benefits?”
  • Alex Wild for two great photo essays of incredible mimicking spiders.

Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 17, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.

In 1990, in a depressed area of Buffalo, New York, eleven schoolgirls were raped. According to George Kelling, a criminal justice scholar, eight of these incidents could have been prevented. After the third case, police knew that a serial rapist was on the loose but, even though they had a description and modus operandi, they issued no warning to local parents. They saw their job as catching the criminal rather than preventing more girls from being raped.

Kelling argued that the cops hadn’t wilfully neglected their duties. Their actions were swayed by their views of police-work, which were in turn affected by metaphors. They saw themselves as crime-fighters who trod the “thin blue line” protecting innocent civilians from criminal marauders. With this role entrenched in their minds, they saw their job as catching the rapist, even at the expense of preventing further crimes. As Kelling said, the eight Buffalo schoolgirls “were victims, though no one realized it at the time, not only of a rapist, but of a metaphor.”

As with all complex issues, crime is suffused with metaphors. One common frame portrays crime as a disease, one that plagues cities, infects communities, and spreads in epidemics or waves. Another depicts crime as a predator – criminals prey upon their victims, and they need to be hunted or caught. These aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.

In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be. They can change the way we try to solve big problems like crime. They can shift the sources that we turn to for information. They can polarise our opinions to a far greater extent than, say, our political leanings. And most of all, they do it under our noses. Writers know how powerful metaphors can be, but it seems that most of us fail to realise their influence in our everyday lives.

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Man with schizophrenia has out-of-body experience in lab, gains knowledge, controls his psychosis [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 16, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.
RM had his first out-of-body experience at the age of 16. Now, at the age of 55, he has had more than he can count. They usually happen just before he falls asleep; for ten minutes, he feels like he is floating above his body, looking down on himself. If the same thing happens when he’s awake, it’s a far less tranquil story. The sense of displacement is stronger – his real body feels like a marionette, while he feels like a puppeteer. His feelings of elevation soon change into religious delusions, in which he imagines himself talking to angels and demons. Psychotic episodes follow. After four or five days, RM is hospitalised.

This has happened between 15 to 20 times, ever since RM was first diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 23. He hears voices, and he suffers from hallucinations and delusions. Despite these problems, he managed to hold down a job as a reporter until 2002 and more recently, he has been working in restaurants and volunteering as an archivist. Then, about a year ago, he took part in a study that seems to have changed his life.

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Beetle larva lures and kills frogs, while the adult hunts and paralyses them [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 15, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.


During its lifetime, a frog will snap up thousands of insects with its sticky, extendable tongue. But if it tries to eat an Epomis beetle, it’s more likely to become a meal than to get one. These Middle Eastern beetles include two species – Epomis circumscriptus and Epomis dejeani – that specialise at killing frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians.

Their larvae eat nothing else, and they have an almost 100 percent success rate. They lure their prey, encouraging them to approach and strike. When the sticky tongue lashes out, the larva dodges and latches onto its attacker with wicked double-hooked jaws. Hanging on, it eats its prey alive. The adult beetle has a more varied diet but it’s no less adept at hunting amphibians. It hops onto its victim’s back and delivers a surgical bite that paralyses the amphibian, giving the beetle time to eat at its leisure.

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Hagfish filmed choking sharks with slime, and actively hunting fish [Repost]

By Ed Yong | February 14, 2012 10:00 am

This post was originally published last year. I’m travelling for a few weeks, so I’m reloading some of my favourite stories from 2011. Normal service will resume when I get back.

The hagfish looks like an easy meal. Its sinuous, eel-like body has no obvious defences, but any predator that moves in for a bite is in for a nasty surprise. The hagfish releases a quick-setting slime that clogs up the predator’s gills, causing it to gag, choke and flee. Scientists have known about this repulsive defence for decades, but Vincent Zintzen has finally filmed it in the wild. His videos also prove that hagfish, generally thought to be scavengers of the abyss, are also active hunters that can drag tiny fish from their burrows.

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