Empirical Zeal

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Empirical Zeal communicates the wonder and excitement of science with jargon free summaries of new experiments and discoveries.

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  • October 12, 2012
  • 01:41 AM

Can we build a more efficient airplane? Not really, says physics.

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Update (13 October):  I emailed David MacKay to get his opinion on some of the critical comments responding to this blog post. David is a physicist at Cambridge University, author of the book ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’, … Continue reading →... Read more »

David MacKay. (2009) Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. UIT Cambridge Ltd. info:/

  • September 30, 2012
  • 05:28 AM

Milk, meat and blood: how diet drives natural selection in the Maasai

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

This post is a little different from the usual fare at this blog, as I am discussing a paper on which I’m a co-author. My collaborators and I just put up a paper in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. We analyzed genetic data … Continue reading →... Read more »

Kshitij Wagh, Aatish Bhatia, Gabriela Alexe, Anupama Reddy, Vijay Ravikumar, Michael Seiler, Michael Boemo, Ming Yao, Lee Cronk, Asad Naqvi, Shridar Ganesan, Arnold J. Levine, Gyan Bhanot. (2012) Lactase Persistence and Lipid Pathway Selection in the Maasai. PLOS ONE, 7(9). info:/10.1371/journal.pone.0044751

  • June 11, 2012
  • 04:36 AM

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part II)

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Lately, I’ve got colors on the brain. In part I of this post I talked about the common roads that different cultures travel down as they name the colors in their world. And I came across the idea that color names are, … Continue reading →... Read more »

Regier, T., & Kay, P. (2009) Language, thought, and color: Whorf was half right. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(10), 439-446. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.07.001  

Gilbert AL, Regier T, Kay P, & Ivry RB. (2006) Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(2), 489-94. PMID: 16387848  

Franklin A, Drivonikou GV, Clifford A, Kay P, Regier T, & Davies IR. (2008) Lateralization of categorical perception of color changes with color term acquisition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(47), 18221-5. PMID: 19015521  

  • June 5, 2012
  • 05:06 PM

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with … Continue reading →... Read more »

Regier T, Kay P, & Khetarpal N. (2007) Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(4), 1436-41. PMID: 17229840  

Brent Berlin, & Paul Kay. (1991) Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution 1969 (Reprint). Center for the Study of Language and Information. info:/http://www.amazon.com/Basic-Color-Terms-Universality-Evolution/dp/1575861623/ref

  • January 19, 2012
  • 07:33 AM

The state of Indian rural education 2011

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

A friend of mine recently pointed me towards an incredible resource. It’s called the Annual Status of Education Report (or ASER, which means impact in Hindi). ASER is an ambitious survey of the state of Indian rural education, conducted yearly … Continue reading →... Read more »

ASER center, Pratham. (2011) Annual Status of Education Report (Rural), 2011. Survey Results. info:/

  • January 15, 2012
  • 01:20 PM

Role models can reduce the gender gap: an experiment in rural India

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

I’m back at home in India, and visited my local toy store today, looking for a science kit for a wide-eyed young friend. A woman walks in, seeking a toy for a one-year-old child. “A boy, not a girl”, she … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • December 18, 2011
  • 04:50 PM

Towards nature’s fastest draw

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

The life forms that follow are pushing the limits of physics and engineering. Typically, they are doing this to rein death and terror onto hapless prey. They are the Terminator 2′s of our world. So please join me, as we descend down this list towards the most lethal of all blows. This is a quest for the fastest draw in nature.... Read more »

Deban SM, O'Reilly JC, Dicke U, & van Leeuwen JL. (2007) Extremely high-power tongue projection in plethodontid salamanders. The Journal of experimental biology, 210(Pt 4), 655-67. PMID: 17267651  

Patek SN, Korff WL, & Caldwell RL. (2004) Biomechanics: deadly strike mechanism of a mantis shrimp. Nature, 428(6985), 819-20. PMID: 15103366  

Vincent O, Weisskopf C, Poppinga S, Masselter T, Speck T, Joyeux M, Quilliet C, & Marmottant P. (2011) Ultra-fast underwater suction traps. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 278(1720), 2909-14. PMID: 21325323  

Edwards J, Whitaker D, Klionsky S, & Laskowski MJ. (2005) Botany: a record-breaking pollen catapult. Nature, 435(7039), 164. PMID: 15889081  

Patek SN, Baio JE, Fisher BL, & Suarez AV. (2006) Multifunctionality and mechanical origins: ballistic jaw propulsion in trap-jaw ants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(34), 12787-92. PMID: 16924120  

Seid MA, Scheffrahn RH, & Niven JE. (2008) The rapid mandible strike of a termite soldier. Current biology : CB, 18(22). PMID: 19036330  

Nüchter T, Benoit M, Engel U, Ozbek S, & Holstein TW. (2006) Nanosecond-scale kinetics of nematocyst discharge. Current biology : CB, 16(9). PMID: 16682335  

  • October 19, 2011
  • 04:53 AM

How a new understanding of itch leads to better pain treatments

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

It begins with an itch. That familiar irritating feeling, swiftly followed by the inevitable scratch. For most of us it ends here, in a fleeting moment of bliss. But then there are those tortured few for whom scratching provides little … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • July 24, 2011
  • 02:30 PM

Bacteria use slingshots to slice through slime

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Bacteria have busy social lives. You might get a glimpse of this the next time you take a shower. The slimy discolored patches that form on bath tiles and on the inside of shower curtains are the mega-cities of the bacterial world. If you zoom into these patches of grime, you’ll find bustling microcosms that are teeming with life at a different scale... Continue reading →... Read more »

Jin F, Conrad JC, Gibiansky ML, & Wong GC. (2011) Bacteria use type-IV pili to slingshot on surfaces. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 21768344  

Gibiansky ML, Conrad JC, Jin F, Gordon VD, Motto DA, Mathewson MA, Stopka WG, Zelasko DC, Shrout JD, & Wong GC. (2010) Bacteria use type IV pili to walk upright and detach from surfaces. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330(6001), 197. PMID: 20929769  

  • July 14, 2011
  • 04:31 AM

What it feels like for a sperm

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

We don’t usually learn about the physics of squishy things. Physics textbooks are filled with solid objects such as incompressible blocks, inclined planes and inelastic strings. This is the rigid world that obeys Newton’s laws. Here, squishiness is an exception and drag is routinely ignored... Continue reading →... Read more »

  • June 26, 2011
  • 02:00 PM

Dissecting the language of the birds, or how to talk to a songbird

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Young children have an uncanny ability to pick up new languages. Not only can they soak up new vocabulary, but they can also construct new sentences of their own. This ability to use grammar is the essence of language. It’s … Continue reading →... Read more »

Kentaro Abe, & Dai Watanabe. (2011) Songbirds possess the spontaneous ability to discriminate syntactic rules. Nature Neuroscience. info:/10.1038/nn.2869

Fehér, O., Wang, H., Saar, S., Mitra, P., & Tchernichovski, O. (2009) De novo establishment of wild-type song culture in the zebra finch. Nature, 459(7246), 564-568. DOI: 10.1038/nature07994  

  • June 17, 2011
  • 04:08 AM

Marine animals save energy by coasting like birds

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

It feels good to be an animal. Unlike trees that are tethered to the ground, we animals have the incredible ability to travel. And we do so in a variety of ways. Some like to walk, others run. Others get around by swimming or flying. There are climbers, leapers, and hoppers, and others that prefer to roll and tumble.

Locomotion certainly affords us a great deal of freedom, but it comes at a considerable energy cost. ... Read more »

Gleiss AC, Jorgensen SJ, Liebsch N, Sala JE, Norman B, Hays GC, Quintana F, Grundy E, Campagna C, Trites AW.... (2011) Convergent evolution in locomotory patterns of flying and swimming animals. Nature communications, 352. PMID: 21673673  

  • June 10, 2011
  • 04:13 PM

Why a quantum particle is not like a water drop. A tale of two slits, part 1

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

I want to describe a certain beautiful experiment, perhaps the most beautiful experiment in science. This is an experiment that has captivated me from the time that I first heard about it in high school. That’s because it’s simple to understand, and yet it captures the essence of what is truly messed up about quantum mechanics.... Read more »

Richard P. Feynman. (1988) QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton University Press. info:other/978-0691024172

  • June 1, 2011
  • 05:29 PM

Flies alter their ejaculate to get the best bang for the buck

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Sex is war. It’s a battle for limited resources. The source of sexual conflict is this: sperm is a relatively cheap resource for males to produce, whereas producing eggs and rearing offspring is a much larger investment on the part … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • May 25, 2011
  • 07:19 AM

Why have sex? Snails do it to fight parasites

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Why do we have sex? If this question keeps you up at night, you either have really loud neighbors, or you have the makings of an evolutionary biologist. Some of the most brilliant minds in the field – William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and George Williams – have spent much of their careers wondering about the value of sex. This is not a reflection on the quality of their sex lives. Rather, it has more to do with their creative insight and ability to look at the world with fresh eyes.... Read more »

King KC, Delph LF, Jokela J, & Lively CM. (2009) The geographic mosaic of sex and the Red Queen. Current biology : CB, 19(17), 1438-41. PMID: 19631541  

King KC, Jokela J, & Lively CM. (2011) Parasites, sex, and clonal diversity in natural snail populations. Evolution; international journal of organic evolution, 65(5), 1474-81. PMID: 21521196  

  • May 20, 2011
  • 03:09 AM

Why moths lost their spots, and cats don’t like milk. Tales of evolution in our time.

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

... Read more »

Tishkoff SA, Reed FA, Ranciaro A, Voight BF, Babbitt CC, Silverman JS, Powell K, Mortensen HM, Hirbo JB, Osman M.... (2007) Convergent adaptation of human lactase persistence in Africa and Europe. Nature genetics, 39(1), 31-40. PMID: 17159977  

  • May 16, 2011
  • 05:35 AM

Destroying the disposers of death: will India rescue its few remaining vultures?

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Indians today can hardly recall the last time that they saw a vulture. In the 1990s, these majestic birds were a common sight in the subcontinent, and would show up wherever there was exposed carrion. As a child, I remember … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • May 15, 2011
  • 04:52 AM

When nice guys finish first: a lesson from tiny robots

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Meet Alice. She is 4 centimeters tall and moves about on wheels. Her goal in life is to look for food. Remarkably,the foraging behavior of this tiny robot has not been programmed by humans. Instead, her creators gave Alice a brain, and … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • May 12, 2011
  • 02:51 AM

Blind fish in dark caves shed light on the evolution of sleep

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

A world without light is quite an alien place. There are many examples of fish that live in completely dark caves. Remarkably, if you compare these fish to their relatives that live in rivers or in the ocean, the cavefish often undergo a similar set of changes. Their eyes do not fully develop, they lose skin pigmentation, and their jaws and teeth tend to develop in particular ways. But what about changes in behavior? In the absence of any daylight, how do their sleep patterns evolve?... Read more »

Duboué ER, Keene AC, & Borowsky RL. (2011) Evolutionary convergence on sleep loss in cavefish populations. Current biology : CB, 21(8), 671-6. PMID: 21474315  

  • May 5, 2011
  • 05:09 AM

When it hurts so bad, why does my brain light up?

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

If you’ve ever been rejected by a loved one, you knows that it hurts. Think of the language that we use to describe the feeling – hurt, pain, broken hearts, heartache, and so on. Across cultures, many of the same words are used to describe social rejection and bodily pain. Is this all just metaphor, or are people who have been dumped genuinely feeling physical pain? A recent study by Ethan Kross and colleagues set out to address this question by putting volunteers who had recently experience........ Read more »

Kross E, Berman MG, Mischel W, Smith EE, & Wager TD. (2011) Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(15), 6270-5. PMID: 21444827  

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