Not Exactly Rocket Science

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New science + good writing = Not Exactly Rocket Science. Articles on new discoveries written so that anyone can understand them.

Ed Yong
232 posts

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  • February 10, 2012
  • 10:00 AM
  • 813 views

The two-genome waltz: how the threat of mismatched partners shapes complex life [Repost]

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

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. Two people are dancing a waltz, and it is not going well. One is tall and the other short; one is graceful, the other [...]... Read more »

  • January 17, 2012
  • 09:00 AM
  • 610 views

Starfish go five ways, but two ways when stressed

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A typical starfish has five-sided symmetry. With no clear head, the starfish can move in any direction, led by any one of its five arms. If you were feeling particularly cruel, you could fold one up in five different ways, so each half fitted exactly on top of the other. We humans, like many other [...]... Read more »

Ji, C., Wu, L., Zhao, W., Wang, S., & Lv, J. (2012) Echinoderms Have Bilateral Tendencies. PLoS ONE, 7(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028978  

  • October 26, 2011
  • 07:13 AM
  • 1,272 views

Sex increases risk of being paralysed, buried, eaten alive (for locusts)

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You know how it is: one minute you’re having sex and the next, your partner has been stung and paralysed, and you’re being dragged off to a burrow by your genitals only to be buried and eaten alive. Such is the life of the Australian plague locust, a common pest that is targeted by the [...]... Read more »

  • October 24, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 1,285 views

Reef alliances: goatfish hunt in packs, while groupers team up with moray eels

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the Red Sea, a tiny fish has been cornered by a group of hunters working as a team. One of them chased it into a coral crevice, while the others circled around to block off any exists. With no escape, the predators – a group of yellow saddle goatfish – close in on their [...]... Read more »

  • October 18, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 822 views

Butch tail made Carnotaurus a champion dinosaur sprinter

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If you look at the skeleton of the flesh-eating dinosaur called Carnotaurus, two features instantly stand out: the skull and the arms. The fearsome skull is short, deep and topped by two devilish horns. Hence, its name: “meat-eating bull”. The arms are much less fearsome – they’re so short that they make Tyrannosaurus’s stunted fore-limbs [...]... Read more »

  • October 17, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 1,313 views

The two-genome waltz: how the threat of mismatched partners shapes complex life

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Two people are dancing a waltz, and it is not going well. One is tall and the other short; one is graceful, the other flat-footed; and both are stepping to completely different rhythms. The result is chaos, and the dance falls apart. Their situation mirrors a problem faced by all complex life on Earth. Whether [...]... Read more »

  • October 2, 2011
  • 12:00 PM
  • 1,249 views

Incredible skin helps springtails to keep dry underwater and always stay clean

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

These small studs, arranged in grids and honeycombs, look completely unnatural. If the image was life-sized, you might think that they’re part of a bizarre children’s toy. If they had been photographed from far away, they might be buildings in an alien city. But they are neither. They have been intensely magnified; a thousand of [...]... Read more »

Helbig, R., Nickerl, J., Neinhuis, C., & Werner, C. (2011) Smart Skin Patterns Protect Springtails. PLoS ONE, 6(9). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025105  

  • August 25, 2011
  • 08:42 AM
  • 1,300 views

Ostriches sleep like platypuses (and look wide awake when they do)

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science


How does an ostrich sleep? Almost imperceptibly, it seems. Even though an ostrich might be sound asleep, it can look wide awake or, at most, a little drowsy. John Lesku from the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology discovered this by fitting six ostrichers with “Neurologgers”, electrode-laden helmets that measures their temperature, brain activity, eye movements and neck muscle contractions.
The video above shows three of the birds cycling through two different types of sleep. The first is c........ Read more »

Lesku, J., Meyer, L., Fuller, A., Maloney, S., Dell'Omo, G., Vyssotski, A., & Rattenborg, N. (2011) Ostriches Sleep like Platypuses. PLoS ONE, 6(8). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023203  

  • August 23, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 1,112 views

Disease from human sewage is killing Caribbean corals

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Forty years ago, the elkhorn coral was one of the most common species in the Caribbean. Five years ago, it was listed as critically endangered. The coral’s woes are many but, aside from the warming temperatures, predators and storms that affect all corals, the elkhorn is also plagued by a highly contagious malady called white pox disease. White lesions erupt all over the coral’s branches, representing areas where its animal tissue has wasted away to leave the white skeleton.
Now, Kathryn Pat........ Read more »

  • August 10, 2011
  • 06:22 AM
  • 1,344 views

The spread of disorder – a repost in wake of London’s riot cleanup

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Yesterday, I watched as hundreds of Londoners took to the streets in a heroic attempt to clean up the mess caused by rioters and looters the night before. Looking at pictures of large crowds getting off trains with cleaning equipment in hand and marching down streets with brooms held aloft, I’ve rarely felt so proud of my city.
The clean-up operation was a great move – a positive note in an otherwise depressing week and a chance for a beleagured capital to come together and reclaim i........ Read more »

Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2008) The Spreading of Disorder. Science, 322(5908), 1681-1685. DOI: 10.1126/science.1161405  

  • August 5, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 1,119 views

Five myths about memory (and why they matter in court)

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Click here to view gallery... Read more »

  • August 1, 2011
  • 10:16 AM
  • 1,750 views

Harmless snakes avoid danger by mimicking the triangular heads of vipers

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A bird of prey flies through the skies of Europe and spots a snake on the ground below. Travelling at high speed and soaring at great height, it has mere seconds to decide if it should attack. If the snake is harmless, it could end up with a nice meal. If the snake is venomous, it could get a fatal bite. How can the bird tell the difference? The shape of the head provides a clue.
All of the dangerously venomous snakes in Europe are vipers, like the adder or the horned viper. And all of them have........ Read more »

  • July 22, 2011
  • 08:13 AM
  • 1,981 views

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

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

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 t........ Read more »

  • July 7, 2011
  • 06:00 PM
  • 1,315 views

English monkey gives itself a pedicure with self-made tools

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Animals use tools to get food, communicate with one another, defend themselves or even have a scratch. But in Chester Zoo, England, one monkey uses tools to give itself a pedicure.
Riccardo Pansini and Jan de Ruiter from Durham University watched a 18-year-old mandrill called JC clean his toenails out using small splinters. He made them himself, fashioning them from wood chips and twigs on the floor his enclosure, and honing them till they were small and sharp.
JC is the alpha male of the zoo’........ Read more »

  • May 26, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 1,262 views

The Alice Illusion – scientists convince people that they’re dolls or giants

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the titular heroine quaffs a potion that shrinks her down to the size of a doll, and eats a cake that makes her grow to gigantic proportions. Such magic doesn’t exist outside of Lewis Carroll’s imagination, but there are certainly ways of making people think that they have changed in size.
There’s nowhere in the world that’s better at creating such illusions than the lab of Henrik Ehrsson in Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. In a typical experiment, ........ Read more »

  • May 25, 2011
  • 09:00 AM
  • 1,365 views

Shastasaurus sucked

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

When the dinosaurs were ruling the land, other giant reptiles dominated the oceans. They included the ichthyosaurs, a group of reptiles that bore a strong resemblance to dolphins. They cut through the prehistoric oceans with streamlined bodies, flat flippers and powerful fluked tails. They gave birth to live young in the water. They snapped at fish and squid with pointed snouts, full of conical teeth.
But one of them was different. Shastasurus is a very different type of ichthyosaur. It has a ve........ Read more »

  • May 9, 2011
  • 10:00 AM
  • 1,310 views

Not my concern – how choice can make us more selfish

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I’m at a supermarket, and I want bacon. There’s Danish or British, streaky or back, smoked or unsmoked. My quest for bread leads to a choice between white, brown, seeded, malt, thick-sliced or thin-sliced. Lettuce: romaine, gem, iceberg. Tomatoes: cherry vine, classic, baby plum, organic.
It should not be this complicated to assemble a BLT.
People in Western countries drown in choice. Want a T-shirt? Thousands of alternatives await you. Want some toothpaste? Sit down, we could be here a whil........ Read more »

  • April 21, 2011
  • 10:00 AM
  • 1,483 views

The many yous in you – what Lydia Fairchild has in common with a sponge and an anemone

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Lydia Fairchild was confused. She had applied for state benefits to look after her three children, but according to DNA tests, she was not their mother. It was ridiculous – she knew full well that the children were hers, but she was being taken to court nonetheless.
This happened in 2002, but Fairchild’s case has striking parallels with one that cropped up just this year, involving a Mediterranean sponge called Scopalina lophyropoda. French scientists Andrea Blanquer and Maria-J Uriz found t........ Read more »

  • April 5, 2011
  • 08:47 AM
  • 1,510 views

World’s 2nd deadliest poison, in an aquarium store near you

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In 2007, a man from Woodbridge, Virginia was rushed into hospital after inhaling an aerosolised version of one of the deadliest poisons on the planet. He was not the victim of a terrorist attack. He wasn’t working in a biohazard laboratory. He was trying to clean out his fish tank.
The man, who posts on the Reef Central Forums as Steveoutlaw, was trying to get rid of a colony of zoanthids – a relative of corals and sea anemones – that was infesting his aquarium rocks. He had heard that boi........ Read more »

  • March 29, 2011
  • 11:00 AM
  • 1,482 views

Why is aspirin toxic to cats?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

One animal’s cure can be another animal’s poison. Take aspirin – it’s one of the most popular drugs on the market and we readily use it as a painkiller. But cats are extremely sensitive to aspirin, and even a single extra-strength pill can trigger a fatal overdose. Vets will sometimes prescribe aspirin to cats but only under very controlled doses.
The problem is that cats can’t break down the drug effectively. They take a long time to clear it from their bodies, so it’s easy for them........ Read more »

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