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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  • April 5, 2011
  • 09:47 AM
  • 3,146 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 »

  • November 28, 2007
  • 06:05 PM
  • 3,035 views

Solving the San Francisco plankton mystery

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

... Read more »

James Cloern, Alan Jassby, Janet Thompson, Kathryn Hieb , & . (2007) A cold phase of the East Pacific triggers new phytoplankton blooms in San Francisco Bay. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(47), 18561-18565.

  • September 1, 2008
  • 10:00 AM
  • 2,981 views

European genes mirror European geography

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Within a drop of blood, you can find all the information you need to reasonably guess where a person came from, without ever having to look at their face, name or passport. Small variations in our DNA are enough for the task. They can be used to pinpoint someone's place of origin to a remarkable degree of accuracy, often to within a few hundred kilometres.

The new discovery comes from a team of Swiss and American researchers led by  John Novembre at UCLA, who wanted to understand how the h........ Read more »

John Novembre, Toby Johnson, Katarzyna Bryc, Zoltán Kutalik, Adam R. Boyko, Adam Auton, Amit Indap, Karen S. King, Sven Bergmann, Matthew R. Nelson.... (2008) Genes mirror geography within Europe. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature07331  

  • July 22, 2011
  • 09:13 AM
  • 2,953 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 »

  • September 30, 2008
  • 12:00 PM
  • 2,923 views

Robo-starfish learns about itself and adapts to injuries

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I am walking strangely. About a week ago, I pulled something to my left ankle, which now hurts during the part of each step just before the foot leaves the ground. As a result, my other muscles are compensating for this to minimise the pain and my gait has shifted to something subtly different from the norm. In similar ways, all animal brains can compensate for injuries by computing new ways of moving that are often very different. This isn't a conscious process and as such, we often take it for........ Read more »

J. Bongard, V. Zykov, & H. Lipson. (2006) Resilient Machines Through Continuous Self-Modeling. Science, 314(5802), 1118-1121. DOI: 10.1126/science.1133687  

  • August 1, 2011
  • 11:16 AM
  • 2,827 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 »

  • August 30, 2008
  • 12:38 PM
  • 2,740 views

Too few genes to survive - the bacterium with the world's smallest genome

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The complex cells that make up plants and animals only survive today because their ancestors formed partnerships with bacteria. In a previous post, I wrote about a microbe called Hatena, which provides us with a snapshot of what the early stages of this alliance might have looked like. Hatena swallows an alga which becomes an integrated part of its body.



Millions of years ago, the ancestors of complex cells did the same thing, taking in bacteria and merging with them to form a single creatu........ Read more »

A Nakabachi, A Yamashita, H Toh, H Ishikawa, H Dunbar, N Moran, & M Hattori. (2006) The 160-Kilobase Genome of the Bacterial Endosymbiont Carsonella. Science, 314(5797), 267-267. DOI: 10.1126/science.1134196  

  • December 27, 2008
  • 01:00 PM
  • 2,738 views

Lacking control drives false conclusions, conspiracy theories and superstitions

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

"Control - you must learn control!" These wise words were uttered by no less a sage than Yoda, and while he was talking about telekinetically hoisting spacecraft, having control has another important benefit. It protects a person from spotting false patterns that aren't there, from believing in conspiracies and from developing superstitions.

Control and security are vital parts of our psychological well-being and it goes without saying that losing them can feel depressing or scary. As such, peo........ Read more »

  • March 2, 2008
  • 05:00 PM
  • 2,725 views

Snow-making bacteria are everywhere

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science



The next time you watch a snowfall, just think that among the falling flakes are some that house bacteria at their core. It's a well known fact that water freezes at 0°C, but it only does so without assistance at -40°C or colder. At higher temperatures, it needs help and relies on microscopic particles to provide a core around which water molecules can clump and crystallise. These particles act as seeds for condensation and they are rather dramatically known as "ice nucleator........ Read more »

B Christner, C E Morris, C M Foreman, R Cai, & D C Sands. (2008) Ubiquity of Biological Ice Nucleators in Snowfall. Science, 319(5867), 1214-1214. DOI: 10.1126/science.1149757  

  • March 10, 2008
  • 10:00 PM
  • 2,688 views

Immune snakes outrun toxic newts in evolutionary arms races

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The story of evolution is filled with antagonists, be they predators and prey, hosts and parasites, or males and females. These conflicts of interest provide the fuel for 'evolutionary arms races' - cycles of adaptation and counter-adaptation where any advantage gained by one side is rapidly neutralised by a counter-measure from the other. As the Red Queen of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass said to Alice, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same pla........ Read more »

  • March 29, 2008
  • 03:00 PM
  • 2,678 views

A squid's beak is a marvel of biological engineering

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science


Imagine that you hand is made of jelly and you have to carve a roast using a knife that has no handle. The bare metal blade would rip through your hypothetical hand as easily as it would through the meat. It's clearly no easy task and yet, squid have to cope with a very similar challenge every time they eat a meal.


The bodies of squid, like those of their relatives the cuttlefish and octopus, are mainly soft and pliant, with one major exception. In the centre of their web of tentacle........ Read more »

A Miserez, T Schneberk, C Sun, F Zok, & J Waite. (2008) The Transition from Stiff to Compliant Materials in Squid Beaks. Science, 319(5871), 1816-1819. DOI: 10.1126/science.1154117  

  • March 2, 2008
  • 05:00 PM
  • 2,650 views

Effects of invading island rats ripple across land and sea

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Humans have explored the entire face of the planet, but we haven't done so alone. Animals and plants came along for the ride, some as passengers and other as stowaways. Today, these hitchhikers pose one of the greatest threats to the planet's biodiversity, by ousting and outcompeting local species.

Islands are particularly vulnerable to invaders. Cut off from the mainland, island-dwellers often evolve in the absence of predators and competitors, and are prone to developing traits tha........ Read more »

  • July 17, 2008
  • 08:00 AM
  • 2,636 views

Obesity amplifies across generations; can folate-rich diets stop it?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science


Many measures to curb the obesity epidemic are aimed at young children. It's a sensible strategy - we know that overweight children have a good chance of becoming overweight adults. Family homes and schools have accordingly become critical arenas where the battle against the nation's growing waistlines is fought. But there is another equally important environment that can severely affect a person's chances of becoming overweight, but is more often overlooked - the womb.


Overwe........ Read more »

  • April 8, 2010
  • 09:00 AM
  • 2,622 views

GPS backpacks identify leaders among flocking pigeons

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A freewheeling flock of birds is one of nature’s most endearing spectacles. The flock’s members move with uncanny coordination, changing direction in unison, splitting and reforming, and even landing as one. The intricacies of these synchronised flights are very difficult to entangle. Who is following whom? Is there even a leader and, if so, does [...]... Read more »

Nagy, M., Ákos, Z., Biro, D., & Vicsek, T. (2010) Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks. Nature, 464(7290), 890-893. DOI: 10.1038/nature08891  

  • July 25, 2008
  • 12:00 PM
  • 2,603 views

Parasites outweigh top predators and castrators do best of all

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

To a science-fiction filmmaker, the concept of being controlled by unseen forces is creative gold, but for the rest of us, it's a fairly unsettling prospect. But like it or not, it's clear that parasites - creatures that live off (and often control) the bodies of others - are an integral part of the world we live in and carry an influence that far exceeds their small size.

Now, a painstaking survey of the residents of river estuaries shows that parasites do indeed punch above their we........ Read more »

Armand Kuris, Ryan F Hechinger, Jenny C Shaw, Kathleen L Whitney, Leopoldina Aguirre-Macedo, Charlie A Boch, Andrew P Dobson, Eleca J Dunham, Brian L Fredensborg, Todd C Huspeni.... (2008) Ecosystem energetic implications of parasite and free-living biomass in three estuaries. Nature, 454(7203), 515-518. DOI: 10.1038/nature06970  

  • October 6, 2008
  • 12:00 PM
  • 2,600 views

Human gut bacteria linked to obesity

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

There is a widespread belief, that being overweight or obese is a question of failing willpower, fuelled in no small part by food, fitness and beauty industries. But if we look at the issue of obesity through a scientific spyglass, a very different picture emerges. Genes, for example, exert a large influence on our tendency to become obese often by influencing behaviour - a case of nature via nurture. But it's not just our own genes that are important.

In terms of processing food, humans are h........ Read more »

Ruth E. Ley, Peter J. Turnbaugh, Samuel Klein, & Jeffrey I. Gordon. (2006) Microbial ecology: Human gut microbes associated with obesity. Nature, 444(7122), 1022-1023. DOI: 10.1038/4441022a  

Peter J. Turnbaugh, Ruth E. Ley, Michael A. Mahowald, Vincent Magrini, Elaine R. Mardis, & Jeffrey I. Gordon. (2006) An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest. Nature, 444(7122), 1027-131. DOI: 10.1038/nature05414  

  • March 18, 2008
  • 11:00 PM
  • 2,597 views

Geckos use their tails to stop falls and manoeuvre in the air

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Geckos are nature's champion climbers. With remarkable ease, they can scamper across ceilings and up smooth vertical surfaces, and they do so at speed. A vertically running gecko can cover 15 times the length of its body in a single second. So far, scientists have focused their attention on the gecko's amazingly adhesive feet but a new study demonstrates the importance of a neglected piece of their climbing gear - their tails. Geckos use their tails to stop themselves from falling, and........ Read more »

A Jusufi, D Goldman, S Revzen, & R Full. (2008) From the Cover: Active tails enhance arboreal acrobatics in geckos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(11), 4215-4219. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711944105  

  • October 19, 2008
  • 12:00 PM
  • 2,584 views

Impulsive minds are primed for drug addiction

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We've all acted impulsively before, and we have the horrendous clothes, echoing bank accounts and hilarious memories to show for it. But science is beginning to show that impulsive people may be particularly vulnerable to drug addiction, and there is little funny or harmless about that.

According to Government statistics, half a million people in the UK are addicted to class A drugs like cocaine, heroin and amphetamines. All too often, drug addiction and other compulsive disorders like obesity ........ Read more »

J. W. Dalley, T. D. Fryer, L. Brichard, E. S. J. Robinson, D. E. H. Theobald, K. Laane, Y. Pena, E. R. Murphy, Y. Shah, K. Probst.... (2007) Nucleus Accumbens D2/3 Receptors Predict Trait Impulsivity and Cocaine Reinforcement. Science, 315(5816), 1267-1270. DOI: 10.1126/science.1137073  

  • December 28, 2008
  • 01:00 PM
  • 2,577 views

Solar-powered green sea slug steals ability to photosynthesise from algae

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Solar power is a relatively new development for humans but, of course, many living things have been exploiting the power of the sun for millions of years, through the process of photosynthesis. This ability is usually limited to plants, algae and bacteria, but one unique animal can do it too - the emerald green sea slug Elysia chlorotica. This remarkable creature steals the genes and photosynthetic factories of a type of algae that it eats (Vaucheria littorea), so that it can independently draw ........ Read more »

M. E. Rumpho, J. M. Worful, J. Lee, K. Kannan, M. S. Tyler, D. Bhattacharya, A. Moustafa, & J. R. Manhart. (2008) From the Cover: Horizontal gene transfer of the algal nuclear gene psbO to the photosynthetic sea slug Elysia chlorotica. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(46), 17867-17871. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0804968105  

  • April 2, 2008
  • 10:00 PM
  • 2,572 views

Climate change knocked mammoths down, humans finished them off

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Did our ancestors exterminate the woolly mammoth? Well, sort of. According to a new study, humans only delivered a killing blow to a species that had already been driven to the brink of extinction by changing climates. Corralled into a tiny range by habitat loss, the diminished mammoth population became particularly vulnerable to the spears of hunters. We just kicked them while they were down.

The woolly mammoth first walked the earth about 300,000 years ago during the Pleistocene period. They ........ Read more »

David Nogués-Bravo, Jesús Rodríguez, Joaquín Hortal, Persaram Batra, & Miguel Araújo. (2008) Climate Change, Humans, and the Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth. PLoS Biology, 6(4). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060079  

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