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
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  • February 10, 2012
  • 11:00 AM

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
  • 10:00 AM

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
  • 08:13 AM

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
  • 10:00 AM

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
  • 10:00 AM

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
  • 10:00 AM

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
  • 01:00 PM

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
  • 09:42 AM

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 called ‘slow wave sleep’ or SWS, where the ostriches’ brain waves are slow and strong. Even though this is typically known as deep sleep, the birds look alert. They stay still, but their eyes are open and their necks upright. Nonetheless, the readings from the Neurologgers clearly showed that they were asleep.
In the second phase, known as ‘rapid eye movement’ or REM sleep, the ostriches’ brain waves are fast and weaker. Now, the birds shut their eyes, which move rapidly behind closed eyelids. They necks also start to droop and sway, righting themselves with awkward jerks like people falling asleep at a talk. Biologists have previously interpreted this as a sign of a tired ostrich. That’s partly right, although the animal ...... 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
  • 10:00 AM

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 Patterson Sutherland from Rollins College in Florida has discovered the cause of white pox disease, and it’s an unexpected one – us. We have literally landed the elkhorn in s**t.
The white pox is caused by a bacterium called Serratia marcescens which we donated to corals via a gift of sewage. S.marcescens is a gut bacterium found in human faeces. It’s also an opportunist. It grows where the atmosphere is moist, such as sinks and showers, and where immune systems are weak, such as catheters, wounds and hospital equipment. But how dd it end up infecting coral reefs?
In 2003, Sutherland found a clue. During an outbreak of white ...... Read more »

  • August 10, 2011
  • 07:22 AM

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 its sense of community. But the act of cleaning away the preceding day’s damage was also important. To explain why, I’m reposting this piece from a few years back about a Dutch study which showed that signs of disorder only breed more disorder. To clarify, this is in no way an attempt to explain the psychology of the riots themselves; it simply suggests another reason why the clean-up operation was a smart move.
Imagine walking through a neighbourhood and seeing graffiti, litter, and shopping trolleys strewn about the place. Are these problems to be solved, or petty annoyances that can be ...... 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
  • 10:00 AM

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
  • 11:16 AM

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 a triangular head. The shape is so distinctive that you can easily recognise these snakes from a distance. And some harmless species like the grass snake, smooth snake and viperine snake use that to their advantage. When threatened, they flatten their narrow heads into a triangle, mimicking the shape of their more dangerous cousins.
Janne Valkonen from the University of Jyvaskyla has shown that the triangular head is enough to ward off predators. He created plasticine snakes (a surprisingly common method in behavioural ...... Read more »

  • July 22, 2011
  • 09:13 AM

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 than a thousand people between 1988 and 2009, and eaten around two-thirds of them. Now Craig Packer from the University of Minnesota has shown that the frequency of these attacks is tied into lunar cycles.
Texan-born Packer first visited Tanzania in 1972 to study baboons with Jane Goodall. When he returned to the country in 1978, his attention had shifted to lions and it has never left. His team expanded upon records of local lion prides that began in the 1960s, creating a massive set of data on over 5,000 individuals from the Serengeti National Park and ...... Read more »

  • July 7, 2011
  • 07:00 PM

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’s six-strong group of mandrills. Over three months of observations, Pansini and de Ruiter saw JC give himself a pedicure seven times. On a couple of occasions, he ignored the wood altogether and just plucked out one of his own hairs to clean his nails with.
Many animals will use tools, but it’s not often that they modify those tools to make them more suitable for their needs. Chimps do it, as do New Caledonian crows. Among monkeys, biologists have documented a capuchin dressing her baby’s head wound with modified plants, spider monkeys making back-scratchers out of sticks, and Japanese macaques ...... Read more »

  • May 26, 2011
  • 10:00 AM

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, a volunteer is being stroked while wearing a virtual reality headset. She’s lyng down and looking at her feet, but she doesn’t see them. Instead, the headset shows her the legs of a mannequin lying next to her.
As she watches, Bjorn van der Hoort, one of Ehrsson’s former interns, uses two rods to stroke her leg, and the leg of the mannequin, at the same time. This simple trick creates an overwhelming feeling that the mannequin’s legs are her own.  If the legs belong to a Barbie, she feels like she’s the size of a doll. If the legs are huge, she feels like a 13-foot giant.
Van der Hoort performed this illusion on almost 200 people. Questionnaires revealed that ...... Read more »

  • May 25, 2011
  • 10:00 AM

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 very small head, a short snout and, most importantly, no teeth at all.
Martin Sander from the University of Bonn thinks that it was the black sheep of the family. It couldn’t have bitten its prey like other ichthyosaurs or modern dolphins. Instead, Sander thinks that it was a suction feeder. By quickly opening its mouth and pulling back its tongue, it created a sudden influx of water that swept its prey into its open jaws. Many whales, including sperm whales and beaked whales, hunt with a similar technique today and they too have greatly reduced teeth.
The part ...... Read more »

  • May 9, 2011
  • 11:00 AM

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 while. Many people see these options as a good thing – they’re a sign of our independence, our freedom, our mastery over our own destinies. But these apparent positives have a dark side.
Krishna Savani from Columbia University has found that when Americans think about the concept of choice, they’re less concerned about the public good and less empathic towards disadvantaged people. His work supports the idea that endless arrays of choice focus our attention on individual control and, by doing so, they send a message that people’s fates are their own concerns. Their lives are not the business of the state or public institutions, and if they fail, it is their ...... Read more »

  • April 21, 2011
  • 11:00 AM

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 that around a quarter of the sponge’s larvae are genetically distinct from the parents that they come from. Somehow, they had inherited genes from a different source.
Sponges are about as far away from humans as you could imagine an animal being – their bodies are just two layers of cells, curved and folded into tubes and chambers. But even though their bodies are worlds apart, the mysteries of both Lydia Fairchild and S.lophyropoda had the same answer.
Both of them are chimeras, living things that are formed when two or more fertilised eggs fuse together. The chimeras of myth were monsters that combined parts of lion, snake and goat. Real ...... Read more »

  • April 5, 2011
  • 09:47 AM

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 boiling water would do the trick. When he tried it, he accidentally inhaled some of the steam.
Twenty minutes later, his nose was running and he had a cough. Four hours later, his breathing was laboured and he was headed to the emergency room. By the time he arrived, he was suffering from severe coughing fits and chest pains. He was stabilised, but he developed asthma and a persistent cough, and had to use steroids and an inhaler for at least two months.
The reason for his sudden illness was palytoxin, a speciality of zoanthids, and the second deadliest poison in ...... Read more »

  • March 29, 2011
  • 12:00 PM

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 to build up harmful concentrations. This defect is unusual – humans clearly don’t suffer from it, and neither do dogs. All cats, however, seem to share the same problem, from house tabbies to African lions.
Now, Binu Shrestha from the Tufts University School of Medicine has found that cats may have developed their strange sensitivity because of their lifestyle as specialist hunters. Their penchant for meat could have ultimately turned aspirin into their kryptonite.
Our livers break down aspirin using a protein called UGT1A6, encoded by a gene of the same name. In 1997, Michael Court, who led Shrestha’s study, showed that the cat version of ...... Read more »

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