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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  • October 25, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Rats check their own knowledge before taking a test

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Animals often show a keen intelligence and many species, from octopuses to crows, can perform problem-solving tasks. But humans are thought to go one step further. We can reflect on our own thoughts and we have knowledge about our knowledge. We can not only solve problems, but we know in advance if we can (or are likely to).

In technical terms, this ability is known as 'metacognition'. It's what students do when they predict how well they will do in an exam when they see the questions. It's wha........ Read more »

A FOOTE, & J CRYSTAL. (2007) Metacognition in the Rat. Current Biology, 17(6), 551-555. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.01.061  

  • October 24, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Human cone cell lets mice see in new colours

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Evolution mostly involves small, gradual changes, and for good reason - we might expect that large changes to an animal's genetic code, and therefore to its body plan, simply wouldn't work. It would be like shoving an extra cog into a finely-tuned machine and expecting it to fit in - the more likely outcome is a malfunctioning mess.

But that's not always the case, at least not for the evolution of the human eye. New research shows that the eye and its connections to the brain are surprisingly f........ Read more »

  • October 23, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

The secret of drug-resistant bubonic plague

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The plague, or the Black Death, is caused by a microbe called Yersinia pestis. In the 14th century, this microscopic enemy killed off a third of Europe's population. While many people consign the plague to centuries past, this attitude is a complacent one. Outbreaks have happened in Asia and Africa over the last decade and the plague is now recognised as a re-emerging disease. In 1996, two drug-resistant strains of plague were isolated from Madagascar. One of these, was completely resistant to a........ Read more »

Timothy J. Welch, W. Florian Fricke, Patrick F. McDermott, David G. White, Marie-Laure Rosso, David A. Rasko, Mark K. Mammel, Mark Eppinger, M.J. Rosovitz, David Wagner.... (2007) Multiple Antimicrobial Resistance in Plague: An Emerging Public Health Risk. PLoS ONE, 2(3). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000309  

  • October 22, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Eavesdropping songbirds get predator intel from overheard calls

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Humans are a funny lot. While we seem to be relentless voyeurs, we generally frown on eavesdropping as an invasion of privacy. But in the animal world, eavesdropping can be a matter of life or death. Animals rarely communicate in isolation. Often it pays for one species to monitor the dialogues of others, particularly when predator warnings are involved.

Small animals in particular do well to pay attention to the alarms of other species, as they are often preyed upon by the same larger hunters......... Read more »

  • October 21, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Genetically-modified mosquitoes fight malaria by outcompeting normal ones

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Fighting malaria with mosquitoes seems like an bizarrely ironic strategy but it's exactly what many scientists are trying to do. Malaria kills one to three million people every year, most of whom are children. Many strategies for controlling it naturally focus on ways of killing the mosquitoes that spread it, stopping them from biting humans, or getting rid of their breeding grounds.

But the mosquitoes themselves are not the real problem. They are merely carriers for the true cause of malaria -........ Read more »

  • October 20, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Swimming, walking salamander robot reconstructs invasion of land

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Moving robots are becoming more and more advanced, from Honda's astronaut-like Asimo to the dancing Robo Sapien, a perennial favourite of Christmas stockings. But these advances are still fairly superficial. Most robots still move using pre-defined programmes and making a single robot switch between very different movements, such as walking or swimming, is very difficult. Each movement type would require significant programming effort.

Robotics engineers are now looking to nature for inspiratio........ Read more »

  • October 19, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

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  

  • October 18, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Viruses evolve to be more infectious in well-connected populations

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A virus, like any other carrier of genetic information, can only enjoy evolutionary success by ensuring that its genetic material is passed on through the ages, and it can only do that if its offspring finds new hosts to infect. Its host must live to infect again, and the virus that kills its host prematurely signs its own evolutionary death sentence.

So over time, we might expect that the ideal virus would evolve to never kill any of its hosts - it would have zero 'virulence'. It would also ev........ Read more »

  • October 17, 2008
  • 12:07 PM

The chimpanzee Stone Age

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the Ivory Coast, a small stream called Audrenisrou winds its way through the lowland rainforest of the Tai National Park. On the floodplain of this stream, at a site called Nuolo, lie several stones that seem unassuming at first glance. But to the trained eye, they are a window to the past.

Their shape is different to other stones that have been worn away by natural erosion. They have been flaked in systematic ways and many are flattened and sharp. Clearly, they were shaped by hand for a pur........ Read more »

J. Mercader, H. Barton, J. Gillespie, J. Harris, S. Kuhn, R. Tyler, & C. Boesch. (2007) 4,300-Year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussive stone technology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(9), 3043-3048. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0607909104  

  • October 16, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Bird-brained jays can plan for the future

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Looking at Britain's overcrowded prisons, Wembley stadium or the continual dithering over solid climate change policies, it would seem that many of us are really quite bad at planning for the future. Even so, most of us can still do it (even though some may do it very badly). This abilty isn't there from birth; children only develop a sense of a future at the age of two and they can only plan for it from four or five. But eventually, everyone picks up the skill and up till recently, scientists b........ Read more »

C. R. Raby, D. M. Alexis, A. Dickinson, & N. S. Clayton. (2007) Planning for the future by western scrub-jays. Nature, 445(7130), 919-921. DOI: 10.1038/nature05575  

  • October 15, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Chimpanzees make spears to hunt bushbabies

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It is midday in Senegal and a chimpanzee is on the hunt. Its target is a bushbaby, a small, cute and nocturnal primate that spends its days sheltered in the hollow of a tree, beyond the reach of predators like the chimp. But this hunter is not like others - it is intelligent, it is dextrous, and it has a plan. Snapping off a thin branch, the chimp strips it of twigs, leaves and bark. And with its teeth, it sharpens the tip into a murderous point.

It forcefully jabs its newly fashioned spear int........ Read more »

  • October 14, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

9/11 memories reveal how flashbulb memories are made in the brain

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I have only ever seen one car crash and I remember it with crystal clarity. I was driving home along a motorway and a car heading the opposite way simply veered into the central reservation. Its hood crumpled like so much paper, its back end lifted clear off the tarmac and it spun 180 degrees before crashing back down in a cloud of dust. All of this happened within the space of a second, so the details may be different to what I remember. But the emotions I felt at the time are still vivid - the........ Read more »

T. Sharot, E. A. Martorella, M. R. Delgado, & E. A. Phelps. (2007) How personal experience modulates the neural circuitry of memories of September 11. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(1), 389-394. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0609230103  

  • October 12, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

The brain's addiction centre

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It's mid-October. For most of us, our New Year's resolutions have long been forgotten and our bad habits remain frustratingly habitual. The things that are bad for us often feel strongly compelling, be they high-fat foods, gambling or alcohol. And nowhere is the problem of addiction more widespread, serious and dangerous than the case of cigarette smoking.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the developed world, and in the UK, it kills five times more people than all non-medic........ Read more »

N. H. Naqvi, D. Rudrauf, H. Damasio, & A. Bechara. (2007) Damage to the Insula Disrupts Addiction to Cigarette Smoking. Science, 315(5811), 531-534. DOI: 10.1126/science.1135926  

  • October 11, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

The heavy cost of having children

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

While philosophers and poets muse on the meaning of life, natural selection casts a dispassionate eye on the whole affair. From the viewpoint of evolution, there is only one thing that matters - that we survive long enough to pass our genes on to the next generation, as many times as possible. And from the viewpoint of evolution, we are not doing a very good job.

Birth rates in several countries around the world - the UK, Japan, China - are falling dramatically. Women are having fewer children ........ Read more »

D. J. Penn, & K. R. Smith. (2007) Differential fitness costs of reproduction between the sexes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(2), 553-558. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0609301103  

  • October 10, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

How biofuels could cut carbon emissions, produce energy and restore dead land

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The twenty-first century is having a troubled infancy. Eight years in and it is facing the twin perils of climate change and a looming energy crisis. Solutions to both are in high demand and many research dollars and pounds are being channelled into developing environmentally-friendly, renewable resources.

Biofuels - the product of living things - certainly fit the bill, being both renewable and biodegradable. But there is always a catch. Currently, biofuels are mostly a matter of harvesting si........ Read more »

  • October 9, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Worms track us down with a chemical trail

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Throughout the day, our skins are constantly sending out messages that we are completely oblivious to. The message is written in chemical form and it says, "Here I am. Come and get me". We neither see nor hear these signals but other creatures do, and they slither, crawl and swim our way in response.

These creatures are nematodes, a group of worms that are some of the most common animals on the planet. The vast majority of nematode species are parasites, and hundreds of species count humans amo........ Read more »

  • October 8, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Microraptor - the dinosaur that flew like a biplane

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Many of us believe dinosaurs to be extinct but in truth, they surround us every day. All the world's birds, from the pigeons of our cities to the gulls of our seasides, are descended from dinosaurs, and modern science now classifies the birds with their long-dead kin. The gulf between dinosaurs and modern birds may seem huge, but the discovery of several feathered dinosaurs are seriously blurring the line between the two. And now, new research on the feathered dinosaur Microraptor reveals that b........ Read more »

  • October 7, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Maternal hormone shuts down baby’s brain cells during birth

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It is the instinct of every mother to protect their children as they grow up, shielding them from the dangers of the outside world. Right from birth, life can be a difficult experience. Within a few hours, the child is sent from a safe, warm, constantly-nourished cocoon into a bright, noisy and threatening world. This stressful transition poses a serious threat to the newborn's vulnerable and still-developing mind. But new research has shown that even in these first vital hours, mothers are alre........ Read more »

  • October 6, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

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  

  • October 5, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Toxoplasma - the brain parasite that influences human culture

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We like to think that we are masters of our own fates. The thought that others might be instead controlling our actions makes us uneasy. We rail against nanny states, we react badly to media hype and we are appalled at the idea of brainwashing. But words and images are not the only things that can affect our brains and thoughts. Other animals - parasites - can do this too. According to research by Kevin Lafferty from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a common brain parasite, Toxoplasm........ Read more »

Kevin D. Lafferty. (2006) Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1602), 2749-2755. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3641  

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