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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  • May 5, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Fat cell number is set in childhood and stays constant in adulthood

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

As fat people have an abundance of fat tissue, the natural assumption is that fat people have more fat cells, or 'adipocytes'. That's only part of the story - it turns out that overweight and obese people not only have a surplus of fat cells, they have larger ones too.

The idea of these 'fatter fat cells' has been around since the 1970s. But their importance has been dramatically highlighted by a new study, which shows that the number of fat cells in both thin and obese........ Read more »

Kirsty Spalding, Erik Arner, Pål O Westermark, Samuel Bernard, Bruce A Buchholz, Olaf Bergmann, Lennart Blomqvist, Johan Hoffstedt, Erik Näslund, Tom Britton.... (2008) Dynamics of fat cell turnover in humans. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature06902  

  • May 3, 2008
  • 03:00 PM

Dogs and devils – the rise of the contagious cancers

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I'm away for the weekend so I thought that I'd repost an article from the old Wordpress blog. This is actually the first ever article I wrote for Not Exactly Rocket Science and I've updated it slightly to take more recent findings into account. I'm considering doing these reposts every Saturday, but let me know whether you're keen on the idea.

Cancer cells are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Having broken free of the rules and strictures that govern other ce........ Read more »

  • April 25, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

Beetles transform Canadian forest from carbon sink into carbon source

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the story of climate change, humans and the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere are the villains of the piece. Now, it seems that we have an accomplice and a most unexpected one at that. It lives in the pine forests of North America and even though it measures just 5 millimetres in length, it is turning these woods from carbon sinks into carbon sources. It's the mountain pine beetle.

The beetle bores into pine trees and feeds from nutrient-carrying vessels called phloem. It also........ Read more »

W Kurz, C C Dymond, G Stinson, G J Rampley, E T Neilson, A L Carroll, T Ebata, & L Safranyik. (2008) Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature, 452(7190), 987-990. DOI: 10.1038/nature06777  

  • April 25, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

When learning maths, abstract symbols work better than real-world examples

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You all know the score. A train leaves one city travelling at 35 miles per hour and another races toward it at 25 miles an hour from a city 60 miles away. How long do they take to meet in the middle? Leaving aside the actual answer of 4 hours (factoring in signalling problems, leaves on the line and a pile-up outside Clapham Junction), these sorts of real-world scenarios are often used as teaching tools to make dreary maths "come alive" in the classroom.

Except they don't really........ Read more »

  • April 25, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

Vaccinia virus tricks its way into hosts by mimicking dead cells

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If it looks like a dead cell and it feels like a dead cell, be careful - it could be a virus. Viruses are experts at infiltrating and exploiting cells but some are so big that they need to use special tricks. The Vaccinia virus is one of these. It belongs to the same family as the more infamous variola virus that causes smallpox. This group are among the largest of viruses, dwarfing many other types by a factor of ten. But despite its size, Vaccinia relies on stealth rather than brute force.
........ Read more »

  • April 16, 2008
  • 03:00 PM

Unconscious brain activity shapes our decisions

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Our brains are shaping our decisions long before we become consciously aware of them. That's the conclusion of a remarkable new study which shows that patterns of activity in certain parts of our brain can predict the outcome of a decision seconds before we're even aware that we're making one.

It seems natural to think that we carry out actions after consciously deciding to do so. I decide to start typing and as a result, my hands move around a keyboard. But according to modern ........ Read more »

Chun Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, & John-Dylan Haynes. (2008) Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1038/nn.2112  

  • April 16, 2008
  • 03:00 PM

Testosterone-fuelled traders make higher profits

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Financial trading is really risky business for individuals and economies alike. Millions of pounds and dollars rest on the fast decisions of stressed people, working under extreme pressure. With such high stakes, it's worth remembering that traders, regardless of their intellect or experience, are as fallible as the rest of us and their brains and bodies are influenced by the same ensemble of hormones.

Testosterone is one of these, and it's of particular importance to traders fo........ Read more »

  • April 11, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

When bacteria merge - two species are turning into one

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Humans have been blamed for the disappearance of species before but never quite like this. Scientists at the University of Oxford have found evidence that two species of bacteria are merging into one. The two species are swapping genetic material at such a high rate that they are on the road to sharing a single, common genome. Their genetic merger is probably the result of being thrust into a new environment - the intestines of heavily farmed chickens, cattle and other domesticated livestock.

T........ Read more »

  • April 11, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

Bacteria inspire drug that protects against radiation sickness

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

For comic book characters, big doses of radiation are a surefire way of acquiring awesome superpowers, but in real life, the results aren't quite as glamorous. A victim of acute radiation poisoning can look forward to hair loss, bleeding, the destruction of their white blood cells and bone marrow, and severe damage to their spleen, stomach and intestines.

Radiation doesn't kill cells directly, but it can cause so much damage that they commit suicide, by enacting a failsafe program ca........ Read more »

L Burdelya, V I Krivokrysenko, T C Tallant, E Strom, A S Gleiberman, D Gupta, O V Kurnasov, F L Fort, A L Osterman, J A DiDonato.... (2008) An Agonist of Toll-Like Receptor 5 Has Radioprotective Activity in Mouse and Primate Models. Science, 320(5873), 226-230. DOI: 10.1126/science.1154986  

  • April 8, 2008
  • 03:00 AM

Automatic "evolution machine" creates more efficient enzymes on a microchip

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Our bodies are serviced by a huge workforce of enzymes, which speed up the chemical reactions that rage within our cells. These enzymes have been crafted into a vast array of shapes and functions over millions of years of evolution but new ones can be generated on a microchip using the same principles.

Early attempts to design proteins from scratch resulted in fairly crude enzymes that were outperformed by nature's more elegant and finely-tuned efforts. Scientists have since developed more........ Read more »

Brian Paegel, Gerald F Joyce, & Marv Wickens. (2008) Darwinian Evolution on a Chip. PLoS Biology, 6(4). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060085  

  • April 2, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

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  

  • March 31, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

Boto dolphins woo females with chat-up vines

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You might not be that impressed to receive a clump of grass or branches on a first date, but a boto dolphin might think differently. A new study suggests that these Amazonian dolphins wave bits of flotsam to attract mates.

The boto is a freshwater river dolphin that swims through the currents of the Amazon and the Orinoco. They are elusive creatures that are difficult to study, so very little is known about their social lives.

Tony Martin from the University of St Andrews spent three years in ........ Read more »

  • March 29, 2008
  • 03:00 PM

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 26, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Bdelloid rotifers - the world's most radiation-resistant animals

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Bdelloid rotifers are one of the strangest of all animals. Uniquely, these small, freshwater invertebrates reproduce entirely asexually and have avoided sex for some 80 million years. At any point of their life cycle, they can be completely dried out and live happily in a dormant state before being rehydrated again.

This last ability has allowed them to colonise a number of treacherous habitats such as freshwater pools and the surfaces of mosses and lichens, where water is plentiful but can ea........ Read more »

E Gladyshev, & M Meselson. (2008) Extreme resistance of bdelloid rotifers to ionizing radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0800966105  

  • March 26, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Chimpanzees take risks but bonobos play it safe

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Would you gamble on a safe bet for the promise of something more? Would you risk losing everything for the possibility of greater rewards? In psychological experiments, humans tend to play it safe when we stand to gain something - we're more likely to choose a certain reward over a larger but riskier one. Now, we're starting to understand how our two closest relatives deal with risk - bonobos, like us, tend to be risk-averse while chimpanzees usually play the odds.

Sarah Heilbronner ........ Read more »

Sarah Heilbronner, Alexandra G Rosati, Jeffrey R Stevens, Brian Hare, & Marc D Hauser. (2008) A fruit in the hand or two in the bush? Divergent risk preferences in chimpanzees and bonobos. Biology Letters, -1(-1), -1--1. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0081  

  • March 23, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Mantis shrimps have a unique way of seeing

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Eagles may be famous for their vision, but the most incredible eyes of any animal belong to the mantis shrimp. Neither mantises nor shrimps, these small, pugilistic crustaceans are already renowned for their amazingly complex vision. Now, a group of scientists have found that they use a visual system that's never been seen before in another animal, and it allows them to exchange secret messages.

Mantis shrimps are no stranger to world records. They are famous for their powerful forearms, w........ Read more »

T CHIOU, S KLEINLOGEL, T CRONIN, R CALDWELL, B LOEFFLER, A SIDDIQI, A GOLDIZEN, & J MARSHALL. (2008) Circular Polarization Vision in a Stomatopod Crustacean. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.02.066  

  • March 21, 2008
  • 03:00 PM

Money can buy happiness... if you spend it on other people

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

"This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy." - Douglas Adams

In this pithy paragraph, the sorely missed Douglas Adams sums up a puzzling paradox of modern li........ Read more »

E Dunn, L B Aknin, & M I Norton. (2008) Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952  

  • March 20, 2008
  • 05:01 PM

Winners don't punish: "Punishing slackers Part 2"

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a Science paper which looked at the effects of punishment in different societies across the world. Through a series of fascinating psychological experiments, the paper showed that the ability to punish freeloaders stabilises cooperative behaviour, bringing out the selfless side in people by making things more difficult for cheaters. The paper also showed that 'antisocial punishment', where the punished seek revenge on the punishers, derails the high levels ........ Read more »

Anna Dreber, David Rand, Drew Fudenberg, & Martin Nowak. (2008) Winners don’t punish. Nature, 452(7185), 348-351. DOI: 10.1038/nature06723  

  • March 18, 2008
  • 11:01 PM

New drug shows great promise in treating schistosomiasis

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Tropical parasitic diseases may lack the headline-grabbing power of bird flu or SARS and they may fail to grab the pharmaceutical industry's attention. But there is no doubt that they are a massive problem. Schistosomiasis, a disease that many people in Western countries will never have heard of, currently afflicts 3% of the world's population, a staggering 20 million people, and almost four times that number are at risk.
Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, affects people living ........ Read more »

Ahmed Sayed, Anton Simeonov, Craig J Thomas, James Inglese, Christopher P Austin, & David L Williams. (2008) Identification of oxadiazoles as new drug leads for the control of schistosomiasis. Nature Medicine. DOI: 10.1038/nm1737  

  • March 18, 2008
  • 11:00 PM

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  

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