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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  • March 25, 2011
  • 11:00 AM

Beetle turns itself into a wheel (that’s how it rolls)

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The southern beaches of Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, USA, are part of a national park. To protect the area, only residents and staff are allowed to drive their vehicles on the sands. But there are plenty of wheels nonetheless – small, living ones.
The beaches are home to the beautiful coastal tiger beetle (Cicindela dorsalis media). Tiger beetles are among the fastest of insect runners, but their larvae are slow and worm-like. If they’re exposed and threatened, running isn’........ Read more »

  • March 21, 2011
  • 01:25 PM

OpenLab 2010 – Gut bacteria in Japanese people borrowed sushi-digesting genes from ocean bacteria

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This post was originally published on 7 April 2010. I am reposting it in honour of the release of Open Laboratory 2010, which has just come on sale. It’s an anthology of great blog posts from last year, including this one.
Japanese people have special tools that let them get more out of eating sushi than Americans can. They are probably raised with these utensils from an early age and each person wields millions of them. By now, you’ve probably worked out that I’m not talking about c........ Read more »

  • February 28, 2011
  • 11:00 AM

Fossil pits show how ammonites turned parasites into pearls

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Ammonites – the ancient relatives of squid and octopuses – left behind some of the most common and beautiful fossils. But look closely at their elegant, spiral shells and you might be able to spot a sinister secret. Some of them are dotted with small pits along their inner walls. Kenneth de Baets from the [...]... Read more »

  • February 16, 2011
  • 05:49 PM

Prehistoric Brits made the world’s earliest skull-cups

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

“The skull of Wynric Lance, failed claimant to the throne of Eirea, does not make as good a wine goblet as Lord Shryke had imagined, the despot revealed Monday. “This damn thing is practically impossible to drink out of,” said Shryke at a banquet celebrating the defeat of the Army Of Light… Shryke concluded that [...]... Read more »

Bello, S., Parfitt, S., & Stringer, C. (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE, 6(2). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017026  

  • February 2, 2011
  • 06:56 PM

Monkey see, monkey facepalm

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A group of English mandrill monkeys has started doing facepalms. The monkeys live in a zoo in Colchester, England, and eight of them frequently raise one or both of their hands to cover their eyes. They might be the only ones in the world who perform this distinctive gesture. Liz Butcher, a former keeper at [...]... Read more »

  • February 2, 2011
  • 05:58 PM

Can electrical jolts to the brain produce Eureka moments?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Finding those Eureka moments that allow us to solve difficult problems can be an electrifying experience, but rarely like this. Richard Chi and Allan Snyder managed to trigger moments of insight in volunteers, by using focused electric pulses to block the activity in a small part of their brains. After the pulses, people were better [...]... Read more »

  • December 17, 2010
  • 12:02 PM

Parasitic worms paint warning colours on their hosts using glowing bacteria

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A robin flying over a field sees a juicy caterpillar on a leaf. It dives in for a closer look but it notices something strange: this larva is bright red and glowing slightly. Red means danger – this caterpillar is probably toxic and is best avoided. The robin leaves; the caterpillar apparently lives. But this [...]... Read more »

  • November 10, 2010
  • 06:00 PM

Tetris could prevent post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks (but quiz games make them worse)

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This is an updated version of one of my favourite stories from last year, edited to include a sequel study that develops and expands on the first one.
You’ve just been in a horrific car crash. You’re unharmed but the vividness of the experience – the sight of a looming car, the crunching of metal, [...]... Read more »

  • August 16, 2010
  • 10:00 AM

Disease by coincidence – why we’re caught in the crossfire of a hidden war

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If you’re trapped in a building, it’s probably not the best time to start setting fire to things. But this is exactly what some bacteria do when they find themselves in a human; they cause diseases that are potentially fatal but not contagious. Without an escape, they risk going down with their host. This seems [...]... Read more »

  • April 8, 2010
  • 09:00 AM

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  

  • March 27, 2010
  • 02:00 PM

Dormant viruses can hide in our DNA and be passed from parent to child

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

During our early childhoods, the vast majority of us are boarded by a stowaway that can stay with us for the rest of our lives. It can rear its head when we are at our weakest and it can wriggle its way down our family tree into our children and grandchildren. It’s a virus called [...]... Read more »

Arbuckle, J., Medveczky, M., Luka, J., Hadley, S., Luegmayr, A., Ablashi, D., Lund, T., Tolar, J., De Meirleir, K., Montoya, J.... (2010) The latent human herpesvirus-6A genome specifically integrates in telomeres of human chromosomes in vivo and in vitro. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(12), 5563-5568. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913586107  

  • March 15, 2010
  • 10:30 AM

Pocket Science - a psychopath's reward, and the mystery of the shark-bitten fossil poo

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The rewarding side of being a psychopath

What goes on in the brains of psychopaths? They can seem outwardly normal and even charming, but tthese people typically show a lack of empathy, immoral behaviour and an impulsive streak. Joshua Buckholtz found that the last of these traits - impulsivity - may stem from a hyperactive reward system in the brain and unusually high levels of the signalling chemical dopamine.

When given small doses of amphetamines, people who come out as more impulsive on ........ Read more »

  • March 14, 2010
  • 04:00 PM

'Wasabi protein' responsible for the heat-seeking sixth sense of rattlesnakes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Take a whiff of mustard or wasabi and you'll be hit with a familiar burning sensation. That's the result of chemicals in these pungent foods hitting a protein called TRPA1, a molecular alarm that warns us about irritating substances. The same protein does a similar job in other animals, but rattlesnakes and vipers have put their version of TRPA1 to a more impressive and murderous purpose. They use it to sense the body heat of their prey.

Pit vipers are famed for their ability to detect the infr........ Read more »

Gracheva, E., Ingolia, N., Kelly, Y., Cordero-Morales, J., Hollopeter, G., Chesler, A., Sánchez, E., Perez, J., Weissman, J., & Julius, D. (2010) Molecular basis of infrared detection by snakes. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature08943  

  • March 7, 2010
  • 01:00 PM

Smell a lady, shrug off flu - how female odours give male mice an immune boost

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Sex might be fun but it's not without risks. As your partner exposes themselves to you, they also expose you to whatever bacteria, viruses or parasites they might be carrying. But some animals have a way around that. Ekaterina Litvinova has found that when male mice get a whiff of female odours, their immune systems prepare their airways for attack, increasing their resistance to flu viruses.

Litvinova worked with a group of mice that were exposed to bedding that had previously been soiled by ........ Read more »

  • March 4, 2010
  • 09:00 AM

Beer makes humans more attractive to malarial mosquitoes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We've all heard about "beer goggles", the mythical, invisible eyewear that makes everyone else seem incredibly attractive after a few pints too many. If only beer had the reverse effect, making the drinker seem irresistibly attractive. Well, the good news is that beer does actually do this. The bad news is that the ones who are attracted at malarial mosquitoes.

Anopheles gambiae (the mosquito that transmits malaria) tracks its victims by their smells. By wafting the aromas of humans over thousa........ Read more »

Lefèvre, T., Gouagna, L., Dabiré, K., Elguero, E., Fontenille, D., Renaud, F., Costantini, C., & Thomas, F. (2010) Beer Consumption Increases Human Attractiveness to Malaria Mosquitoes. PLoS ONE, 5(3). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009546  

  • February 28, 2010
  • 01:00 PM

Quicker feedback for better performance

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We've all experienced the agonising wait for feedback, whether it's for exam grades, news from a job interview, or results from a grant application. These verdicts can have a massive influence in our lives but they can often take weeks or even months to arrive. And that's a big problem, according to Keri Kettle and Gerald Häubl from the University of Alberta.

They have found evidence that we do better at tasks the sooner we expect news about our performance. If we think we'll be evaluated qui........ Read more »

  • February 19, 2010
  • 09:30 AM

Parasitic wasps hitchhike on butterflies by smelling for chemical chastity belts

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It's not every day that you hear about spy missions that involve a lack of sex, but clearly parasitic wasps don't pay much attention to Hollywood clichés.

These insects merge the thriller, science-fiction and horror genres, They lay their eggs inside other animals, turning them into slaves and living larders that are destined to be eaten inside-out by the developing grubs. To find their victims, they perform feats of espionage worthy of any secret agent, tapping into their mark's communication........ Read more »

  • December 26, 2009
  • 01:00 PM

The 13,000-year old tree that survives by cloning itself

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In California's Jurupa Mountains, there is a very unusual group of tree - a Palmer's oak. Unlike the mighty trees that usually bear the oak name, this one looks like little more than a collection of small bushes. But appearances can be deceiving. This apparently disparate group of plants are all clones of a single individual, and a very old one at that.

By repeatedly cloning itself, the Palmer's oak has lived past the separation of Britain from continental Europe, the demise of the mammoths an........ Read more »

  • December 16, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

One gene stops ovaries from turning into testes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In science, we don't often get to talk about male repression, but a new discovery gives us just such a chance. It turns out that ovaries can only remain ovaries by constantly suppressing their ability to become male. Silence a single gene, and adult ovaries turn into testes. That adult tissues can be transformed in this way would be surprising enough, but doing so by changing a single gene is truly astonishing.

As embryos, our gonads aren't specific to either gender. Their default course is a f........ Read more »

Uhlenhaut, N., Jakob, S., Anlag, K., Eisenberger, T., Sekido, R., Kress, J., Treier, A., Klugmann, C., Klasen, C., & Holter, N. (2009) Somatic Sex Reprogramming of Adult Ovaries to Testes by FOXL2 Ablation. Cell, 139(6), 1130-1142. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2009.11.021  

  • November 30, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Delay not deviance: brains of children with ADHD mature later than other

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This article is reposted from the old Wordpress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science.Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is the most common developmental disorder in children, affecting anywhere between 3-5% of the world's school-going population. As the name suggests, kids with ADHD are hyperactive and easily distracted; they are also forgetful and find it difficult to control their own impulses.

While some evidence has suggested that ADHD brains develop in fundamentally different w........ Read more »

Shaw, P., Eckstrand, K., Sharp, W., Blumenthal, J., Lerch, J., Greenstein, D., Clasen, L., Evans, A., Giedd, J., & Rapoport, J. (2007) From the Cover: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(49), 19649-19654. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707741104  

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