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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  • November 25, 2009
  • 09:29 AM

Neck-breaking, disembowelling, constricting and fishing - the violent world of raptors

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The role of Velociraptor's infamous claw has received much attention from scientists ever since they clicked their way across a movie kitchen. In comparison, the formidable claws of living raptors (birds of prey) have received little attention. Eagles, hawks, falcons and owls are some of the most widespread and well-liked of all birds. They are superb hunters and even though it's always been suspected that they use their talons to kill, we know amazingly little about their techniques.

Denver ........ Read more »

  • November 10, 2009
  • 05:56 PM

Measuring dino fitness - more evidence that two-legged dinosaurs were warm-blooded

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The question of whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded is one of the most enduring in palaeontology. Did they generate their own body heat like today's mammals; was their temperature more influenced by their environment like today's reptiles; or did they use a mixture of both strategies? Scientists have put forward a slew of arguments for all of these alternatives, but Herman Pontzer from Washington University has a new take on things which suggests that many dinosaurs were indeed w........ Read more »

  • November 9, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Leaf beetle protects itself with a mobile home made of faeces

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The female case-bearing leaf beetle Neochlamisus platani tries to give her children a head-start in life, but most mothers might not be keen on how she does it - encasing her young in an armoured shell made of her own faeces. After she lays her eggs, she seals each one in a bell-shaped case. When the larva hatches, it performs some renovations, cutting a hole in the roof and enlarge the structure with their own poo. By sticking its head and legs out, it converts its excremental maisonette into a........ Read more »

  • October 27, 2009
  • 09:56 PM

Holy fellatio, Batman! Fruit bats use oral sex to prolong actual sex

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Many humans whinge about not getting oral sex often enough, but for most animals, it's completely non-existent. In fact, we know of only animal apart from humans to regularly engage in fellatio - the short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx).

The bat's sexual antics have only just been recorded by Min Tan of China's Guangdong Entomological Institute (who are either branching out, or are confused about entomology). Tan captured 60 wild bats from a nearby park, housed them in pairs of the opposi........ Read more »

Tan, M., Jones, G., Zhu, G., Ye, J., Hong, T., Zhou, S., Zhang, S., & Zhang, L. (2009) Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time. PLoS ONE, 4(10). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007595  

  • October 5, 2009
  • 09:31 AM

Tuberculosis, not cancer, killed Dr Granville's mummy

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Around 2600 years ago in Egypt, a woman called Irtyersenu died. She was mummified and buried at the necropolis at Thebes, where she remained for over two millennia before being unearthed in 1819. Her well-preserved body was brought to the British Museum where it was examined by the physician and obstetrician Augustus Bozzi Granville. It was the first ever medical autopsy of an Egyptian mummy and Granville presented his results to the Royal Society in 1825. His conclusion: Ityersenu died of ovari........ Read more »

  • September 4, 2009
  • 12:00 PM

Dogs and babies prone to same classic mistake

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

pDomestic dogs are very different from their wolf ancestors in their bodies and their behaviour. They're more docile for a start. But man's best friend has also evolved a curious sensitivity to our communication signals - a mental ability that sets them apart from wolves and that parallels the behaviour of human infants. Dogs and infants are even prone to making the same mistakes of perception.

Like infants less than a year old, dogs fail at a seemingly easy exercise called the "object permane........ Read more »

  • August 25, 2009
  • 02:00 PM

Holding heavy objects makes us see things as more important

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Gravity affects not just our bodies and our behaviours, but our very thoughts. That's the fascinating conclusion of a new study which shows that simply holding a heavy object can affect the way we think. A simple heavy clipboard can makes issues seem weightier - when holding one, volunteers think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.

In a variety of languages, from English to Dutch to Chinese, importance is often described by words p........ Read more »

Jostmann, N., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. (2009) Weight as an Embodiment of Importance. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02426.x  

  • August 12, 2009
  • 01:23 PM

Anthrax bacteria get help from viruses and worms to survive

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

When the bacteria that cause anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) aren't ravaging livestock or being used in acts of bioterrorism, they spend their lives as dormant spores. In these inert but hardy forms, the bacteria can weather tough environmental conditions while lying in wait for their next host. This is the standard explanation for what B.anthracis does between infections, and it's too simple by far. It turns out that the bacterium has a far more interesting secret life involving two unusual partn........ Read more »

  • August 12, 2009
  • 08:00 AM

Ants rescue trapped relatives

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In a French laboratory, a team of ants is attempting a daring rescue. One of their colony-mates is trapped in a snare - a nylon thread that dastardly researchers have looped around its waist and half-buried in some sand. Thankfully, help is at hand. A crack squad of rescuers work together to dig away at the sand, expose the snare, and bite at the threads until their colleague is liberated.

Many animals help each other but actual rescue attempts, even between individuals of the same species, are........ Read more »

  • July 20, 2009
  • 11:13 AM

Photographing the glow of the human body

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

As you read this, you are glowing - weakly, faintly, but glowing nonetheless. Chemical reactions within your body, besides liberating energy and producing heat, are also emitting small numbers of photons, elementary particles of light. The glow is strongest in the late afternoon, and around the lower part of your face.

Many living creatures, including fireflies, jellyfish, squid, glow-worms and deep-sea fish, are known for producing their own light often through the help of bacterial accomplice........ Read more »

  • July 18, 2009
  • 02:00 PM

Spiders construct homes for endangered pygmy lizards

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We think of spiders as fearsome hunters, spinners of webs and treacherous mates, but construction workers? Yes, that too. Some groups of spiders - trapdoor and wolf spiders - dig tunnels that they use to ambush passing insects. But these tunnels can also provide shelter and accommodation for other animals, including one of the rarest of Australia's lizards - the pygmy blue-tongue lizard. It seems that the lizard's survival depends entirely on the spiders.

The pygmy blue-tongue is a native of So........ Read more »

  • July 11, 2009
  • 02:00 PM

Bilingual children learn language rules more efficiently than monolinguals

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

As Eddie Izzard notes in the video above, the English, within our cosy, post-imperialist, monolingual culture, often have trouble coping with the idea of two languages or more jostling about for space in the same head. "No one can live at that speed!" he suggests. And yet, bilingual children seem to cope just fine. In fact, they pick up their dual tongues at the same pace as monolingual children attain theirs, despite having to cope with two sets of grammar and vocabulary. At around 12 months, b........ Read more »

  • July 7, 2009
  • 11:20 AM

The bigger the ego, the harder the fall - how self-awareness buffers against social rejection

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We all know them - supremely confident, arrogant people with inflated views of themselves. They strut and swagger, seemingly impervious to critical opinions, threats of failure or the glare of self-awareness. You may be able to tell that I don't like such people very much, which is why new research from Sander Thomaes from Utrecht University makes me smirk.

Thomaes found that people with unrealistically inflated opinions of themselves, far from proving more resilient in the face of social rebu........ Read more »

  • July 4, 2009
  • 04:00 PM

By eating fruit, birds protect Serengeti forests from beetles

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Walks through a forest are often made all the more enjoyable by the chance to watch brightly coloured birds flit between the trees. But birds are not just mere inhabitants of forests - in some parts of the world, they are the key to the trees' survival.

The Serengeti is one such place. Since 1950, around 70-80% of riverside forests have disappeared from this area. Fires seem to be a particular problem, opening large gaps in the canopy that forests can't seem to recover from. To understand why G........ Read more »

  • June 29, 2009
  • 11:30 AM

Frigid echidna sex - competition drives males to mate with hibernating females

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If the idea of a cold, motionless sexual partner isn't one of your turn-ons, then you're clearly not an echidna. The males of these spiny Australian animals will happily mate with females even if they're hibernating.

Gemma Morrow and Stewart Nicol from the University of Tasmania have spent the last decade studying the short-beaked echidnas of Tasmania. Over that time, they discovered many instances of males mating with torpid females in deep hibernation, or with females who roused themselves br........ Read more »

  • June 28, 2009
  • 11:31 AM

Does having more competitors lower the motivation to compete?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Imagine that you're taking a test in a large public hall. Obviously, your knowledge and confidence will determine your score, but could the number of people around you have an influence too? According to psychologists Stephen Garcia from the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor from the University of Haifa, the answer is yes. They have found that our motivation to compete falls as the number of competitors rises, even if the chances of success are the same.

The simple act of comparing your........ Read more »

  • June 15, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Flowers change colour and back again to advertise their opening hours

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Many living things, from chameleons to fish to squid, have the ability to change their colour. But flowers? Yes, over 450 species of flower have the ability to shapeshift, altering their colour and positions over the course of a day. The goal, as with many aspects of a flower's nature, is communication. The secondary palette tells pollinators that a particular flower has already been visited and not only needs no pollen but has little nectar to offer as a reward. The visitor's attentions (and th........ Read more »

  • June 11, 2009
  • 09:23 PM

Origins of the swine flu pandemic

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the time since the words "swine flu" first dominated the headlines, a group of scientists from three continents have been working to understand the origins of the new virus and to chart its evolutionary course. Today, they have published their timely results just as the World Health Organisation finally moved to phase six in its six-tier system, confirming what most of us already suspected - the world is facing the first global flu pandemic of the 21st century.

The team, led by Gavin Smith a........ Read more »

Smith, G., Vijaykrishna, D., Bahl, J., Lycett, S., Worobey, M., Pybus, O., Ma, S., Cheung, C., Raghwani, J., Bhatt, S.... (2009) Origins and evolutionary genomics of the 2009 swine-origin H1N1 influenza A epidemic. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature08182  

  • June 10, 2009
  • 10:21 AM

Sleeping on it - how REM sleep boosts creative problem-solving

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The German chemist Friedrich Kekule claimed to have intuited the chemical structure of the benzene ring after falling asleep in his chair and dreaming of an ouroboros (a serpent biting its own tail). He's certainly not the only person to have discovered a flash insight after waking from a good sleep. In science alone, many breakthroughs were apparently borne of a decent snooze, including Mendeleyev's creation of the Periodic Table and Loewi's experiments on the transmission of nervous signals th........ Read more »

Cai, D., Mednick, S., Harrison, E., Kanady, J., & Mednick, S. (2009) REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900271106  

  • June 1, 2009
  • 09:58 AM

Chimps use Swiss army toolkit to rob beehives

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Chimps are known to make a variety of tools to aid their quest for food, including fishing sticks to probe for termites, hammers to crack nuts and even spears to impale bushbabies. But a taste for honey has driven one group of chimps in Gabon's Loango National Park to take tool-making to a new level.

To fulfil their sweet tooth, the chimps need to infiltrate and steal from bee nests, either in trees or underground. To do that, they use a toolkit of up to five different implements: thin perforat........ Read more »

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