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 27, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

The peril of positive thinking - why positive messages hurt people with low self-esteem

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

When the going gets tough, thousands of people try to boost their failing self-esteem by repeating positive statements to themselves. Encouraged by magazine columnists, self-help books and talk-show hosts, people prepare for challenges by chanting positive mantras like "I am a strong, powerful person," and, "Nothing can stop me from achieving my dreams." This approach has been championed at least as far back as Norman Vincent Peale's infamous book The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 195........ Read more »

  • May 19, 2009
  • 10:19 AM

City mockingbirds can tell the difference between individual people

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

While the rapid expansion of human cities have been detrimental for most animals, some have found ways of exploiting these brave new worlds and learned to live with their prolific inhabitants. The Northern mockingbird is one such species. It's very common in cities all over America's east coast, where it frequently spends time around humans. But Douglas Levey from the University of Florida has found that its interactions with us are more complex than anyone would have guessed. 

The mocking........ Read more »

Levey, D., Londono, G., Ungvari-Martin, J., Hiersoux, M., Jankowski, J., Poulsen, J., Stracey, C., & Robinson, S. (2009) Urban mockingbirds quickly learn to identify individual humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811422106  

  • May 11, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Thinking about money soothes sting of social rejection and physical pain

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Money has subtler benefits beyond the ability to buy lavish goods or luxurious services - it's also a psychological and physical salve. According to research by Xinyue Zhou from Sun Yat-Sen University, handling money can soothe the sting of social rejection and appease the physical pain of hot water. Even bringing up the mere thought of money can have these effects.

Popularity matters to social animals like humans, who rely on each other for our wants and needs. Our dependence on each other ma........ Read more »

  • May 8, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Rule of termite queens rest on a single gene

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The success of termites ­and other social insects hinges on their complex social systems, where workers sacrifice the ability to raise their own young in order to serve the colony and its queen - the only individual who reproduces. But this social order can be thrown into chaos by knocking out a single gene, and one that originally had a role in that other characteristic termite ability - eating wood.

Judith Korb from the University of Osnabrueck in Germany found that the queen termite relies ........ Read more »

Korb, J., Weil, T., Hoffmann, K., Foster, K., & Rehli, M. (2009) A Gene Necessary for Reproductive Suppression in Termites. Science, 324(5928), 758-758. DOI: 10.1126/science.1170660  

  • May 4, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Dolphins stay alert after five straight days of round-the-clock vigilance

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Most of us start to tire after about half a day without any sleep. Staying awake for five in a row would be extremely difficult and even if you could manage it, you'd be a physical and mental wreck by the end. But not all animals suffer from the same problem. A dolphin can stay awake and alert for at least 5 days straight, chaining together all-nighters without any noticeable health problems or loss of mental agility.

The two halves of a dolphin's brain can sleep in shifts, "shutting down" one ........ Read more »

Ridgway, S., Keogh, M., Carder, D., Finneran, J., Kamolnick, T., Todd, M., & Goldblatt, A. (2009) Dolphins maintain cognitive performance during 72 to 120 hours of continuous auditory vigilance. Journal of Experimental Biology, 212(10), 1519-1527. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.027896  

  • April 26, 2009
  • 03:00 PM

Making new heart cells

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It is literally very difficult to mend a broken heart. Despite its importance, the heart is notoriously bad at regenerating itself after injury. If it is damaged - say, by a heart attack - it replaces the lost muscle with scar tissue rather than fresh cells. That weakens it and increases the chance of heart failure later on in life. No wonder that heart disease is the western world's leading cause of death and illness.

If that picture seems bleak, two teams of scientists have some heartening ne........ Read more »

Bergmann, O., Bhardwaj, R., Bernard, S., Zdunek, S., Barnabe-Heider, F., Walsh, S., Zupicich, J., Alkass, K., Buchholz, B., Druid, H.... (2009) Evidence for Cardiomyocyte Renewal in Humans. Science, 324(5923), 98-102. DOI: 10.1126/science.1164680  

  • April 21, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Nocturnal mammals see in dark by turning displaced DNA into lenses

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Nocturnal animals face an obvious challenge: collecting enough light to see clearly in the dark. We know about many of their tricks. They have bigger eyes and wider pupils. They have a reflective layer behind their retina called the tapetum, which reflects any light that passes through back onto it. Their retinas are loaded with rod cells, which are more light-sensitive than the cone cells that allow for colour vision.

But they also have another, far less obvious adaptation - their rod cells pa........ Read more »

Solovei, I., Kreysing, M., Lanctôt, C., Kösem, S., Peichl, L., Cremer, T., Guck, J., & Joffe, B. (2009) Nuclear Architecture of Rod Photoreceptor Cells Adapts to Vision in Mammalian Evolution. Cell, 137(2), 356-368. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2009.01.052  

  • April 7, 2009
  • 10:18 AM

Do testosterone and oestrogen affect our attitudes to fairness, trust, risk and altruism?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Some people go out of their way to help their peers, while others are more selfish. Some lend their trust easily, while others are more suspicious and distrustful. Some dive headlong into risky ventures; others shun risk like visiting in-laws. There's every reason to believe that these differences in behaviour have biological roots, and some studies have suggested that they are influenced by sex hormones, like testosterone and oestrogen.

It's an intriguing idea, not least because men and women ........ Read more »

Zethraeus, N., Kocoska-Maras, L., Ellingsen, T., von Schoultz, B., Hirschberg, A., & Johannesson, M. (2009) A randomized trial of the effect of estrogen and testosterone on economic behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812757106  

  • April 6, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Our moral thermostat - why being good can give people license to misbehave

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

What happens when you remember a good deed, or think of yourself as a stand-up citizen? You might think that your shining self-image would reinforce the value of selflessness and make you more likely to behave morally in the future. But a new study disagrees.

Through three psychological experiments, Sonya Sachdeva from Northwestern University found that people who are primed to think well of themselves behave less altruistically than those whose moral identity is threatened. They donate less to........ Read more »

  • April 1, 2009
  • 10:21 AM

The rebellion of the ant slaves

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Humans aren't the only species that have had to deal with the issue of slavery. Some species of ants also abduct the young of others, forcing them into labouring for their new masters. These slave-making ants, like Protomagnathus americanus conduct violent raids on the nests of other species, killing all the adults and larva-napping the brood.

When these youngsters mature, they take on the odour of their abductors and become the servants of the enslaving queen. They take over the jobs of mainta........ Read more »

  • March 31, 2009
  • 10:08 AM

Ballet postures have become more extreme over time

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Classical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.

But even amid this rigorous cascade of tradition, there is room for change. Over the years, successive generations of ballet dancers have subtly tinkered with positions that are ostensibly fixed and limited by the physical constraints of a dancer........ Read more »

  • March 25, 2009
  • 10:17 AM

How Kenny Rogers and Frank Sinatra could help stroke patients

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We're used to thinking of neglect as a lack of appropriate care, but to a neuroscientist, it has a very different meaning. "Spatial neglect" is a neurological condition caused by damage to one half of the brain (usually the right), where patients find it difficult to pay attention to one half of their visual space (usually the left).

This bias can affect their mental images too. If neglect patients are asked to draw clocks, many only include the numbers from 12 to 6, while some shunt all the nu........ Read more »

Soto, D., Funes, M., Guzman-Garcia, A., Warbrick, T., Rotshtein, P., & Humphreys, G. (2009) Pleasant music overcomes the loss of awareness in patients with visual neglect. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811681106  

  • March 20, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Self-medicating caterpillars use toxic plants to kill parasites

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

There are so many fascinating stories about parasitic wasps that they have become a regular feature in this blog. Usually, their prey come off poorly in these tales, with caterpillars being reduced to little more than living, paralysed larders for macabre wasp grubs. But not always - some hosts don't take the invasion of their bodies lying down. This post is an attempt to redress the balance between parasite and host, by telling the story of the caterpillar that fights back... with medicine.

On........ Read more »

  • March 16, 2009
  • 10:30 AM

Violent films and games delay people from helping others

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The effect that violent films and games have on our minds, and the implications for their place in society, has been a source of much heated debate. Now, a new study looks set to fan the flames even further. Several studies have found that violent media can desensitise people to real acts of violence, but Brad Bushman from the University of Michigan and Craig Anderson from Iowa State University have produced the first evidence that this can actually change a person's behaviour, affecting their d........ Read more »

  • February 27, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

A bad taste in your mouth - moral outrage has origins in physical disgust

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Both objects and behaviour can be described as disgusting. The term could equally apply to someone who cheats other people out of money as it could to the sight of rancid food or the taste of sour milk. That's not just a linguistic quirk. Some scientists believe that the revulsion we feel towards immoral behaviour isn't based on our vaunted mental abilities, but on ancient impulses that evolved to put us off toxic or infectious foods.

It seems that your facial muscles agree. Hanah Chapman from ........ Read more »

H. A. Chapman, D. A. Kim, J. M. Susskind, & A. K. Anderson. (2009) In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust. Science, 323(5918), 1222-1226. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165565  

  • February 23, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

Red tides kill seabirds with 'soapy' foam

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In late 2007, seabirds off the coast of California began to die in record numbers. The waterproof nature of their feathers and been wrecked, and they were soaked to the skin. Without an insulating layer of air trapped within their plumage, the damp birds were suffering from extreme cold. These are exactly the type of problems that seabirds face when they blunder into oil spills, but in this case, not a drop of petroleum had entered the water. The problem was a biological one.

At the same time, ........ Read more »

David A. Jessup, Melissa A. Miller, John P. Ryan, Hannah M. Nevins, Heather A. Kerkering, Abdou Mekebri, David B. Crane, Tyler A. Johnson, & Raphael M. Kudela. (2009) Mass Stranding of Marine Birds Caused by a Surfactant-Producing Red Tide. PLoS ONE, 4(2). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004550  

  • February 19, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

Aphids hide from parasitic wasps among the corpses of their peers

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It's a scene straight out of a horror film - you look around and see dead bodies everywhere. They haven't just been killed either, they've been hollowed out from the inside-out leaving behind grotesque mummified shells. What would you do if you were confronted with such a macabre scene? Flee? Well, if you were an aphid, you'd probably just feel relieved and go about your business. Aphids, it seems, find security among the corpses of their peers.

Aphids, like almost all insects, are the targets ........ Read more »

V. Fievet, P. Le Guigo, J. Casquet, D. Poinsot, & Y. Outreman. (2009) Living with the dead: when the body count rises, prey stick around. Behavioral Ecology. DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arp014  

  • February 17, 2009
  • 09:38 AM

Babies' gestures partly explain link between wealth and vocabulary

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Babies can say volume without saying a single word. They can wave good-bye, point at things to indicate an interest or shake their heads to mean "No". These gestures may be very simple, but they are a sign of things to come. Year-old toddlers who use more gestures tend to have more expansive vocabularies several years later. And this link between early gesturing and future linguistic ability may partially explain by children from poorer families tend to have smaller vocabularies than those from ........ Read more »

  • February 16, 2009
  • 08:45 AM

Beta-blocker drug erases the emotion of fearful memories

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The wiping of unwanted memories is a common staple of science-fiction and if you believe this weekend's headlines, you might think that the prospect has just become a reality. The Press Association said that a "drug helps erase fearful memories", while the ever-hyperbolic Daily Mail talked about a "pill to erase bad memories". The comparisons to The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were inevitable, but the actual study, while fascinating and important, isn't quite the mind-wiper these headl........ Read more »

  • February 9, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

How diversity creates itself - cascades of new species among flies and parasitic wasps

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This is the second of eight posts on evolutionary research to celebrate Darwin's bicentennial.

What do you get when one species splits into separate lineages? Two species? Think bigger...

When new species arise, they can set off evolutionary chain reactions that cause even more new species to spring forth - fresh buds on the tree of life create conditions that encourage more budding on different branches.

Biologists have long suspected that these "cascades of speciation" exist  but have ........ Read more »

A. A. Forbes, T. H.Q. Powell, L. L. Stelinski, J. J. Smith, & J. L. Feder. (2009) Sequential Sympatric Speciation Across Trophic Levels. Science, 323(5915), 776-779. DOI: 10.1126/science.1166981  

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