Not Exactly Rocket Science

Visit Blog Website

232 posts · 491,980 views

New science + good writing = Not Exactly Rocket Science. Articles on new discoveries written so that anyone can understand them.

Ed Yong
232 posts

Sort by: Latest Post, Most Popular

View by: Condensed, Full

  • February 7, 2009
  • 01:00 PM

Cuttlefish tailor their defences to different predators

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a dolphin that has mastered the trick of killing cuttlefish and elaborately preparing them for a meal. It was a great story that highlighted just how intelligent and versatile dolphins can be, but it was a bit of a bittersweet report. The cuttlefish didn't exactly come out of it very well, which is a shame - they are intelligent creatures in their own right, every bit as fascinating as dolphins are. So it's with great glee that I report a new study that shoul........ Read more »

  • February 4, 2009
  • 11:40 AM

Titanoboa - thirteen metres, one tonne, largest snake ever.

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This is sure to be one of the most amazing scientific images of the year. You're looking at vertebrae from two species of snake. The smaller model on the left belongs to the anaconda, a giant serpent that can grow to 7 metres in length and weigh as much as 45kg. It's arguably the largest snake alive, so just think about how big the owner of the fossilised vertebra on the right would have been! There's a good reason why this new discovery - the largest snake that ever slithered - has been named T........ Read more »

Jason J. Head, Jonathan I. Bloch, Alexander K. Hastings, Jason R. Bourque, Edwin A. Cadena, Fabiany A. Herrera, P. David Polly, & Carlos A. Jaramillo. (2009) Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures. Nature, 457(7230), 715-717. DOI: 10.1038/nature07671  

  • February 3, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

Ask an IVF baby: does smoking while pregnant lead to antisocial behaviour?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Our health isn't just affected by the things we do after we're born - the conditions we face inside our mother's womb can have a lasting impact on our wellbeing, much later in life. This message comes from a growing number of studies that compare a mother's behaviour during pregnancy to the subsequent health of her child.

But all of these studies have a problem. Mothers also pass on half of their genes to their children, and it's very difficult to say which aspects of the child's health are aff........ Read more »

F. Rice, G. T. Harold, J. Boivin, D. F. Hay, M. van den Bree, & A. Thapar. (2009) Disentangling prenatal and inherited influences in humans with an experimental design. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0808798106  

  • February 2, 2009
  • 06:00 PM

Losing Nemo - acid oceans prevent baby clownfish from finding home

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the movie Finding Nemo, the eponymous clownfish grows up in the security of his home reef and must find his way back after being fry-napped by an overenthusiastic diver. In reality, the larvae of clownfish spend their early lives adrift in the open ocean and only after weeks, or possibly months, do they return to the reefs where they were born. 

Their journey is guided by several cues that help them navigate home. The sound of a reef may be one of these but it's clear that the most imp........ Read more »

P. L. Munday, D. L. Dixson, J. M. Donelson, G. P. Jones, M. S. Pratchett, G. V. Devitsina, & K. B. Doving. (2009) Ocean acidification impairs olfactory discrimination and homing ability of a marine fish. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809996106  

  • February 1, 2009
  • 02:00 PM

Single gene allows glowing bacteria to switch from fish to squid

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The Japanese pinecone fish searches for food with living headlights. This ­­hand-sized fish harbours colonies of light-producing bacteria in two organs on its lower jaw. The beams from these organs shine forward, and when night falls and the fish goes searching for food, its jaw-lamps light the way.

Elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian bobtail squid also uses luminous bacteria, but theirs act as a cloaking device. They produce a dim glow that matches the strength of moonlight from abo........ Read more »

Mark J. Mandel, Michael S. Wollenberg, Eric V. Stabb, Karen L. Visick, & Edward G. Ruby. (2009) A single regulatory gene is sufficient to alter bacterial host range. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature07660  

  • January 30, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

Teaching scientific knowledge doesn't improve scientific reasoning

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

On Tuesday, I wrote a short essay on the rightful place of science in our society. As part of it, I argued that scientific knowledge is distinct from the scientific method - the latter gives people the tools with which to acquire the former. I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method. It is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and........ Read more »

L. Bao, T. Cai, K. Koenig, K. Fang, J. Han, J. Wang, Q. Liu, L. Ding, L. Cui, Y. Luo.... (2009) PHYSICS: Learning and Scientific Reasoning. Science, 323(5914), 586-587. DOI: 10.1126/science.1167740  

  • January 29, 2009
  • 03:00 PM

The swarm-maker molecule - how serotonin transforms solitary locusts into social ones

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Serotonin is a chemical jack-of-all-trades. It relays messages between the cells of the brain and in doing so, controls everything from anger to sleep, body temperature to appetite. But in one insect, it is the key to Pandora's box, periodically unleashing some of the most destructive swarms on the planet. It is the chemical responsible for turning solitary desert locusts into massive plagues.

With desert locusts, you get two insects for the price of one. For most of their lives, they are posit........ Read more »

  • January 26, 2009
  • 06:00 PM

Low-calorie diets improve memory in old age

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

People diet for many reasons - to fit into clothes, to look more attractive, or for the sake of their health. But to improve their memory? It's an interesting idea, and one that's been given fresh support by Veronica Witte and colleagues from the University of Munster in Germany.

Witte found that elderly people who slash the calories in their diet by 30% were better able to remember lists of words than people who stuck to their normal routine. It's the first experiment to show that cutting calo........ Read more »

A. V. Witte, M. Fobker, R. Gellner, S. Knecht, & A. Floel. (2009) Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0808587106  

  • January 23, 2009
  • 08:39 PM

MRSA in pigs and pig farmers

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is very difficult to kill. This notorious "superbug" can withstand a broad and growing range of antibiotics, and is the leading cause of hospital infections in many countries. But it's not restricted to hospitals. According to studies coming in from all over the world, MRSA has found a new route into our bodies -piggyback.

Pig farms throughout the world have become breeding grounds for strains of MRSA that can jump from swine to humans. These s........ Read more »

Tara C. Smith, Michael J. Male, Abby L. Harper, Jennifer S. Kroeger, Gregory P. Tinkler, Erin D. Moritz, Ana W. Capuano, Loreen A. Herwaldt, & Daniel J. Diekema. (2008) Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Strain ST398 Is Present in Midwestern U.S. Swine and Swine Workers. PLoS ONE, 4(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004258  

  • January 23, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

They don't all look the same - could better facial discrimination lead to less racial discrimination?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It's been a big week. With a simple words, Barack Obama became the first black President of a country whose history has been so haunted by the spectre of racial prejudice. His election and inauguration are undoubtedly proud moments but they must not breed complacency. Things may be changing outwardly, but problems remain.

For a start, it goes without saying that many people, even the most liberal and left-wing among us, still harbour unconscious prejudices against members of other races. These ........ Read more »

Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, & James W. Tanaka. (2009) Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias. PLoS ONE, 4(1). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215  

  • January 22, 2009
  • 03:00 PM

Bacteria and languages reveal how people spread through the Pacific

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The area collectively known as Austronesia covers half the globe. It stretches from South-East Asia and Taiwan, across New Guinea and New Zealand, to the hundreds of small islands dotted around the Pacific. Today, it is home to about 400 million people.

They are the descendants of early humans who spread throughout the Pacific in prehistoric times. These forebears are long dead but they left several unexpectedly important legacies that are evident in their modern descendants. The languages they........ Read more »

Y. Moodley, B. Linz, Y. Yamaoka, H. M. Windsor, S. Breurec, J.-Y. Wu, A. Maady, S. Bernhoft, J.-M. Thiberge, S. Phuanukoonnon.... (2009) The Peopling of the Pacific from a Bacterial Perspective. Science, 323(5913), 527-530. DOI: 10.1126/science.1166083  

Y. Moodley, B. Linz, Y. Yamaoka, H. M. Windsor, S. Breurec, J.-Y. Wu, A. Maady, S. Bernhoft, J.-M. Thiberge, S. Phuanukoonnon.... (2009) The Peopling of the Pacific from a Bacterial Perspective. Science, 323(5913), 527-530. DOI: 10.1126/science.1166083  

  • January 21, 2009
  • 03:00 PM

Pre-emptive blood flow raises big questions about fMRI

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The blood that flows into our heads is obviously important for it provides nutrients and oxygen to that most energetically demanding of organs - the brain. But for neuroscientists, blood flow in the brain has a special significance; many have used it to measure brain activity using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

This scanning technology has become a common feature of modern neuroscience studies, where it's used to follow firing neurons and to identify parts o........ Read more »

  • January 21, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

Carnivorous dung beetle shuns dung and decapitates millipedes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If the sound of eating dung all your life doesn't sound that appealing to you, you're not alone. A beetle called Deltochilum valgum shares your distaste, which is quite surprising given that it's a dung beetle.

There are over 5,000 species of dung beetle and almost all of them feed mainly on the droppings of other animals (and more specifically, on the rich supply of bacteria they contain). D.valgum is the black sheep of the family, the only one that has abandoned the manure-based diet of its f........ Read more »

Trond H. Larsen, Alejandro Lopera, Adrian Forsyth, & François Génier. (2009) From coprophagy to predation: a dung beetle that kills millipedes. Biology Letters, -1(-1), -1--1. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0654  

  • January 13, 2009
  • 09:30 AM

Human hunters unwittingly shrink their prey species at incredible rates

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

As a species, our unflinching obsession with size is just as apparent in our dealings with other animals as it is in our personal lives. Fishermen prize the biggest catches and they're are obliged to throw the smallest specimens back in. Hunters also value the biggest kills; they provide the most food and make the flashiest trophies. This fixation isn't just a harmless one - by acting as a size-obsessed super-predator, humans are reshaping the bodies of the species we hunt, at a remarkable pace ........ Read more »

C. T. Darimont, S. M. Carlson, M. T. Kinnison, P. C. Paquet, T. E. Reimchen, & C. C. Wilmers. (2009) Human predators outpace other agents of trait change in the wild. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809235106  

  • January 12, 2009
  • 06:00 PM

Beipaiosaurus was covered in the simplest known feathers

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Beipaiosaurus was among the strangest of dinosaurs. It looked like a fusion of body parts taken from several other species and united in the unlikeliest of proportions. It had a stocky body, long arms adorned with massive claws, a long neck topped by an incongruously small head, and a beaked mouth. Bizarre as this cocktail of features is, it's the animal skin that has currently warrants attention.

Fossils of Beipaiosaurus include impressions of its skin and these clearly show long, broad filame........ Read more »

  • January 11, 2009
  • 11:00 AM

Tetris to prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder flashbacks

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

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, the overwhelming panic - has left you a bit traumatised. You want something to help take the edge off and fortunately a doctor is on hand to prescribe you with... Tetris.

Yes, that Tetris. According to Emily Holmes from the University of Oxford, the classic video game of falling coloured blocks could prevent people who have suffered through a trauma........ Read more »

  • January 9, 2009
  • 10:45 AM

Mosquitoes harmonise their buzzing in love duets

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

To our ears, the buzz of a mosquito is intensely irritating and a sign of itchiness to come, but to theirs, it's a lover's serenade. The high-pitched drone of a female is a siren's song that attracts male mosquitoes. And a new study shows that when the two love-bugs meet, they perform a duet, matching each other's buzzing frequency  with careful precision.

The female Aedes aegypti mosquito (the carrier of both dengue and yellow fever) beats her wings with a fundamental frequency of about 4........ Read more »

  • January 8, 2009
  • 08:00 PM

One codon, two amino acids - the genetic code has a Shift key

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Living things, from bacteria to humans, depend on a workforce of proteins to carry out essential tasks within their cells. Proteins are chains of amino acids that are strung together according to instructions encoded within that most important of molecules - DNA.

The string of "letters" that make up DNA correspond to chains of amino acids, and they are read in threes, with every combination representing one of many amino acids. Until now, scientists believed that this relationship is unambiguou........ Read more »

A. A. Turanov, A. V. Lobanov, D. E. Fomenko, H. G. Morrison, M. L. Sogin, L. A. Klobutcher, D. L. Hatfield, & V. N. Gladyshev. (2009) Genetic Code Supports Targeted Insertion of Two Amino Acids by One Codon. Science, 323(5911), 259-261. DOI: 10.1126/science.1164748  

  • January 8, 2009
  • 03:00 PM

People overestimate their reactions to racism

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Picture the scene - you sit in a room with two other people, one white and one black, waiting for a psychological test. As the black person leaves to use their mobile phone, they bump the knee of the white person on their way out. While they're gone, the white person turns to you and says, "Typical, I hate it when black people do that." How would you feel? Would you be shocked? Angry? Indifferent? And would you want to work with that person later?

This was the scenario that Kerry Kawakami from ........ Read more »

K. Kawakami, E. Dunn, F. Karmali, & J. F. Dovidio. (2009) Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to Racism. Science, 323(5911), 276-278. DOI: 10.1126/science.1164951  

  • January 5, 2009
  • 06:00 PM

The pink Galapagos iguana that Darwin never saw

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

One hundred and seventy-four years ago, Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle. Since then, the islands and the unique species they house have been a source of inspiration for many an evolutionary biologist. Even so, it is gratifying to see that even now, on the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, the Galapagos have not yet finished yielding their secrets.

During Darwin's five-week stint on the Galapagos, he observed two types of iguana. One was a marine version th........ Read more »

G. Gentile, A. Fabiani, C. Marquez, H. L. Snell, H. M. Snell, W. Tapia, & V. Sbordoni. (2009) An overlooked pink species of land iguana in the Galapagos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806339106  

join us!

Do you write about peer-reviewed research in your blog? Use to make it easy for your readers — and others from around the world — to find your serious posts about academic research.

If you don't have a blog, you can still use our site to learn about fascinating developments in cutting-edge research from around the world.

Register Now

Research Blogging is powered by SRI Technology.

To learn more, visit