Spotted links – 28th August 2010


Geneticist Hugh Rienhoff has finally found a promising gene that might explain his daughter’s mystery genetic disorder. You must read Brendan Maher’s feature on Reinhoff from Nature in 2007.

“A US court has issued a temporary block against federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research as permitted by the Obama administration last year,” says Nature. More from New Scientist, some history from It’s Okay to be Smart, and the Independent has a contest to see which scientist can provide the most outraged quote.

At CNN, ocean scientists Chris Reddy talks about how he-said-she-said reporting screwed up the coverage of the Gulf oil spill. He has a point. Last week the NYT said, “Oil Plume Is Not Breaking Down Fast.” Five days later: “Undersea Oil Plume Vanishes in Gulf.” The Knight Science Journalism Tracker described the story as “another example of why daily journalism (nay, hourly journalism) is a terrible way to cover science”.  The Columbia Journalism Review describes the duelling papers that didn’t.

The world’s smallest frog, the size of a pea. [Updated – well, one of the smallest! See first comment]

This is incredible. One of our largest proteins – BRCA2, a cancer protector – has finally been purified. One of the three labs that independently did it was the one I worked in as a PhD student for a while. The protein is around 6 times bigger than a typical human one. Purifying it is like cooking the world’s biggest ball of spaghetti out of a single continuous strand that must be arranged just so. It’s really really hard to do it without the whole thing collapsing in a big sloppy heap.

Placebo beats coffee for memory and learning. DAMN YOU SCIENCE!

More after the jump…

Lab Rat has a great post on Trojan horse predators – bacteria that kill worms by letting themselves get eaten

New Scientist has a good introductory feature into agnosias and the many interesting ways in which brain damage can cause visual problems.

MIT unveils swimming, oil-cleaning robots. “They can find the oil on their own. And when they reach the site of an oil spill, they talk to their robot friends to figure out the best way to get the whole thing mopped up.”

Geoff Brumfiel defends the need to fund UK scientific research that won’t destroy the world.

Journalist students would do well to read this excellent set of tips. I have rarely agreed with an article so thoroughly.

In a result that has implications for China and India, the mere presence of women seems to bring health benefits to men. Wheat has the largest, most complex genome ever sequenced. That’s right, wheat. Not Craig Venter.

In Nature, a paper claims to overturn a long-held theory that altruistic behaviour called kin selection, showing “that it is possible for eusocial behaviour to evolve through standard natural-selection processes.” But other scientists aren’t so convinced.

Scientists find a virus called XMRV in people with chronic fatigue syndr… no, wait, scientists HAVEN’T found a virus called XMRV in people with chronic fati… hang on, no, THIS time, scientists HAVE found a vi… oh never mind.

Jason Goldman has a cool experiment with blogs as an educational tool, where he laid out some facts form a new paper on hyenas, asked his readers to come up with explanations and then did a standard write-up. Fascinating.

I really want to like the BBC’s science reporting but I increasingly find myself reading their stuff and then wondering if they’re talking bollocks. This isn’t unfounded. This story says that a “double meteorite strike ‘caused dinosaur extinction’” where in fact the paper says no such thing.

It’s the “biggest ecological disaster Bolivia has known” as Antarctic cold snap kills millions of Amazon animals. Nature News reports.

“The mapping of the first full genome sequences of ants helps to reveal how two ants from the same colony, and with much the same genetic material, can have such different life histories,” says Katherine Harmon in Scientific American.

“It’s almost better to be a little crusty-looking.” Why sexy academics suffer career setbacks.

Six patients’ eyes have connected with “biosynthetic” replacement corneas, growing nerves and cells into the fakes as if they were real human tissue. These are awesome times we live in.

Noah Gray on how to write a neuroscience story for the public. Apparently you can win a Pulitzer with this technique. Alexis Madrigal has a scholarly response in the Atlantic.

An archaeology grad student peers at Gitmo from a satellite. David Dobbs has the story.

Virus-powered rechargeable clothing provides the perfect excuse to wipe my nose on my sleeve

A giant sperm whale gets a name-change, because the name Leviathan was already taken. It’s now Livyatan, which is the name of a UK death metal band. I would have preferred MechaLeviathan

Here at Discover, we like to give you what you want, and what you want is animal sex. Cooperative breeders–birds that help raise each others’ young–appear to be more monogamous.

A neuroscientist sends puffs of air at neurons to trigger the types of injuries NFL players get. Carl Zimmer has the story.

Dolphin blow: not a new drug, but an important tool for studying dolphin genes

A new form of chlorophyll is tuned to infrared light, says Ferris Jabr at Scientific American.

A study that explains internet trolls: people who hold extreme opinions are more likely to voice them loudly than those who hold moderate opinions

21 August was Ecological Debt Day and it’s a month early, writes Andrew Simms in the Guardian. Till the end of the year, “humanity will be consuming more natural resources and producing more waste than the forests, fields and fisheries of the world can replace and absorb.”

Scicurious has been posting an absolutely incredible set of basic primers on how nerve cells send signals, the anatomy of the brain, the science of depression (more here), dopamine, cocaine and Ritalin.

This collection of 500 cancerous brains have helped to drive the rise of neurosurgery.

From the Economist: Mimicking the behaviour of ants, bees and birds started as a poor man’s version of artificial intelligence. It may, though, be the key to the real thing.

Male chess players open more aggressively against women than equally skilled men

I wrote an analysis of a fabulous article by Atul Gawande on death and dying, looking at the brilliant structure of the piece. Other great writers have chipped in with their views in the comments.

A potential treatment for Ebola and Marburg viruses does well in rats and guinea pigs, and so-so in monkeys.

Brian Switek blogs about the mystery of missing Brontosaurus headmystery of missing Brontosaurus headmystery of missing Brontosaurus head. Ah, Brontosaurus, I will always know you thus.

Our memories have been getting better, but psychologists aren’t pleased. From BPS Research Digest.

Nature’s latte art: marine algal blooms seen from space, seen in Wired.

Self-cleaning technology developed for lunar and Mars missions could be used to keep terrestrial solar panels dust free.

Parasites lost: Carl Zimmer discusses the helpful members in a group of thieves.

This great Slate piece discusses the rise and disappearance of quicksand in pop culture. And there are quicksand fan forums. No really.

A good week for astronomy: scientists discover two planets “locked in an endless dance”, model the birth of black holes, and discover a new solar system with up to seven planets (can Pluto join?).

Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory is creating a fantastic oral history of the great science that has taken place inside its walls. The British Library is doing the same for UK science.

“A new study has found that just a simple conversation with someone else in the car can be enough to increase driver errors and that the risk is greater if we fancy the passenger,” says Vaughan Bell.

Every patient is an experiment.” PalMD  on the nature of evidence-based medicine and acupuncture.

Is your circadian rhythm recorded in your beard? This gives new meaning to the five-o-clock shadow…


“This program sought to accomplish the launching of a rocket that would send twelve astronauts and ten cats to Mars.” This article about the Zambian space program is the best thing I’ve read all week.

Hungover owls. God, I love the Internet.

This is a tornado of fire. That is all.

A photo of Saturn. Just… wow.

The most incredible hummingbird footage I’ve ever seen. Look for the bit where one hits another on the head.

A new book looks at the history of nature printing – “the name given to the technique using the surface of a natural object – like a leaf – to produce the print”.

Scorpion tools.

I asked Twitter, “Given that young girls like unicorns and dolphins, why aren’t narwhals more popular?” I got my answer.

Science’s proper place

What if the Rebel Alliance used PowerPoint?

Wired and SciAm are trying to make a point.


Zoe Corbyn has written a great piece on the state of science journalism for the Times Higher Education Supplement, with quotes from me and a Who’s Who of UK science writers – Ben Goldacre, Mark Henderson, Alice Bell, Natasha Loder, Martin Robbins and more. And if you want to see my full contribution, have a look at this little experiment

This excellent Atlantic piece looks at 10 reading revolutions (before e-books) and stands out for being a Top Ten list that uses narrative.

“Why don’t we link to other outlets?” Why, indeed. A great post on how the web changes the concept of the “finished” news product.

Dave Mosher’s 10 commandments of science journalism

The Nieman Lab has spotted a problem: “To stay relevant to search engines, news organisations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold.”

Virginia Heffernan tries to make up for her shoddy piece on science blogging by talking about fact-checking. It’s fascinating until the last paragraph, which descends into a Derridean self-parody, where a former fact-checker questions the nature of facts and I deconstruct my head against my desk.

Dave Munger wonders about what a journalist’s responsibilities are on Twitter.

Abel Pharmboy’s excellent Terra Sigillata has moved from purgatory to CENtral Science of American Chemical Society’s C&EN.

The shortlist for the Royal Society’s Prize for Science Books has been announced. I vote for Nick Lane’s Life Ascending; shame about the lack of female authors, given how many are excellent

Annaleen Hewitz at io9 has a great article on science ideas that informed science-fiction, with great educational links.

“We should make it known to the public that the scientific community neither condones nor tolerates unscrupulous behaviour,” says JL Vernon, who argues that the case of Marc Hauser, a scientist accused of misconduct, is good for science. Meanwhile, Andy Revkin wonders about trust in climate science.

“Casati believes that the real peer review comes after publication. The world will decide in the market of ideas which papers matter most.” Richard Smith from the BMJ discusses the world’s first “liquid journal”.

Ivan Oransky coins the word “retrobargo”, which is a long synonym for “FAIL”.

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