This is the final part of my review of the year, with a more light-hearted look at the past 12 months. But first, here are parts 1-10.
IgNobel tribute awards
First up, a selection of posts that, in the words of the award creators, first make people laugh, and then make them think.
The good news: beer makes some people much more attractive. The bad news: it makes them more attractive to mosquitoes. Anopheles gambiae (the mosquito that transmits malaria) finds the body odour of beer drinkers to be quite tantalising. The authors even suggest (very speculatively and with tongue somewhat planted in cheek) that mosquitoes might have evolved a preference for the smell of beer-drinkers, “possibly due to reduced host defensive behaviours”.
Lapping cats are a common sight, but Pedro Reis and Roman Stocker have finally worked out how they do it. Every flick of their tongues finely balances a pair of forces, at high speed, to draw a column of water into their thirsty jaws. The duo worked in a lab set up by one Doc Edgerton, who actually filmed a lapping cat in slow-motion back in 1940, even winning an Oscar for it! Reis and Stocker had no grant money or student help for their project – they just really wanted to know the answer. Science at its best…
In Western films, the gunslinger that draws first always gets shot. Why? This question diverted the attention of the great physicist Niels Bohr, who suggested that it takes longer to start a movement than to react to one. He even tested his hypothesis by duelling against fellow physicist George Gamow with toy pistols. Andrew Welchman found that Bohr was right: people do indeed execute a movement 10% more quickly if they’re reacting to an opponent. Unfortunately, this benefit is totally overwhelmed by the time it takes to react in the first place. Despite Bohr’s claims, the gunslinger who draws last should get shot.
Male Cape ground squirrels are regular masturbators, according to Jane Waterman. The question is why, and no, it’s probably not just for fun. By clocking over 2000 hours of squirrel-watching, Waterman found that males masturbate more often when females are ready to mate, if they are dominant and if they had sex recently. Her explanation is that masturbation is a form of self-medication. By cleaning their genitals, males reduce their odds of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
The Ida award for hype
This was certainly one of the biggest stories of the year, but probably not for the right reasons. Early rumours that NASA would announce the existence of aliens or a second origin for life were unfounded. Instead, we got a paper that seemed amazing for other reasons – it claimed that some bacteria can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in their DNA and other important molecules. That claim proved to be equally contentious and while the matter is far from settled, the backlash provided many important lessons about science journalism, peer review, and the role of blogs in modern science.
Scientists have discovered the part of the brain that makes people gullible. The findings could have massive implications for treating the growing number of people who fall wide-eyed for sensationalist media reports. Professor Cristoph Morris said that a part of the brain called the inferior supra-credulus was unsually active in people with a tendency to believe horoscopes and papers invoking fancy brain scans. “This correlation is so strong that we can speculate about a causal link with a high degree of certainty,” he concluded.
For more satire, try out my (occasionally updated) Posterous blog, for the posts too silly to put up here.
Top ten stories of the year as voted by you:
For interest, these were the top ten posts of the year as determined by page views:
- A spider web that spans rivers made from the world’s toughest biological material
- Robins can literally see magnetic fields, but only if their vision is sharp
- Squirrels masturbate to avoid sexually transmitted infections
- Behold Leviathan: the sperm whale that killed other whales
- Mono Lake bacteria build their DNA using arsenic (and no, this isn’t about aliens)
- 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics
- The cultural genome: Google Books reveals traces of fame, censorship and changing languages
- Scientists discover gene and part of brain that make people gullible
- New Nicaraguan sign language shows how language affects thought
- Scientists solve millennia-old mystery about the argonaut octopus
On science journalism:
This year began with a post about science journalism and it contained several more. It seems fitting to end with a list of such posts. These are some of the pieces that I’m proudest of – it’s here that I explore and lay out my ideas about the profession that I’m a part of and some thoughts on making things better.
- Who are the science journalists?
- Adapting to the new ecosystem of science journalism
- Rebooting science journalism – on blurring boundaries, money, audiences and duck sex
- Kill the post-embargo publication window
- The value of “this is cool” science stories
- Are science journalists being overly criticised?
- On the Origin of Science Writers
- Deconstructing Gawande – why narrative and structure are important
- When Interviewees Record! An experiment/interview on journalism
- Will anyone not planning on launching a blog network please stand up?
- Of writers and activists – are science bloggers being ambitious enough?
- On jargon, and why it matters in science writing