Archive for October 2009

Comments Off Posted on Friday 30 October 2009 at 4:45 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology

Researchers in China have found that by practicing fellatio on their male counterparts female short-nosed fruit bats can prolong sex.

Whilst oral sex is a common part of the human mating ritual, and occasionally observed in Bonobo monkeys, this is thought to be one of the first times that fellatio has been observed outside of the primates.

Min Tan and his team recorded females lowering their heads to lick the base or shaft of the male’s penis whilst copulation was occurring. This happened on 14 out of 20 copulations with the licking measured to last 19.14±3.45 seconds or approximately 8.7% of the duration of sex.

“We found that whether a female licked her mate’s penis during copulation had a significant influence on the duration of copulation. The pairs spent more time copulating if the female licked her mate’s penis than on occasions when females did not show licking behaviour. This result suggests that the licking behaviour may play an important role in copulation by prolonging intromission.”

The study concluded that every second of licking added a further 6 seconds to the duration of sex and suggests several reasons why this behaviour might be advantageous, including that,

“Prolonged copulation might assist sperm transport from the vagina to the oviduct, or stimulate secretions of the pituitary gland in the female and hence increase the likelihood of fertilization”

For those wishing to see the act in question the researchers supply a handy video.

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

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 29 October 2009 at 8:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

Smokers looking to quit could be helped by a cigarette-crushing video game, according to a study published in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that smokers placed in a virtual reality environment full of cigarettes to be destroyed showed a significant reduction in nicotine cravings.

The study took 91 regular smokers and randomly assigned them to two groups. All participants went through a 12-week anti-smoking program involving questionnaires, tests and counselling, as well as four weekly sessions with a head-mounted video game set in a medieval castle. One group was tasked with collecting virtual balls, while the others had to track down and crush cigarettes.

Crushing cigarettes in a virtual world
Crushing cigarettes in a virtual world

The results showed that the cigarette-crushers had a significant reduction in nicotine cravings compared to the ball-collectors. At the end of the 12-week treatment, 15% of the cigarette-crushers had abstained from smoking, while just 2% of the ball-collectors had managed to give up.

Virtual treatment also had a lasting effect. When interviewed six months later, only 20% of the ball-collectors said they had not smoked in the last week, but 39% of the cigarette-collectors had resisted lighting up.

The researchers suggest a number of reasons why cigarette-crushing helps keep from smoking. The act of destroying a virtual cigarette could boost a person’s confidence in their ability to give up real cigarettes, or make them want to give up more. Enjoyment in the game could also lead them to change their response towards cigarettes – presumably from “I’m dying for a smoke” to “die, cigarettes!”

Whatever the explanation, this research could lead to new anti-smoking treatments. Instead of reaching for the nicotine patches, you might end up patching your PC with some cigarette-killing software. Anyone for a game of capture the fags?

Girard, B., Turcotte, V., Bouchard, S., & Girard, B. (2009). Crushing Virtual Cigarettes Reduces Tobacco Addiction and Treatment Discontinuation CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12 (5), 477-483 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2009.0118

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 October 2009 at 8:40 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

Today I was getting ready to leave my flat for my afternoon shift when, hurrying to finish my lunch, I managed to catch the very end of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) on the TV.

The twelfth and final question was asked by the Conservative member for Wells, David Heathcoat-Amory, and this is what he had to say:

“As the Prime Minister knows, this is the International Year of Astronomy. Does he therefore support the Campaign for Dark Skies, which is good for astronomy and also saves energy? If he does, will he play his part by turning off—or at least dimming—the lights in public buildings, including Downing Street, where all the lights are on very late into the night?”

As someone who is passionate about astronomy my ears immediately pricked up and I was momentarily diverted from my Marmite sandwiches. Did I really just hear a question on astronomy asked in the House of Commons? Really? Well this was our learned Prime Minster’s response:

“I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.”

What a bullshit answer. Now I’m the first to admit that this question wasn’t the most pressing matter of the day. There had already been questions on the Afghan election, the Lockerbie disaster and climate change, far more important than whether you can adequately star spot.

However, Gordy barely even answered the question instead using it to score cheap points against the Opposition. The token answer of “all of us have a responsibility blah blah blah blah” was about as satisfying as my Marmite sandwiches. He might as well have said piss off lets all go for some lunch.

And this is the great problem; there are too few advocates of science in Government. Regular Just a Theory readers will recall my ongoing debate with Labour peer and Science Minister Lord Drayson (which I am happy to say is going to happen with the next month or so). Despite my well documented grievances, Lord Drayson is really on science’s side and we should continue to hope for more of his ilk.

So, having seemingly ranted for eight paragraphs thus far I feel I should tell you the premise behind Campaign for Dark Skies. The essence is that there is so much wasteful light thrown up into the night sky that the skylines of most major UK cities are horribly hued a kind of murky orange. This limits the glory of the night sky to around 50-100 stars rather than the normal 1500 that should visible from these shores.

Jacob blogged earlier in the week about the Trillionth Tonne, a website counting the cost of our inability to tackle climate change. In his post he called the ever increasing figure “sobering to watch”. Equally the Campaign for Dark Skies have a counter clocking up the amount of money wasted due to street lamps showering some of their light up into the sky rather than down where we need it.

In fact, the counter ticks along at £4 a second, which means since the 1st January 2009 the UK has wasted over £100 million on electric lights that serve no purpose whatsoever. And that is just street lights. The full estimate, including business and industrial based lighting, is likely to be over £1 BILLION. I’m not even going to argue the astronomical perspective on this one. Yes you would be able to see more stars but £100 million pounds, or more likely £1 BILLION, is just a pointless waste our OUR money.

This comes on a day when after PMQ’s, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth stood before Parliament and detailed a report suggesting MOD cost cutting led to the deaths of 14 service personnel in a Nimrod crash in 2006. Ainsworth said that,

“in our pursuit of financial savings the MoD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We accept this with regard to the Nimrod XV230”

Don’t get me wrong I am not blaming the deaths of those 14 servicemen on wasteful street lighting. However what really gets my goat is that when a valid science question that could save our economy upwards of £1 billion is actually asked in Parliament, and on a day when the Government is held to account for its penny pinching, that our dearest PM shits all over it.

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 26 October 2009 at 10:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Like many young children, I went through a phase of being obsessed with dinosaurs. I think the appeal is the idea that these monstrous animals actually existed, but are also safely locked away in the past and can’t hurt you.

Now, a new discovery by George Poinar Jr of Oregon State University shows that the dinosaurs weren’t the only monsters from the Cretacous period. He’s found a well-preserved specimen of a fly with five eyes and a horn, and it’s certainly going to give me nightmares.

An artists impression of the "monster" fly.
An artists impression of the "monster" fly.

Details of the strange creature were recently published in the journal Cretaceous Research. It’s called Cascoplecia insolitis, roughly translated as “old and unusual”. It’s certainly an apt description, as it lived from 97 to 100 million years ago and is anything but “usual” looking.

The fly and its strange horn, preserved in amber for millions of years.
Preserved in amber for millions of years.

Two of the fly’s five eyes are large and compound, like a regular household fly. The other three are smaller like a spider’s and sit atop a strange, unicorn-like horn.

It’s thought that this evolutionary specialism would have helped it see approaching predators more easily. The eye-covered horn would also aid the fly on reaching the pollen and nectar of very tiny flowers, but would have been a hindrance when larger plants evolved. With its freakish advantage lost, C. insolitis went extinct, and as far as we know its unique horn has never been seen again.

“No other insect ever discovered has a horn like that, and there’s no animal at all with a horn that has eyes on top,” said Poinar.

“One of the reviewers of the study called it a monster, and I have to admit it had a face only another fly could have loved. I was thinking of making some masks based on it for Halloween.”

I don’t know about that. If this thing rang my door screaming “trick or treat”, I’d probably run a mile. Give me dinosaurs any day!

Poinar Jr., G. (2009). Cascoplecia insolitis (Diptera: Cascopleciidae), a new family, genus, and species of flower-visiting, unicorn fly (Bibionomorpha) in Early Cretaceous Burmese amber Cretaceous Research DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2009.09.007

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 October 2009 at 10:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Painted horses teach anatomy to vets

Champion horse rider Gillian Higgins has come up with a novel way for veterinary students to learn the skeletal structure of a horse – paint it directly on to the skin. Pretty cool, if slightly creepy!

Watch the carbon clock ticking

Early this year I wrote about research showing that the Earth effectively has a carbon budget of one trillion tonnes. Emitting more than this will lead to a global temperature rise of 2°C, and we’ve already spent over half a trillion.

To illustrate our spending, Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University has created a ticking carbon clock, counting down to the release of the trillionth tonne. That’s currently set for some time in March 2045 but as our rate of emissions continues to rise, this date gets nearer by the second. It’s sobering to watch.

Fancy a drink?

This photo of an ant refreshing itself after a hard day’s work was taken by András Mészáros, and won him a prize in the 2009 Veolia Environnement wildlife photographer of the year. Take a look at some of the other winners, including a wolf caught mid-jump and a stag with a crown of bracken.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 22 October 2009 at 6:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Just A Review, Psychology

Last week saw the start of a new series of Horizon, the BBC’s long-running science documentary programme. I wasn’t particularly impressed with last year’s offering, but I decided to give the show another chance this time around.

I managed to miss the first episode thanks to a confusing BBC press release, but caught this week’s which featured the media’s go-to mathematician and not-so-recently appointed Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. He submits himself to a variety of bizarre experiments in an attempt to answer a puzzling question: how do we know who we are?

Humans are one of just nine species that pass what is known as the mirror test for self-awareness. A dot is placed on the test subject’s face and they are placed in front of a mirror. If they notice the dot, by trying to look at or touch it, they’ve recognised the reflection as themselves. Otherwise, the subject views their reflection as an entirely separate individual.

Du Sautoy sees this test in action early on in the programme, and it’s quite striking. A young baby completely ignores the dot, while a slightly older child immediatly attempts to peel it off. Is this where conciousness begins? What does conciousness even mean?

The programme doesn’t have an answer – it’s still an open question in science, of course. It’s certainly interesting watching du Sautoy exploring the limits of his conciousness though. One experiment placed him under the effect of heavy anaesthetic while in an MRI scanner, his conciousness seeming to slowly slip away as he rambled in a drunken fashion. In another, du Sautoy wears a pair of video glasses that can appear to place his sense of self behind his body – or even inside another person.

I’ll admit I’m already fairly familiar with all of these experiments from my readings in the annals of popular science, but seeing them being performed really adds to the experience. A shame then that some of the programmes editing had quite the opposite effect.

Look. I understand that putting together a science programme is a difficult task – shot after shot of talking head doesn’t make for great TV. Did we really need to see du Sautoy walking around hooked up to a Steadicam as he ponders? It made him look like a cleaned up Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.

Camera gripes aside, this episode was certainly an improvement on the last time I sat down to watch Horizon. It’s worth a watch, and I’ll be making an effort to check out a bit more in the coming weeks.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 21 October 2009 at 8:00 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine

It has long been known that sleep deprivation affects your ability to remember things long term. Yet until now the exact mechanism causing these misplaced memories has been unclear.

The problem had been that the relationship between sleep deprivation and the brain is multi-faceted; it was hard to see the wood from the cerebral trees. But in a paper published in this week’s Nature, an international team of scientists report findings that suggest the culprit has been revealed.

In their study the researchers took mice that had been deprived of sleep for five hours and examined the hippocampus, the section of the brain known to play a fundamental role in long term memory.

They found that the sleep-deprived rodents had a higher level of an enzyme called PDE4 than those left to sleep normally. In order to make sure that these increased levels of PDE4 were indeed behind the long-term memory loss they tested whether the mice could recall a fear stimulus.

In mice that were treated with a drug that inhibits PDE4 production they found the effect was nullified and the sleepy mice could remember just as well as those rodents that had been well rested. Whereas the mice left with increased levels of PDE4 struggled when tested.

This research might have implications for those suffering with serious sleep deprivation such as new parents. However, further research is necessary to experiment with Rolipram, the drug used in the study, and its effectiveness combating memory problems in humans suffering with sleep deprivation.

Vecsey, C., Baillie, G., Jaganath, D., Havekes, R., Daniels, A., Wimmer, M., Huang, T., Brown, K., Li, X., Descalzi, G., Kim, S., Chen, T., Shang, Y., Zhuo, M., Houslay, M., & Abel, T. (2009). Sleep deprivation impairs cAMP signalling in the hippocampus Nature, 461 (7267), 1122-1125 DOI: 10.1038/nature08488

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 20 October 2009 at 4:49 pm by Colin Stuart
In Psychology

Scientists have found that talking on your mobile phone can be so distracting that phone users walking across a university campus couldn’t walk in a straight line and some even failed to spot a unicycling clown.

The study, conducted by Professor Ira Hyman and published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, was split into two parts. In the first stage 196 pedestrians were tracked as they walked across the campus and of those taking a call, Hyman noted that they tended to walk:

“…more slowly, changed direction more often, were prone to weaving, and acknowledged other individuals more rarely.”

This is something I am sure most of us can relate to. Living in London it is commonplace when walking down the street to have to avoid someone on their phone weaving in and out of the busy throngs of the capital.

However, it is the second part of the study that is perhaps most noteworthy. In a further experiment the team monitored 151 individuals as they strolled across the square whilst a clown in a bright purple shirt, big shoes and red nose unicycled nearby.

Of the 24 individuals who were on mobile phones at the time, only a quarter of them recalled anything when they were asked, “did you see anything usual?” It is worth saying that, more disturbingly, only just over 50% of those not on a mobile phone noticed the presence of the clown.

When questioned only 25% of pedestrians on mobile phones could spot the unicycling clown. Credit: Slapstick Science.
When questioned only 25% of pedestrians on mobile phones could spot the unicycling clown. Credit: Slapstick Science.

Interestingly those that were most likely to remember spotting the clown were those walking in pairs (71%) suggesting it is not conversation that is distracting but the use of the phone itself.

If phones have this effect on walking this study should add to the weight of evidence suggesting that mobile phone shouldn’t be used whilst driving, as Prof Hyman himself says:

“If people experience so much difficulty performing the task of walking when on a cell phone just think of what this means when put into the context of driving safety. People should not drive while talking on a cell phone.”

Comments Off Posted on Monday 19 October 2009 at 4:02 pm by Colin Stuart
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy

Scientists in America have located what they believe to be the world’s largest crater and what’s more they are holding it responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

Researchers have traditionally pointed their finger at the Chicxulub crater in Yucatan, Mexico as the culprit for the extinction of T-Rex and his chums 65 million years ago, but Sankar Chatterjee and his team are turning their attention to India’s Shiva Crater.

This underwater basin measures almost 500km across, easily overshadowing Chicxulub’s measly 180km, and was most likely carved out when approximately 25km of space rock came hurtling to Earth. Dr Chatterjee and his colleagues hope to study the crater further to establish once and for all whether it was indeed caused by an impact 65 million years ago.

The underwater Shiva Crater, off the coast of India, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The underwater Shiva Crater, off the coast of India, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The tell-tale sign of a space-based impactor is abnormally high levels of Iridium, an element abundant in asteroids but a rarity in the Earth’s crust. Iridium levels at impact sites tend to be a hundred times greater than usual.

Whilst impacts of this size are certainly not every day, or even every millennium events, there have been five extinction level events, where over 50% of the animal population have been pole axed, in the last 540 million years. Many are attributed to asteroid and/or comet impacts, although there are other possibilities.

Subsequently the study of the position and trajectories of the asteroid and comet families has become big scientific business including NASA’s dedicated Near Earth Object program. Programs such as these led to a potential impactor being discovered in 2004 that experts rated as a 1-in-60 chance of colliding with the Earth.

Happily, they have since revised their estimations upwards. However, asteroid 99942 Apophis (2004 MN4) will still pass the Earth over 13 times nearer than the Moon, rather eerily on Friday 13th April 2029, culminating in the closest approach of such a sizeable object for a thousand years.

It is not a question of if but when a Shiva Crater causing asteroid has our name on it. Yet if Dr Chatterjee and his team are correct it will be another piece in the puzzle explaining what led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the advent of the mammals that would evolve to worry about a similar fate.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 18 October 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Apologies for my lack of posting this week, I’m once again hepped up on Lemsip as I battle against a cold. My fellow bloggers have done a great job at picking up the slack, but I still have a collection of interesting links from the past week. Here we go:

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 17 October 2009 at 5:49 pm by Emma Stokes
In Physics

Last week whilst traveling to work, I noticed huge plumes of steam rising over the Geneva jura – just one sign of things beginning to start up again here at CERN.

The source of the steam are the huge cooling towers required by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). A complex cryogenic system sits in the tunnel of the LHC in order to cool the tunnel and equipment to 1.9 kelvin. This is no mean feat, as 1.9 kelvin equates to -271C or -456F which is much colder than outer space (around 2.7 kelvin). However, the temperature needs to be so low so that the magnets can become ‘super-conducting’ – conducting electricity with zero resistance.

Not only is it very difficult to achieve this low temperature, but the equipment within the tunnel has had to be carefully designed to withstand such low temperatures. As we all know from our early science lessons at school, if you cool a liquid down the molecules have less kinetic energy, and become a solid. When a solid is cooled the same occurs, and basically leads to the solid contracting.

This was one of the reasons for the problem when the LHC started up last year – the ‘quench’ described by the physicists at CERN was essentially caused by a faulty magnet. Part of the magnet designed to be able to withstand the contraction fractured, leading to a leak of liquid helium, which then caused problems to the surrounding areas of the LHC tunnel.

CERN physicists have therefore spent the last 13 months carefully checking and replacing magnets, and installing a new quench protection system.

The announcement that 1.7 kelvin has been reached is indeed exciting news, as it means that the physicists at CERN can begin to feed particles into the ring, and test the new quench protection system.

The next developments to watch out for will be the circulation of a beam around the whole LHC ring, expected by the end of November. At the moment, the first collisions are likely (realistically) in January.

On another note, talk in Restaurant 1 at CERN have turned to news of Adiene Hicheur, a French-Algerian physicist suspected of links with Al-Qaeda.

The story broke first on the French news sites, before hitting the English news stands later in the day. Quite interestingly Hicheur works for the same experiment as me – LHCb, so I heard about the news before most at CERN.

Some of the news stories surrounding this have been quite funny. I guess this is because most don’t really understand what CERN does, and then there’s the fact the organisation’s title is ‘Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire’ and we all know what happens to people when they hear the word nuclear don’t we….

But, contrary to some of the more far fetched stories there’s not that much to worry about. Although it is a bit strange to think that someone associated with Al-Qaeda might have been sat just down the corridor from me, he actually had very little security clearance, and didn’t have access to the LHC tunnel or ‘the pit’ where the LHCb experiment is housed. Plus, even if he did, i’m not sure what he’d be able to do with it!!

Oh and to all those with ideas of antimatter in their heads and cities being destroyed (thanks Angels and Demons)… it’s not like you’d be able to walk out of the door with a tank of it hidden under your coat! And even if antimatter were easily portable, CERN has only produced enough to light an electric light bulb for a few minutes in all the years they’ve been studying antimatter….!

Comments Off Posted on Friday 16 October 2009 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

As anyone who reads Just A Theory should know by now, “formula for” stories are usually nothing more than thinly veiled PR that newspapers happily print for free, but they don’t get much worse than this:

Say hello to Phillippa Toon, proudly displaying her formula for the perfect night out. Phillippa is a biology student at Leeds University, and also holds the estimated position of “VKendologist”.

For those not up on their alco-pops, VK is an unpleasant mix of vodka, sugar and E numbers served in pubs and clubs across the country. The drink is owned by Global Brands, who it seems placed adverts on Facebook in the hopes of attracting Britain’s brightest minds to figure out the “formula for fun”. The advert read:

“Wanted! Talented maths or science student or graduate to spend the summer literally discovering the formula of fun. Must be over 18 years of age like bars, clubs and pubs and be prepared to have a fantastic time in the quest for knowledge, science and the pursuit of the perfect night out.”

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Phillippa was one of “hundreds of mathematicians and fellow scientists” vying for the chance to make up a such a formula.

For once, I can’t fault the maths too much. Yes, the measurements are completely subjective (check out the calculator on the VK website for full details of the variables in the formula), but at least there’s no division by zero leading to the likes of infinitly bad pancakes.

What really gets me about this is how shameless it is. Get a pretty girl, dress her up as a scientist, and gush about the “experiment” she conducted using “maths and science”. She’s not even the usual “expert scientist” they wheel in for these things, she’s still a student. Why do we let companies get away with this? Why do newspapers insist on printing these stories full of nothing but cargo cult science?

I know the answer, of course. Newspapers need to fill their pages with content, and a quirky science story that you can lift straight from a press release fits quite nicely. Never mind that it’s based on complete nonsense – since when do silly things like “evidence” or “facts” matter?

By now, my message has become a mantra I am doomed to repeat forever. Do not believe a word of these “formula for” stories; they are adverts, not science.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 15 October 2009 at 4:38 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology

Biologists have genetically altered fruit flies so that they no longer produce pheromones, leading to their fellow insects becoming less discerning in their intimate endeavours.

Published in this week’s Nature, Joel Levine and his team genetically destroyed the cells that create the fruit flies’ sex scent. This led to orgy-bound chaos in the lab with the flies no longer knowing who to mate with. Unaltered males tried getting it on with their scentless male counterparts, whilst some normal male flies become enamoured with altered female flies of a completely different species.

The team found that it was just a single molecule that creates the normal chemical barrier allowing individual insects to know who is fair game when it comes to mating, “..the same chemical signals and genes are underlying not only social behaviour in groups, like courtship and mating, but also behaviour between species,” said Levine.

Whilst acknowledging that the human courting ritual is more complicated than the fruit flies’ Levine went on to say:

“…we may rely more on the visual system, and we may have a more complex way of assessing other individuals and classifying them and determining how we’re going to relate to them than a fly does. But what we’re looking at is a spectrum across biology of a tendency to understand how others relate to ourselves. “

Despite these findings I still can’t help think that no matter what Jodie Marsh smelt like, I still just wouldn’t.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 13 October 2009 at 8:14 pm by Seth Bell
In Biology

It was a clear moonlit night. They had been passionate together before, but when their eyes meet across the crowded swamp their desires were reignited…

Ok, I’ll probably never make it as a Mills & Boon writer, but this scenario isn’t a million miles away from the reality of alligator mating habits. According to a ten year study published in the journal Molecular Ecology, up to 70% of alligators choose to remain with their previous partners for several years, even when females are free to move through crowded male swamps.

The study provides the first evidence for crocodilian male fidelity, a characteristic they share with birds, their evolutionary relatives. Cold blooded crocodilians may not have a reputation for being caring and thoughtful, but in fact they are amongst the few reptilians which nurture and protect their young.

The study, carried out at the swamps in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Rockefeller Wildlife refuge, surprised Stacey Lance, one of the researchers in the study:

“I don’t think any of us expected that the same pair of alligators that bred together in 1997 would still be breeding together in 2005 and may still be producing nests together this day.”

Because crocodilians like alligators are archosaurs, the study could provide insight into the ancient breeding of dinosaurs who are part of the same family; let’s hope it does because finding out more about dinosaurs is always fun (almost as fun as using the word crocodilian!)

Of course alligators probably can’t feel love, but this research suggests they are surprisingly faithful. If you’re anything like me you’ve seen the episode of Friends where Phoebe describes Rachel as “Ross’ lobster” too many times to count.  Maybe “she’s his alligator” would have been more fitting.

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 11 October 2009 at 8:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Cuddly quarks

Maybe I’m just a big nerdy kid, but it seems I just can’t resist plush versions of scientific concepts. Earlier this year we had internal organs, and now this week I came across The Particle Zoo. It’s all your friends from the standard model of physics, and more! My favourite has to be the incredibly devious looking tachyon:

Time for a new table?

The periodic table has been in use for nearly 150 years, ever since its invention by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Is it time for chemists to rearrange the furniture and bring in something a little more…round? Mohd Abubakr of Microsoft India seems to think so, and presents his own version:

The circular periodic table
The circular periodic table

One advantage is that the 7 rings represent the 7 electron shells of an atom. Another is that the elements get larger as you move out from the center. As the Physics arXiv blog points out though, it’s hard to read a circular table without rotating it – which unlike the regular table, doesn’t make for a great wall poster!

Obama, the astronomical President

Colin provided me with this final roundup item, so I’ll hand over to him:

What a week it has been for President Barack Obama. On Friday morning he was woken up at 6am by his aides who broke the news that he had (rather controversially) won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

With such news his diary commitments on Wednesday evening have largely been overlooked. Yet on that evening he and 150 local school children took to the South Lawn for Astronomy Night at The Whitehouse with guests including the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin.

But what really captured the imagination was his opening speech. It was a rallying cry for a change in education, an eloquent rendition of just why science matters and a piece of science communication par excellence. Take a look for yourself:

Comments Off Posted on Friday 9 October 2009 at 2:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Physics

The past week has seen the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes. As with last year, I thought I’d wait for them to all come out before taking a look at the “science” ones:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

This prize was split equally between Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work in the 1980s on telomeres, the “protective caps” on the ends of the chromosomes that contain our genetic information.

These caps allow chromosomes to be copied end-to-end during cell division by protecting them against degradation. Telomeres are also a key part of the ageing process; as the telomeres shorten, cells begin to age. Maintaining telomeres through use of the enzyme that forms them (telomerase) could lead to new medical treatments.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

One half of this prize was awarded to Charles Kao for research in 1966 that lead to the invention of fibre optic cables. Kao figured out how to transmit light signals over 100 kilometers, allowing high-speed transfer of data around the world. Without his work you wouldn’t be reading this, because the internet would be impossible.

The other half was shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith for the invention of the charged-couple device (CCD) in 1969. Found in everything from digital cameras to space probes, the CCD uses the photoelectric effect (for the theorising of which Albert Einstein received a Nobel Prize in 1921) to convert light in to electric signals. As well as ushering in the era of digital photography, CCDs are used extensively throughout the whole of scientific research.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Finally, this prize was also split equally, between Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz, and Ada Yonath for their work on understanding the structure of the ribosome.

Ribosomes act as a kind of molecular interrupter, translating a DNA sequence in to the proteins that make up life. Using X-ray crystallography, the trio mapped the structure of the ribosome to generate 3D models of it in action. These are used to study the effects of antibiotics on bacterial ribosomes, and thus create new treatments for disease.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 8 October 2009 at 7:03 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Scientists and curious onlookers are gearing up for what many are calling the day NASA ‘bombs’ the Moon in search of water. Tomorrow, at approximately 12:30pm UK time, the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will send 2,305kg of American engineering headlong into the south pole of our nearest neighbour in space.

The impact will see a new crater added to the already much pockmarked lunar surface with this man-made moon scar stretching twenty metres across. The momentum of the impact will hurl a 350 tonne plume of material into lunar orbit which the waiting Shepherding Spacecraft will fly through, searching for traces of water before impacting the Moon itself four minutes later.

The target is Cabeus, a crater found some 100km from the Moon’s South Pole, a location that precludes much penetration from sunlight, rendering the maximum temperature 100K.

Such low temperatures and data from a previous mission have led scientists to predict the existence of water ice hidden in Cabeus’ murky shadows. Slamming into the lunar surface is the best way to unveil the Moon’s hidden secrets.

As Jacob reported earlier in the year, evidence for lunar water has already been provided by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe and further evidence of water on the Moon would add to our understanding of our Solar System.

However, despite its scientific merits there has been a backlash against the mission with accusations of extra-terrestrial terrorism. Apparently LCROSS is NASA committing “an eco-sin on a galactic scale.” Nevermind that the Moon is 385,000 km away and the galaxy is 100,000 light years across.

With these words the blogger of warns that, “the Moon is a celestial body revered by Earthlings of all cultures, inspiring poets, shamans and lovers across the globe.”

These feelings seem to be echoed by the imaginatively titled who quoth that, “it is dangerous to bomb the moon when we are unclear of the outcome. We feel that bombing the Moon could bring us consequences that are both psychic and physical. Disruption of cycles.” take the celestial biscuit though when they philosophise that, “the problem is this, by bombing the moon in many exopolitic experts opinion is this action will cause an all out war in space with extraterrestrials. These same extraterrestrials even have bases and crafts placed on the Moon.”

This last totally absurd notion aside, there seems to be this wide held belief that the Moon is sacred and that by making a miniscule pinprick in it that somehow we are going to cause apocalypse. Never mind that asteroids hit the Moon all the time. Never mind that with your very own eyes you can see evidence of hundreds of much larger impacts which have left our “cycles” untouched. This isn’t the first time lunar lunacy has made it onto one of my blog entries.

There are just so many things wrong here. However, part of the blame for such nonsense has to lie at the media’s door. In their perpetual attempt for an attention grabbing headline they have fashioned this notion of ‘bombing’ the Moon, a label which quite misrepresents what is actually going on.

Depending on which camp you sit in, you can either watch an innovative scientific experiment or the destruction of life as we know it from 11:30am tomorrow at

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 7 October 2009 at 2:33 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

By now you’ve probably noticed the large “your ad here” signs to the right of this post, and on the front page. I thought it was worth taking to a moment to explain why I’ve chosen to put adverts on the site, and how they will work.

Just A Theory has actually always had adverts; a small box of text provided by Google. It fits in easily on the site and is generally inoffensive. It’s also, for the most part, ignored. Now, while I’m not looking to make my fortune writing on Just A Theory, I would at least like to cover the hosting costs. On the other hand, I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the site by filling it full of adverts.

Recently, I was introduced to Project Wonderful, and their model for advertising immediatly interested me. Rather than providing adverts based on the content, as Google does, Project Wonderful lets advertisers bid on spaces. As you can see, the advert on the right will currently cost you $0.05 a day to fill.

This method has two immediate benefits. First, advertisers actually look at the site and decide if their product/service fits in with Just A Theory. Second, all adverts must be approved by me before appearing on the site. As a result, readers will hopefully find that they are actually interested in clicking on the adverts, and everyone is happy.

I’ve seen it work on other sites, and actually found myself clicking on a few Project Wonderful adverts because they were well tailored to my interests. I’ve decided to take Project Wonderful for a trial run, and see how it works out.

It might be that no-one bids, in which case I’ll probably take the adverts down and forget all about it. Or, we could get some interesting advertisers who are actually offering thing you want. We’ll have to wait and see.

Please do let me know how you feel about the adverts, and whether you think they interfere too much with the site. Alternatively, if you have something you’d like to advertise (and that you think the Just A Theory audience would be interested in), why not click on the adverts and set up a Project Wonderful account?

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 October 2009 at 6:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

My second article for New Scientist went up yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

Green roofs are not just a load of greenwash. That’s according to a new study which has measured the amount of carbon absorbed by 13 different green roofs.

“I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want a green roof,” says Kristin Getter, who carried out the research with colleagues at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Getter’s team examined 12 existing green roofs and grew their own Sedum-covered roof. They found that the roofs absorbed up to 375 grams per square metre over the two years of their study.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 October 2009 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Autotune the cosmos

Autotune is a piece of software designed to tidy up slightly out of tune singers, but people have discovered it can also be used to turn almost anything in to a song. Results vary, but this Autotuned version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is actually really good:

Ig Nobel 2009

This year’s Ig Nobel awards, which celebrate “improbable research” in science, were announced earlier this week. Amongst the winners were a team who investigated whether it is better to be hit over the head by a full botle of beer or an empty one, and the creators of a bra which can convert in to two protective face masks.

The best seat in the house

Above is Bruce McCandless II, around 100 meters away from the space shuttle Challenger. He’s the furthest out in space that anyone has ever been, and he’s got quite a view.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 2 October 2009 at 5:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Probiotic yoghurt drinks full of “good bacteria” have become a popular choice for those looking to stay healthy, but now EU scientists have dismissed the manufacturers claims. The announcement could result in tighter laws on the benefits food companies are permitted to advertise.

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) examined and rejected 180 health claims for probiotic ingredients. Ten were dismissed outright, and the other 170 were said to be unproven due to lack of evidence. These claims do not include the two biggest probiotic companies, Actimal and Yakult. They withdrew their claims from the analysis, to be resubmitted at a later date.

EFSA’s review follows an EU law in 2006 which made it a requirement for all medical-sounding marketing claims to be verified scientifically. No products or marketing will have to change straight away, but the European Commission will eventually create new legislation to be voted on by member states.

Chair of the EFSA science panel Albert Flynn stressed the importance of giving consumers accurate information about the products they buy:

“It’s been an issue for some time that general health claims are made about these products using the family name for the active ingredient and not saying which member of the family is in the pot.

“We expect the claims that will come now from the companies will be much more specific.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 1 October 2009 at 5:42 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

The last few weeks have seen some interesting developments regarding animal research, catch up on the lastest news with Understanding Animal Research:

Lack of sleep linked to Alzheimer’s

Studies using mice suggest that lack of sleep could increase the development of toxic plaques in the brain, accelerating the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

White blood cells found to set the pace of wound repair

After more than fifty experiments in mice, scientists have mapped out how a set of white blood cells (lymphocytes) set the pace of recovery after serious lung injury.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

Gene therapy for colour blindness

A team of scientists have restored colour vision to two colour blind squirrel monkeys using gene therapy.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.


Last week two prominent scientists in America published an article about the need for change in the communication of issues surrounding animal research.

The article, We Must Face The Threats, tackles the difficult topic of animal rights extremists, and the effect they are having on the scientific community.

Animal research is always a difficult topic to discuss. Trying to present a balanced argument can be as difficult as trying to avoid a mine in a field of landmines. However, I believe that in this case, the authors of the paper, Dario Ringach and David Jentsch have managed to keep to the facts, rather than reverting to ‘mud slinging’ and ‘calling names’.

Ringach and Jentsch also describe how the public are often influenced by groups other than scientists when it comes to the topic of science. This is a problem for science across the whole of the field, not exclusively animal research

The article describes how the entertainment industry contributes to the “misperception of science, producing movies that increasingly portray humans and technology as the source of evil”. Only last night I was watching Spaced – the episode where a dog was snatched by an ‘insane’ scientist who was conducting animal research in an illegal lab – hardly how animal testing happens in this country…!

Ringach and Jentsch also voice their frustrations (which I share), at celebrities wearing AIDS or cancer ribbons one day, and then supporting PETA‘s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) fundraising events, or featuring in their advertising campaigns the next. Many of you will have heard about the recent scandal with Naomi Campbell, who posed naked in the 90s as part of PETAs I’d Rather go Naked than Wear Fur campaign, but recently became the face of an advertising campaign for a luxury New York furrier, Dennis Basso. Cases like this make me wonder the reasons why celebrities support PETA – are they fully informed of all of their policies?

However, Ringach and Jentsch do well to steer clear of these questions (better than me anyway), and do not waste their time repeating what others have done before them – pointing out the countless problems with the animal-rights views. Instead, their overall message is that these issues only cause a problem because the message is being presented with little opposing force from the scientific community.

They are therefore calling for the “scientific community to make a concerted effort in condemning animal-rights extremism and in reaching out to the public to explain our work, its importance, and out commitment to the strictest ethical guidelines of animal research”.

They also emphasize the need to “acknowledge an increasing divide on how animal experimentation is perceived by the broad public.” They believe that “we should open a discourse on the topic, explaining the key role animal research plays in our work and what our society stands to lose if we were to stop it.”

To all those scientists who are sceptical of openness about their role in animal research, it should be pointed out that Ringach and Jentsch, along with their families, have suffered at the hands of extremists, therefore their conclusions come from first hand experience.

They are also out there, putting these ideas into practice. Ringach and Jentsch are members of a US organisiaion called Speaking of Research. Speaking of Research can be compared to the UK’s Pro-test, indeed Tom Holder spokesperson for Pro-test, has been in the US for the past few years getting this fledgling organization onto it’s feet. Drawing on the success in the UK, where animal rights extremism has decreased over recent years, the group aims to support and campaign on behalf of scientists against the extremists.

I believe that this paper not only makes solid points in regards to animal research, but also to the scientific community at large. Yes there are some who are already trying to stem the tide of pseudo-scinece (Ben Goldacre’s column and Sense about Science are just two examples), but they are just a drop in the ocean, and it is the scientists who must take action together, whatever their field of research. As Ringach and Jentsch conclude:

“We must prove that ‘scientific community’ means something more than the mere fact that we publish in the same journals and attend the same conferences. We must stand together to defend those colleagues under attack and defend the research we believe to be ethical and critical for our understanding of the brain in health and disease. The public is ready to listen.”

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