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Bora’s picks (May 4, 2012)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A rich week!

Natalie WolchoverWhy Can’t All Animals Be Domesticated?:

About 11,000 years ago, humans realized there was a better place for some animals than the other end of a spear. We started coaxing them into our settlements, gradually molding their natures to better suit our needs for food, labor and companionship. Over the millennia, we dabbled with the domestication of many species. But only a few — most notably, the cow, goat, sheep, chicken, horse, pig, dog and cat — have proved themselves so useful that they have piggybacked their way across the globe, flourishing almost everywhere humans do.

Rose EvelethWhat is your dog thinking?:

In movies, talking dogs are one of our favorite tropes. From Homeward Bound to the army of evil dogs in Up, we seem to think we’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s going on in fido’s brain. It probably involves toys, and chasing squirrels, and wanting belly rubs.

But, what are dogs really thinking? Are they secretly judging us and our poor wardrobe choices? Are they plotting to overthrow humanity? Or are they not thinking anything at all? Where Hollywood fails, science has the answer! Well, sort of.

Sabrina RichardsIt’s Raining Mice: A new brown tree snake control strategy takes to the skies as scientists scatter toxic rodents over Guam’s forest canopy:

Guam has brown tree snake problems. Alien, secretive, and extremely hungry, the reptiles snuck onto Guam as unintentional cargo on docking ships decades ago, possibly as early as the 1940s. And now snakes bite sleeping babies, cripple electrical grids by slithering into conductors, and wreak ecological havoc.

Taylor Kubota90 calories or less: One twenty-something’s rant about snack packs:

Food companies are always figuring out better ways to market their products into our mouths and down our throats. These days there is one popular method in particular that I find almost sinister: the snack pack. It’s a seemingly harmless convenience that leaves wastefulness and sloth in its wake.

Xue DiA woman’s quest for romance conflicts with scientific pursuits:

A woman’s thoughts of romance can lead her to distance herself from science, technology, engineering, and math, according to a study by researchers from the University at Buffalo. The researchers studied 350 participants and conducted four experimental lab studies. The first three studies either had participants look at images or overhear conversations. After that, participants reported in a questionnaire how interested they were in either romantic activities or academic activities.

Tanya LewisStarry Starry Night: A visit to Lick Observatory:

San Jose is a bustling city of just under a million inhabitants. Yet only 25 miles to its east, on the tranquil summit of Mount Hamilton, astronomers cast their view skyward at the Lick Observatory. I visited the observatory, which is operated by the University of California, last week…

Danny CopleySuper worms, clean-up crew of the future:

It may sound unbelievable, but a new breed of earthworms is helping to create a cleaner tomorrow. Professor Mark Hodson from the University of Reading works to understand the ‘biogeochemistry’ of soils and contaminated environments. His research into a disused lead mine led to a remarkable study. The research team found earthworms where no earthworms should live.

Rachel NuwerHeartland Pulls Billboard on Global Warming:

Drivers moving along Chicago’s inbound Eisenhower Expressway on Friday may have been surprised to see Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, staring at them from a massive billboard. “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” the billboard read in large maroon letters. Just below was the Web address www.heartland.org.

Nadia DrakeAncient scribes may have banked on blinking binary:

The blinking of a distant star may be chronicled in an ancient Egyptian calendar created more than 3,000 years ago to distinguish lucky days from unlucky ones.

Known today as the Demon Star, the three-star system Algol sparkles in the constellation Perseus, near the eye of Medusa’s severed head. Observers on Earth can see Algol twinkling when the two closest members of the system eclipse one another: Every 2.867 days, as the dimmer star crosses between Earth and the brighter star, the Demon Star’s light appears snuffed…

Hannah KrakauerBringing Up Baboon:

Acting nonchalant in front of a baboon is not an art many scientists have to contemplate while going about their jobs. Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist cum primatologist and long-time professor at Stanford, is faced with that very challenge on most days that he spends in the field with his tribe of baboons in Kenya. Sapolsky took over twelve years to assemble and write the stories that makes up A Primate’s Memoir, and what results is a riveting account of the decidedly unusual setting in which Sapolsky’s science takes place.

Jonathan Chang and Allison T. McCannYour mission (should you choose to accept it): A different type of science fair:

Science Olympiad is just like it sounds like. Schools all across the country compete in a wide range of events, from basic biology and chemistry tests to more elaborate competitions that involve bridges, trebuchets, and homemade helicopters. One event that stands out is Mission Possible. It’s equal parts mad scientist and budding engineer as each team submits a Rube Goldberg machine to the judge and goes for the gold. Scienceline reporters got the inside scoop after visiting Candlewood Middle School on Long Island, New York, on March 17, 2012.

Harriet BaileyGetting under the skin: Inside Out Animals:

Combining two of my favourite things – dissection and enigmatic German accents – the Natural History Museum’s latest exhibition exposes the nuts, bolts, strings and threads that hold us together.

Douglas MainReef Sharks and Humans Don’t Mix:

Sharks may have more reason to fear people than ever. In reefs surrounding Pacific islands inhabited by people, there are 90 to 97 percent fewer sharks than in similar areas without people, according to a study in the journal Conservation Biology.

Helen ShenDrink at your own perceived risk:

How dangerous is unpasteurized milk? Many health-conscious consumers want to know. The answer depends on how you look at the numbers.

In March, CDC scientists published a study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that tried to quantify this risk by analyzing milk-related disease outbreaks from 1993 to 2006….

Kate PrengamanJournalist Ethics in the Age of Denial:

Are journalists under siege in a castle? During a panel discussion at the Science Writing in the Age of Denial here in Madison the past few days, I attended a workshop that discusses the role of ethics in journalism’s new media environment. I feel so fortunate that I was able to participate in this conference, and my brain is still spinning from all of the fascinating presentations and conversations. I wrote up a summary of this workshop session for the conference’s blog.

Kate YandellSolving the genomic jigsaw puzzle: The price of DNA sequencing has fallen precipitously. But at what cost?:

A few years ago, Erich Jarvis decided it was time to sequence the genome of his parrots. Jarvis is a neuroscientist at Duke University who studies why songbirds and humans can learn vocal patterns, while most animals cannot. Jarvis hoped to compare the genetic code of vocal learners and non-learners to understand whether the genes and gene expression patterns that allow us to talk are the same as the ones that allow Polly to ask for a cracker.

Daisy YuhasA Rose Is a Rose, Until It Isn’t: 5 Reasons Plant DNA Is Totally Crazy:

You may not give your houseplants enough credit. What looks like an innocent philodendron gathering dust may actually be a riddle wrapped in a mystery shrouded in potting soil…at least genetically.

Turns out plants have some interesting genetic quirks that keep geneticists guessing. As challenges in finding gene-sequencing shortcuts, called barcodes, have made clear, deciphering plant genetics can be very tricky. Here’s a roundup of five reasons plant DNA is totally confusing and totally fascinating to those who study it…

Erin PodolakScience For Six-Year-Olds: Groundwater in Africa:

Hello First Graders! I heard that you are participating in a fundraiser for P&G Children’s Safe Drinking Water campaign. This is a great project, because having access to clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing is necessary to stay healthy. This campaign supplies water purification packets to communities that don’t have a way to access clean water. In addition to drinking and cleaning access to water is also important to take care of crops because it helps provide food and money for people to live off of and support their families…

Harriet BaileyNew GM wheat goes on trial amid tight security:

A genetically modified (GM) wheat that wards off pests with natural chemicals has moved into field trials in Hertfordshire this week. The crop will be the third GM field trial in the UK and has prompted enhanced security of the site.

Jessica GrossMeet the Mind: The Man Who Discovered Flow:

You toe the outline of the court with your left foot, racket in one hand, ball in the other. Toss up. Swing back, up, over; shift weight back, then front—pop. Contact. Racket meets ball, ball flies over net, opponent misses, you score.

It’s you, court, racket, ball, opponent; nothing else exists. Or maybe it’s you and the pages of a book; you and a set of knitting needles; you and a freshly planted garden; you and the screen you’re filling with computer code. The feeling—a state of fluid focus, total absorption, fulfillment, unawareness of time—can happen with almost any activity. It’s what some call being “in the zone.” It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has been studying it for decades, calls “flow.”

Rachel NuwerLights Out for Research Satellites?:

Earth-observing systems operated by the United States have entered a steep decline, imperiling the nation’s monitoring of weather, natural disasters and climate change, a report from the National Research Council warned on Wednesday.

Beth Marie MoleWhat zombie snails and teenage mutant frogs tell us about ecosystems:

The first mutant frog the kids found probably seemed like a sad fluke. The poor Northern Leopard Frog had one normal hind leg and one frail, fleshless one. But, then the class, which was out on a nature walk in 1995, found another misshapen frog—this one with only one leg—then limped another, and another. Half of the frogs in the southern Minnesota pond were mutants….

Hannah WatersFrom Squeaks to Song:

Dustin Penn eats, sleeps, and breathes sexual attraction. An evolutionary biologist at Vienna’s University of Veterinary Medicine, he studies the intricacies of courtship, focusing on those biochemical signals that help animals choose their mates. He’s studied them in songbirds, zebrafish, and humans—but his species of choice is the house mouse, Mus musculus.

Surrounded by cages in his lab, Penn has spent years hearing mice unmelodically squeak and chirp in the background as he worked to understand how they use smell to identify their mates. So when he first learned that male mice vocalize in the presence of females—singing, out of the range of human hearing, true songs that transcend the randomness of squeaks—he nearly flipped his lid.

Susan E. MatthewsAn exploration of multicolored yawns: Do we vomit less as we age?:

So, I was going to write something about HBO’s Girls, and how disappointed every parent whose children are in their 20s have just realized they ought to be with our self-absorbed generation. But instead, in the spirit of Girls, I’d simply like to talk about myself.

This week, I came down with a terrible stomach bug….

Emily EgglestonAcid Rain 101:

As raindrops hit my face on this morning’s bike ride, the refreshing effect outweighed the annoyance of being slightly damp when I dismounted. Rain symbolizes renewal for me, the cleanse and growth of springtime.

Today, my American environmental history reminded me that polluted rain can bring destruction rather than renewal. In 1979, precipitation fell on Wheeling, West Virginia that was more acidic than lemon juice or even gastric acid. Those terrifying drops had a pH of 1.5, the lowest ever recorded in the U.S…

Lena GroegerFour Medical Implants That Escaped FDA Scrutiny:

Medical devices sustain and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans. But as the over $100 billion-a-year industry pushes thousands of devices to market every year, reports of faulty devices, repeat surgeries, and recalls have increased. The FDA and the industry maintain that a speedy approval process gives patients faster access to life-saving devices. But critics say that unlike drugs, a substantial number of risky devices are cleared without clinical testing, and receive almost no oversight once on the market.

Jordan GainesScience: why I do it AND write it:

A random sample of Americans was polled a few years ago. The purpose of this poll was to gauge our population’s knowledge and beliefs on human life and evolution. Religious beliefs aside, this statement particularly stood out to me:

“There’s no such thing as a genetic defect. All genetic changes result from the decisions of a God or Intelligent Force.”

A quarter of Americans believed that this is true. This absolutely floors me.

Rose EvelethGenes Link Touch and Hearing:

Sound and touch may seem completely separate, except possibly when playing the game Operation. But it turns out that the two senses are actually quite entwined: a new study finds that people with hearing issues often also have problems with touch…

Nadia DrakeA result of zero doesn’t always mean zero results :

Forlorn graduate students sometimes turn to a publication called The Journal of Negative Results.* In graduate student mythology, it’s the repository for toiled-over experiments that produced nothing — no effects, no detections, no differences, nothing.

(*This actually does exist for specific disciplines. But it’s not really the salvation most grad students wish for.)

But: a) that’s how science works, and b) negative results can still pack a punch.

Last week, two astrophysical negative results appeared in high-profile journals.In Nature, the IceCube collaboration (including then-graduate student Nathan Whitehorn) describes missing neutrinos — a paucity of particles that’s problematic for theorists suggesting that gamma-ray bursts generate ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.





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