This week’s picks includes the science of sand castles, the 95% of the universe that we invented, understanding the origins of life by recreating it and much much more (two pieces about viruses for instance—yes, microbio people, rejoice).

Victoria Charlton has a terrific piece in the equally terrific I, Science about businesses behind science institutions and academies. She dons the detective hat and goes digging into the more-than-questionable practices of Rio Tinto, for instance, the mining company which provides the “stuff” for London’s Olympics medals. Rio Tinto by the way has a partnership with Imperial College London, UK, amongst others.

Just Good Friends?

If opposites really do attract, then industry and academia must be made for one another. But should we be paying closer attention to the businesses that our best-loved institutions are getting into bed with? [...] Less inspiring, perhaps, is the source of those much-coveted metal discs. Rio Tinto, the mining company responsible for digging up the eight tonnes of gold, silver and copper needed for London’s Olympic medals, has a somewhat questionable environmental and human rights record and, much to LOCOG’s dismay, the irony of this partnership has not gone unnoticed. As it turns out, hiring a company with Rio’s reputation for this particular task may not have been the brightest idea.

Akshat Rathi is being productive at The Economist—and fun too. His latest blog post on Babbage, The Economist’s science and technology blog, is about sand castles and how science can make them taller... 20+ metres taller actually!

The physics of sand castles: Just add water

A DAY out on the beach would be incomplete without a sand castle. The mightier the castle, the better. But sand is next to useless as a building material. Without water it simply spreads out as wide as possible. So in search of a good recipe Daniel Bonn, a physicist at the University of Amsterdam, and colleagues have stumbled upon a formula for making the perfect sandy redoubt.

In a perhaps controversial piece, Nicola Guttridge in I, Science looks at new research which is challenging the “we come from Africa” phrase. Could it be can our ancestors originated from Asia instead?

Did Humans Emerge Out Of Asia?

The phrase ‘out of Africa’ has become synonymous with the concept of early primate – and by extension, human – evolution. However, recent research challenges this view, instead indicating that primates left Asia some tens of millions of years ago and colonised Africa, where they continued their evolution.

During the Lindau Meetings, Kelly Oakes (who blogs on Scientific American here) talked to Brian Schmidt, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, about his seminal work on the expansion of the universe and the 95% of the universe that we invented. Thankfully, she wrote a great blog post about their chat.

How most of the universe was lost

When Brian Schmidt got his PhD in astrophysics in 1993, he was one of less than a handful of people that year that graduated with a thesis on supernovae. Five years later, still working on exploding stars, he would be part of one of two teams that independently discovered that the universe was not only expanding, but that its expansion was accelerating.

Marissa Fessenden in Scientific American, writes about the possible natural immunity of some Peruvians against Rabies.

Bites from Vampire Bats Might Protect People against Rabies

Rabies, the disease that drives infected victims wild, is almost always fatal once it reaches the brain. A new finding from two remote communities in the Peruvian Amazon may reveal a chink in the virus's armor. Scientists have tested six native people there who have never received a vaccination yet appear to have developed natural antibodies to the virus. The researchers think that vampire bats, common in the region, bit the sleeping humans and passed along small amounts of the virus over time. The multiple, low-dose exposures gave each person’s immune system a chance to learn how to fight back.

Giant avalanches in one of Saturn’s moon = awesome! By Tanya Lewis in Wired Science.

Giant Ice Avalanches Found on Saturn’s Moon Iapetus

When planetary scientist Kelsi Singer studied images of Saturn’s icy moon Iapetus, she found something unexpected: huge ice avalanches. As far as moons go, Iapetus is as eccentric as they come. One half of the planet is light-colored and the other half is dark. It has 12-mile-high mountains — twice the height of Mount Everest. And a mountainous ridge bulges out at its equator, giving it the distinct appearance of a walnut.

As part of the “Beginnings” series, an NPG cross-network blogging festival, Eric Sawyer, Kyle Hill and Audrey Richard, all Scitable bloggers, had wonderful posts. Eric blogged about artificial life in our modern era of synthetic biology; Kyle dwelt into the paradigm shift the skeptical movement needs to embrace itself for; Audrey detailed the exciting history of viruses. (Full disclosure: I was involved in setting up this blogging series.)

Artificial Beginnings: Understanding the Origin of Life by Recreating It by Eric Sawyer

The Origin of Life on Earth was certainly, in retrospect, and from the human vantage point, the most fateful event in the history of the Universe. On a young, tepid Earth chemistry sprung into biology and set course on a four billion year journey that would eventually lead to us. However, all traces of the first, primitive organisms have vanished. They were outcompeted and devoured by their evolutionary descendents, leaving nothing to form fossils. Though we will never be able to set eyes on the first Earthlings, the first pioneers, we can understand what they must have been like through more subtle, indirect approaches. Comparative biochemistry across the whole of life takes us back quite a ways, though not to the first cells. The most recent common ancestor shared by all living organisms—bacteria, plants, animals, fungi, archaea, and unicellular eukaryotes like amoebae—was born long after the first cell ceased to exist. The only way we can truly understand what life must have been like in its earliest days is to create it ourselves.

Skepticism And The Second Enlightenment by Kyle Hill

The information age has brought along with it the perils of having a fallible mind. Pseudosciences, scams, hoaxes, frauds, and misinformation are the rather sinister undercurrent to this new information tide. To cope with this, a loosely concerted effort of scientists, critical thinkers and skeptics have taken up the charge of promoting good science in society. New findings in psychology and neuroscience are now illuminating our poor grasp of probability, risk, our fragile memories, and the factors that allow weird beliefs to endure. This "Second Enlightenment" brings with it a new wave of reason, a new beginning to scientific advocacy.

Once upon a time: The possible story of viruses by Audrey Richard

One thing that virologists agree on is that they do not agree with each other very much. Everything about viruses seems to be the subject of much controversy, from their taxonomy to the biosafety issues underlying their study to the definition of their very nature even. And their origin, of course, is no exception.

Happy weekend reading!