The Sciences

NERS Review of the year Part 11 - Silliness, hype, satire, journalism and YOUR Top Ten

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongDec 31, 2010 3:00 PM


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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. Beer makes humans more attractive to malarial mosquitoes

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”. How the cat that got the cream then drank it

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... Why does the gunslinger who draws first always get shot?

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. Squirrels masturbate to avoid sexually transmitted infections

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 Mono Lake bacteria build their DNA using arsenic (and no, this isn’t about aliens)

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. April Fool’sScientists discover gene and part of brain that make people gullible 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:

  1. A spider web that spans rivers made from the world’s toughest biological material

  2. Robins can literally see magnetic fields, but only if their vision is sharp

  3. Squirrels masturbate to avoid sexually transmitted infections

  4. Behold Leviathan: the sperm whale that killed other whales

  5. Mono Lake bacteria build their DNA using arsenic (and no, this isn’t about aliens)

  6. 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics

  7. The cultural genome: Google Books reveals traces of fame, censorship and changing languages

  8. Scientists discover gene and part of brain that make people gullible

  9. New Nicaraguan sign language shows how language affects thought

  10. 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.

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