Field of Science


Year-End Roundup: Your Favorite Stories

With the end of a year--and, depending how you're counting, the end of a decade--upon us, top-ten lists are everywhere. Top ten science insights of the aughts! "Top 10 Everything"! Since this inkfish can only count to eight, here are eight of inkfish's most-read stories from 2010. (And since playing favorites is for vertebrates, they are in no particular order.)

Reasons for Short People to Gloat
How relativity is affecting your toes differently from your nose, and why tall people live in the past.

What to Say to Climate Change Deniers
A toolkit.

Do-It-Yourself Linguistics
Study whatever English-language trends you're interested in, from irregular verbs to Nazis to plate tectonics.

Scientific drama concerning a poorly understood illness.

I Think I Can! (Do Physics)
College professors use a simple exercise to disarm stereotype threat and boost female students' grades.

Muscle Memories
Your muscles are eager to return to their former glory. How this affects you, cheating athletes, and annoying people in your gym.

Daring to Discuss
New York Times columnist John Tierney argues that women are inherently, just a little, don't get angry now, dumber at science. I disagree.

Elevate Your Performance!
Seriously creepy shoes.

Bees and Other Stocking Stuffers

Happy holidays! Inkfish found some exciting goodies in its many-tentacled stocking this year (thanks, tipsters!), including:

Toys for chimpanzees
While observing a chimpanzee community in Uganda for 14 years, researchers Sonya Kahlenberg and Richard Wrangham saw the animals use sticks in several different ways. They poked narrow sticks into holes to search for water or honey; they threatened other chimps with sticks, or used them for hitting or throwing. Perhaps most surprisingly, they saw some chimps carrying branches or chunks of bark in a way that suggested carrying a doll.

The behavior was seen most often in young female chimps. Because the chimps sometimes carried their sticks into their nests or played with them in a maternal way, the researchers think the stick-carrying behavior is really play-mothering. And since adults don't carry sticks, the young chimps in this community are learning the behavior from each other.

Coyote cops
The city of Chicago is perfectly aware that several dozen coyotes are roaming the parks and streets at night (even, in this video, trotting down the center of State Street, in the loop). In fact, the coyotes are out with the government's blessing. 

Cook County has put radio collars on more than 60 coyotes and allows them to run around Chicago without interference. This lets the Coyote Project gather data about how coyotes travel, while the animals themselves get to kill all the rats they want. And, um, only an occasional house cat.

Adorable pocket-sized scientists (with bonus bees!)
A group of 8- to 10-year-old students at Blackawton Primary School in the United Kingdom are probably the youngest researchers ever to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

Teacher Dave Strudwick and neuroscientist Beau Lotto led the kids in an awesome classroom study about bees. The students wanted to study whether bees could use spatial reasoning to solve a puzzle. So they presented the bees with different arrangements of colored circles, some holding sugar water, and concluded that the bees did learn which patterns were the best "flowers" to visit.

The students' paper was published in Biology Letters. It includes many samples of the students' own language, such as the confusing statement, "We then put the tube with the bees in it into the school's fridge (and made bee pie :))...No bees were harmed during this procedure," as well as the heartening conclusion that "Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before." 

Volcanoes made out of ice
Based on images and data from Cassini, a spacecraft orbiting Saturn, scientists think that Titan (one of Saturn's moons) has Earth-like volcanoes on its surface. Unlike Earth volcanoes, though, these volcanoes might spew ice. Take that, Eyjafjallajokull!

A new family member
Did you ever ask your parents for a baby sister or brother for Christmas? How about a new cousin? In Denisova Cave in Siberia, researchers found a 30,000-year-old finger bone. They managed to sequence its DNA, and concluded that it belonged to a previously unknown human relative. 

These ancient people, the "Denisovans," were more closely related to Neanderthals than to Homo sapiens. Though the Denisovans lived at the same time as modern humans, they're long extinct, along with Neanderthals and the "hobbit" people that may have lived on the island of Flores. We still don't know what became of our ancient cousins, leaving us the only hominids around. But a tiny bit of Denisovan DNA seems to persist in the genomes of Melanesians--a gift they didn't know they'd gotten.

Images:,, NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/University of Arizona

Do-It-Yourself Linguistics

You may have heard about a massive new database that Google has provided to academia. Happily, they've also shared their new toy with us armchair nerds. 

Over the past several years, Google and its university partners have been scanning every book they can get their hands on into the searchable Google Books resource. Despite the lawsuits, they've collected over 15 million books. Meanwhile, a team at Harvard led by researchers Jean-Baptise Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden has been digging through this immense trove of data and pulling out all kinds of gems.

For their first study, published last week by Science, the authors pared down the data set to only the most reliable books--excluding, for example, those with blurry scans or uncertain dates of publication. The resulting data set was 5 million books. By searching the database for words and phrases (n-grams), the researchers were able to track patterns and changes in the English language. You can read their whole study, and see all their graphs, at the link above (with a free registration). 

Among other findings, they showed how the number of English words has been steadily increasing...

When verbs with irregular forms were replaced with more regular words...

And how effectively the Nazis were able to erase Jewish artist Marc Chagall from public awareness.

Want to try it yourself? You can make your own word graphs with Google's n-gram tool. Here are a few things I've found:

While "men" vastly exceeded "women" until the 1980s, "boys" and "girls" have been better matched. The kids saw an increase in popularity in the mid-20th century, maybe when a lot of child-raising books were being written. But around the time "women" surpassed "men," "girls" also edged out "boys."

Genetics has been an increasingly popular way to explain our traits and tendencies over the past century. Before that, what did we have? Head bumps, for one thing.

Newly discovered scientific principles have a steep learning curve, then plateau once people have caught on. It remains to be seen where global warming will level off.

Luckily, we're not a generation that sits back and assumes that what happens on this planet is outside of our control.

Lost: One Solar Sail

Last week, Japan's Akatsuki probe, which was supposed to swing into orbit around Venus, missed the planet entirely and kept right on going into space. Japanese scientists may get another shot in six years, when the hapless probe loops back around the sun. 

Any NASA scientists who were secretly entertained by Akatsuki's accident will be feeling pretty embarrassed this week, since NASA has now lost one of its own expensive metal boxes: in this case, a very tiny probe called NanoSail-D that held exciting cargo.

NanoSail-D was, as often described, about the size of a loaf of bread. It was launched from another satellite called FASTSAT, short for Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite. (Really, guys? "Fast" is both part of the name and part of the acronym? As long as you're taking liberties, why not FASTASTSAT?) On December 6, NanoSail-6 seemed to successfully launch from the larger satellite. 

After three days in space, giving the miniature satellite time to get away from FASTSAT, NanoSail-D was supposed to deploy its fragile cargo: a square sail, 10 meters by 10 meters and made of a whisper-thin reflective polymer. It was a solar sail, designed to be powered by the sun. But on December 10, NASA acknowledged that they'd lost contact with the tiny satellite and its sail.

NASA isn't sure what happened--the sail may have gotten tangled as it tried to unfurl, or the satellite may have never launched from its parent satellite in the first place. Or (more mundanely) the satellite's battery may have died.

It's a disappointing development in a fascinating field. A solar sails is meant to be propelled only by photons from the sun. The energy of the photons hitting the big, ultra-light sail gives it momentum. The contribution of each photon is unimaginably slight. But because the sun is always sending out photons, the sail's acceleration is constant. According to the Planetary Society, another group working on solar sails, this means a solar sail could hypothetically reach 3700 kilometers per hour (2300 mph) after 12 days in space. This is the technology that might take us to Mars, or beyond.

Planetary Society Vice President Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) says: "We can sail by starlight. How cool is that?" Pretty cool--as long as we can keep track of our ships.

Image: NASA

Chocolate Sea Worms (a quiz)

Sharpen those digital pencils--it's quiz day!

1. The scientists who discovered this bizarre new species (above) swimming thousands of meters under the Pacific Ocean appropriately dubbed it the:
a) squiderpillar
b) squidworm
c) Worminator
d) tentipede

2. In one of these M&M-eating studies I am somehow never invited to take part in, researchers discovered that subjects ate fewer M&Ms after they:
a) saw pictures of insects
b) ate an insect
c) imagined being obese
d) imagined eating a bunch of M&Ms

3. Back in 2003, controversial "hobbit" bones were discovered on the island of Flores, leading some scientists to believe that a miniature hominid race once lived there. Researchers have now found evidence that these hobbit people (if they existed) lived alongside:
a) dinosaurs
b) regular-sized people
c) giant storks
d) miniature elephants

4. In a meta-analysis (a study of other studies), researchers found that a person's risk of death from several common cancers can be lowered by a daily dose of:
a) aspirin
b) fish oil
c) vitamin D
d) chocolate

5. In May, Japanese researchers launched a probe called Akatsuki toward Venus. Akatsuki was supposed to spend two years orbiting Venus and sending back data about its atmosphere and weather. On Monday, the probe:
a) crashed into the surface of Venus
b) was put out of commission by space debris
c) melted in the planet's intense heat
d) missed Venus entirely

Answers are in the comments. Image: Laurence Madin/WHOI.

Fruit Bats and Sexual Harrassment

In a sentence that almost certainly had never been uttered before, Irish professor Stephen Kinsella announced on his blog last spring, "As far as I'm aware, I started the #fruitbatgate tag on twitter."

Fruitbatgate, since you asked, has been a long and confusing drama involving University College Cork in Ireland, two professors, the internet, and a paper entitled "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time." The paper was pretty silly, if explicit, and won an Ig Nobel prize this year. What happened between the two professors was not so silly.

A female professor at UCC accused a male professor, Dylan Evans, of sexual harassment in the fall of 2009. According to Evans, all he was guilty of was "showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article [sic] to a colleague." He had visited his colleague's office and shared the paper with her, he says, "as part of an ongoing debate...about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behavior." Or, more likely, because he thought it was hilarious. According to his colleague, Evans had a history of inappropriate behavior toward her, including sexually charged conversation and unwanted touching and kissing. The way in which he presented her with this paper was not hilarious, and she filed a complaint with the school.

An investigation found Evans not guilty--sort of. Actually, they found that "the incident fell within the definition of sexual harassment," but that Evans "had no intention to offend," whatever kind of verdict that is. Still, the university's president assigned Evans to counseling and two years of monitoring.

Evans, outraged, took to the internet. He spread his story around and began a petition online that read, "We the undersigned demand that...UCC change its policy on harassment so that it cannot be used any longer to limit academic freedom and stifle debate." Almost 3900 people signed it. Evans brought his case to court. Meanwhile, confidential documents relating to the case had been leaked online, and everyone knew the name of the "flamboyant Italian-born nutritionist" who had filed the complaint. The university started a second disciplinary investigation into the leak (Evans denies responsibility), but it was too late for the female professor to regain her anonymity.

A few days ago, a High Court judge passed down a ruling on Evans's case against the school. The judge agreed with the finding that sexual harassment had taken place. However, he found that the school's sanctions against Evans were "grossly disproportionate," and overturned them. Evans, ignoring that first part, claimed victory.

And so did Science magazine. "Biologist Prevails in Case of 'Fruit Bat Fellatio' Harassment Allegations," their Science Insider blog crowed:
Dylan Evans is breathing a sigh of relief. The biologist...was required by the school to attend 2 years of counseling for reading aloud from a scientific paper about fruit bat fellatio. Evans challenged the ruling, and a judge has now ruled in favor of him.

I get that people enjoy writing headlines about this because they get to say "fellatio." And I agree that the idea of a professor being censured "for reading aloud" is ridiculous. What I don't get is the parade of academics and bloggers--and Science magazine--assuming that's what really happened. Something complicated went on between these two professors, and none of us knows what that was. Yet writers are eager to join in the jokes about the humorless prude who wants to stifle academic freedom, rather than trying to understand the whole story. And that's not very scientific.

NASA, You're Such a Tease.

When NASA announced that they were going to hold a press conference about "an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for extraterrestrial life," I was pretty excited--especially when I read that the details had been embargoed (that is, people at the journal publishing the paper weren't allowed to talk about it ahead of time). To make sure we got the hint, NASA reminded readers that "Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe."

What would the discovery be? The odds that SETI had finally received their alien phone call seemed slim. But maybe researchers had spotted solid evidence of alien bacteria on Saturn's moon Titan, or some other rock in the solar system. After all, there have been some tantalizing hints in that direction recently.

The press conference was schedule for 2:00 ET yesterday, but a few hours earlier, the story leaked all over the internet. According to Gizmodo (whose story has since been updated), astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon had discovered an exciting new bacteria species in a weird California lake. These bacteria, the story said, were not made of the same buildings blocks as the rest of Earth's life. While all other known life is made of six primary ingredients (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur), these bacteria used arsenic instead of phosphorus.

Phosphorus is part of the backbone of DNA. The discovery of a life form that built its DNA out of different molecules would indeed be huge. Was it evidence that life had arisen on Earth not once, but twice? Or, since NASA was promoting this as an astrobiology story, did they believe that the bacteria had traveled to Earth from a meteorite--evidence for alien life?

When NASA released its own story a few hours later, the message was slightly different.

What Wolfe-Simon found was a bacterial strain called GFAJ-1, a member of a common bacterial family. Since the bacteria live in a lake that contains a lot of arsenic, and arsenic atoms are very similar to phosphorus (this is why arsenic is usually poisonous--it gets into the bodily pathways where phosphorus is supposed to be), she wondered whether these bacteria would be able to safely use arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus.

She cultured the bacteria (grew them in a lab) using sediment from their home lake and increasingly strong concentrations of arsenic. Over many generations of bacteria, she gradually replaced all the phosphorus in their food with arsenic. And they lived! She found evidence that the bacteria had successfully incorporated arsenic into their proteins, and even into the backbone of their DNA.

No one has ever shown before that a life form can swap out one of its vital building blocks (though arsenic-eating bacteria aren't new). But is this the earth-shaking discovery the headlines are claiming?

Wolfe-Simon did not show, and doesn't claim to have shown, that any bacteria function this way naturally. She did not demonstrate that bacteria in the lake actually substitute arsenic for phosphorus. To get her own plates of bacteria to work this way, she gradually weaned them off phosphorus and added arsenic. As writer Ed Yong points out, she may have artificially selected for arsenic-eating bacteria--that is, forced their rapid evolution by killing off the non-arsenic-eaters in each generation. And since the arsenic-users grew in exponentially lower amounts than the phosphorus-users, it seems impossible that any of them could exist in nature. They'd immediately be outcompeted by their phosphorus-using neighbors.

The link to alien life is tenuous, at best. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" Wolfe-Simon says.

It's an interesting finding, but it's not about extraterrestrial life; it's about a quirky kind of bacteria created in a lab. It's too bad that NASA allowed the hype to drown out the reality.