Morsels For The Mind – 06/12/2013
Every day we provide you with #SixIncredibleThingsBeforeBreakfast to nibble away at. Here you can fill your brain with the most intellectually stimulating “amuse bouches” from the past week – a veritable smorgasbord for the cranium. They’re all here for you to load up your plate – this week’s “Morsels for the mind”. Enjoy!
If you do nothing else, make sure to check out the “Reads / views / listens of the week”.
Feather, fur & fin – birds, beasts, fishes, and the things they do
One of the high notes of the week in biology, was also a low note. A cool koala story, reported beautifully by several writers:
How low can you go? Koalas have a special organ that enables bass bellows. Ed Yong ’s take on the koala low notes.
“The sole purpose of this organ is to create an alluring one-two of burps & snores turned up to 11.” Henry Nicholls ’s take on the koala low notes.
No stomach for it. How being stomachless shaped the platypus genome – and that of many fish. Ed Yong reports on a beautiful example of comparative genomics. Amazing story. Read of the week.
Gutless wonders. Commonalities in the way that some fish & all monotremes deal with no stomach. Charles Choi takes a look.
No guts, no gory? Great intelligent take on viral, exploding whale video, by Joe Hanson .
Leader of the pack? Wolves more attentive to humans than dogs when observing food-finding cues. Companion Animal Psychology does another great job in explaining interesting canine behaviour research.
It's in their blood. Dog breeds have different haematological traits. Fascinating.
Racey garments. Racehorses could benefit from sports bras. Yes, really.
The mane event. For lions, pride gets in the way of becoming once & future king. Douglas Main explores some intereting animal behaviour.
Cool, for cats. A device to video chat with your animal companions. T.C. Nguyen on the latest technology.
Science takes flight. Things learned from 6 amazing birds.
“It’s in the best interests of turkey farmers to ensure the relative happiness of their turkeys.” Indeed. Jason Goldman carves out a great story.
Amazing aim. Archer fish biophysics. This is a simply brilliant piece by Aatish Bhatia. There’s so much to recommend about this piece – a genius mind at work, explaining things perfectly. Read of the week.
Head case. Solving the mystery of the seahorse's curious head. Cool find, reported by Liz Langley .
Everything's groovy. Grooves are the secret to octopus's sucker success. Katherine Harmon Courage brings on more cephalopod goodness.
“In some cases..biggest risk in cross-species friendships isn’t getting eaten. It’s emotional loss.” Thought-provoking post by Laurie Weegler .
Listen up. This is the sound of poachers repeatedly shooting one of the 96 elephants slaughtered every day. It must stop.
A bone to pick. Is legalising trade of endangered animal parts for TCM likely to help conservation? Nope.
A meaty matter. Humans are becoming more carnivorous & that's something to beef about. Hannah Hoag explains.
"Eating shark products won't cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball." Super quote from David Shiffman in great piece by Douglas Main on sharks getting cancer (they do).
Preying on plastic. Of fish eating synthetic polymers, & scientific blind luck. Great research blogging by Chelsea Rochman ,
Haters of the lost ark. I'm with Bug Girl: If someone fancied themselves a modern Noah, I'd call animal welfare.
“The effect was revolting & unforgettable to my young eyes.” Quote from a phenomenal piece by Ed Yong on a zombifying parasite. Genius, must read post. Read of the week.
Bugs’ life – insects and other things that creep, crawl and otherwise delight
Taking sides. Insects' remarkable sex positions.
The colour of money. Feed them pigments & silkworms make silk to dye for. Francie Diep shades in the details.
The world is full of astonishing things. This is one. Amazing photography of Nicky Bay. View of the week.
Fossil finds – organisms of times past – palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology, history and the like
A long wait. “Fig wasp” lived tens of millions years before figs. Intriguing.
Ironing out the tough spots? Might iron have preserved dinosaur macromolecules, like DNA? Hmm.
What's that? You'd like to see all the coverage of the whole ancient DNA, human evolution story? Well, here you go then...
It's complicated. Determining connections between ancient hominins is tricksy. That's not a bad thing, as John Hawks beautifully explains.
They got around. Denisovan DNA showing up in the darnedest of places. Gemma Tarlach ’s take on the ancient DNA story.
All in the family? Mystery hominin lineage suggested by 400k yr old DNA. Ewen Callaway ‘s take.
A bone to pick. DNA from human fossil raises questions about our evolution.
Beautiful botanicals – wonders of the photosynthesising world – that is, mainly plants
It's genes all the way down. Epigenetics & gene expression are important, but code runs the show. So say the clones.
Berry nice. Iridescent berries inspire fabrics that change colour when stretched. Amazing technology based on equally amazing biology, nicely reported by Laura Poppick.
Microscopic marvels – smaller than the eye can see, but big in action – bacteria, fungi and viruses
“At first, the manure was just harmlessly foaming. Only later on did things get lethal.” Sarah Zhang’s piece grabs you right from the first sentence.
Perfected partner. The making of a symbiotic fungus.
Electric company. Microbe uses neighbour's electricity to make methane.
Molecular machinery – the toils of the macromolecules of life – nucleic acids and proteins (and others) – from molecules to cells to organs to organisms (including genetics & genomics)
“The broader implications..could be paradigm shifting & unprecedented.” Quote from an amazing post by Virginia Hughes on inheritance of fear. Astonishing find, superb reporting. Read of the week.
This week, the evolution / genetics story of the week started with a beautifully written, provocative piece by David Dobbs entitled “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”, which took aim at Richard Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene” meme. This proved a somewhat controversial piece, generally hailed by non-experts, and generally panned by experts in the field of evolutionary biology and population genetics. The following links should allow you to piece together the story…
“Even as one animal becomes the other, as Jekyll becomes Hyde, its genome stays unchanged.” Quote by David Dobbs from a thought-provoking piece on the power of gene expression in evolution. Read of the week.
Everything in its place. Importance of qualitative genetics in understanding quantitative genetics, by PZ Myers . Read of the week.
David Dobbs & PZ Myers posts on population genetics are important reminders that phenotype is a product of genotype & environment & the interaction between the two. But it’s important also to remember that qualitative (Mendelian) genetics is not wrong, just incomplete / imperfect. Just as an emoticon is an imperfect / incomplete representation of a human face, so too is qualitative genetics an imperfect / incomplete representation of the role of genetics in traits. Both require greater detail & nuance, but both are useful representations of simple concepts that can be built upon to provide a fuller picture of what is. Other writers followed up along these lines. See some of the following links…
A Selfish Gene to rule them all, and in the interwebs bind them. A scientific exchange in three parts...(See trio of tweets that follow)
“There’s a reason it’s called ‘genetics,’ & not ‘expressionetics.’” Spot on quote from a superb piece by Razib Khan critiquing David_Dobbs's piece this week in Aeon Magazine. Read of the week.
Despite these critiques, David Dobbs has done a superb job of bringing genetics discourse to the fore this week, & has done so with exemplary tact, even-handedness, & diplomacy. An example of this can be found in his retort to criticisms that have been raised. All told, what he's accomplished has been an impressive feat. The best thing about David Dobbs's Selfish Gene piece is the discourse it has created about genetics. See threads involving David Dobbs and Emily Willingham, Graham Coop, Aylwyn Scally, or Karen James. That's where some of the gold lies.
The shape of things to come. Amazing advances in the field of structural biology, enthusiastically conveyed by Stephen Curry .
All in sequence? What might your genome sequence say to you, & about others? Excellent long read, with outstanding storytelling, by Virginia Hughes .
Earth, wind and fire – planet shaping – geology, meteorology, oceanography, the environment & climate
“The vast blue of our blue planet is so easy to forget when you live on land.” Quote from a wonderful piece by Helen Czerski about physics fieldwork at sea. Great read.
“A concrete & steel sarcophagus, a symbol of one of humankind’s most powerful tools gone awry.” Quote from a brilliant piece by Kyle Hill on what happens when nuclear energy is done wrong. Read of the week.
Round they go. Amazing ice disks in ponds.
Star attractions – the final frontier, space
Impetuous youth. Supernova's age makes for dramatic flare.
“To tackle the problem, Elvis adapted a tool used to study another cosmic puzzle: the Drake equation.” Quote by Jacob Aron, on something you never imagined Elvis would do - ID valuable asteroids.
Hot stuff. How to cook a comet.
Smooth operator. Explaining Titan's good complexion.
Forces of nature – big-ticket items – cosmology, mathematics, computation, chemistry, physics, ecology & evolution
A wrench in the works? Is our planet a broken machine that can be fixed? Superb, thought provoking piece by Annalee Newitz, where she uses plight of monarch butterfly to perfectly illustrate interconnectivity on our planet. I don't agree with eveything in Annalee Newitz's brilliant piece on “Earth is a machine”, but it's a must read. Read of the week.
"That which we call life is impossible without & inseparable from what we regard as inanimate." Quote from a wonderful musing by Ferris Jabr on the challenge of defining life. Read of the week.
Ghosts in the machine. Ghostly subatomic particles, neutrinos, observed using IceCube detector. Alok Jha reports.
Long distance voyagers. Neutrinos from beyond our solar system have been detected.
Dynamic droplet dance! Because physics.
Matters of mind – how we, and other animals, perceive our world and our place in it
Same old, same old. Attempt to support tired stereotypes with new data. Superb critique of the paper on the purported differences between male and females brains by Tom Stafford .
“Those are some pretty wiring diagrams...shame about the way they interpreted them.” Quote from Christian Jarrett's excellent critique of research on differences between female & male brains.
Inside job. To see sex differences in brain wiring, need to carefully analyse scans. Neuro Skeptic provides a good critique of the methods used in the study.
Facing facts. Does Jesus turn the other cheek because neuroscience? Fascinating hypothesis by Christian Jarrett .
Eating humble pie. We're not as smart, or as funny, as we think we are. Bummer. Tom Stafford sets us straight.
Behind the scenes – the workings of the museum – discovery and communication
Talk amongst yourselves. Academic bloggers seem mostly to blog for each other as research by Pat Thomson & Inger Mewburn shows.
Such great heights. Superb reflection on Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”, by David Deutsch.
“The work of raising awareness of & eliminating sexual harassment has not stopped.” Important discussion, by Kathleen Raven .
Fact in fiction. “Lab literature” highlights challenges of grad student - supervisor partnership. Steve Caplan talks about his own writing, and other examples of “lab lit”.
“Conservationists will have to jettison their idealised notions of nature, parks, & wilderness.” Quote from a thought-provoking piece by Robert Krulwich on the value of nature. Literally.
Up side of the down side. Why increased retractions are largely a positive thing. Super analysis.
“Endlessly interrogating my intellectual worth was akin to weighing myself 3 times a day...pointless.” Quote from a wonderful piece by Hope Jahren, on getting over the imposter syndrome in academia. Read of the week.
“Reporters & editors need each other, but this..relationship can sometimes be rocky.” Quote from a great piece by Matt Shipman, featuring Laura Helmuth & Jessica Morrison, on the business of science communication.
“Stick it on their wall or pass it round their labs, it probably wouldn't do any harm.” Quote from a great piece by Chris Tyler on what scientists should know about policy.
Glad tidings! You’re sure to enjoy Kate Whittington's seasonally festive, interactive, natural history sketchbook.