Twitter claims a 90 percent accuracy rate for the clever techniques it uses to learn the gender of any given user. Glenn Fleishman reports on the company’s disconcerting new analytics tools, the research behind them, and how large a pinch of salt they come with.
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One of the perks that comes with winning a Nobel: Access to the bully pulpit. In the last week, Peter Higgs (of boson fame) spoke out against the pressure to publish
— pressure that he thinks prevents younger scientists from taking the time to formulate really groundbreaking new ideas. Meanwhile, fellow 2013 winner Randy Schekman announced that he's boycotting brand-name journals like Science
because of the negative impact that they have on scientific culture
— one of the many "friendly" bacteria that live in our gut — seems to be capable of altering the behavior of mice
, according to a new study. In a mouse model for autism, exposure to Bacteroides fragilis
improved the mice's gastrointestinal function and, along the way, reduced some of their external behavioral symptoms
, including obsessive behaviors and anxiety.
There's a new paper out suggesting that ladies' brains are different from mens' (in ways that support Western stereotypes of gender behavior, natch). It's pretty flawed
and has been heavily critiqued
, but one critique surprised me — turns out, there's evidence that men tend to move more than women do when you put them in an MRI machine, something that could throw off any attempt to compare MRI data
between men and women.
Researchers taking a core sample of sediment beneath Cape Charles, Virginia, found something surprising sandwiched between the layers of mud and ooze. Locked inside a rocky layer 5000 feet down, they discovered water — water from the early Cretaceous period
An interesting study on female aggression points out the trouble with making declarations about inherent human nature based on speculation about sexual dynamics. New studies, including this one, are finding that women can be plenty competitive and aggressive
. At The New York Times
, John Tierney points out that old ideas about female passivity were based on "an evolutionary analysis of the reproductive odds in ancient polygynous societies in which some men were left single because dominant males had multiple wives".
We've talked here before about the Office of Planetary Protection
and efforts to make sure that we Earthlings don't contaminate the rest of the galaxy with our bacteria, viruses, and other assorted detritus. Now, some scientists are arguing that we've done this job too well
, effectively barring ourselves from exploring the parts of Mars that are most likely to be hospitable to life precisely because they could also be hospitable to tagalong life from Earth.
We know that stressful experiences can have negative biological repercussions — not just for the people who experience the stress, but also for their children. Now, there's some evidence that this transfer of stress effects might not just be due to a simple case of PTSD changing the way you raise/treat your kids. In a study that's inspired both deep skepticism and jaw-dropping awe
(both with good reason) scientists were able to train male mice to fear a specific smell — and then observe that same fear/stress response to the smell in the mice's children and grandchildren. This, despite the fact that the younger generations never had contact with their trained fathers. These results are crazy enough that you shouldn't take them as gospel. But they are hella interesting and will definitely lead to a lot more research as other scientists attempt to replicate them.
This seems like it has the potential to be pretty cool. Frontiers in Neuroscience for Young Minds
is a new scientific journal that will have kids — ages 8 to 18 — on the editorial review board. The goal: Mentor kids in the process of how science works while simultaneously engaging scientists with questions and comments by the people who are the subject of their research, questions they might not ever hear otherwise.
The journal Metalurgia International
recently published a paper entitled "Evaluation of Transformative Hermeneutic Heuristics for Processing Random Data". Though submitted by real researchers from the University of Belgrade, the paper was a hoax, an attempt to expose lax publishing standards. How
lax, you ask? Take a look at the paper
. The obvious trolling starts with the authors donning wigs and fake moustaches, continues into an abstract full of blithely meaningless jargon, and includes references to the work of revered academics such as Ron Jeremy, A.S. Hole, Borat Sagdiyev and, yes, Alan Sokal
. Retraction Watch has compiled some of the highlights
Far more people have cells that briefly behave in cancerous ways then ever actually develop cancer. Most of the time, those cancerous cells are destroyed before they can do any real damage, and scientists can see evidence of this by looking at echoes of past battles with the immune system. If you've had chicken pox, some of the immune cells that fought off that disease will stick around, ready to more-quickly mount a response against a repeat attack. The same seems to be true with certain kinds of cancers. Scientists found immune cells in healthy people that appear to be primed to attack leukemia
— leftover remnants of the body's previous, successful skirmishes.
LuAnne McNulty is an organic chemist. A few years ago, she developed severe asthma that's triggered by ... well ... organic chemistry. Not too long ago, that biological reaction would have put her out of a job. Today, she's able to conduct research (if not do it herself) and advise younger scientists with the help of really simple tech solutions
Psychology professor Jamil Zaki has a nice post explaining why the findings that come out of experimental psychology should not be taken as lessons to help you lead a better, happier, fuller life
. The short version: That data is about population averages, not individuals. The goal is to better understand how the human mind works — not to categorically explain what your mind is doing.
In a review of scientific research on the subject of handedness and intelligence, researchers found that neither lefties nor righties came out ahead. Instead, the people with the biggest boost in cognitive performance were the folks who weren't heavily wedded to a single hand. The more ambidextrous subjects were, the better they performed on tests of cognitive skills
Part of the problem with the Chelsea Manning situation is that it's spawned a lot of not-terribly-well-informed discussion about the roles and experiences of transgendered people in the military. There's a risk of this one big anecdote coming to represent the whole. Enter the Kinsey Institute — America's favorite source of sexuality science — which just got a grant to do actual research on the lives of transgender service members.
As part of an effort to understand the spread of a potentially deadly canine parasite, researchers at the University of Exeter put LEDs and glow-in-the-dark paint on 450 garden snails and proceeded to film them over the course of 72 hours.
The result is kind of gorgeous and mesmerizing, as tiny points of colored light meander in time lapse through the snails' natural habitat.
Besides the trippy display of gastropod activity, the researchers also learned interesting things: Like the fact that snails can cover as much as 82 feet in a day, and some snails save energy while traveling by using the slime trails left by others.
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Anthropologist Jennifer Raff offers this great guide, aimed at laypersons
, that will help you learn more from reading the scientific research papers you find online and prevent you from succumbing to common mistakes that often show up in Internet flame wars. Step 1: Don't rely on the abstract to tell you what's going on — read the introduction first, instead.
The Sacramento Bee is reporting on a complicated story about last-ditch treatments and the ethics of human experimentation.
Glioblastomas are incredibly deadly brain cancers that usually kill the people diagnosed with them within 15 months. Two neurosurgeons at UC Davis ran across anecdotal evidence suggesting that glioblastoma patients who accidentally picked up infections after surgery sometimes lived much longer — one of the surgeons claims that a patient he knew of survived another 20 years.
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"Things that correlate with autism" is basically an entire genre of scientific research, in and of itself, and nobody does a better job of breaking those studies down than Emily Willingham. Her latest piece is about a recent study that correlates induced labor at birth with autism diagnosis later in life
It would take a simple experiment to prove, once and for all, what causes "brain freeze". Unfortunately/fortunately the condition isn't particularly serious, so nobody has ever gotten a grant to perform that simple study
The family of Henrietta Lacks — a woman whose cervical cancer cells were harvested and used in scientific research for decades without her knowledge or consent — will now play a role in deciding who has access to the Lacks' cell genome data, and for what purposes. There are loopholes in the new system. For instance, the agreement only applies to scientists who receive National Institutes of Health funding. And the genome of the cells has been sequenced so many times, at this point, that anybody who wasn't NIH funded and didn't want to voluntarily abide by the agreement essentially wouldn't have to.
But it is a big step forward, both for the Lacks family (whose own genetic information is contained in those genome sequences) and for the idea that human genetic information belongs to the people it comes from — not to whoever happens to sequence it.
The happy selfie posted here features NIH director Francis Collins posing with some of Henrietta Lacks' descendants after the agreement was announced.
CTD units are incredibly important to ocean research, measuring three basic factors of sea water — conductivity, temperature, and depth. Almost every major research vessel has one. But the units are part of what ensures that it's expensive to get started doing ocean science. Each one can cost between $5000-$25,000. Now, a group of ocean scientists are trying to finance the design of an open-source CTD that could be built by anyone for less than $200. You can help fund their efforts at Rockethub.
Yesterday, Rob told you about the first public tasting of a burger that was grown in a laboratory
, from strips of flesh built up from muscle stem cells. I found a couple of great links today that build on that news. First: The secret ingredient in lab-grown meat
is fetal cow blood. (It's both a significant part of the high price of lab meat, and a reason why your vegan friend won't be eating lab meat anytime soon.) Also be sure to check out synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis' perspective
— she tones down some of the hype while making it clear why lab meat is still pretty impressive.
This week, scientists cloned a mouse
from cells found in a drop of mouse blood. That's different from other cloned mice, whose creation relied on more invasive sampling from the liver, bone marrow, and lymph nodes (read: the original animal was euthanized). Cloning mice is valuable for scientific research — it's handy to have your subjects be as alike one another as possible. Now, scientists have a way to do that without having to kill the original mouse.
The Genera Project was started last summer to create an easily-searchable catalog of peer-reviewed scientific studies
dealing with the risk, benefits, and safety analysis of genetically modified plants. The project isn't done yet — for instance, the "easily searchable" part isn't yet active and they aren't done cataloging the 600+ studies in the database. I thought it was worth pointing this resource out to you folks, though, especially because at least 126 of the studies currently in the database are free from questionable funding
— either from big corporations or blatantly anti-GMO activist groups. Definitely a project to keep an eye on.
Really, really intriguing piece at Nature News by Heidi Ledford. It's all about a class of patients called "exceptional responders" — aka, the people who got a benefit (sometimes a big one) from a medication or treatment that otherwise failed the clinical trial process
. When we do clinical trials, we're looking at group averages. We want to know whether a drug performed better than placebo when administered to lots of people. Sometimes, though, drugs that can't do that do seem to have a positive effect for a few lucky individuals. Now, scientists are trying to figure out why that is. What makes those people special? And how should this change the way we do research?
Here's an incredibly cool video showing the prow of a massive ice breaking ship as it plows through Antarctica's Ross Sea. The footage is sped up, to pack two months of travel into five minutes. But, unlike a lot of time-lapse videos, this one also has a really informative audio track, in which marine scientist Cassandra Brooks waxes poetic about the many different kinds of ice and explains why she and her team were out there, breaking through the stuff, to begin with.
Bonus: At the end, you get to see the absolute adorableness that is penguins on high-speed fast forward.
Via Deep Sea News
This morning, Marketplace Tech Report had a story on a new cellulose-based building material that could be made by genetically engineered bacteria — altered versions of the bacteria that naturally make stuff like kombucha. This tech sounds like it's got a long way to go from laboratory to the real world, but if they can perfect the process and make it large enough quantities, what you'd end up with a strong, inexpensive goop that could be used to build everything from medical dressings, to digital paper, to spaceships. Yes, you could theoretically use this stuff to make rocket casings, according to R. Malcolm Brown, Jr.
, a professor of cell biology at UT Austin. And if you can build a rocket from this stuff, you could also break the same material back down into an edible, high-fiber foodstuff.
It's drug week at Popular Science and Shaunacy Ferro would like you to know why doctors can't give you LSD — and why they maybe ought to be