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 and Nature because of the negative impact that they have on scientific culture.
Bacteroides fragilis — 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.