Planetary overprotection: Have we made ourselves Mars' helicopter parents?

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. Read the rest

Epigenetics continues to be just freaking nuts

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. Read the rest

Journal of science about kids edited by kids

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. Read the rest

The Candy Hierarchy, 2013

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Serbian researchers troll academia

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. Read the rest

People who've never had leukemia show signs of immune battles that fought it off

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. Read the rest

How one chemist does her research, even though her lab makes her sick

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. Read the rest

Psychology research is not a self-help manual

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. Read the rest

Being ambidextrous could give you a cognitive advantage

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. Read the rest

Coming soon: More than one data point on the transgender experience in the military

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. Read the rest

Scientists host 3-day snail rave

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. Read the rest

How to: Read a scientific research paper and come away smarter

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. Read the rest

Neurosurgeons at UC Davis censured after trying out probiotic treatments on brain cancer patients

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. Read the rest

Things that correlate with autism

"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. Read the rest

What causes an ice cream headache?

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. Read the rest

A big win for consent, privacy, and genome data

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. Read the rest

Help ocean scientists build open-source research tools

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. Read the rest

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