Smilodon bringing down MegatheriumSabre-toothed cats had weak bites – a new comparison of Smilodon‘s skull with a modern lion’s shows that the cat probably didn’t run up and bite its prey with those teeth. Probably it brought prey down with a full-body tackle (it had extra strong claws) and then used the famous teeth to make the kill once it had the animal pinned. At least, that’s the latest theory.

Velociraptor’s ‘killing’ claws were for climbing – I’m just ruining all the prehistoric artists’ conceptions today, aren’t I? Analyses of velociraptor claws shows they weren’t sharp enough to disembowel prey, but were strong enough to hold the dinosaur’s weight as it climbed trees.

Kids, even babies, judge others based on skin color – and we exacerbate the problem by keeping the subject taboo. The author writes of his own son: “Katz’s work helped me to realize that Luke was never actually colorblind. He didn’t talk about race in his first five years because our silence had unwittingly communicated that race was something he could not ask about. … we started to overhear one of his white friends talking about the color of their skin. They still didn’t know what to call their skin, so they used the phrase ‘skin like ours.’ And this notion of ours versus theirs started to take on a meaning of its own.”

Swine flu vaccine: Too little, too late (SciAm article, first half available online) – When you’re trying to make enough flu vaccine, boosting production with new methods and adjuvants is at odds with safety and testing (and the potential for lawsuits). The author seems to think litigation is the problem; but if people are suing because they’ve been harmed by the vaccine, wouldn’t it be more correct to say safety is the problem? Deciding how much risk is appropriate is a tough question.

Jell-O shots in adolescence lead to gambling later in life – When you want to study alcohol and risky behavior in rats, do it right! Yes, they really fed the rats jell-o shots, and taught them to gamble.


You little bastard, you've killed us all (pic of toddler licking a pig)A single dose of H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine may be enough, something of a surprise because initial reports from the CDC said it might have to be a two-shot vaccine. That means twice as many people can be vaccinated with the available doses. There was a swine flu shot available in 1976, and people vaccinated or exposed back then (or in 1918!) seem to be protected against this year’s strain. Seasonal flu immunity somehow “primes” H1N1 immunity even though the seasonal flu shot doesn’t, by itself, confer full immunity to H1N1. Bottom line: get a seasonal flu shot (available now) and a single dose of H1N1 vaccine (available in October).

Placebos are getting more effective. If your new drug doesn’t perform any better than a sugar pill, does that mean it’s useless? Some already-approved drugs perform just as badly, even though they stacked up well against placebos when they were first tested. Meanwhile, placebos are useful for more than just testing: “The fact that even dummy capsules can kick-start the body’s recovery engine became a problem for drug developers to overcome, rather than a phenomenon that could guide doctors toward a better understanding of the healing process and how to drive it most effectively.” How do placebos work, anyway? Can you get around anti-doping rules by giving an athlete fake steroids? Can you even really compare today’s Prozac trial results to the originals, given our changing understanding of depression? Good questions in this article from Wired.

Skim milk isn’t automatically better than full-fat, something I’ve been trying to tell people for years. “‘Probably most people who think of themselves as nutrition-savvy would be astonished to learn that evidence of whole milk’s being a ticket to an early grave is conspicuous by its absence,’ says food historian Anne Mendelson in Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages.” Also notable is the type of fat in milk from pastured (grass-fed) cows – more omega-3’s and less of the supposedly “bad” fats.

Will my son be born late, like I was? OK, so this isn’t a national news item but rather something of personal interest. I was two weeks late myself. A study of 77,000 Norwegians found that “Gestational age of the child at birth increased on average 0.58 days for each additional week in the father’s gestational age (95% confidence interval 0.48-0.67) and 1.22 days for each additional week in the mother’s gestational age (1.21-1.32).” Meanwhile a Danish study suggests that gestation length is 23-30% genetic (but they didn’t find a paternal component).

Midnight snacks pack on the pounds. The research, done in rats and involving high-fat foods, isn’t exactly ready for sweeping extrapolation. But I liked the article for this quote specifically: “‘How or why a person gains weight is very complicated, but it clearly is not just calories in and calories out,’ says Fred Turek, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University and director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology.” (Contrary to popular belief, people are not bunsen burners.)

Brain differences between men and women aren’t necessarily hard-wired – finally, somebody making sense on this subject. A team at the U of Iowa found that the Straight Gyrus (SG) of the brain is larger in women and seems to correlate with interpersonal skills. But! They also compared SG size to a test of gender, in the personality sense – are you very masculine or very feminine? – and found it correlated better with gender than with biological sex. They also found that the relationship was reversed in children – boys had the larger SG. So do women have naturally better social skills or is that a skill they develop over time, resulting in brain changes? For once, somebody isn’t willing to jump to a conclusion.

(The writer of this article, Lise Eliot, has written a book on how differences between boys’ and girls’ brains are shaped by culture: “Boys are not, in fact, ‘better at math’ but at certain kinds of spatial reasoning. Girls are not naturally more empathetic; they’re allowed to express their feelings. By appreciating how sex differences emerge—rather than assuming them to be fixed biological facts—we can help all children reach their fullest potential.”)

People 32,000 years ago may have spun flax into twine (this is the same stuff as the fabric linen). We don’t know what the threads were used for, but speculation is rampant – clothing to keep warm? Rope to tie sharp things to sticks and make weapons? Or, um, nothing? “It’s possible individual flax fibers blew into the ancient cave, got buried and then became twisted during microscopic analyses,” says Harvard archaeologist Irene Good, who isn’t impressed with these fibers but told Science News that people probably did make some kind of textiles around that era. Ancient pottery (around 26,000 years ago) sometimes includes imprints of nets and ropes.

Late Blight’s genome published – the fungus that is wiping out tomato crops across the Northeast US this year (and that caused the Irish potato famine way back when) may owe its success to highly variable effector genes buried in its “junk” DNA. (“Junk” DNA is never junk, people. We just don’t always know what it does.)

Brown spots in bananas glow blue in UV light. The color change, from degrading chlorophyll, probably attracts insects (lots of animals can see in UV) but is also interesting to scientists as a marker of cell death.

How long food keeps in the fridge – a chart from the new FoodSafety.Gov website. Marion Nestle says, “If we can’t have a single food agency, we can at least have a single food safety site. Now if Congress would just pass some decent food safety laws…”

I’m going to try to make this a recurring thing. Five things I thought were interesting this week:

Factory-farming frogs is now possible (sort of) but still seems like a bad idea. “Just over half the marsh frogs survived three years of intensive farming, whereas only 5 to 8 per cent of the pool and edible frogs did.” Doesn’t sound very humane to me. The upside is supposed to be protecting wild frog populations in Asia from overharvesting. But is this really a good solution? One expert says: “it may be better to simply harvest frogs sustainably in the wild rather than building elaborate, energy-intensive farms that rely on fish meal.” To quote another: “I hear frogs’ legs taste like chicken. Eat that and leave the frogs alone.”

But Genetically “pain-free” animals would make abusive farming practices ethically OK! “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering,” says a philosopher who published a paper on the subject this week. This ignores the idea that physical pain is the only kind of suffering that matters. Let me tell you, if I had to live in a battery cage, I would be pretty miserable with or without my Nav1.7 gene.

Lefties may have been rare in Victorian England. While currently 11% of British people are left-handed, only 3% of Victorians waved at movie cameras with their left hand. (The modern control was a Google images search of people waving.) In the Victorian clips, older folks were slightly more likely to wave with the left hand, so the researchers concluded that lefties were a dying breed that, later, bounced back.

Female fruit flies prefer to keep sex short. This is surprising (to the researchers) because male flies have pinchers and other nasty ways of supposedly keeping the females from getting away. It seems all kinds of sex research includes the assumption that the males are in charge and females are passive – and that assumption always breaks down as soon as researchers start looking into it. Best quote, about the methodology: “The team propped up the dead [female] insects—Weekend at Bernie’s-style—to convince the males that they were still alive and ready for sex.” (They mated longer with dead females than with ones that could get away.)

The Manahatta Project aims to reconstruct what the island looked like before it became the heart of New York City. National Geographic reports that Eric Sanderson, an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, compared old maps and modern GPS readings to reconstruct what the island was like in 1609. (Although the article doesn’t mention, the actual click-and-zoom map includes Lenape settlements and their likely uses of land. It’s not like the place was unsettled.)

Bonus links! Improve your life with science!

navigating - photo by Somewhat Frank on FlickrA new book asks the question, Why do we get lost? I think the more interesting question is, how do we know where we are?

When I was growing up in Munhall I remember being so confused about the layout of the neighborhood that I gave up trying to make sense of it. If I turned left out of my driveway, I could take a certain route through a certain part of town and end up at school. But if I went down my street the complete opposite direction, and passed through a different part of town, I’d end up at the same place.

(Years later, I found out why: my street was shaped like a squiggly horseshoe. When I walked my dog around the block, the block was not square or triangular but rather shaped like an “S”. No wonder I was confused.)

my neighborhood

But even without a mental map, I got around just fine by recognizing landmarks and street names. Now, several groups of scientists are suggesting that humans navigate by landmarks, while other animals use geometry.

Hamsters, toads, and spiders can all navigate like homing pigeons: take the critter away from home by any route you please, and she’ll fly, or crawl, straight back. According to Jack Loomis at UC Santa Barbara, people do badly on a simplified version of this test; and William Warren at Brown found that people could navigate by landmarks through a maze that, geometrically, couldn’t possibly exist. (The maze was a virtual world with invisible “wormholes”).

But are we really so bad at geometric navigation? A recent study looked at the question of whether people who are lost end up walking in circles. The answer: only if they are blindfolded or have no other cues. Test subjects walking around the Sahara, with only shadows from the sun for guidance, did a decent job of walking in a straight line – even though the sun moved during their long hike.

direction - photo by Kulbowski on FlickrMeanwhile, blindfolded people, asked to walk through a field, wandered wildly but didn’t always prefer circular directions. (You wouldn’t know it, though, from all the headlines of “We really do walk in circles.” Only sometimes! Not even most of us!) The authors figured that “sensory noise” – basically, errors in where we think our body is – accounts for the wiggly path.

But some people are bad at navigating even by landmarks. Giuseppe Iaria and Jason Barton, are studying what happens in the brains of people who have a broken sense of direction. You can take their tests at the catchily named (which, um, I had trouble finding again after my first visit).

The series of tests takes about an hour, but it’s interesting to see what they think a sense of direction is made of. (They especially encourage people who have trouble navigating to take the tests.) The tasks include recognizing objects from different angles, recognizing faces (people with face blindness, called prosopagnosia, often have trouble navigating), recognizing landmarks after you’ve seen them in situ, and a variety of sleep-inducing walks through an almost featureless landscape, reminiscent of an empty Doom set, or a prison yard, where you’re asked whether you were led along two identical or different routes. In the most tedious test, the prison yard gets a couple of storefronts, and you’re asked to repeatedly locate them on a map. Despite my childhood difficulties, I did pretty well on the tests. It seems that landmark-based navigation works pretty well after all.

little red riding hood and the wolfRelated to my earlier post about science jargon, this week I came across a discussion of just what a science writer’s job is when faced with such jargon. Explain it, or replace it with plainer but less precise language?

(The discussion was on an NASW mailing list, and let me tell you, these lists can be hilarious. Once a flamewar broke out, inspiring after several weeks the suggestion that perhaps people should be somewhat polite to each other on the list. That message started a barrage of emails from various participants about how we like flamewars, and if we can’t insult each other while making ridiculous arguments, what is the point of a mailing list? And then there’s the guy who regularly writes about how metric is the inferior measuring system because “base 12 arithmetic” is more in tune with the laws of nature, but I digress.)

One writer claimed that:

When “proper jargon” and “plain English” don’t mean the same, then “proper jargon” ought to be used.

…and that the writer should explain exactly what the jargon means, bringing the reader up to speed, so that the rest of the piece can be written with the specialized terms.

(One reply led to another, with each side accusing the other of protecting scientists’ egos at the expense of journalists’ and vice-versa. Each side also blamed the other for the scientific illiteracy of the populace at large. These lists give me endless amounts of entertainment.)

I find it lots of fun to explain concepts, but I’m a writer trying to tell a specific story, not a tutor helping a student cram for a test.

What if somebody is telling you the story of Little Red Riding Hood and you don’t know what a wolf is? Should the storyteller really have to tell you all about wolves? How much information do you need?

While an aside about Canis lupus could be fun[*], a simple explanation would suffice to get on with the story – “The wolf is somebody who wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood.” That wouldn’t tell you much about wolves, but would give you 100% of the what you need to understand the story.

Remember what I said last time about jargon being, to a specialist, shorthand for “all the things I’ve ever learned about this word”? A paragraph or two defining QTLs will not make the term as significant to the reader as it is to a researcher who has spent years learning about and working with them.

And so if I’m writing a story that involves QTLs, I might leave off the term entirely and say that “such-and-such disease is caused by many genes. This research team has identified one of them and is hot on the trail of another.” That tells you what you need to know about the disease, its basis, and the progress the research team is making – and now I don’t have to try to make the reader understand the subtle difference between a QTL and a gene.

Of course, I’m relying on previous writers to have explained the concept of a “gene” well enough that the reader already knows what one is.

In many cases, the jargon is an artifact of the current technology that’s in use and our tentative understanding of the subject. Genes are forever. Particular techniques for genetic mapping, not so much.

When deciding whether to explain a term or gloss over it, I consider both factors: Is it important to this story? And will it be important to the reader? (When you put it that way, it sounds so obvious!)

[*] I really liked the random educational chapters in Moby Dick, but it seems I’m in the minority.

gesture photoScientific American: With a wave of the hand: how using gestures can make you smarter – New research shows that students who make a certain gesture while solving a certain type of math problem do better when tested. One hypothesis: the gesture (incorrectly described as a “V” shape in the SciAm article) somehow teaches the concept of combining two numbers. My take: it sounds more like associating the concept with a gesture gives you an anchor to remember the concept. Like the parking garages that use a different color of signage on each floor, or the old-fashioned concept of tying a string around your finger.

The paper itself (free!) says that speaking a mantra didn’t do as well as the gesture (the gesture and mantra together worked very slightly better than the gesture alone). Both worked OK for the immediate post-test, but the gesturers did better on a follow-up test. The authors say that “These findings suggest that using the body to represent ideas may be especially helpful in constructing and retaining new knowledge.”

I wonder whether the gesture may have also helped children who learn well with spatial or visual mnemonics. The gesture involved sliding your left hand under the left side of the equation and your right hand under the right side of the equation. To me that would say this side has to be like that side, in a way that would stick, for me, better than the equivalent spoken mantra: “I want to make one side equal to the other side”.

Here are the authors’ thoughts on how gesture might help memory:

One possibility is that gesture offers a representational format that requires relatively little effort to produce, thereby freeing resources that can then be used to encode new information in a more lasting format. Indeed, expressing information in speech and gesture has been shown to place less demand on working memory than expressing the same information in speech alone … Another possibility is that gesturing directly facilitates encoding in long-term memory. Expressing information in gesture may produce stronger and more robust memory traces than expressing information in speech because of the larger motor movements involved or because of the potential for action-based, bodily encoding. Indeed, when speakers are asked to use their hands to act out an event conveyed in a sentence, their memory for the event is better than if they merely read the sentence or translate it into another spoken language. … Similarly, children understand stories better when they enact the story with objects or imagine enacting the story with objects than when they read the story twice … and actors recall the lines they produce while moving better than the lines they produce while standing still.

Gesture may also affect learning by engaging the external environment. Gestures, particularly pointing gestures that indicate objects and locations in the world, may make it easier for learners to link developing mental representations to relevant parts of the external environment. This type of grounding could then decrease errors in encoding and lighten processing demands … while at the same time facilitating new insights into the problem.

photo of scribbled edits on science writing Scientists aren’t actually bad at writing. No, I’m not trying to put myself out of a job – they still need me! 🙂 But the more impenetrable scientist-ese I read, the better I understand that what looks like gibberish to outsiders is not a symptom of bad communication – specialized, maybe, but not ineffective.

I remember the first few times as a student I was able to read a scientific paper and explain to someone else, with analogies and simple language, just what it was actually saying; this, I thought, must be a useful skill. Because the article I was translating sure wasn’t readable on its own.

In a sense, that’s what my job is now; but it’s actually easier than that. I don’t have to sit around with a jargon-filled paper in one hand and a medical dictionary in the other, because the first step in an assignment is to call up the person who did the research, and have a quasi-normal, human-to-human conversation about their work. While it’s important to be able to read their papers so you have smart questions to ask, that’s only one part of the job. (“Duh, what was that paper about?” would work about as well in an interview as in my mandatory journal club class in grad school: not at all)

Some scientists are better than others at this sort of plain conversation. Generally, anybody who has run their own lab for decades has explained their work to countless funders, conference attendees, and prospective students. Those who are earlier in their career, or do less cross-discipline work, seem to be the hardest to talk to. They’ve learned how to communicate with colleagues in their field, but haven’t figured out yet how to get others interested in their work.

I’ve often heard people – some of them scientists, some of them readers who are baffled by scientific papers – claim that scientists are bad at writing or bad at communicating. That’s rarely true. The issue is that communicating with scientists in your field, and communicating with people who aren’t, are two very different skills.

Scientists are taught to speak with precision. Like when I took my first serious biology class in college – for the first time, our lab reports were expected to read like scientific papers. We were to speak precisely: say, not about the enzyme “doing” something, but about what the effects of such-and-such were in terms of Michaelis-Menten kinetics. Work in the multisyllabic buzzwords from class, we learned, because those are the words that actually mean something.

Those big words aren’t “sloppy thinking” or “bad writing”; in fact, each one calls to mind – for the right audience – whole areas of scientific discipline. Hepatobiliary disease? Oh yeah, the reader might say, I remember that whole course I took in hepatobiliary disease. It triggers memories that a simpler synonym (liver disease) may not. Are you developing efficacious treatments for a disease? That brings to mind the medical concept of efficacy, which is a little different than saying that a treatment is “effective” (or “works good”).

Like any good buzzword, the point of most scientific jargon is to give a name to a large or complicated phenomenon. So it makes sense that scientist-ese doesn’t consist of patient explanations in small words; rather, it’s a string of multisyllabic buzzwords meant to shovel information past the reading scientist’s eyeballs. When those buzzwords have meaning to you, this makes for a very skimmable text.

The best examples of shoveling are in the introduction of scientific papers. The intro sets the stage for the research by quickly blowing by the initial problem, the state of research to date, and the reasons why anybody should care. If you’re in roughly the right field, all the buzzwords will be familiar to you and you can get on to reading the research. The situation is similar to a recipe, a knitting pattern full of abbreviations, computer program code, whatever – if you know what the abbreviated concepts are (“form this type of loop on your needle by moving the yarn like so…”) you can breeze right by the “K 30” line and get what you need out of the more interesting parts.

In fact, the really interesting parts of scientific papers, like the interesting parts of recipes or code or knitting patterns, tend to be written in plainer english – because that’s the part where you have to explain what’s going on.

dna stairsFor years, it’s been legal to patent genes. You find a gene, study it, and decide you don’t want anyone else to be allowed to “use” the gene besides you? Go ahead and patent it. It may be in the DNA of 6 billion people (or trillions of mice, or untold numbers of yeast cells) but in the eyes of the USPTO, it belongs to you.

Finally, this is being challenged! The ACLU is suing Myriad Genetics, the company that holds the patent on two human breast cancer genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“Knowledge about our own bodies and the ability to make decisions about our health care are some of our most personal and fundamental rights,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The government should not be granting private entities control over something as personal and basic to who we are as our genes.”

The lawsuit also challenges genetic patenting in general, noting that about 20 percent of all human genes are patented — including genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy and asthma.

You read that right: 20 percent.

While generally “products of nature” can’t be patented, genes are fair game if you isolate the gene and specify what it’s used for. It’s also possible to get a monopoly on things like genetic tests, so that nobody else can provide a test for BRCA1, say, without licensing the technology from the patenter.

If you’ve got a patent on something interesting or useful, you get to be the only one to commercialize it, or you can license it to others for whatever fee you like. This is the whole idea behind patents – it grants the inventor a monopoly on their invention so they don’t have to worry about somebody else stealing the idea (until the patent expires in 20 years). The goal is to encourage innovation: go ahead and put in lots of work on your project, and you’ll be the only one who can make money on it for the first 20 years.

This system, invented centuries ago, arguably works pretty well. One of the early patents granted in Italy was for a barge that could carry heavy marble blocks. When the USPTO was formed, early patents included improvements on steam engine technology and printing presses.

Today, patents are still granted for machines and devices, but also for software, pharmaceuticals and – the thing that brings me here today – genes.

dna playground

In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that a genetically modified bacterium was patentable, thus opening the door to patenting other biological material, like genes and even whole mutant mice.

Which leaves you, the reader out there with the BRCA1 gene (we all have it; some versions are linked to cancer and some aren’t), the possessor of a copy of someone else’s patented material. Myriad isolated the gene and showed what it’s used for, so now they own it – even though it’s in your body, and everyone else’s.

[Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and a patent law professor at Yeshiva University] offered an analogy to describe the plaintiffs’ argument, saying, “It’s like saying if someone removes your eyeball … just because you remove the eyeball and wash it off, that doesn’t make the eyeball patentable.

“Now if they create another eyeball out of plastic or metal, then you can patent that.”

The ACLU says that gene patents limit research and the free flow of information, and that the high cost of Myriad’s genetic tests ($3000) kept some patients from seeking testing that could have helped them. (Without a patent, other companies could have offered the test at lower cost.) The plaintiffs in the suit include patients and universities, genetic specialists, and medical associations. Here’s hoping they win.