Archive: May 2013

Making a Killing: Which is the Most Humane Method of Execution?

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If, like me, you’re an avid reader of depressing news stories, then you may have come across several articles this week reporting on the recent decision by the government of Papua New Guinea to legalise the death penalty. Now I don’t want to get into a discussion on the morality of the decision itself (I have neither the word count nor the time), but it did get me thinking about the science of executions. Although it may sound obvious, just exactly how do the major forms of execution work, and which, if any, should be considered the most humane?… Hanging One of the oldest forms of execution, the principle behind hanging has remained unchanged for centuries. The favoured modern variation is termed the ‘long drop’ and was the method used to kill former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2006. Those planning the execution calculate the so-called ‘drop distance’ required to break the neck based on the height, weight and build …

Video: Woodland Wildlife

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Unpopular Science’s Jack Croxall and his chocolate Labrador Archie take a stroll around a springtime forest in search of woodland critters. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeuc4bOCIzI FYI The common toad can live for an astounding 40 years. For information on how you can help protect Britain’s amphibians, check out the Frog Life website. Check out Jack Croxall’s YouTube channel here or website here. Have you found any fascinating wildlife this spring? Let us know in the comments section below.

Popular Science

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It’s time for another top-5 countdown. And after spending my bank holiday-weekend vegetating in front of the TV, I thought it would be poignant to conduct a brief round up of the greatest fictional scientists ever to grace our screens. 5) Professor Frink: The Simpsons Glahaven! One of the most recognizable scientists of all time, Frink is a stalwart of the World’s most successful cartoon series. With his frantic gesticulations and bizarre utterances, he helps reaffirm the notion that scientists speak a language few can understand. An absent-minded parody, Frink is generally seen unleashing his new (and often ill-conceived) inventions on the rest of Springfield’s hapless inhabitants. From shrink rays to human clones, Frink has done it all. But whilst he seems perfectly at ease dabbling in all of science’s major disciplines, he is completely incapable of mixing with the ladies. 4) Dr Emmet ‘The Doc’ Brown: Back to the Future Great Scott! As one half of cinema’s best-loved time-travelling duo …

Victory Is Bitter Sweet

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They are often cited as the one creature likely to survive in the event of all out-nuclear war. But it seems that the lowly cockroach has now found a brand new way to survive. American scientists have discovered that a strain of European cockroach has managed to completely reorganize its sense of ‘taste’. Instead of being attracted to the ‘sweet’ glucose used in traps around the continent, these intrepid little bugs perceive the bait as bitter. The phenomenon was first noted over two decades ago, when pest controllers reported a failure to eradicate the roaches because the insects were stubbornly refusing to eat the bait. Subsequent scientific studies have confirmed these anecdotal observations. When offered a choice between sweet jam or the more savoury peanut butter, hungry cockroaches from the mutant strain showed a much greater aversion to the glucose rich jam, physically jumping back when contact was established. The neural mechanism behind the response was identified using tiny electrodes to …

Warblings about paternity: the divide between narrative and truth

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There are stories we like to tell ourselves about how birds live their lives. They’re models of loyalty and integrity when it comes to relationships, we like to imagine. They form pair-bonds for life, raise their offspring together, and remain faithful and monogamous, with any interlopers chased off efficiently by the vigilant male partner. Just like us then…right?  Well, maybe not. It turns out things might not be as simple as that, in either case. In a study published in PLOS One this May[i], researchers from the Konrad-Lorenz-Institute of Ethology in Vienna tried to put the stories to the test. They used a caged male reed warbler to simulate an intruder situation, watching how the male-female ‘couple’ reacted to its presence. Some of the results were expected: the male of the pair tried to chase the intruder away. However the males reacted with seemingly much more aggression when their female partner was present, especially if she tried to approach or …

Shiny Happy People

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Now that the warm weather has finally arrived, smiles are starting to return to faces and frozen fingers are beginning to thaw. After nearly 6 months of spine-tingling cold it seems that we are all drawing a deep sense of satisfaction from watching the mercury rise. But bizarrely, this well-established link between sunshine and feeling good may well be another one of those popular misconceptions. A cursory examination of last-year’s ‘well being’ statistics reveals that the happiest regions of the UK were found at higher latitudes, including the Shetland Isles and the Outer Hebrides, where annual hours of sunshine were 340 below the national average. Support comes from the list of the world’s happiest countries, which is consistently topped by northerly nations like Norway, Sweden, Canada and Denmark, none of which are known for their prodigious quantities of warm weather. The association between sunshine and feeling happy was first put forward in scientific circles during the 1970s and 80s. Various …

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