Victory Is Bitter Sweet

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

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

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 …

Book Review: Until Darwin

Until Darwin, Science, Human Variety and the Origins of Race Author: B. Ricardo Brown Published: 22nd September 2010 Publisher: Pickering & Chatto Summary: A fascinating insight into the early nineteenth century scientific consensus which Darwin’s Origin utterly transformed. The history of science is the history of forgetting. That is the beauty and the utility of science, a theory is no longer supported by evidence is left behind to die an obscure death. Except when it doesn’t. The theory that has refused to die is the idea that Homo sapiens can be divided into races. B. Ricardo Brown is Professor of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in New York and in his acknowledgements explained he “never wanted to write on the subject of ‘race’”. The idea of race as an objective division of humankind has been comprehensively debunked, recently with two books published in 2011, for example, Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth by Ian Tattersall and Rob …

Phobias and society

I’m sure all of us are a little afraid of something; be it something small, something big or even something exceptionally common. Take Arachnophobia for example: research shows that 50% of all women in the US suffer from the fear of spiders, and it’s the most common phobia in the UK. However, not one species of native UK spider is classified as deadly. So we have to ask ourselves, in general, are phobias rational or irrational? It was Walter Bradford Cannon who first coined the term ‘fight or flight’. Cannon was a physiologist who studied the response of animals when faced with an immediate threat. As well as acceleration of heart rate, increased breathing and loss of peripheral vision, the body releases a series of hormones (including adrenaline and noradrenaline) to prepare itself for danger. Now, as humans, we’ve evolved from our prehistoric roots; we no longer face the terrible dangers of times past, yet we still undergo that same fight or flight …

Shark Teeth Weapons

Natural History Museum collections have been used for a novel study: the past biodiversity of a remote collection of Pacific coral islands. Joshua Drew from Columbia University and colleagues have just published a paper (see below) reporting on their identification of shark teeth used in weapons made by Kiribati people from the Gilbert Islands over a hundred years ago and now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Having no metal, but a tradition of hunting the plentiful sharks, the I-Kiribati people used shark teeth to edge coconut wood weapons, both swords and fierce-looking tridents. While the team found plenty of teeth from species of sharks that still roam the local coral reefs, like tiger sharks, two species were represented that no longer exist around the Gilbert Islands, dusky and spottail sharks. The team were excited that museum collections could be used to shed light on past ecosystems, and to highlight changes in those ecosystems over time. …

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

  A few months ago I wrote a piece on some of the most amazing scientific predictions to come out of classical literature. From IVF to space travel, it seems that an unexpected number of major technological innovations have been proceeded by the imaginations of great historical authors. But, if amazing scientific breakthroughs can be predicted before they happen, then surely the reverse must also be true. Indeed, history must be littered with examples of respected authorities confidently postulating the possibility of a discovery one minute, before shame-facedly back-pedalling in the next. So, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of science’s top-5 greatest hypothetical hick-ups.   5) Theory: Planet Vulcan, Proponent: Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier During the 1800s, astronomers were struggling to explain certain peculiarities in Mercury’s celestial orbit. Several scientists, led by Le Verrier, suggested that these disturbances arose due to the existence of another planet or  moon, which was named ‘Vulcan’, after the Roman god of fire. The theory drummed …

Why hasn’t spring sprung yet?

After a weekend of heavy snow across much of the UK, everyone is asking, ‘is there going to be much let up from the cold?’ Well, at the moment it’s unlikely. The UK has been experiencing it’s coldest March since 1969 and is close to becoming the coldest month of the year so far (Philip Eden, 2013), a big comparison to last year when March was the 3rd warmest on record! Across much of Europe temperatures are at least 5 degrees below the seasonal average and across parts of Eastern Europe and western Russia, temperatures are up to 14 degrees below the norm. So what is going on? There are a couple of reasons for this unseasonably cold March we have been experiencing and what is likely to be an unseasonably cold start to April too, but they are all interlinked. The jet stream is in the wrong position. Normally during spring, the jet stream begins to push northwards across the UK so that we are positioned south of …

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