Weekly Roundup

As we’ve previously discussed, when you decide to name something with an online poll, you shouldn’t be surprised when the winning name isn’t quite what you wanted. And to preempt your disappointment, let me stress that it’s unlikely we’ll see the RRS Boaty McBoatface anytime soon, because the Natural Environment Research Council gave themselves final say. But that’s what makes these cases closer to how democracy really works.

To be a successful historian, it helps to be the only one working in your area. Like Andrew Groen, whose book describes the context of the Great War and its influence on remaining political structures… in the EVE Online MMO.

Whether we find extraterrestrial life depends on what scientists consider to be alive.

Here are the winners of Popular Science’s 2016 Invention Awards.

We’re so invested in the idea of our superiority to other animals that we find it hard to acknowledge their specific achievements, argues Frans de Waal.

Money can’t buy me happiness, but I’m happiest when I can buy what I want: It turns out that having money available in your checking account (and not total earnings, savings, net worth, credit, or amount of debt) has the greatest effect on individual happiness. Liquid assets, particularly the first $1000, contribute most highly to life satisfaction.…

Weekly Roundup

free willy

SeaWorld has committed to stop breeding killer whales in captivity after years of protests and declining sales resulting from Blackfish, the documentary detailling the conditions of orcas in captivity and the deaths of several trainers in marine parks. This is good news for animal-rights activists. But now SeaWorld faces another crowd of upset stakeholders: marine biologists who want to study orcas in captivity. I guess you can’t please everyone.

Here is a rundown of the response from scientists to Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccination film that contributed to its removal from the Tribeca film festival.

Is it unusual to be surprised that the general public lacks complete, up-to-date knowledge based on the latest breaking evidence about a disease outbreak? Science News doesn’t think so, and takes us to task for having “flunked” this Harvard public health survey about Zika. Here are 5 things Science News wants people to know about the virus, and pay attention, because there might be a test.

The bioethics of paternity testing suggest consent and discretion, but this gets muddy when a single case combines the Church of England, Winston Churchill’s cabinet, DNA evidence, and investigative journalism. It turns out that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is actually the son of the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, and Jane Williams (Lady Williams of Elvel), who was then Churchill’s personal secretary.

After launching an inflatable module for the ISS into space, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed on a ship at sea for the first time.

John Yudkin, the nutritional scientist who discovered that sugar, not fat, was the culprit behind obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, faced ridicule, personal attacks, and loss of institutional support because his findings challenged the prevailing low-fat orthodoxy. His story offers a useful case study in the intractability of scientific theories and a warning that the path from evidence to policy is fraught with research trendiness, charisma, corporate interests, and political influence.…

Weekly Roundup


Now that’s interdisciplinarity! Ancient Norse sagas and satellite imaging have led to the discovery of a potential second Viking settlement in Newfoundland.

NPR has the secrets of the elusive doubly fry.

In a recent discovery of parallel evolution, blind waterfall-climbing cave fish in Thailand can walk the way vertebrates on land do.

For some reason, Microsoft thought it would be a good idea to build an AI that could talk like a millennial on Twitter. Sophisticated chatbot Tai emulated humans on social media so well that she was making racist tirades within a day.

In a new addition to the plant behaviour debate, there’s evidence that plants remember (or forget, depending on your interpretation) experiences that aren’t harmful.

The Tribeca film festival is no longer screening discredited physician Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccination film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.

Thanks to what happens when you multiply fractions, only 2.7% of American adults have the 4 behaviours that constitute the basics of a healthy lifestyle.…

Roundup Triple Shot

March has been busy here at the Roundup; so much so that it would be inaccurate to call this one “weekly.” I hope what we lack in punctuality we make up for in the sheer bulk of relevant stories below.

A paper on the biomechanics of the hand was retracted from PLOS ONE due specifically to mentions of a “Creator” that had passed unnoticed through the peer review process. Some think retraction was the wrong move, as it was motivated by swift Twitter mockery (#Creatorgate) and not necessarily by best editorial practices.

Nutrition is a confusing field, perhaps in part because studies funded by the food industry have a bias in favour of the food they produce. When nutrition researcher Marion Nestle compiled industry-funded studies on her blog, Food Politics, over 90 percent had results favourable to their funders.

If you let the Internet name your polar research vessel, I hope you’re ready for a polar research vessel named “RSS Boaty McBoatface.” This should be no surprise after crowdsourced poll results led to the “Chuck Norris” Slovakian bridge or the “COLBERT” ISS module. Sadly, both proved unsuccessful; the Slovak lawmakers decided on the “Freedom Cycling-Bridge”; and NASA went with the name Tranquility instead, but threw the comedian a bone with a backronym for a new ISS treadmill).

Algorithmic face and body recognition systems have trouble with diverse faces and bodies, a symptom of ill-considered design delectably lampooned in 2012 by office comedy Better Off Ted. Rose Eveleth at Motherboard explores how this relates to the lack of diversity in STEM.

It’s another Sokal scandal; this time, doggy-style. A paper on the role of alsatians in the history of totalitarianism turns out to be an elaborate hoax designed to mock the “animal turn,” the field of human-animal studies, and what the perpetuators [link to German site] interpret as the faddishness of the humanities, which they believe ought to be dedicated to social criticism. Responding to the hoax, animal studies scholars defended their research interest [also in German]. The ruse included a fabricated CV, a “satirical” performance of a research presentation at an academic conference, and a paper good enough to pass peer review in the German journal Totalitarianism and Democracy. It’s a shame, because the paper sounded really good.

Thrilling times in metrology, as the 11-inch “footlong” sandwich lawsuit debacle has made its way through the courts.

In case you don’t have enough to worry about, meet superlice. But cheer up! A newly-discovered “ghostlike octopod” has charmed all onlookers.

Political criticism of specific science projects is nothing new and continues apace as a feminist glaciology study comes under conservative scrutiny.

Famed astrophysicist, public science advocate, and vest-wearer Neil deGrasse Tyson has caused a  Twitter ruckus by opining on biological matters, claiming that organisms for whom sex was painful would be long extinct, and attempting to clarify that celibacy could not be inherited. Biologists quickly pointed out the many errors and mistaken assumptions in these tweets, and gave Tyson a taste of his own medicine with #BiologistSpaceFacts. It is not uncommon for prominent scientists to hold forth outside their areas of expertise (the phenomenon has particular prominence in Nobel Prize winners, and is claimed to be common in physicists). Disappointingly, it’s also not uncommon for public science communicators to misunderstand and denigrate the field of philosophy.

Preeminent philosopher Hilary Putnam has died. Obituaries focus on the remarkable breadth and relevance of his research interests, as well as his capacity to revisit and overturn previously-held views.

Here’s an interactive chart of PhD distribution by gender, worldwide, based on data from the NSF.

Hospital funding is tied to patient satisfaction surveys. That sounds great, argues Atlantic author Alexandra Robbins, until the patient-as-consumer model gets in the way of effective care.

The CDC recommends restricting painkiller prescription and dosage to combat addiction.

What should therapists do when the world is out to get you? Also, what’s next for psychology after the replication crisis.

Lies, damn lies, and P values: there are increasing calls for the end of oversimplified significance.…

Weekly Roundup, Leap Day Edition

Happy Leap Day! Here are the best ways to geek out. Or just enjoy “Leap Day,” the 6th-season episode of 30 Rock that created the yellow-and-blue-themed hootenanny to celebrate our extra .242190 day’s worth of orbit. The episode introduced the kindly Leap Day William (who trades children’s tears for candy) as well as the spoof holiday movie Leap Dave Williams (deftly casting Jim Carrey and Andie MacDowell), a Liar, Liar/Groundhog Day/The Santa Clause mashup. (And of course, don’t forget about leap seconds.)

Speaking of movies, the scientific and technical Academy Awards (the less-flashy cousin of last night’s politically-charged, cookie-filled gala) quietly celebrated recent design innovations for the film industry a few weeks back.

Guess who won a promote-girls-in-STEM campaign’s tech competition. Give up? It was Josh. Sadly, women-in-STEM campaigns are notorious for bungled execution and this one is no exception. Now, #prettycurious joins fellow PR trainwrecks #hackahairdryer and “Science: it’s a girl thing.”

Here are two good ideas: 1. Therapy dogs. 2. Therapy for dogs.

Manatees, fresh from their party at Three Sisters Springs, are present in Florida in record numbers. And the monarch butterfly is making a comeback, suggesting that recent pollinator campaigns have been effective. Conversely, both recent successes could suggest that we’re less-reluctant environmentalists when species are charismatic.

Next week’s eclipse coincides with a supermoon.

Weekly Roundup

Here at The Bubble Chamber, we’ve discussed the War on Science (as well as the Science Wars, which are slightly different) most heartily. So it’s very encouraging to see new angles the topic, coming from a panel of historians of science at AAAS who caution against calling varied opposition to particular scientific issues a “war.” The panel, which included Roberta Millstein, Steve Strauss, and Erik Conway, had an especially memorable moment in Mark Largent‘s call for scientists to own their responsibility, straight out of Stan Lee’s wheelhouse…

Relatedly, new research sheds light on our climate change attitudes: our particular political affiliation (but not, interestingly, overall political ideology) predicts our acceptance of climate change, and believing in climate change doesn’t translate to support for particular environmental policies. And the HPV vaccine has been largely successful at reducing cervical cancer, although physicians must be more diligent in recommending it in order for the vaccine to deliver proper immunity.

Black holes don’t look the way we think they do, but their indirect effects look pretty cool. And here’s an incredible new image of the Milky Way from the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy (ATLASGAL) in Chile.

Facebook’s Reactions, now available to users as an elaboration of the “Like,” are “straight out of Darwin“; they’re based on universal emotional responses, like those from the Pixar film Inside Out.

“When they did push the button, the servers all went down”: Inside Higher Ed has new details about the publication process for LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves.

Don’t feel too sorry for the robot… it’s the only way it’ll learn.…

Weekly Roundup

Cheers! The CDC, which received swift and biting criticism for their recommendations that any women of childbearing age and not on birth control abstain from consuming alcohol (and in addition, that the risks to “any women” of alcohol consumption include “injuries/violence” and “unintended pregnancy”) have clarified that their recommendations for “any woman” were not meant, in fact, for all women. They’ve also modified, and then removed, the pesky online infographic in question. The CDC should have known better, given how well their 2006 designation of all women of childbearing-age as “pre-pregnantwas received.

Sue Carter, the new head of the Kinsey Institute, prefers to study human sexuality within the context of bonding and relationships (she originally studied pair-bonding prairie voles, which some see as a betrayal of Kinsey’s original intentions for his research into human sexuality.

Our fears of robo-revolution remain blissfully unfounded, as most AIs are incapable of passing an 8th-grade science test (multiple choice, no less).

Death Valley may be about to explode with wildflowers in a rare display known as a “super bloom.”

A new journal, the Preclinical Reproducibility and Robustness channel of the F1000Research open-source research network, is entirely focused on replicability.

Oh, and we found gravitational waves, as predicted (and temporarily doubted) by Einstein. No big deal.…

Weekly Roundup

It’s Groundhog Day! Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, according to the interpretations of the Groundhog Club (whose machinations are as mysterious as those of the Nobel Committee). A Canadian groundhog, Shubenacadie Sam, is the best weather groundhog, with 42% accuracy. Sadly, we mourn the loss of one of Canada’s weather-predicting groundhogs, Winnipeg Willow.

Speaking of helpful animals, the Netherlands is training eagles to protect Dutch airspace from malicious drones.

Physicist and science blogger/journalist Sabine Hossenfelder elaborates her call out against sloppy science journalism in this interview in Scientific American’s Cross-Check:

Yes, there is good science journalism. But then there are a lot of outlets that just seem to uncritically repeat press releases or what a scientist told them about their own research. And after one major outlet picked it up, it will appear in a dozen other places, each trying to make a bigger headline than the others. How come we still haven’t confirmed string theory if we’ve read two dozen times that it’s soon going to happen?

Oh good, a mysterious in-flight illness.

Biographical tweets about male scientists as though they were female scientists: His dour personality made everyone think he’d never marry. Even so, Schrödinger got a wife and a Nobel Prize.

“This discovery shows that there is still more to learn about ancient science, and that every new thing we do learn demonstrates just how clever the ancient astronomers were”: Clay tablets containing abstract calculations reveal that Babylonians invented astronomical geometry much earlier than Europeans did.

The truth, which is out there, is also in these real UFO files released by the CIA.

A “lady shark” ate a male tank-dweller at a South Korean aquarium. She was previously seen bopping her husband, Andy Capp, on the head with a rolling pin.…

Weekly Roundup


If you’re looking for the latest debate over scientific controversy, head to Twitter where rapper B.o.B. posted a series of images and arguments in favour of a flat Earth. As Gawker rightly points out, B.o.B. has more followers (2.3 million) than any of the world’s news organizations. Update: Neil deGrasse Tyson has entered the fray. But B.o.B.’s response is a diss track. So, I guess it’s a tie.

2 Engineers have built a robotic apparatus that solves a Rubik’s Cube in just over 1 second. And no, it doesn’t need to peel off the stickers and rearrange them.

Grapefruit? Phenolic? Hay-like? Thanks to sensory scientists, the new Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel can tell you exactly how to describe your morning pick-me-up, if you’re the kind of person who always wanted to but lacked the vocabulary of a connoisseur. And speaking of sensory science, there’s a newly discovered link between serotonin and sour taste, as researchers determined that the neurotransmitter is the previously-unknown chemical messenger released by type III taste cells.

Here at the Bubble Chamber, we’re all about science and public policy. So we were happy to dig into Tania Lombrozo’s piece at NPR arguing that science, on its own, can’t decide policy, which links to other great recent work on the subject.

Is climate change killing all the aliens? Climate joins other Earth-salient fears like nuclear war and overpopulation in our Fermi paradox-based speculations about the non-appearance of extraterrestrials.

Outbreaks of the Zika virus are currently on the rise in South and Central America and the Caribbean. The virus’ symptoms are usually mild, involving up to a week’s worth of fever and fatigue; it may also be associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome. As epidemiologists struggle to research and contain the understudied disease, travel advisories for pregnant women have been issued for areas of Zika outbreaks as the virus is linked to microcephaly in babies whose mothers were bitten by Zika-carrying Aedes mosquitoes. Some governments in affected areas are urging women to avoid becoming pregnant, which is a complex issue in countries like El Salvador where abortion (including miscarriage) is illegal and birth control is not approved by the Catholic Church. The virus may also be  transmitted sexually, although research has been limited because Zika doesn’t infect typical animal models and there hasn’t been much interest in the disease until the recent outbreaks.…

Weekly Roundup

The planets… are aligning! And, for the next month, all viewable in the same night. Here’s a guide to spotting our 5 closest neighbours with the naked eye, as well as Neptune and Uranus if you’ve got a small telescope.

Stephen Hawking is at it again with his “optimistic” doom and gloom predictions about humanity ruining life on this planet. Luckily, we’ll have colonized other places by then, so the Earth’s destruction is no big deal.

Here’s Nathan Myhrvold’s latest volley in favour of government support for basic science at Scientific American, arguing against Matt Ridley’s position (popular with belt-tightening politicians) that government should leave scientific innovation to the scientists.

This was no garden of Eden but a relentless battle“: The Atlantic explores the life and work of 17th-century artist Maria Sibylla Merian, whose lavish, detail-oriented images of insects depicted ecological communities before such a concept existed.

Bad science won’t die, according to Jill Neimark at Quartz, because we readily accept results (even discredited ones) that confirm our innate fears of contagion.

And finally, to the disappointment of almost everyone, there’s not likely to ever be a spider-man. At least one one without 40% body surface devoted to wall-crawlin’.