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’.


Weekly Roundup, Best “Best Of” Edition

It’s time for our annual Roundup roundup, where I count down the best “best of” science and technology lists from 2015.

10. Reflecting interest in science topics by the mainstream media, Scientific American’s Top 10 Science Stories of 2015 features their list of newsworthy items. Football concussions, drone regulation, and cybersecurity make the cut, as did Volkswagen’s diesel misdeeds.

9. Discovery News’ Top 10 Space Stories of 2015: Readers’ Choice, detailing the year’s most popular NASA missions, observatory discoveries, and commercial spaceflight trials, as well as The Martian.

8. The award for the best science news we didn’t hear about goes to the Smithsonian for Cool Science Stories You May Have Missed in 2015, including weather-controlling mushrooms.

7. Weird Science! The Top 10 Weirdest Science Stories Of 2015 from IFLScience counts down such oddities as DARPA’s vampire drones, human chimerism, and whatever nonsense flatworms are up to these days.

6. Phil Plait of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog gives us The Top Space and Astronomy Stories of 2015 (in video form, including a transcript with images).

5. For a briefer overview emphasizing Canadian content (the Nobel Prize in Physics, but disappointing results in a poll about attitudes about climate change), check out Quirks & Quarks’ host Bob McDonald’s The top science stories of 2015 that were covered by his CBC radio program.

4. Top 10 STEM Toys for 2015 by The Toy Insider Mom, which includes both last year’s STEM for girls heavyweight GoldieBlox and their more recent lookalike Mighty Makers from K’NEX.

3. Gizmodo’s 10 Scariest, Weirdest, Coolest Robots of 2015, including Canada’s very own hitchBOT.

2. WIRED’s Nick Stockton showcases “all the science heroics from the past year” with All the Most Winningest Science From 2015. Topping the list: reproducibility watchdog Brian Nosek.

And best of all the “best of” lists, thanks to its pleasantly underhyped approach…

1. Mental Floss’ Top 10 Science Stories of 2015 by science journalist Dan Falk keeps the hype on a low simmer instead of the usual rolling boil, sharing our excitement about awesome science news while deftly debunking the nonsense.…

Weekly Roundup

Handy ammunition for the next passive-aggressive note you leave in the office kitchen: coffeemaker drip trays are breeding grounds for varied bacterial communities.

From mouldy to marvellous: the revamped Canada Science and Technology Museum, slated to reopen in 2017, will be an “immersive heritage experience.” Just make sure you keep the crazy kitchen.

Just in case pregnant women didn’t have enough to worry about, stress hormones are passed on through breast milk. But don’t worry too much; it’ll just stress you out.

Most research isn’t groundbreaking (an extra reason to take the science news cycle with a grain of salt).

Reinventing the condom is turning out to be more difficult than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initially thought.

After $2.5 million US dollars, there is still no evidence that we’re holograms (Arnold Rimmer, Jem, and the Doctor from Star Trek Voyager excluded, of course).

Weekly Roundup, Post-election #Cdnsci Edition

One of the first actions of the new Liberal government was the reinstatement of Canada’s long-form census on Nov. 5th, one day after its swearing-in. The data collected in the 2011 National Household Survey, the shorter, non-mandatory version of the survey, has been confirmed not be compatible with previous StatsCan data collection efforts, and not to provide enough information about the effectiveness of social programs. The long-form census had broad support across segments of Canadian society, and its cancellation in 2010 was denounced by almost everyone, even inspiring a song in favour of its preservation. The move for its reinstatement occurred in time for the next planned census, in 2016, to the relief of researchers at the University of Toronto. A Globe and Mail editorial argues that in addition to the return of the long-form census, the Liberal government must reinvest in StatsCan, undoing the deep budget cuts of the Harper era.

Another major science policy issue during the campaign, the unmuzzling of Canadian federal scientists, took place the next day. These scientists are now permitted to discuss their work with the media and the public. Under Harper, scientists were treated as “second-class citizens” hundreds of scientists in the public service were “asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons” according to a 2013 survey.  Celebrations at the unmuzzling were mixed with warnings that better Canadian science policy requires restoring lost jobs, repairing damaged relations between government and NGO agencies, reversing decisions relying on bad or no evidence; basically, overturning the many issues of Harper era’s science policy. Policy expert Paul Boothe warns, in addition, that government scientists must maintain a difficult balance of objectivity and loyalty no matter who’s in charge.

Weekly Roundup

We still have no idea what to eat, but now we’re worried about meat. And sugar. And potatoes.  And cranberry sauce.

Want an original costume this Halloween, or an entirely unoriginal one? Just ask Google. If you’re a science fan, you can build a playable Pumpkris or perform some spooky experiments or find the geekiestgeekiest costumes.

And the onslaught on science was painstakingly documented, which tends to happen when you go after librarians.” The newly elected Canadian Liberal government has pledged to reverse muzzling policies affecting federal scientists and to reinstate the long-form census.

Should field biologists kill rare specimens of species for study? Many disagree with this longstanding natural history practice, as suggested by to recent debates over the actions of the AMNH’s Christopher Filardi who euthanized a moustached kingfisher for further study.

The BMJ has retracted former Memorial University nutrition scientist R. K. Chandra’s study on the links between eczema risk and  infant formula/breastmilk, thanks in part to a 2006 CBC documentary.

It is not a good time to be one of higher education’s fields of study in the humanities and social sciences, as they have been the target of disdain across the political spectrum. In Canada, Stephen Harper has been notoriously anti-sociology. Now potential Republican candidate Jeb Bush has dismissed the college majors of psychology and philosophy, linking them to  jobs in the fast-food industry. In response, psych majors are describing their meaningful work on Twitter using the hashtag #ThisPsychMajor.…

Weekly Roundup

We have no idea what to eat.

Women suffer the deleterious health effects of stressful jobs more strongly, and should be relegated to career choices better suited to the feminine temperament, like “scientists and architects.”

Dark side of the moon(base).

Back to the Future II’s “future” happens tomorrow (October 21st, 2015). We’ve already seen a working hoverboard prototype; which of the film’s other predictions have come true?

“What was once whispered privately in laboratories and offices is being discussed publicly, loudly, and clearly.” WIRED looks at why we’re not putting up with sexism in science anymore.

Lastly, a bizarre story from the GMO wars, in which University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta, whose ties to Monsanto were revealed in a FOIA-aided investigation, had previously interviewed himself on the topic of GMOs via his pseudonymous science podcast personality Vern Blazek.…

Weekly Roundup

Do you like black coffee? Celery? Tonic water? Beer? You may have psychopathic tendencies. Or you may just be a person who likes to eat and drink stuff.

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the contributions of the woman we generally (but not always) consider to be the first computer programmer. It’s also a time to highlight historical women scientists as well as encourage girls’ interest in technology. There are events worldwide; in Canada, there will be a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at York University on Oct. 29th. In addition to her role as STEM touchstone, Lovelace has also become something of a steampunk heroine.

The Dr. Oz ShowNot as terrible as it was before.

Finally, a debate on the state of federal science policy during the election. Candidates from each party (including the Conservatives, who refused to participate in a similar debate earlier in the election) answered questions from Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks on federal research, muzzling, and the environment.

Queen’s University emeritus professor Arthur McDonald will share the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics with  Takaaki Kajita for their work demonstrating neutrino oscillation, which required a non-zero mass for neutrinos and consequently challenged the Standard Model of particle physics. Science fiction fans will recognize SNOLAB, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory laboratory where McDonald conducted his research, as the location of a portal to a parallel dimension of Neanderthals in the Hugo award-winning Robert J. Sawyer novel Homonids.

Thor’s hammer Mjolnir can only be wielded by someone “worthy”; in Marvel comics and shared universe of films, it’s the most prominent example of Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, Thor‘s filmmakers relied on Clarke’s “magi-tech rule” to explain the abilities of a pantheon of Norse gods/benevolent aliens. Now someone’s built a real-life Mjolnir with its own “worthiness” criterion, thanks to an electromagnet and fingerprint scanner.…

Weekly Roundup

A new study lends more support to the hygiene hypothesis, the notion that our over-sterilized environment is harmful to developing immune systems. Scientists from B.C. Children’s Hospital found 4 strains of bacteria whose absence from the intestinal flora of 3-month-olds was associated with childhood asthma.

How clean is the air in your town? Now you can find out in real time with the World Air Quality Index which assimilates pollution data from sites around the world.

R2-D2 and a picture of a cat were launched to near space by two girls from Seattle. Their homemade “Loki Lego Launcher” reached 78 thousand feet; you can watch their GoPro footage.

Worms that digest plastic may solve our pollution woes. That is, of course, as long as our tampering with complex ecosystems doesn’t have Simpsonesque unintended consequences.

“Is it possible to fall or crash on a bike or on a walk to work? Absolutely. But it’s also possible we’ll be slowly struck down by longer-term ills that driving seems to be associated with.” Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan at Gizmodo has a great summary of research on the health and stress effects of various commutes.

Federal science and politicians aren’t currently the warmest of bedfellows, both in Canada and the USA, as the powers that be continue to resist or dismantle science for policymaking. Following the  shooting at Umpqua Community College (yet another mass shooting) the US Congress extended a preexisting ban on CDC research into the public health effects of gun violence, even though American victims of gun deaths vastly outnumber those killed by terrorism. Seeking to encourage transparency in federal science, Write2Know‘s second letter-writing campaign draws to a close, and its tally signed letters this year requesting information from politicians about Canadian federal science is in the thousands. Lastly, Environment Canada scientist and “Harperman” auteur Tony Turner has decided to retire rather than remain under paid suspension while the investigation into his alleged breach of the Canadian values and ethics code for public servants; you can now find him unmuzzled on the election circuit.…