Wednesday, August 05, 2020

science news 5.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Stars rich in phosphorus: Seeds of life in the universe

Surprisingly dense exoplanet challenges planet formation theories
New detailed observations with NSF's NOIRLab facilities reveal a young exoplanet, orbiting a young star in the Hyades cluster, that is unusually dense for its size and age. Weighing in at 25 Earth-masses, and slightly smaller than Neptune, this exoplanet's existence is at odds with the predictions of leading planet formation theories.

VLBA finds planet orbiting small, cool star
Precision measurements made with the VLBA have revealed that a small, cool star 35 light-years from Earth is orbited by a Saturn-sized planet once every 221 days.


Between shark and ray: The evolutionary advantage of the sea angels


Studies shed new light on how biodiversity influences plant decay

Small trees offer hope for rainforests
Small trees that grow up in drought conditions could form the basis of more drought-resistant rainforests, new research suggests.

Scientists discover new penguin colonies from space

Are vultures spreaders of microbes that put human health at risk?

A new analysis published in IBIS examines whether bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that are present in wild vultures cause disease in the birds, and whether vultures play a role in spreading or preventing infectious diseases to humans and other animal species.
Credit: Jorge de la Cruz


Nanostructures modeled on moth eyes effective for anti-icing
Researchers have been working for decades on improving the anti-icing performance of functional surfaces and work published in AIP Advances investigates a unique nanostructure, modeled on moth eyes, that has anti-icing properties. Moth eyes are of interest because they have a distinct ice-phobic and transparent surface. The researchers fabricated the moth eye nanostructure on a quartz substrate that was covered with a paraffin layer to isolate it from a cold and humid environment.


'Price of life' lowest in UK during COVID-19 pandemic, study finds
The price the UK government was prepared to pay to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic was far lower than in many other developed nations, a study has revealed.
Confirming my suspicion that we have deatheaters in charge.

Easy to overdose on paracetamol if you're selenium deficient, says research


Key brain region was 'recycled' as humans developed the ability to read

dystopian futures

Consumers don't fully trust smart home technologies
Not fully? People shouldn't even buy any of these things. Opening your home to surveillance and hackers is the opposite of smart.


From the news media:

A remarkably well preserved mammoth skeleton from a Siberian lake.

Oh and the penguin colonies spotted from space are also in the Guardian. Disappointingly, the sattelites only saw vast areas of ice discoloured by guano - not vast huddles of actual penguins.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

science news 4.8.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


ALMA captures stirred-up planet factory
Planet-forming environments can be much more complex and chaotic than previously expected. This is evidenced by a new image of the star RU Lup, made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Iron-rich meteorites show record of core crystallization in system's oldest planetesimals

Early Mars was covered in ice sheets, not flowing rivers


Malignant cancer diagnosed in a dinosaur for the first time

Study: Oriole hybridization is a dead end
A half-century of controversy over two popular bird species may have finally come to an end. In one corner: the Bullock's Oriole, found in the western half of North America. In the other corner: the Baltimore Oriole, breeding in the eastern half. Where their ranges meet in the Great Plains, the two mix freely and produce apparently healthy hybrid offspring. But according to scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, hybridization is a dead end and both parent species will remain separate.

Bullock/Baltimore Oriole hybrid.
Credit: Bryan Calk, Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Scientists discover secret behind Earth's biodiversity hotspots

Identifying the blind spots of soil biodiversity

Study calls for urgent plan to manage invasive weed which threatens livelihoods in Africa


Speech processing hierarchy in the dog brain

Humans and flies employ very similar mechanisms for brain development and function

Energy demands limit our brains' information processing capacity


The art of making tiny holes
It sounds like a magic trick: A highly charged ion penetrates several layers of a material. It creates a big hole in the top layer, but travels through the next layer without damaging it. This new technique can be used to modify surfaces with extremely hight precision.


Ancient shell llama offering found in lake Titicaca
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dystopian futures

Novel magnetic stirrer speaks to lab equipment
A small device, called "Smart Stirrer", performed a function of a conventional laboratory stir bar, has an integrated microprocessor and various sensors capable of wireless and autonomous report the conversion of properties of a solution. Results are sent to a computer over Bluetooth, and any changes notify the user wirelessly.


From the news media:

Monday, August 03, 2020

colourful characters

I spotted an interesting book review in Current Biology - Thinking like a parrot - and realised that this was a topic about which I haven't written a feature yet, so I closed that gap with a little help from Nicky Clayton (who starred in this feature) and her colleagues. Oh, and I should mention that I found a lot of inspiration on the ecology/conservation of parrots in the grrlscientist blog.

After the cats and mice, another fun topic, but world-saving services will resume soon.

Clever and colourful characters

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 15, 03 August 2020, Pages R841-R844

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Parrots as companion animals require substantial amounts of attention — as does the threat to surviving parrot populations in the wild. (Photo: Michael Clarke/Unsplash.)

Monday, July 27, 2020

sniff it out

Open Archive Day

I am currently reading a book about smell, which I'll need to review when I'm through, so it may be useful for me to reread my smelly feature from last year, which was all about odour space, and is now on open access, so sniff it out:

Odour space - the final frontier

Beetroot is becoming popular thanks to a trend towards more vegetarian and vegan options, but one of its odorants can spoil the pleasure for many. (Photo: © Marco Verch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

running slowly

A courante is a running dance, of course, supposed to be played fast. In my effort to learn the Courante from the first cello suite, however, I don't think I'm getting past walking speed. Works for me - more time to appreciate the music - but don't try dancing to it.

The other problem with the courante is that it has more notes than I can memorise in a month, so I got about half way with memorising it. So I can play the movement at half the required speed and can play half of it from memory. Count it as a half-way success. Incidentally, I note that the person who used the score before me also made fewer annotations to the courante than to the other movements I have played so far. May have been running out of steam too.

Well, anyway, moving on, or rather backwards within the first suite, we now come to the Allemande.

Resources for this movement:

A slow version from Cellopedia is a helpful starting point as the fingerings are clearly visible at all times. And he plays at a speed that even I can manage (judging by the length of the video, it appears to be 2/3 the normal speed).

For a performance at the proper speed, try this recording from Denise Djokic.

And then consider the helpful hints from Inbal Segev. She's done a short tutorial (or two in some cases) for every single movement.Underneath this one there is also a list of helpful links and resources regarding the suites in general which I hadn't seen before.

Bonus material: A lovely arrangement for guitar played by Ana Vidovic

I'm also adding these videos to my youtube playlist "cello repertoire".

(Not our cello this time but an artwork I saw at a Frieze sculpture exhibition in Regent Park, London, last September)

Revision list (newest addition first)

1.3 Courante
1.4 Sarabande
1.6 Gigue
1.5 Minuet I&II
3.5 Bourree I&II

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Telemann's dozen

Two years (and a bit) ago I learned to play Telemann's fantasia No. 2 in a minor, which must have flicked a switch in my flute brain, as I have been playing a lot of unaccompanied baroque pieces ever since. In May, with the lockdown going on and flute lessons being off, I decided on an exploratory run through the remaining 11 fantasias, trying each one for a week, to see if I find one I want to spend more time with. I'm now in the last week of the project, so I have played every note in this lovely book, although not necessarily at the right time:

Oh, and I have added a version of each to my YouTube playlist with flute repertoire.

I have already earmarked No. 11 G major for further study, might also consider 6, 8 or 9. Number 9 is in E major (4 sharps, ####) but what I learned from it is that the fourth #, namely D#, is actually making life easier compared to playing ###, as you don't have to lift the little finger coming down from the E to play the note below. (Obviously, I haven't practiced all of my scales, otherwise I would have known that.)

Here are some interesting thoughts on the fantasias from Rachel Brown, who also has released a CD with the complete set.

Any flute players out there, tell me which one is your favourite?

PS Various artists have identified dance forms in the movements. None of them is marked in the score so I'll add to the list here whatever I can find:

1. Fantasia in A major (Vivace – Allegro=Passepied)
2. Fantasia in A minor (Grave – Vivace – Adagio – Allegro)
3. Fantasia in B minor (Largo – Vivace – Largo – Vivace – Allegro=Gigue)
4. Fantasia in B-flat major (Andante – Allegro=Polonaise – Presto)
5. Fantasia in C major (Presto – Largo – Presto – Dolce – Allegro – Allegro=Canarie)
6. Fantasia in D minor (Dolce – Allegro – Spirituoso=Hornpipe/Rondeau)
7. Fantasia in D major (Alla francese=including a Rondeau – Presto=Folk dance?)
8. Fantasia in E minor (Largo=Allemande – Spirituoso – Allegro=Polonaise)
9. Fantasia in E major (Affettuoso=Sarabande – Allegro – Grave – Vivace=Bourrée)
10. Fantasia in F-sharp minor (A Tempo giusto=Corrente – Presto – Moderato=Minuet)
11. Fantasia in G major (Allegro – Adagio – Vivace – Allegro)
12. Fantasia in G minor (Grave – Allegro – Grave – Allegro – Dolce – Allegro – Presto=Bourrée)

PDF sheet music is freely available, eg from, from where I also nicked the bourrées and rondeaus that weren't specifically assigned in Rachel Brown's essay about the fantasias.

Monday, July 20, 2020

playing cat and mouse

After the Covid communications feature, I needed a little bit of light relief and was very grateful to discover through the twitter feed of French newspaper Libération a recent paper about how mice became associated with human settlements. Obviously, once we had mice in our houses eating all our grain provisions, we also needed cats. Libération referenced an ancient story about cat domestication from the 00s, but I was sure I had seen something more recent elsewhere, and I found it, and so I could close the circle of life: humans - grains - mice - cats - humans. That was very satisfying, and it fits in really nicely with lots of earlier features I wrote about things like the evolution of agriculture, the Indoeuropean languages, dogs, Bronze Age civilisations, and more.

So, great fun, and I hope you enjoy it too.

Of mice and men, cats and grains

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 14, 20 July 2020, Pages R783-R786

Restrictied access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

New analyses of ancient rodent remains suggest that the house mouse moved in with Neolithic humans even before they started storing grain. (Photo: Chris Game/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).)

PS It just dawned on me that this was my 222nd feature in this format, published on July 20, 2020. Also, if you're on instagram (I'm not), you can find the feature here, and like, share, comment, or whatever people do on instagram.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

les chansons de mon enfance

In my pre-teens, i.e. before I began to control what music I wanted to expose myself to, I spent a lot of time in France and got accidentally exposed to a lot of French popular music, much of which I then never heard again for decades. And some of that buried stuff comes back now, as musicians famous in the sixties die, as youtube recommends videos to me, or by some other random coincidence.

So here and in a new playlist on youtube I'm collecting French songs that I haven't heard in decades between my early childhood and say the last ten years. Obviously, that rules out the French music that I have consciously explored and chosen to listen to in the interim, such as the works of Brassens, Brel, Moustaki, Piaf, etc.

Work in progress, as I'm sure other musical memories will resurface.

So, here goes, in chronological order (some of the songs are older than me):


Richard Anthony, J’entends siffler le train
(French version of 500 miles written by Hedy West)
A video made with the original sound recording.

Françoise Hardy, Tous les garçons et les filles de mon age
Rediscovered when Pomme recorded a cover. In this case I can't rule out that I may have heard it being used in some film - at least I was aware of the title and knew it was by Françoise Hardy.


Charles Aznavour (1924-2018), Hier encore
A poignant performance from 2016, in Armenia.


Charles Aznavour, La Boheme

Christophe (1945-2020), Aline
When he died I saw the newsclip on TV5 Monde and I was so sure I had never heard of him, and then they played Aline ...

Hervé Vilard, Capri c’est fini


Françoise Hardy, Comment te dire adieu
I'm following the very amazing Pomplamoose on YouTube and they did a stunning cover of this song, which I am positively sure I haven't heard since 1973.


Michel Legrand (1932-2019), Les moulins de mon coeur
Windmills of your mind was composed by Michel Legrand for the soundtrack of the film The Thomas Crown Affair, then recorded by him in a French version. The very catchy circular part of the tune comes from Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, K 364.
I think what happened was that I had watched couple of videos from the French/Arabic cultural interface and the YouTube bots concluded that I should watch the clip of Hiba Tawaji singing this on the French edition of The Voice, starting in French and switching to Arabic in the middle of the first verse (watch out for Mika's reaction which is priceless). If you prefer proper concert performance of the Arabic version without the Voice nonsense, click here. Legrand died last year too, but I think the YouTube bots found me before that.


Michel Sardou, La maladie d'amour
In the movie La famille Belier, music by Sardou was featured prominently. I recognised a few songs, of which this was the earliest.

Monday, July 13, 2020

sloths set free

Open Archive Day

Last year I wrote a feature about the very fascinating (if slightly slow) lifestyle of sloths, and then I spent a year doing nothing, hanging around and waiting for it to come to the open archives, and here we are, the sloths have now been set free and you can read them for free (in your own time):

How sloths got their sloth

A young two-fingered sloth feeding on leaves. (Photo: Proyecto Asis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).)

Friday, July 10, 2020

science news 10.7.2020

Just some covid-19 news today (from zoonotic sources to human behaviour issues), there doesn't seem to be much else:

A global system for monitoring wildlife pathogens to prevent zoonotic disease spillover
In a Perspective, Mrinalini Watsa argues that a rigorous decentralized system for global wildlife disease surveillance is needed to address the looming potential for outbreaks of novel zoonotic diseases.

Bats offer clues to treating COVID-19
Bats carry many viruses, including COVID-19, without becoming ill. Biologists at the University of Rochester are studying the immune system of bats to find potential ways to "mimic" that system in humans.

Bats--the only flying mammals--are highly mobile, constantly bringing new pathogens into their communities. According to University of Rochester biologists, that's one reason they have evolved to have immunity to so many viruses that plague humans, who have only recently (in evolutionary terms) come to be highly mobile and more likely to live in densely populated centers.
Credit: Getty Images photo

For background for these two, see my recent feature on the zoonotic sources of Covid-19 (Open Access).

New study supports remdesivir as COVID-19 treatment

Distorted passage of time during the COVID-19 lockdown
A survey conducted in the U.K. suggests that social and physical distancing measures put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic significantly impacted people's perception of how quickly time passed compared to their pre-lockdown perceptions. Ruth S. Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University, U.K., presented these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on July 6, 2020.

Our itch to share helps spread COVID-19 misinformation
A study co-authored by MIT scholars contains bad news and good news about Covid-19 misinformation -- and a new insight that may help reduce the problem.
See also my feature on covid communications, which is out now and on open access.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

science news 7.7.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Study: Dying stars breathe life into Earth
As dying stars take their final few breaths of life, they gently sprinkle their ashes into the cosmos through the magnificent planetary nebulae. These ashes, spread via stellar winds, are enriched with many different chemical elements, including carbon. Findings from a study published today in Nature Astronomy show that the final breaths of these dying stars, called white dwarfs, shed light on carbon's origin in the Milky Way.


First direct evidence of ocean mixing across the gulf stream


A tiny ancient relative of dinosaurs and pterosaurs discovered
I'd just call it a tinysaur.

Illustration of Kongonaphon kely, a newly described reptile near the ancestry of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, in what would have been its natural environment in the Triassic (~237 million years ago).
Credit: Alex Boersma


Desert algae shed light on desiccation tolerance in green plants

Colony-level genetics predict gentle behavior in Puerto Rican honey bees

light and life

New study resolves mystery surrounding unique light-harvesting structures in algae
specifically: a supercomplex consisting of PSI with specific FCPs (PSI-FCPI) from a marine centric diatom Chaetoceros gracilis.
The paper is on open access

To quench or not to quench: Understanding the role of a cyanobacterial photosystem protein


Common hypertension medications may reduce colorectal cancer risk
People who take angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE-i) or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) for conditions such as high blood pressure were less likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer after having a normal colonoscopy. This is the first study to show potential benefits on colorectal cancer development from these commonly prescribed hypertension medications, based on a study of more than 185,000 patients.

dystopian futures

New research reveals privacy risks of home security cameras

Researchers foresee linguistic issues during space travel
This is about subsequent interstellar travel groups shifting their languages in transit such that at the destination they won't understand each other. I don't think this is ever going to be a real problem - we'll have a babelfish (universal translation technology) long before we are able to travel to other stars.


From the news media:

The Guardian also has the story of the tinysaur

Monday, July 06, 2020

covid communications

Covid-19 challenges the whole world in multiple ways, but possibly the most important crunch points are at the science communication / policy interface, because this is where failures lead to bad decisions, and bad decisions cost lives. Many thousands of lives.

I'm trying not to be parochial, ie not to give the UK perspective undue preference when writing about global issues, but in this case the UK happened to be one of the most outstanding examples, namely on how not to do communications in a public health crisis. So I'm afraid there is quite a lot about the UK's bungled Covid-19 response and science/policy/communications muddle in my feature, but other countries are also mentioned sometimes. And positive examples of good communications also get a shoutout.

As all the content of Cell Press journals relating to Covid-19, this is appearing on open access, but I have also been sent a magic link. So if open access doesn't work for you or stops working within the first seven weeks, try that.

Communicating science in a crisis

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 13, 06 July 2020, Pages R737-R739

Free access to full text and PDF download
(Should be open due to Covid-19 publication policy, but if this changes, it will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)

When to wear face protection has been one of the many issues on which conflicting and changeable information has been given to the general public. (Photo: Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay.)
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