Thursday, October 31, 2019

science news 31.10.2019

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.


Two million-year-old ice provides snapshot of Earth's greenhouse gas history

Drones help map Iceland's disappearing glaciers

Intact forest loss 'six times worse' for climate
The impact of losing intact tropical forests is more devastating on the climate than previously thought, according to University of Queensland-led research. The international study has revealed between 2000 and 2013 the clearance of intact tropical forests resulted in a much higher level of carbon being emitted to the atmosphere than first believed -- resulting in a 626 per cent increase in the calculated impact on climate.

plant physiology

Impact of water droplets on leaves quickly triggers stress responses in plants


Genetic history of endangered Australian songbird could inspire an encore
The genetic history of a critically endangered songbird shows its best chance of survival is to protect its rapidly disappearing habitat. Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) used DNA samples from museums around the world, dating back to the 1800s, to study the genetic impact of severe population decline on the regent honeyeater.

Regent honeyeater
Credit: David Stowe


News about drug delivery
Nanocontainer for drugs can have their pitfalls: If they are too heavily loaded, they will only dissolve poorly. Why this happens is now reported by a Wüzburg research group in "Angewandte Chemie".

Bundlemers (new polymer units) could transform industries
I'm sure there is a proper Greek word for "bundle" that could have saved us from this mashup.


System provides cooling with no electricity
Have a guess before you click through. (My guess was wrong.)


Alongside Ötzi the Iceman: a bounty of ancient mosses and liverworts

Scientists reveal the physics of Jackson Pollock's painting technique
A study finds that Pollock's 'drip' technique was geared to avoid a classic fluid mechanical instability.
I did a piece on dripping recently, so this comes too late, unfortunately.


From the news media:

Looks like the 25th climate summit might end up in Spain, as Chile withdrew because of the continuing unrest.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

colourful caterpillars

Author copies of my new book:
Tabakschwärmer, Bücherwürmer und Turbo-Socken:
Chemische Schwärmereien aus 10 Jahren Ausgeforscht
226 Seiten
ISBN-10: 3662593025
ISBN-13: 978-3662593028

arrived yesterday, and it is definitely available now (Eg from Blackwells,, or

When the copies arrived, I realised that the more recent cartoons (by Roland Wengenmayr) are actually printed in colour - I had no idea. Which makes this my first book with colour illustrations in the text (there were a few colour plates tucked in at the end in Non-Standard Computation).

About the book:

This is the second collection of the sketches I write for the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, the magazine of the German Chemical Society, covering roughly the last decade. The first collection was the nine million bicycles book published in Feb 2011.

The caterpillar in question is the tobacco hornworm / tobacco hawk moth (Manduca sexta), which has a remarkable resistance to nicotine as well as some other chemical tricks up its sleeve which I discussed in one of the sketches included here. I also tend to mention it whenever I write about insect ecology.

I have a strong suspicion that Lewis Carroll had this species in mind when he invented the hookah-smoking caterpillar that confuses Alice with unhelpful answers in Alice's adventures in Wonderland, so I suggested to use an Alice illustration for the cover and got through with the idea.

Monday, October 28, 2019

cheese revival

Open Archive Day

I have just learned from this book review that there has been a revival of artisanal cheesemaking and cheese diversity in the UK in recent years - it would never have occurred to me to look for that around here so I completely missed the memo. A good excuse to revive my feature about some much earlier cheese-making efforts from this time last year, which is now in the open archives:

On the origins of cheese

As I don't have many photos of cheese at hand, here's the cover of the book of which I read the review:

Friday, October 25, 2019

science news 25.10.2019

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.


Climate science: 300-year thinning may have predisposed Antarctic ice shelves to collapse

The shelf life of pyrite
What exactly triggers the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations that causes the transition from a glacial stage to a warm stage is not fully understood. Together with colleagues, Dr. Martin Kölling from the MARUM - Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at the University of Bremen, has developed a new model in which the weathering of pyrite, a common mineral containing sulfur, plays a key role.

Imperfect diamonds paved road to historic Deep Earth discoveries
Oh damn, they're wrapping up the Deep Carbon Observatory already? Those 10 years went by quickly. I wrote a feature about it back in 2013.


New Colorado fossil record documents life's rebound after Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction
that moment when mammals filled the niches left by the dinosaurs.

Evolution is resetting the annual clock in migratory birds


What's driving tropical deforestation? Scientists map 45 years of satellite images
I have a funny feeling the answer might be: humans.

Scientists identify British butterflies most threatened by climate change

Scientists have discovered why climate change may be contributing to the decline of some British butterflies and moths, such as Silver-studded Blue.
Credit: Dr Callum Macgregor, University of York


Rare diseases: Over 300 million patients affected worldwide


Strong winter dust storms may have caused the collapse of the Akkadian Empire

Babies understand counting years earlier than believed


From the news media:

SUV drivers driving climate change

Thursday, October 24, 2019

science news 24.10.2019

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.


Scientists sequence 1,100 plants, illuminating 1 billion years of evolution
This is coming out in Nature so you'll see it covered everywhere.

The earliest well-preserved tetrapod may never have left the water


Researchers discover the 'KARAPPO' gene and illuminate vegetative reproduction
The mechanism by which liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha) asexually reproduces via the development of clonal progenies (gemmae) has been revealed by a cross-institutional research group. They discovered the gene 'KARAPPO', which is essential for initiating gemma development in liverwort. These findings are expected to contribute fundamental knowledge towards technological developments to boost agricultural and horticultural cultivation efficiency.

Marmoset monkeys can learn a new dialect


Cracking the mystery of nature's toughest material
Nacre, the rainbow-sheened material that lines the insides of mussel and other mollusk shells, is known as nature's toughest material. Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Michigan has revealed precisely how it works, in real time.


Magnets sustainably separate mixtures of rare earth metals

Rethinking the science of plastic recycling


Heuneburg early Celts across classes may have drunk Mediterranean wine in local ceramics

BU researchers accurately estimate the sex of skeletons based on elbow features

New study suggests the original location of the Bayeux Tapestry is finally solved

Part of the junction of Pieces III and IV of the Bayeux Tapestry. (Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry - 11th century - with special permission from the City of Bayeux)

dystopian futures

(A brand new thematic section for which I increasingly feel a pressing need. I am aware of the possibility that it may be an age thing, but then again, it may also be the fact that humanity is moving in the wrong direction.)

UTSA study warns of security gaps in smart light bulbs
I have a theory that "smart" is just a smart euphemism for "surveillance".

Driverless cars could lead to more traffic congestion
As has been pointed out before, it may be cheaper leaving your autonomous car going round in circles than parking it. Some cities have succeeded in reducing traffic by removing parking spaces. If technology removes the need to park the car, this will add to traffic, which will then only be limited by road capacity.

Robotics: Teaming for future soldier combat
In case the two previous items weren't quite dystopian enough for you, I'll just throw this in for illustration purposes.


From the news media:

I do like the story of the Mercedes cars denied entry into Australia not because they're blatant climate and pedestrian killers but because they were infested with an invasive species of tiny snails.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

science news 23.10.2019

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.


Astronomers discover 'monster' galaxy lurking in distant dust clouds
A team of astronomers including assistant professor Kate Whitaker at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reports today that they have by chance discovered faint traces of a huge galaxy never seen before, dating from the early universe. The authors say the scientific community once regarded such monster galaxies as folklore because there was no evidence for them, until now.
I just love the use of the word "folklore" in that summary. I'll be dreaming up fairytales of monster galaxies all day.

ecology and behaviour

Ants: Jam-free traffic champions
How ants avoid traffic jams? Easy - they don't have cars.

Ants running on a bridge.
Credit: Emmanuel PERRIN/CRCA/CNRS Photothèque

New study reveals that crabs can solve and remember their way around a maze

Lonesome no more: White sharks hang with buddies
White sharks form communities, researchers have revealed. Although normally solitary predators, white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) gather in large numbers at certain times of year in order to feast on baby seals.

New species take longer to arise in the Amazon
There's some interesting use of bird song in this study - aggressive response to sound recording as measure of speciation.

The lunar cycle drives the nightjar's migration
I missed this PR when it came out last week but saw it in the news somewhere.


Much of the earth is still wild, but threatened by fragmentation
Half of the Earth's land surface not covered with ice remains relatively wild -- but many of these 'low human-impact' areas are broken into small, isolated pieces, threatening their future.


We must wake up to devastating impact of nitrogen, say scientists
More than 150 top international scientists are calling on the world to take urgent action on nitrogen pollution, to tackle the widespread harm it is causing to humans, wildlife and the planet. The scientists are asking all countries 'to wake up to the challenge' of halving nitrogen waste from all sources globally by 2030.
See also my 2012 (!) feature: We need to talk about nitrogen. Does anybody listen to me?


Research worth 'bragging' about
A team of psychology researchers at the University of Missouri is providing one of the first comprehensive literature reviews on arrogance, as well as a way to classify the condition on different levels across a spectrum, similarly to how autism is diagnosed. The team acknowledges everyone seems to have some degree of arrogance, so in addition to the literature review, the researchers suggest a way to classify the different levels of arrogance a person could exhibit.


From the news media:

Sailing ships return as sustainable sea transport, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

science news 22.10.2019

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.


Catastrophic events carry forests of trees thousands of miles to a burial at sea
While studying sediments in the Bay of Bengal, an international team finds evidence dating back millions of years that catastrophic events likely toppled fresh trees from their mountain homes on a long journey to the deep sea. The discovery may add to models of the Earth's carbon cycle.

Northern peatlands may contain twice as much carbon as previously thought


Butterflies and plants evolved in sync, but moth 'ears' predated bats
A new study cross-examines classic hypotheses about the coevolution of butterflies with flowering plants and moths with bats, their key predators. The findings show flowering plants did drive much of these insects' diversity, but in a surprise twist, multiple moth lineages evolved 'ears' millions of years before the existence of bats, previously credited with triggering moths' development of hearing organs.


How rat-eating monkeys help keep palm oil plants alive


Song-learning neurons identified in songbirds

White bellbirds in Amazon shatter record for loudest bird call ever measured

This picture shows a male white bellbird screaming its mating call.
Credit: Anselmo d'Affonseca


Humpback whale population on the rise after near miss with extinction
A new study finds that the western South Atlantic humpback population has grown to 25,000 whales. Researchers believe this new estimate is now close to pre-whaling numbers.

food and drink

The secret of classic Belgian beers? Medieval super yeasts!
plus a different take on the same paper in Nature Ecol. Evol.:
Deepest look yet at brewer's yeasts reveals the diversity harnessed by humans

Real texture for lab-grown meat


'Artificial leaf' successfully produces clean gas
the gas in question being syngas, i.e. H2 plus CO

Waste plastic converted into filtration membranes


The brain's favorite type of music
People prefer songs with only a moderate amount of uncertainty and unpredictability, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

How the brain dials up the volume to hear someone in a crowd
Our brains have a remarkable ability to pick out one voice from among many. Now, a team of Columbia University neuroengineers has uncovered the steps that take place in the brain to make this feat possible. Today's discovery helps to solve a long-standing scientific question as to how the brain's listening center can decode and amplify one voice over others. It also stands to spur development of hearing-aid technologies and brain-computer interfaces that more closely resemble the brain.


From the news media:

The rat-eating macaques mentioned above also feature in the Guardian today.

Monday, October 21, 2019

collectives at Konstanz

It's been a while since I last covered Iain Couzin's amazing work on collective behaviour (in humans and other animals) so it was great to catch up with all these things for a new feature. Since the last one, Iain has moved to the lovely city of Konstanz on the shores of the eponymous lake. Which is on my shortlist of places to move to when Brexit actually happens. Iain went there to lead a Max Planck department, out of which a new institute of ethology has now been born, which is a bit ironic, as the Max Planck society earlier abandoned the ethology tag to turn the institute founded by Konrad Lorenz into one for ornithology.

Anyhow, there are so many exciting things going on at Konstanz (I really should move there!) that I basically did a feature rounding up examples of the work from the three departments of the new institute, studying the collective behaviour of fishes, baboons, and storks. Oh, and then I threw in some humans, too:

Reading the hive mind

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 20, pages R1055-R1058, October 21, 2019

FREE access to full text and PDF download

A recent example of collective behaviour in humans (Fridays for future, Düsseldorf, Sept 2019). I'm wondering, by the way, when collective biologists have conferences, do they go all meta and analyse the collective behaviour of their colleagues?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

let it rain

All our instruments series, episode 17

I was meaning to progress with this series faster than the number of instruments under my roof increases, but I am losing this race (more than 40 instruments behind at the moment). Anyhow, after that slightly challenging set of panpipes here's another find from the lovely Tumi shop which I am still missing (it's been gone for more than a decade):

It is still listed at Tumi online as rainstick medium, but sadly sold out.

It wasn't terribly popular with the children, first because it is a bit short for a rainstick and then because we also had a big one made from transparent plastics where you could watch the beads percolating as well as listen to their sound, which was more attractive as a toy. (In fact I still have that one, too, but as it is clearly a toy and also a bit unwieldy as a percussion instrument, I haven't put it on my list of musical instruments.)

However, the medium rainstick is in the elite group of instruments that get to go out regularly, as it lives in the box of random percussion instruments that I take to Galician sessions. And I do remember seeing people using it at the sessions, so all's well that ends well.

Here's a demonstration of the sound (note that it sounds a lot better when it touches the wooden shelf which also supports the camera):

Saturday, October 19, 2019

art and nature

Back in August I visited Olafur Eliasson's brilliant retrospective at the Tate Modern (still showing until Jan 5, 2020) and I was hoping to publish a photo story about it, but the exhibition allowed photography only for personal use, and the Ts and Cs for the use of the official photos somehow clashed with my publishers' conditions, so it didn't work out. So strictly non-commercially and for personal use only, I've put 15 of my own photos on flickr (see this album) and the text here:

The art of shaping our environment

Art reflects our environment. Art can also create new environments that we can enter to reflect on ourselves and our place in the world. In the Anthropocene, humanity is transforming the planet in many largely uncontrolled ways. Artists like Olafur Eliasson are reflecting on this transformation with their smaller, more controlled installations of artificial environments.

Eliasson, whose works are currently featured in a major retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, UK, rose to fame in 2003 with “The Weather Project” for which he installed a gigantic sunset in the turbine hall of the same gallery. The retrospective now shows how his dialogue with nature evolved from structural aspects to perceptions of environment and climate. The show includes indoor installations of a very dense fog, rain on a window, water waves, a moss wall and a rainbow of sorts.

The environment is only one side of the equation, however. What turns the boxed weather phenomena into art is the observation of how humans interact with them, how they disappear in the fog or marvel at the water features. Accordingly, many other works are providing the visitor with an environment where they see themselves – as colourful shadows, for instance, or as fragmented reflections when they walk through a multi-faceted kaleidoscope.

The take-home message seems to be: We are our environment, our environment is us, all is one dynamic system. That can be more easily grasped on the scale of an art gallery, but it is also true for planet Earth.

(own photo)

Friday, October 18, 2019

science news 18.10.2019

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.


Ancient stars shed light on Earth's similarities to other planets

Exoplanet interiors have Earth-like geochemistry


Paleontology: 480-million-year-old arthropods formed orderly queues


New study uncovers 'magnetic' memory of European glass eels
A new study led by researchers at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and at the Institute of Marine Research in Norway found that European glass eels use their magnetic sense to 'imprint' a memory of the direction of water currents in the estuary where they become juveniles.

First scientific description of elusive bird illuminates plight of Borneo's forests
Scientists with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and collaborators surveying the birdlife of Borneo have discovered a startling surprise: an undescribed species of bird, which has been named the spectacled flowerpecker. While scientists and birdwatchers have previously glimpsed the small, gray bird in lowland forests around the island, the Smithsonian team is the first to capture and study it, resulting in its formal scientific description as a new species.

A scientific illustration of the spectacled flowerpecker eating mistletoe. The first formal description of this species is reported Oct. 17 in the journal Zootaxa and confirms that the bird belongs to a colorful family of fruit-eating birds known as flowerpeckers, which are found throughout tropical southern Asia, Australia and nearby islands. The Smithsonian team that described the new species analyzed the bird's diet. Like other flowerpeckers, the new species has been spotted eating mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows high in the forest canopy. Through DNA analysis and close inspection of seeds from the bird's gut, the team was able to identify the type of mistletoe that the bird eats. This information gives researchers a new perspective on this bird's ecological needs and habitat preferences.
Credit: John Anderton


Global biodiversity crisis is a large-scale reorganization, with greatest loss in tropical oceans


Modern Melanesians harbor beneficial DNA from archaic hominins, ie Neanderthals and Denisovans


From the news media:

Genetic testing kits 'may wrongly reassure those at risk of cancer' , reports the Guardian.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

science news 17.10.2019

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.


Cascades of gas around young star indicate early stages of planet formation


New study shows huge dinosaurs evolved different cooling systems to combat heat stroke


The moon determines when migratory birds head south

World's fastest ant hits recording breaking speed of 855mm/s
Desert ants are incredibly fast for their size, but now a team of researchers led by Harald Wolf from the University of Ulm, Germany, has discovered that Saharan silver ants are the world champions, hitting a record breaking top speed of 855mm/s (108 times their body length per second), twice as fast for their size as their larger cousins (Cataglyphis fortis, 50 body lengths/s) by swinging their legs at speeds of up to 1,300mm/s.

These are Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) workers in the desert at Douz, Tunisia.
Credit: Harald Wolf


Study helps pinpoint what makes species vulnerable to environmental change
a bird species' ability to adapt to seasonal temperature changes may be one factor in whether it can better withstand environmental disruption. The researchers studied 135 bird species in the Himalayas and found that species living in the seasonal western Himalayas adapted to the conversion of forests to agricultural land better than birds native to the tropical eastern Himalayas. Results such as these could help conservationists better determine where to focus their efforts.

3D-printed coral could help endangered reefs


What gives a 3-meter-long Amazonian fish some of the toughest scales on Earth
Arapaima gigas is a big fish in a bigger river full of piranhas, but that doesn't mean it's an easy meal. It's evolved armor-like scales that deform, but don't tear or crack, when a piranha -- which has one of the animal kingdom's most powerful bites -- attacks. Researchers from UC San Diego and UC Berkeley describe the unique properties of the Amazonian Arapaima skin and its potential for man-made materials Oct. 16 in the journal Matter.

Clingfish biology inspires better suction cup

sustainable tech

Computer models show clear advantages in new types of wind turbines
Researchers from Aarhus University and Durham University have modelled the fluid dynamics of multi-rotor wind turbines via high-resolution numerical simulations. The simulations demonstrate a clear advantage for a turbine model with four rotors. The researchers found, that the wind turbine wake recovers much faster with multi-rotor turbines, that multi-rotor turbines produce slightly more energy than single-rotor turbines, and that a turbine with four rotors as far apart as possible is the optimal construction.


Scientists find early humans moved through Mediterranean earlier than believed
An international research team led by scientists from McMaster University has unearthed new evidence in Greece proving that the island of Naxos was inhabited by Neanderthals and earlier humans at least 200,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Surveying solar storms by ancient Assyrian astronomers
University of Tsukuba researcher finds evidence of ancient solar magnetic storms based on cuneiform astrological records and carbon-14 dating. This work may help with our understanding of intense solar activity that can threaten modern electronics.

Exploring the link between daily stress, depression, and Facebook addiction disorder


From the news media:

The Guardian has a video of the fast-running ants.

Monday, October 14, 2019

keeping track

Open Archive Day

The last feature I wrote (currently in press) contains a segment on migrating birds, which reminded me of this ancient piece on tracking technology used in ecology and conservation research, which is in the open archives:

Animal moves reveal bigger picture

Sunday, October 13, 2019

splashing out

In the round-up of German pieces published since August, we have splashy art, molecular music, smells and old bones, bit of everything really ...

Ausgeforscht: Die Musik der Proteine
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 67, Issue 10, Oct. 2019, Page 98
Access via Wiley Online Library

Der dritte Mensch
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 67, Issue 9, Sept. 2019, Pages 60-62
Access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Die Kunst des Spritzens
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 67, Issue 9, September 2019, Page 98
Access via Wiley Online Library
(the science of Jackson Pollock style splashing)

Jedem sein eigener Riecher: Genetik und Geruchswahrnehmung
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 53, Issue ,4 August 2019, Page 210
Access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English

Nothing to do with my articles, but I'm loving the cover photo of a Kipp apparatus on the October issue of Nachrichten. The relevant article is a profile of a guy who collects ancient lab glassware (open access) - now there's an idea ... (PDF of the cover here)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

unsettling status

So there are now 2 million EU27 citizens who have applied for settled status in the UK, and those who don't have that status after the end of 2020 are being threatened with deportation.

What I find really unsettling about this, however, is that those who apply and get through don't get proof of settled status. Thus their status could be canceled at any time and they could still be deported (as I found out from this excellent report by Amelia Gentleman). If the settled status scheme really was about our right to stay, it would provide a document confirming that right. As it stands, it is a scheme to establish where we are and to enable the authorities to do to us whatever they fancy at any given time.

So right now I really don't think it is wise to rush and get in your application. There is still the whole of the next year left for that - if indeed all this madness calms down a bit and the UK remains a reasonably safe place to stay. But we should also prepare for Brexodus in case things don't work out.

One of the winning entries in a competition organised by for parodies of the government's "Get ready" campaign.

Friday, October 11, 2019

science news 11.10.2019

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 suggests ice on lunar south pole may have more than 1 source


Aerial photographs shed light on Mont Blanc ice loss


Honeybees are math stars
Many creatures, including humans, can determine quantities up to four at a glance, but struggle to distinguish four from five. However, scientists based in Australia and France wondered if honeybees might be able to do better if trained correctly. Amazingly, they discovered that bees can learn to distinguish four from five if they receive a bitter tasting reprimand when they make mistakes during training. Honeybees are better mathematicians than we had thought.


Light my fire: How to startup fusion devices every time


Ancient DNA reveals social inequality in bronze age Europe households
Providing a clearer picture of intra-household inequality in ancient times, new research reports that prehistoric German households near the Lech Valley consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals.

Musical perception: nature or nurture?
A study [...] comparing how the brain reacts when the musical sequences perceived do not finish as might be expected. The study is part of a H2020 international European project which the CBC is conducting the with Fundació Bial to understand the bases of musical cognition.

Topographic map of how the brain reacts in musicians and non-musicians.
Credit: Juan M. Toro (UPF)

Linguists track impact of cognitive decline across three decades of one writer's diaries


From the news media:

While Extinction Rebellion are out and about this week, the Guardian runs a big series with investigations re. the big polluters and how they are trying to block climate change policies all this week. Here's George Monbiot's comment piece on the issue at stake.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

science news 10.10.2019

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.


Chemical evolution -- One-pot wonder
Before life, there was RNA: Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich show how the four different letters of this genetic alphabet could be created from simple precursor molecules on early Earth -- under the same environmental conditions.

Liquifying a rocky exoplanet
A hot, molten Earth would be around 5% larger than its solid counterpart. This is the result of a study led by researchers at the University of Bern. The difference between molten and solid rocky planets is important for the search of Earth-like worlds beyond our Solar System and the understanding of Earth itself.


Warm ocean water attacking edges of Antarctica's ice shelves


Meet Siamraptor suwati, a new species of giant predatory dinosaur from Thailand


Hush, little baby: Mother right whales 'whisper' to calves
A recent study led by Syracuse University biology professor Susan Parks in Biology Letters explores whether right whale mother-calf pairs change their vocalizations to keep predators from detecting them.

A unique study sheds light on the ecology of the glacial relict amphipod Gammaracanthus lacustris

climate change is a threat to the amphipod Gammaracanthus lacustris: as adapted to cold waters the species is not likely to survive in warmer waters.

The University of Jyväskylä/Jouni Taskinen


Tuberculosis: New insights into the pathogen

Antibiotic resistance in food animals nearly tripled since 2000

Humans have salamander-like ability to regrow cartilage in joints


Study finds prehistoric humans ate bone marrow like canned soup 400,000 years ago

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

science news 9.10.2019

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.


Scientists identify molecule that could have helped cells thrive on early Earth
A new study, led by Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, PhD, of Scripps Research, and Sheref Mansy, PhD, of the University of Trento, offers an explanation for how "protocells" could have emerged on early Earth, eventually leading to the cells we know today. Their work, published in the journal SMALL, suggests that molecules called cyclophospholipids may have been the ingredient necessary for protocells to form important internal structures called vesicles, which likely kicked off the evolutionary process.


Meet the 'mold pigs,' a new group of invertebrates from 30 million years ago

Fossils preserved in Dominican amber reveal a new family, genus and species of microinvertebrate from the mid-Tertiary period, a discovery that shows unique lineages of the tiny creatures were living 30 million years ago.
Credit: Provided by George Poinar Jr.


When laying their eggs, tobacco hawkmoths avoid plants that smell of caterpillar feces
Love the tobacco hawkmoth (Manduca sexta) - they're so clever with chemistry. Also the cover star of my new book.

The deeper these octopuses live, the wartier their skin

Badger behavior inside the cull zone
A study led by researchers at international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and Imperial College London has found that culling drives badgers to roam 61% further afield -- helping to explain why the practice, intended to reduce bovine TB transmission, can sometimes exacerbate the problem instead


Study recommends special protection of emperor penguins


A cool alternative to air conditioning

Buying less is better than buying 'green' -- for the planet and your happiness


From the news media:

The Nobel Prize in physics was announced yesterday, split between the discovery of the first exoplanet (Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor) and cosmology (James Peebles). All of them feature in my astrobiology book, of course.

And the chemistry prize, announced today, is for lithium ion batteries.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

science news 8.10.2019

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.

solar system

Saturn surpasses Jupiter after the discovery of 20 new moons


Archaea hold clues to ancient ocean temperatures

The last mammoths died on a remote island


How plants react to fungi

climate change

Dual approach needed to save sinking cities and bleaching corals

Disappearing Peruvian glaciers


Novel compound interrupts malaria parasite's lifecycle


Early humans evolved in ecosystems unlike any found today

Early hunter-gatherers interacted much sooner than previously believed
A nearly 4,000-year-old burial site found off the coast of Georgia hints at ties between hunter-gatherers on opposite sides of North America

Monday, October 07, 2019

future cities

I had great fun writing a feature on the future of cities - how to achieve sustainability as continuing global urbanisation leads to growth often hardly manageable - while also visiting some present cities including Düsseldorf and Berlin, but also looking at London and Brussels en route (and reflecting on possible cities to move to when Brexodus time comes).

At the time, people in traditionally car-crazy Germany were protesting against the motor show IAA, calling for SUVs to be banned in cities, and turning out in masses to the Fridays For Future climate action demos, so these current events have found a mention in my feature which is out now, as part of a special issue on the Anthropocene:

The future is urbanised

Current Biology Volume 29, issue 19, pages R947-R949, October 7, 2019

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Glad to see that the Guardian has also picked up the SUV issue today.

My photos from this latest trip are still in the queue waiting to be processed (apart from those I took at the FFF climate demo, which are here), but here's one of from Düsseldorf earlier this year.

PS I don't know why I haven't created a tag for cities yet, but this is my third feature about them, following the ones on the evolution of cities and on urban ecology and evolution. Both are now on open access.