Category Archives: Science - Page 2

Scientists Discover New Monkey That You’ll Never Hear About Again

Last week, it was widely reported that a new species of monkey was discovered, as if it actually mattered to anyone that’s not a biologist. The other 99.86% of the population was also informed that this was only the second discovery of a new species of monkey since 1984, prompting many to wonder why scientists are still discovering monkeys in the 21st century. “I was pretty sure they already bagged and tagged all the animals like in the 1800s, and then this happened,” said someone, probably.

The "new" monkey looks just like a regular old monkey


But the let-downs didn’t end there: according to science, the discovery is a type of Old World Monkey, of which there are over a hundred different species with names like Allen’s swamp monkeyGrivet, and Mandrill. Great apes and New World Monkeys are not part of this grouping. When informed of the primate taxonomy, many of the population of a dinner table complained about there being far too many species of monkeys and briefly wondered how they managed to not be extinct by now, followed by whether or not the new one was tasty. However, the final blow in the supposed news item came out of nowhere: the discovery was actually made in 2007; the scientists in question required five years to publish the discovery, claiming that it took that long to make sure it really was a new species. “It’s just not that different than its hundred other cousins, but… it’ll get us published,” thought everyone involved.


Good News: Being An Ass To Your Infants Won’t Scar Them For Life

A new study from Australia shows that parents possessing the lack of empathy required to let their babies cry themselves to sleep without so much as touching them, have nothing to worry about regarding the child’s psychological development. Behavioral sleeping techniques such as Ferberizing and the “camping out” method were tested on unwitting infants, who were revisited at age 6 and who, to some surprise, showed no psychological effects from the emotional abandonment — neither harm nor benefit.


Photo by Josh Lewis


For those unfamiliar with the German methods of sleep training:

  • Ferberizing refers to a method in which the infant is classically conditioned to fall asleep when put in the crib. This starts by putting the awake child in and sitting patiently nearby while he cries — no doubt due to the agony of feeling alone, unloved and abandoned — until either you win and he falls asleep or you lose because you can’t take it anymore. At that point, you note how much time has passed and pick him up; the next time, repeat the process but wait a little longer before picking him up. After a while, the infant will realize you have the emotional depth of a pine tree, and will cope by rendering himself unconscious, in hope of a better tomorrow.
  • Camping out is almost the exact same thing, but sounds less toxic.

And now science is pretty sure that both of them leave the child unharmed, even if they do hint at your own hollowness.

Note: if you mention the term “to Ferberize” to someone unfamiliar with the method, they would probably guess the definition had to do with applying chemical treatment to carpet so as to make it stain proof. In fact, they would be surprised to learn that the term is quite closely the equivalent of emotional infant care to that definition.

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From The Journal Of The American Academy of Pediatrics, via NPR

Pregnancies Last Only 9 Months So As To Not Exhaust The Mother

Normal people don’t really think about stuff like this, but babies should really be born ready to walk, or at least crawl around. What other species bears helpless little creatures that can’t even run away from an angry snail? All manner of vegetation, sure; but mammals — not so much. (Incidentally, this observation led ethicists from Oxford to deduce that there’s no moral difference between abortion and infanticide: a fetus and a newborn are the same, except for which side of the birth canal they’re on; both are helpless, unaware, and fully dependent on others for their existence. But that’s a whole other issue.)  Up until now, the going theory as to why human gestation isn’t 18 months, like it should be, has been that the mom couldn’t give birth to such a large baby — at least not without her pelvis being left somewhat crippled.

Ok, that baby might actually be a good candidate for C-section


That didn’t sound quite right to some academics, so they did what academics do best: research. Long story short, they figured out that women give birth to babies that large all the time — to deliver a baby the size of a 9-month old, they would only need an inch bigger than average dilation of the birth canal. So the pelvis thing couldn’t be the problem.

Enter the alternate theory: pregnant women burn a lot more calories, because making a person apparently takes some elbow grease. In fact, six months into the process, their metabolism burns twice as high as normal and stays there until birth. So the new theory is that metabolism turbo-charged to that level can only be sustained for so long, not to mention that it would have to go even higher for an 18-month fetus. Mom’s body would probably call it quits long before the baby’s ready to crawl upon delivery. But once science figures out how to give men uteruses (uteri?)… watch out, diaper industry!

From National Academy of Sciences, via NPR

Ladies, Try To Have As Few Abortions As Possible

Don’t worry: it’s only if you may actually want to give live birth someday. This, according to a new Finnish study which warns that things start getting hairy after the third abortion: that fifth-time’s-a-charm baby has a decent chance of being born prematurely, and of being underweight. If you’re still one of the pedestrians that has only had one or two abortions though, you don’t have that much to worry about. However, once your life choices and/or understanding of the stork’s role in childbirth  have brought your smushmorshin count up into plural territory, the well-being of future fetuses may be put at risk. The study makes no recommendations for those who could care less about childbirth.


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From Oxford Journals, via NPR

Video Of Curiosity’s Mars Landing

NASA has released video taken by the Curiosity Rover as it landed on Mars. It shows the separation of the heat shield, followed by the powered descent of the rover. At the end, you can see the Martian dust being blown around by the sky crane’s thrusters.

From YouTube, via Discover Magazine and Neatorama

Take 30-Minute Power Naps To Feel Refreshed

If you avoid taking naps when you’re tired and instead go for a Red Bull or a 5-Hour Energy because naps make you groggy, it’s because you’re napping too long. The Asap SCIENCE video below explains that the sleep cycle is made up of four stages, the last one of which is REM sleep, in which we dream. The last two stages are also a deep sleep, during which your motor functions shut down, making you feel groggy when you wake up. So as long as you avoid going into the 3rd stage of sleep — which begins about 30 minutes after the first stage —  then you’ll get some of the benefits of sleep and wake up feeling refreshed.

If you have an iPhone, there’s a free app called Nap that’s great for quickly setting up power naps. It’s made by Wake N Shake, which may just be the best alarm clock app yet.

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

The Appendix’s Function Is Emergency Storage Of Good Bacteria

Since the advent of modern medical science, the purpose of the appendix has been debated at length, because the organ doesn’t do anything — except get infected, burst, and possibly kill its owner. Darwin thought it may have helped our evolutionary ancestors digest leaves, while others thought it helped our immune system, and still others thought it was a trashcan for bacteria. A team of immunologists at Duke University now have a new theory: it appears that our digestive system uses the appendix to store useful bacteria, for safekeeping. Our bodies need all kinds of intestinal bacteria in order to be healthy, but diseases like cholera can flush out the entire intestine, leaving behind a pristine environment devoid of any biotics — cholera as well as the good bacteria. This is where the appendix comes in: tucked away inside it are the good bacteria which, in the event of a digestive catastrophe, can repopulate the intestinal world.


In our modern civilization though, the appendix is still useless because we are in close contact with a lot of people and we easily replenish the good bacteria from them. However, in more sparsely populated scenarios — which were much more common some centuries ago — the appendix would re-start a lone survivor’s digestive system after a bout with a disease like cholera. So in the end, the appendix is still vestigial: yes, it has a function, but that function has been overcome by events and it is no longer used as intended. Kind of like wisdom teeth.

From The Independent, via Neatorama

Why Fahrenheit Is Better Than Celsius

Originally, units of measure were people-centric: a cubit was about the length of someone’s forearm; a stone was how much a big stone weighed; a grain, how much a grain of cereal weighed; a day lasted from sunrise to sunrise, or sunset to sunset. These were units that, while making little logical sense otherwise, people could easily relate to.

But at some point during the Enlightenment, scientists realized that they needed units that would make their jobs easier, and so they made ones that lent themselves to fast calculations: the meter was supposed to be  1/10,000,000 of the Northern Hemisphere’s circumference, and all the related units were multiples of 10. The kilogram is based on the weight of a fraction of a cubic meter of water. Our days now begin at midnight because astronomers calculate days using the more accurate sidereal time, which needs to be observed at night, since it’s based on the position of stars. And of course, the temperature measurement above: Celsius is based on the freezing and boiling points of water, since water is such a crucial substance to chemists.

Scientific measurement systems are great for scientific purposes, but the length of a meter or the weight of a kilogram means nothing to the layman, a day that starts at midnight makes no practical sense, and outside of cooking, no one cares at what temperature water boils, but everyone wants to know how many layers of clothing to put on. Fortunately, thanks to American exceptionalism, we still use practical units for a lot of things: the foot is still about the length of a man’s foot, an inch, about the width of a thumb, and a cup is still the size of a cup.

The Fahrenheit scale is interesting because it was scientifically developed, but it was centered around people: 0° was the coldest substance that could be concocted in the 18th century, 32° was ice water, and 96° was body temperature. And so it was 32° between really cold and cold, another 32 between cold and comfortable, and a last 32 between comfortable and really hot.  It later got a little bit of the Celsius treatment, and the scale was adjusted so that water boils at 212°, which moved body temperature up to the current, awkward, 98.6°F. But, for most purposes, Fahrenheit, and the rest of the American system, is ultimately just more practical for everyday use. The metric system is great for science and engineering, but, aside from having to remember how many cups are in a pint, there’s no reason the other 90% of the population should know how much a liter is.

From imgur

Scientific Studies Should Be Taken With A Giant Grain Of Salt

An article in Nature last week brought up a fact that’s been getting more and more attention in the past decade: most published research findings are false. It all started when a paper with that very title was published in 2005, containing mathematical proof showing that it’s very easy for a study to be wrong, due to three main reasons:

  • Researcher bias: this can be confirmation bias, where the researcher, maybe even unconsciously, sets the experiment up to succeed out of fear of being proven wrong; there are plenty of ways to massage every experiment, or to interpret the numbers, so that the outcome is the one hoped for. The bias can also be incentive-based, in which the researcher skews the results because of what’s at stake: a good job, grant money, a promising career, or even prestige and scientific stardom.
  • Selective reporting: the vast majority of studies published have positive results — that is, they confirmed what the researcher was looking for, e.g. that cell phones cause brain cancer. But if the research shows no effect from cell phones, it doesn’t get sent in for publication. And even if it does, the journal may decide to not publish because it’s not sexy enough.
  • Poor study design: maybe the samples were too small, the study wasn’t double-blinded or not randomized, it tested too many relationships, or relied on self-reporting; it could be the question was too broad, the results were mis-analyzed, or any of dozens of possible flaws that can make its way into a study, usually due to constraints on time or money.

John Ioannidis


The paper became the most downloaded article in the PLoS Medicine journal. The author, John Ioannidis, was the subject of an in-depth profile by The Atlantic in 2010. He has made it his mission in life to root out bad studies and prove them wrong. From the article, emphasis added:

Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time. Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right. His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials. (The Atlantic, November 2010)

Ioannidis then published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which confirmed his predictions: 22% of the 49 most widely cited medical studies in the most widely cited journals were never even replicated; and 29% of the ones that were, were proven wrong. Therefore, his advice is to largely ignore studies: besides the fact that they often contradict each other, there are so many factors at play in something as complex as the human body, that researchers most often find flukes in the large, but limited data sets — not actual facts. It’s somewhat like claiming words in a giant bowl of alphabet soup have some significance.


But even if researchers stumble onto something significant, the study can only predict effects in a test environment, not in the real world. And very few studies go on for long enough to see if a factor affects important things, like death rate. (The few that do, generally contradict shorter studies.) Then, even in a magical unicorn of a perfect study, the results are averages over hundreds or thousands of people and are not even remotely tailored to our individual needs. And finally, even if you are the unlikely beneficiary of a perfect study done on a subset of the population that you belong to, the effects found are generally meager. In fact, we can’t even be sure that a study hasn’t already been refuted: sometimes it takes over ten years for researchers to stop citing one that was proven to be wrong. For example, people still think plastic water bottles leech toxic chemicals, even though the original study was severely flawed.

“The odds that anything useful will survive from any of these studies are poor,” says Ioannidis—dismissing in a breath a good chunk of the research into which we sink about $100 billion a year in the United States alone. (The Atlantic, November 2010)

And these problems exist in all fields of research, not just in bio-medicine. The New Yorker also interviewed Ioannidis in 2010, as part of an article on a related problem in scientific research, known as the Decline Effect. A very curious phenomenon, it makes significant findings of studies disappear over time — and it happens a lot. A study will find a drug very effective, then a subsequent study will find it less effective, and a third one even less so; the effect is generally explained as flukes being worked out of the studies over time, known as regression toward the mean.


It has even been shown that all economic studies might be wrong, and throughout history, instances where reality didn’t agree with the laws of physics have caused our understanding of the universe to become more and more complex — from the Earth sitting on the back of a turtle, to being suspended in the void by a force we can measure, but do not quite understand. And after centuries of discovering the laws of physics and building the complex language of advanced mathematics to describe them, scientists are now faced with the similar feat of discovering the laws that govern the remaining important and extremely complex systems: our bodies, our environment and our society.

All of the evidence points to us not even being close to understanding those systems. But eventually, we will get to the same level of clarity about them that we have about classical physics. Until then, Ioannidis came up with some rules for judging truthiness:

A study is more likely to be wrong if

  • it is small
  • the effect sizes are small
  • there are large financial interests, or prejudices
  • the scientific field is flexible with respect to study design
  • the scientific field is teeming with competing teams

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From Nature, PLoS Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, The New Yorker and The Atlantic

Sleeping Pills Tied To Higher Risk Of Death

A new study in the British Medical Journal looked at the mortality rates associated with the use of “hypnotic drugs,” or sleeping pills. Older studies have looked at this before and found that people using sleeping pills were more likely to die, but had some shortcomings which this study corrected. The results:

  • Patients receiving prescriptions for zolpidem, temazepam and other hypnotics suffered over four times the mortality as the matched hypnotic-free control patients.

  • Even patients prescribed fewer than 18 hypnotic doses per year experienced increased mortality, with greater mortality associated with greater dosage prescribed.

  • Among patients prescribed hypnotics, cancer incidence was increased for several specific types of cancer, with an overall cancer increase of 35% among those prescribed high doses


The researchers adjusted the data to remove effects caused by age, gender, smoking, body mass index, ethnicity, marital status, alcohol use and prior cancer. However, without more effort, research like this finds correlation, not causation: it’s hard to tell whether the sleeping pills caused the higher risk of death, or whether the patients with sleep problems have a higher risk of death to begin with and would’ve ended up the same without the sleeping pill.

To combat this problem, the study also controlled for known causes of death and the association between sleeping pill use and mortality remained significant. Or, in science speak: “neither the level of individual health nor the presence of particular categories of comorbidity explains the bulk of the hazard associated with the use of hypnotic medications.” However, they still can’t be sure that they didn’t leave something out, and an unknown factor is causing both the insomnia and higher mortality. Still, about 8% of Americans use sleeping pills, so caution is warranted. The paper closes with this — emphasis added:

The meagre benefits of hypnotics, as critically reviewed by groups without financial interest would not justify substantial risks. A consensus is developing that cognitive-behavioural therapy of chronic insomnia may be more successful than hypnotics. Against meagre benefits, it is prudent to weigh the evidence of mortality risks from the current study and 24 previous reports, in order to reconsider whether even short-term use of hypnotics, as given qualified approval in National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidance, is sufficiently safe.


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From The British Medical Journal, via Slashdot