The Guardian's blog on scientific research and controversies, written by their reporters and guest contributors. The Guardian's website is the best source of latest news, opinion, analysis and reviews.
Rainfall affects our mood, our propensity to commit crime and how hungry we feel – but why?
It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. He bumped his head when he went to bed, and he couldn’t get up in the morning. This was possibly because in the absence of sunlight his body was still producing the hormone melatonin, which makes you sleepy. There are many ways that rainfall affects human behaviour. Why do crime levels drop when the heavens open? How much does rain really affect people’s moods and behaviour?
In 2008 university researchers published a paper proposing that weak summer monsoons were influential in the downfall of three dynasties in ancient China. By analysing stalagmites from a cave, they were able to match periods of significantly decreased rainfall with periods of social upheaval and the demise of the Tang, Yuan and Ming dynasties. This is thought to be related to reduced rice cultivation.
Rohn uses her last post to question whether her seven years of blogging has made the slightest difference to public attitudes to science and concludes that it probably hasn’t. Her despair follows a now familiar trope in science: that in our “post-truth” society no one is listening to mild mannered science writers trading in facts and evidence. Instead the masses are in thrall to what Rohn calls the “enemy camp”, the anti-science brigade who lamentably “picked up the pen as well” and use it to peddle dangerous lies.
Plans are being made to colonise Mars. Zahaan Bharmal unpicks the arguments against the idea
Earlier this month, a group of 60 prominent scientists and engineers met behind closed doors at the University of Boulder Colorado. Their agenda: Mars colonisation.
Organised by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and attended by members of Nasa’s Mars exploration programme, the goal of this inaugural “Mars workshop” was to begin formulating concrete plans for landing, building and sustaining a human colony on Mars within the next 40 to 100 years.
More than 200 years ago, Giuseppe Piazzi, an isolated astronomer in Palermo, Sicily, discovered a dwarf planet. For him, publishing meant writing a letter to his friend Franz von Zach. Each month von Zach collated letters from astronomers across Europe and redistributed them. No internet for these guys: they found out about the latest discoveries from leatherbound volumes of letters called Monatliche Correspondenz. The time it took to disseminate research threw up its own problems: by the time Piazzi’s data were published, the planet had vanished in the sun’s glare.
The ability to pay no longer determines the ability to play
Michael Marshall attended the UK’s annual gathering of people who share the unshakeable belief that the Earth is flat
There was the three-hour presentation which contended that the universe is a giant egg. There was the Manchester musician who posited that the Earth is the shape of a diamond. And another who believes that the moon is a projection.
Welcome to the Flat Earth UK Convention, a raucous departure from scientific norms where people are free to believe literally anything.
The idea that intelligence can differ between populations has made headlines again, but the rules of evolution make it implausible
The idea that there may be genetic differences in intelligence between one population and another has resurfaced recently, notably in the form of a New York Times op-ed by the Harvard geneticist David Reich. In the article, Reich emphasises the arbitrary nature of traditional racial groupings, but still argues that long periods of ancestry on separate continents have left their genetic marks on modern populations. These are most evident for physical traits like skin and hair colour, where genetic causation is entirely uncontroversial. However, Reich asserts that all genetic traits, including those that affect behaviour and cognition, are expected to differ between populations or races.
This extrapolation from the genetics of physical traits to how our brains work brings back memories of an argument made by the US researchers Charles Murray and Richard J Herrnstein in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, recently resurrected by Murray in conversations with the US neuroscientist and author Sam Harris. In the book, Murray and Herrnstein claim that observed differences in the mean IQ scores of ethnic groups are “highly likely” to be due to both environmental and genetic factors. This sounds quite reasonable at first: the argument concedes that environmental and cultural factors play a big part in any differences seen in the mean IQ scores of various groups. But it also suggests that since genetic variation will contribute to higher or lower IQ in any given population, the genetic differences between one group and another will also underpin mean differences in IQ.
Extracted from foxgloves, digitalis was once used as a treatment for epilepsy. Could a side effect have triggered the artist’s “yellow period”?
It was recently the 127th anniversary of the tragic death of Vincent van Gogh. His short life came to an untimely end two days after he shot himself in the chest; he had experienced mental health issues through much of his life. In the absence of a definitive diagnosis, speculation as to the true nature of his illness fills volumes.
Although he came under the care of several doctors during his life time, knowledge of diseases of the mind was in its infancy in the late nineteenth century. As a result, many of the treatments used at the time would have been ineffective if not potentially dangerous. From our point of view, however, one drug that might have been given to Van Gogh is particularly interesting.