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.
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.
A widely reported crack in the Rift Valley was not formed by tectonic movement, but by erosion of soil from recent heavy rains
Global media outlets have been abuzz recently about a large “crack” which appeared in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Many of these news pieces have tried to get to the bottom of what caused this feature, with many reports concluding that it was evidence for the African continent actively splitting into two. However, many articles cited limited expert comment, much of which was taken out of context and was based on minimal hard evidence. Other articles fed directly off previous reports, propagating unsubstantiated rumours and losing sight of original sources.
Other animals have us beat over short distances, but in an interspecies Olympic ultramarathon, Homo sapiens would likely take all the medals
Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, while a remarkable human milestone, is noteworthy from a comparative physiology standpoint only for its mediocrity. A seminal paper by AV Hill on biomechanics illustrates the point with a table of maximum speeds across the animal kingdom – humans are outperformed by almost every animal on the list, including the wild donkey, the ostrich and the elephant. We just about beat the black rhinoceros, while the cheetah would complete the mile in about a minute.
Identifying poisonous substances is vital, particularly when people become ill from their effects and need medical treatment. If the cause of the problems is known, better remedies can be given instead of symptoms being treated as they present themselves. With more knowledge, the poisoned individuals are more likely to survive. From a legal point of view, it is important to identify a poison if it has been deliberately administered so evidence can be obtained for any potential criminal prosecution.
How a subversive form of mapmaking charts the stories and customs of those who would traditionally be ignored
Sara is a 32-year-old mother of four from Honduras. After leaving her children in the care of relatives, she travelled across three state borders on her way to the US, where she hoped to find work and send money home to her family. She was kidnapped in Mexico and held captive for three months, and was finally released when her family paid a ransom of $190.
Her story is not uncommon. The UN estimates that there are 258 million migrants in the world. In Mexico alone, 1,600 migrants are thought to be kidnapped every month. What is unusual is that Sara’s story has been documented in a recent academic paper that includes a map of her journey that she herself drew. Her map appears alongside four others – also drawn by migrants. These maps include legends and scales not found on orthodox maps – unnamed river crossings, locations of kidnapping and places of refuge such as a “casa de emigrante” where officials cannot enter. Since 2011, such shelters have been identified by Mexican law as “spaces of exception”.
On Baby Sleep Day, here are some insights that might help get you through the long, broken nights
Pairing the words “baby” and “sleep” can evoke strong emotions. Those who have had limited contact with little ones might interpret this word-combination as implying deep and prolonged slumber. For others, this union of words may elicit memories of prolonged periods of chaotic sleep (or what can feel like no sleep at all).
Coping with the way babies sleep can be difficult. It’s not that babies don’t sleep. In fact, they sleep more than at any other stage of life. It’s more an issue of when they sleep. Newborns start by sleeping and waking around the clock. This is not always easy for parents. There is even research suggesting that in adults waking repeatedly at night can feel as bad as getting hardly any sleep in terms of attentional skills, fatigue levels and symptoms of depression.
Humans make huge use of marine vertebrates, but manta rays may pass the self-awareness test and other fish potentially could too. Ethically, where does that leave us?
As a shark biologist, I enjoy nothing more than going scuba diving with sharks in the wild. However, I realise it’s an immense privilege to do this as part of my work – and that for the vast majority of people experiencing the underwater world in such a way is simply not possible.
Nevertheless, even without the aid of an air tank humans interact with fish on many levels and in greater numbers than they do with mammals and birds. A review published by the journal Animal Cognition in 2014 by Culum Brown, an associate professor at Macquarie University, Sydney, explains that fish are one of the vertebrate taxa most highly utilised by humans. But despite the fact that they are harvested from wild stocks as part of global fishing industries, grown under intensive aquaculture conditions, are the most common pet and are widely used for scientific research, fish are seldom afforded the same level of compassion or welfare as warm-blooded vertebrates.