Archive June 2010

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’ Grant Jacobs Jun 29


Previously I considered that media might ask experts what is known rather than their opinion.*

XMRV (Source: Singh Laboratory, University of Utah.)

XMRV (Source: Singh Laboratory, University of Utah.)

The fuss about the potential link between XMRV and CFS over the past few months has reminded me of the need for coverage to present what the current state of play is.

One of the more frustrating things for scientists to watch is media reports jumping in too soon,** reporting each new finding in an unresolved story as if it were the last word.

It portrays each research paper as definitive on their own. Research papers are in effect an argument for a case, a case that might potentially later prove wrong.

’Instant’ blow-by-blow accounts portray science as a progression of abrupt discoveries, rather than an accumulation of smaller pieces from many different sources that lead to larger conclusions over time. It is true that occasionally there are genuinely startling findings that fly in the face of most of what was known in an area, but these are rare; much more usual are additions to what is known.

Sometimes research findings are contradicted by later studies.

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Book yourself into the NZ International Science Festival Grant Jacobs Jun 28

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NZISF logo

Running from July 6th to 11th, New Zealand’s International Science Festival hits the streets.

For many it may be better known as mainly for kids.

There is of course a huge programme for kids, but there is also a busy programme for adults, which I am going to focus on here.

To book on-line, click on the details page of the event that interest you; if booking is needed a link to book for that event is near the bottom of the page along with the time and venue details.

Here’s a teaser. Read the rest of this entry »

From the science blogosphere Grant Jacobs Jun 28

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While waiting until I’m happy with several original posts in the pipeline (one is scheduled for tomorrow but I’m fussing about the others…), a quick round-up on the intriguing, interesting or plain batty in the science blogosphere is in order while I wait for England to do battle with Germany.*


Spoofing Jenkins. Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins is rallying against science again. Over at Nature Network Jennifer Rohn is challenging science blogging to write a spoof of his latest rant (’Martin Rees makes a religion out of science so his bishops can gather their tithe’) and add it to her growing collection, In which evil boffins seek revenge.

Inside the Outbreaks. What a cover! Scienceblog’s book club is being re-activated with this book, with introductions to the author, discussion panels of experts in tracking down diseases, Start at the beginning and follow the fun over the next 5-6 posts.

Hyperlink articles are linking on. I previously wrote following on from others writing following on from Nick Carr’s post. Librarian Christina K. Pikas joins the fray, arguing that Hyperlinks support the type of reading scientists have always done, drawing a few comments.

Colonising hydrothermal vents. Hydrothermal vents are essentially cracks in the ocean floor that spew hot materials into the water. They attract a surprising amount of life, considering that they are on the floor of the ocean. Hannah Waters writes about studies are looking at how these vents become colonised.


* On a football field in South Africa.

Other articles in Code for life:

To link or not to link: mainstream media and no links at all

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles

Scientists’ other lives

You can change the ideas, but not the data

Caf̩ scientifique Рlost in translation? Grant Jacobs Jun 27


Does the title Café scientifique convey the wrong idea?

I made a brief comment on an ArsTechnica article about a case study of science communication in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.* (USA), pointing to Café Scientifique as another example of communicating science and interacting with the public.

My comment received a reply which suggested the person both did not know what Café Scientifique was and had misinterpreted it’s aims from the title,

But isn’t Cafe Scientifique largely along with your peers? [...]

I wrote a reply explaining what the overall aims were, which I’ve given in edited form below.

The thing I wanted to ask readers here is if you think the title is misleading or confusing.

When you see Café Scientifique, what you do you think?

Something for scientists? Or, geeks-only need apply? Trying to be erudite with faux French airs?!

Do you think something else would be better in it’s place?

Read the rest of this entry »

Basic fluid science on the space station Grant Jacobs Jun 25

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This video shows a series a simple experiments in fluid dynamics on the space station:

YouTube Preview Image

Don’t be put off by the length of the video (~47 minutes) or the disarmingly slow-paced presentation. Although these experiments are in some ways very simple, they’re wonderful to watch and visually appealing. (I like that they’re simple that they are experiments readers could imagine doing themselves… if only we could make it onto a space station!) You’ll notice how they ’make do’ with a lot of their materials.

Early in the video the presenter says that the water films are about 200 microns thick. A micron is one-thousanth of a millimetre. That’s a thin sheet of water!

Enjoy watching this.

Other articles on Code for life:

Royal Society publishing free to read, 1665 – today

Friday reading – Legionnaires’ Disease, human ash sculptures, and more

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

Distinguishing scams (cartoon)

Illusory balls (video)

Epigenetics, growing old and identical twins becoming unique (video)

Sound bites on climate change science communication Grant Jacobs Jun 24


I don’t write about climate science myself,* I’m not a climate scientist. Communicating science I do write about. This ten-minute video presents a series of short takes (longer than sound bites, despite my title!) from a panel of speakers on communicating climate change science:

YouTube Preview Image

You will note much of their concern is not with ’presenting the facts’ but how to ’connect’ with their readership or audience. This is not the viewpoint of science or most scientists, who want to focus on the science itself. I personally feel there is a need for more than just this approach,** but having said that presenting only ’facts’ will likely limit your audience to those that already have sufficient interest to put some effort in.***

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Royal Society publishing free to read, 1665 – today Grant Jacobs Jun 23


Until July 30th 2010, all of the content published by the Royal Society is open access to all. Dig into it while you can!

(Source: Royal Society website.)

(Source: Royal Society website.)

Some of you will know I am a fan of older and ‘ancient’ science. I’ve previously written that some older works from the Philosophical Transactions are available to everyone via their Trailblazing website. In similar fashion, older science articles are available on-line elsewhere.

The Royal Society provide lists that highlight a small selection of the older works from the Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

These are a treasure trove of correspondence and articles to explore, as looking at the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions shows.

If you are reading these, it pays to read on down past the article that caught your attention. They are presented as a collection of correspondence; further remarks are often to be found later on.

Robert Boyle provides An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf. It is – to my reading – a fÅ“tus-in-fÅ“tu or a teratoma, ’masses’ in the uterus that may contain some differentiated portions such as legs, arms, hands, etc. This is taken futher by David Thomas’ note An Observation Imparted to the Noble Mr. Boyle, by Mr. David Thomas, Touching Some Particulars Further Considerable in the Monster Mentioned in the First Papers of These Philosophical Transactions. (You can see one reason why brief titles are favoured today.)

Some titles – to modern eyes and minds – are comical, such as:

  • The Motion of the Second Comet Predicted, by the Same Gentleman, Who Predicted That of the Former.
  • A Relation of Persons Killed with Subterraneous Damps.
  • Observables upon a Monstrous Head* is immediately followed by Observables in the Body of the Earl of Balcarres,** surely a truly awkward juxtaposition of titles even in the day.
  • Monsieur Auzout’s Speculations of the Changes, Likely to be Discovered in the Earth and Moon, by Their Respective Inhabitants. (Erm…, inhabitants on the Moon?)

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Institutional blogs added to scienceblogs Grant Jacobs Jun 23


Our US-based counterpart, Scienceblogs, has added three institutional blogs:

All three are very well-known institutes that will have plenty of interesting stories to tell.

The introductory posts for the first two are up.

My initial knee-jerk reaction to the introductory posts was how similar they seemed to advertising copy!

Hey, guys, we know you’re great institutes without you blowing your own trumpets!

Seriously now, institutional blogs are a good way of advertising an institution. It’s good to see these top institutes taking science blogging seriously.

It’s almost certainly a perennial question raised of institutional blogs, but I hope that scientists writing under these institutional blogs will feel free to write in the very open, wide-ranging, style of their scienceblogs colleagues or ourselves here at sciblogs.

The introductions of these blogs also serve as a useful reminder that larger institutions have their own staff science writers, and that this is a potential source of employment for science writers. (The Weizmann Institute blog mentions that their staff science writers may write.)

The first two institutes I know of through structural biology – the atomic structures of biological macromolecules – an area both are strong in. I’m looking forward to more structural biology on the ’web (and computational biology in general), and who could resist reading more about the search for extra-terrestrial life?

HT: PZ Myers.

Other articles on Code for life:

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

Autism genetics, how do you copy?

To link or not to link: is that the question?

Professors, lost souls with great oratory power?

I remember because my DNA was methylated

Media now only report on public ignorance Grant Jacobs Jun 21


Courtesy of cartoonist, xkcd:



I love how this subtlety drops in a call for anecdotal opinion (rather than evidence).

Read Jonathon Holmes’s recent article on that journalism should offer more than ’he said, she said’ in the context of the cartoon (or vice versa).

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Readying yourself for the exam: cram, nude rugby or what? Grant Jacobs Jun 21

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What do (did) you do in the last hours before an exam?

(Mock brawl in nude Blacks v. Welsh Leeks match. Source:

Mock brawl in Nude Blacks v. Welsh Leeks French (?) match. (Source:

Rugby is regarded as the national sport of New Zealand. My own interest is currently more with the football, where New Zealand drew 1:1 against the current world champions Italy last night.*1

In Dunedin we have just had a rugby test match*2 between New Zealand and Wales.

Dunedin is a university town, with all that goes with it.

Recent traditional has been to host an informal nude game prior to the main event.

The Otago Daily Times account*3 of the Nude Blacks*4 v. the Welsh Leeks match observed that

Dunedin students made up the bulk of the Nude Blacks team, which was obvious when one had to leave halfway through the match to sit an exam, […]

I was a more boring student.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

(Not the author. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

I never played nude rugby as an exam-readiness fixture.

When I was fitter, I would head off for a run. I was keen on long-distance running as a kid, and I found that after a physical workout I was in a better mood to face a mental workout. (I’ve no idea if any science backs this.)

Over the years I figured that by the time you got to the day, you knew what you did (or didn’t) and that – for me – last minute ’cramming’ generally just raised the stress levels without adding enough to justify it.

I suppose nude rugby could be another way to let of some steam and take your mind off things before facing the exam.

Seriously now, what are (were) your pre-exam rituals?

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