Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

By Jason Bittel

Do baboons fart? What about salamanders? Millipedes?

These questions sound like the sort Bart Simpson might have asked to derail science class. But real-life scientists are now taking to Twitter to provide answers. So far, they’ve created a hashtag — #DoesItFart — and a Google Spreadsheet that details the flatulence habits of more than 60 animals.

So, which animals cut the proverbial cheese? Tons, it turns out. Bats do, according to David Bennett, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London. And the bigger they are, the harder they honk.

Rats, zebras and bearded dragons are also among Those Creatures That Fart. Birds, on the other hand, do not seem to have a biological need for passing gas, but they could let one rip, theoretically. Marine invertebrates such as oysters, mussels and crabs? Alas, they are whoopee-impaired.

The science of farts is not just about potty humor, by the way. Cattle gas, for example, is a significant contributor to atmospheric methane that contributes to climate change. And fauna flatulence is also a hot topic among certain crowds — ones scientists want to engage.

“Does it fart?” is one of most frequent questions zoologists receive from kids, said Dani Rabaiotti of the Zoological Society of London. In fact, the whole #DoesItFart adventure started when her teenage brother asked if snakes ever experience flatulence. Rabaiotti knew from her own work that the wild dogs of Africa definitely fart, as do the extremely gassy seals that reside on the Atlantic island of South Georgia. But she wasn’t sure about snakes, so she consulted snake expert David Steen.

The short answer is yes, says Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University. “Snakes sometimes discharge feces and musk as a defensive strategy, and this is often accompanied by what I would consider classic fart noises,” he said.

Steen said this is far from the first time he’s fielded this question, as it seems to be a favorite of the preteen crowd.

“I don’t know if animal flatulence questions can serve as a significant gateway to a greater appreciation of biodiversity, but it is always fun to see what captures people’s attention,” he said. “It is at least an opportunity to engage with a larger audience and bring new folks into the conversation.”

And if engagement is the goal — or at least a byproduct — does it really matter what the topic is? “Just because it’s flatulence doesn’t mean it’s inherently silly,” said Adriana Lowe, a researcher of biological anthropology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. “The diets and digestive systems of animals are an important and fascinating field of study, and gas is just a part of that.”

Lowe studies chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo forest, animals whose gas appears to vary with their diet. “Fruit is tootier than leaves, and figs seem to be the worst offenders,” she said. On occasion, these bodily functions have even aided in her research. “Several times I have been with one or two chimps and not been aware others are nearby until the farts start,” says Lowe. “Some of them have that very long, air-being-released-from-a-balloon quality, which is handy because it gives you a bit longer to pinpoint where it’s coming from.”


by Esther Inglis-Arkell

Hennig Brand discovered the element of phosphorus in 1669. That sounds like quite an achievement, but Brand’s life wasn’t one that should, necessarily, be emulated. His steps to discovering this element were undignified, to say the least. His first step was marrying well; he was an officer in the army, but his wife had enough money for him to leave. She didn’t have enough money overall — at least not according to Brand — and so he used what money she had to try to make more money.

Sadly, his chosen path for this increase in wealth was alchemy. He wanted to come up with the philosopher’s stone, which turned everyday elements into gold. At that stage, the science generally meant doing weird and dangerous things to any substance scientists could get their hands on. It wasn’t cheap, and Brand burned through all of his wife’s money. She didn’t have to live in poverty only because she was born in the 1600s, and so died young. Brand mourned for a time, and then went in search of another financially secure wife. Surprisingly, he got one.

As soon as he got his hands on her money, he started his experiments again. Alchemists tried anything, but they generally fixated on certain substances. Terribly rare and precious elements were popular, but so were human fluids. Humans were alchemical factories, turning ordinary substances like meat and grain into all kinds of things. The easiest thing to be got from the body was urine, and Brand, somehow, acquired a lot of it. About 1500 gallons of urine went into his experiment, but it paid off. After a complicated process of boiling and separating and recombining, he utterly failed to come up with gold. He did, however, come up with something he called “cold fire.” It glowed, perpetually, in the dark. It was what we now call phosphorus.

Although no direct use was found for cold fire in Brand’s life, people were fascinated with it. Brand capitalized on that — probably to his wife’s great relief. He sold the secret to anyone who would pay enough, including Wilhelm Leibniz, the inventor of calculus. The buyers sold the secret to others, but it remained valuable and well-kept until 1737, when someone sold it to the Academy of Science in Paris and it was published.

How do you get phosphorus from urine? Boil the urine until it’s a “syrup.” Heat the syrup until a red oil comes out of it. Grab that oil! Let the rest cool. The substance will cool into two parts, a black upper part and a grainy lower part. Scrape off the lower part and throw it away. Mix the oil back into the black upper part. Heat that for about 16 hours. The oil will come back out, followed by phosphorus fumes. Channel the phosphorus into water to cool it down. Voila.

by Paul Ratner

Time crystals are hypothetical structures proposed by Nobel-Prize winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek in 2012. What’s special about them is that they would move without using energy, breaking a fundamental physics law of time-translation symmetry. Such crystals would move while remaining in their ground states, when they are at their lowest energy.

They’ve been deemed “impossible” by most physicists and yet, at the end of August, experimental physicists from University of California, Santa Barbara and Microsoft’s research lab station Q published a notable paper on how time crystals may be feasible and their plan for creating them. What’s also remarkable, if time crystals were actually created, they would re-define the nature of time itself, potentially reconciling the rather weird field of quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity.

Now comes news that scientists from the University of Maryland tried an experiment suggested by Frank Wilczek and actually made a time crystal that works. They created a ring-shaped quantum system of a group of ytterbium ions, cooled off to their ground state. In theory, this system should not be moving at all. But if it was to periodically rotate, that would prove the existence of symmetry-breaking time crystals.

The research scientists used a laser to change the spin of the ions to put them into perpetual oscillation. As reported by MIT Tech Review, they discovered that over time the oscillations eventually happened at twice the original rate. Since no energy was added to the system, the only explanation was that they created a time crystal.

As their paper undergoes the peer-review process, the physicists look for others to repeat their experiment. If their discovery is confirmed, the repercussions of this groundbreaking development are only beginning to be understood. One potential application suggested by the scientists may be in quantum computing, where time crystals may be utilized for quantum memory.

You can read the new paper “Observation of a Discrete Time Crystal” here:

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Although the scientific study of leadership is well established, its key discoveries are unfamiliar to most people, including an alarmingly large proportion of those in charge of evaluating and selecting leaders.

This science-practitioner gap explains our disappointing state of affairs. Leaders should drive employee engagement, yet only 30% of employees are engaged, costing the U.S. economy $550 billion a year in productivity loss. Moreover, a large global survey of employee attitudes toward management suggests that a whopping 82% of people don’t trust their boss. You only need to google “my boss is…” or “my manager is…” and see what the autocomplete text is to get a sense of what most people think of their leaders.

Unsurprisingly, over 50% of employees quit their job because of their managers. As the old saying goes, “people join companies, but quit their bosses.” And the rate of derailment, unethical incidents, and counterproductive work behaviors among leaders is so high that it is hard to be shocked by a leader’s dark side. Research indicates that 30%–60% of leaders act destructively, with an estimated cost of $1–$2.7 million for each failed senior manager.

Part of the problem is that many widely held beliefs about leadership are incongruent with the scientific evidence. As Mark Twain allegedly noted, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” For example, it is quite common for people to believe that leadership is largely dependent on the situation, that it’s hard to predict whether someone will be a good (or bad) leader, and that any person can be a leader. In reality, some people have a much higher probability of becoming leaders, regardless of the context, and this probability can be precisely quantified with robust psychological tools.

What do we really know about the measurement of leadership potential? Here are some critical findings:

Who becomes a leader? Although leaders come in many shapes, a few personality characteristics consistently predict whether someone is likely to emerge as a leader. As the most widely cited meta-analysis in this area shows, people who are more adjusted, sociable, ambitious, and curious are much more likely to become leaders. (53% of the variability in leadership emergence is explained by these personality factors.) Unsurprisingly, higher levels of cognitive ability (IQ) also increase an individual’s likelihood to emerge as a leader, though by less than 5%. Of course, emergence doesn’t imply effectiveness, but one has to emerge in order to be effective.

What are the key qualities of effective leaders? The ultimate measure of leader effectiveness is the performance of the leader’s team or organization, particularly vis-à-vis competitors. Leadership is a resource for the group, and effective leaders enable a group to outperform other groups. While the same personality and ability traits described above help leaders become more effective — they are not just advantageous for emergence — the best leaders also show higher levels of integrity, which enables them to create a fair and just culture in their teams and organizations. In addition, effective leaders are generally more emotionally intelligent, which enables them to stay calm under pressure and have better people skills. Conversely, narcissistic leaders are more prone to behaving in unethical ways, which is likely to harm their teams.

How will the person lead? Not everyone leads in the same way. Leadership style is largely dependent on personality. Ambitious, thick-skinned leaders tend to be more entrepreneurial, so they are focused on growth and innovation. Curious, sociable, and sensitive leaders tend to be more charismatic, though charisma often reflects dark side traits, such as narcissism and psychopathy. Studies also highlight gender differences in leadership styles, with men being more transactional and women more transformational. However, gender roles are best understood as a psychological and normally distributed variable, as people differ in masculinity and femininity regardless of their biological sex.

Are leaders born or made? Any observable pattern of human behaviors is the byproduct of genetic and environmental influences, so the answer to this question is “both.” Estimates suggest that leadership is 30%-60% heritable, largely because the character traits that shape leadership — personality and intelligence — are heritable. While this suggests strong biological influences on leadership, it does not imply that nurture is trivial. Even more-heritable traits, such as weight (80%) and height (90%), are affected by environmental factors. Although there is no clear recipe for manipulating the environment in order to boost leadership potential, well-crafted coaching interventions boost critical leadership competencies by about 20%–30%.

What is the role of culture? Culture is key because it drives employee engagement and performance. However, culture isn’t the cause of leadership so much as the result of it. Thus leaders create the explicit and implicit rules of interaction for organizational members, and these rules affect morale and productivity levels. When people’s values are closely aligned with the values of the organization (and leadership), they will experience higher levels of fit and purpose.

How early can we predict potential? Any prediction is a measure of potential or the probability of something happening. Because leadership is partly dependent on genetic and early childhood experiences, predicting it from an early age is certainly possible. Whether doing so is ethical or legal is a different question. However, most of the commonly used indicators to gauge leadership potential — educational achievement, emotional intelligence, ambition, and IQ — can be predicted from a very early age, so it would be naïve to treat them as more malleable. Perhaps in the future, leadership potential will be assessed at a very early age by inspecting people’s saliva.

Does gender matter? Less than we think. The fact that so many leaders are male has much more to do with social factors (people’s expectations, cultural norms, and opportunities) than actual gender differences in leadership potential, which are virtually nonexistent. In fact, some studies have shown that women are slightly more effective as leaders on the job, but this may be because the standards for appointing women to leadership positions are higher than those for appointing men, which creates a surplus of incompetent men in leadership positions. The solution is not to get women to act more like men, but to select leaders based on their actual competence.

Why do leaders derail? We cannot ignore the wide range of undesirable and toxic outcomes associated with leadership. It is not the absence of bright side qualities, but rather their coexistence with dark side tendencies, that makes leaders derail. Indeed, as Sepp Blatter, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Bernie Madoff demonstrate, technical brilliance often coexists with self-destructive and other destructive traits. This is just one reason why it is so important for leadership development and executive coaching interventions to highlight leaders’ weaknesses, and help them keep their toxic tendencies in check.

Although these findings have been replicated in multiple studies, a skeptic could ask, “Now that we’re (allegedly) living in an era of unprecedented technological change, could some of these findings be outdated?”

Not really.

Leadership evolved over millions of years, enabling us to function as group-living animals. It is therefore unlikely that the core foundations of leadership will change. That said, the specific skills and qualities that enable leaders and their groups to adapt to the world are certainly somewhat context dependent. For example, just as physical strength mattered more, and intellectual ability less, in the past, it is conceivable that human differentiators such as curiosity, empathy, and creativity will become more important in a world of ever-growing technological dependence and ubiquitous artificial intelligence.

In short, the science of leadership is well established. There is no real need to advance it in order to improve real-world practices. We should focus instead on applying what we already know, and ignoring what we think we know that isn’t true.

by Simon Sharwood

The annual Ig Nobel Prizes were handed out on Thursday night, as always “honoring achievements that make people laugh, then think”.

Among this year’s winners were “Charles Foster, for living in the wild as, at different times, a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird.” Foster turned that research into a book, Being a Beast, in which he “set out to know the ultimate other: the non-humans, the beasts.” That effort saw him live “… alongside badgers for weeks, sleeping in a sett in a Welsh hillside and eating earthworms, learning to sense the landscape through his nose rather than his eyes.”

Foster’s Oxford University bio says he’s “a Fellow of Green Templeton College, a Senior Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, a Research Associate at the the Ethox and HeLEX Centres, (at at the University of Oxford), and a practising barrister.” Foster shared the Biology Prize with Thomas Thwaites, who created “prosthetic extensions of his limbs that allowed him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming hills in the company of, goats.”

Volkswagen won the Chemistry prize “for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested.”

The Psychology Prize went to the authors of a paper titled “From Junior to Senior Pinocchio: A Cross-Sectional Lifespan Investigation of Deception” that the Ig Nobel committee summarised as “asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.”

Japanese researchers won the Perception Prize for research titled “Perceived size and Perceived Distance of Targets Viewed From Between the Legs: Evidence for Proprioceptive Theory”, while a paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit” took out the Peace Prize.

The Ig Nobels are misunderstood as deriding rubbish science, but are actually about celebrating how even seemingly-obscure science gets us thinking. As the awards’ backer, Improbable Research, point out:

Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd; So can bad achievements. A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.

The full list of winners is here:

Winners reportedly took home Ten Trillion Dollars, sadly Zimbabwe dollars, or about US$0.40.

Sixty trays can contain the entire human genome as 23,040 different fragments of cloned DNA. Credit James King-Holmes/Science Source


Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.

The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.

While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general.

Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.

But such an attempt would raise numerous ethical issues. Could scientists create humans with certain kinds of traits, perhaps people born and bred to be soldiers? Or might it be possible to make copies of specific people?

“Would it be O.K., for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome?” Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, wrote in an essay criticizing the proposed project. “If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”

The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

But by the time the meeting was held, the name had been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”

The project does not yet have funding, Dr. Church said, though various companies and foundations would be invited to contribute, and some have indicated interest. The federal government will also be asked. A spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Health declined to comment, saying the project was in too early a stage.

Besides Dr. Church, the organizers include Jef Boeke, director of the institute for systems genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Andrew Hessel, a self-described futurist who works at the Bay Area software company Autodesk and who first proposed such a project in 2012.

Scientists and companies can now change the DNA in cells, for example, by adding foreign genes or changing the letters in the existing genes. This technique is routinely used to make drugs, such as insulin for diabetes, inside genetically modified cells, as well as to make genetically modified crops. And scientists are now debating the ethics of new technology that might allow genetic changes to be made in embryos.

But synthesizing a gene, or an entire genome, would provide the opportunity to make even more extensive changes in DNA.

For instance, companies are now using organisms like yeast to make complex chemicals, like flavorings and fragrances. That requires adding not just one gene to the yeast, like to make insulin, but numerous genes in order to create an entire chemical production process within the cell. With that much tinkering needed, it can be easier to synthesize the DNA from scratch.

Right now, synthesizing DNA is difficult and error-prone. Existing techniques can reliably make strands that are only about 200 base pairs long, with the base pairs being the chemical units in DNA. A single gene can be hundreds or thousands of base pairs long. To synthesize one of those, multiple 200-unit segments have to be spliced together.

But the cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years.

J. Craig Venter, the genetic scientist, synthesized a bacterial genome consisting of about a million base pairs. The synthetic genome was inserted into a cell and took control of that cell. While his first synthetic genome was mainly a copy of an existing genome, Dr. Venter and colleagues this year synthesized a more original bacterial genome, about 500,000 base pairs long.

Dr. Boeke is leading an international consortium that is synthesizing the genome of yeast, which consists of about 12 million base pairs. The scientists are making changes, such as deleting stretches of DNA that do not have any function, in an attempt to make a more streamlined and stable genome.

But the human genome is more than 200 times as large as that of yeast and it is not clear if such a synthesis would be feasible.

Jeremy Minshull, chief executive of DNA2.0, a DNA synthesis company, questioned if the effort would be worth it.

“Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Dr. Minshull, who was invited to the meeting at Harvard but did not attend. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”

A handful of scientists around the United States are trying to do something that some people find disturbing: make embryos that are part human, part animal.

The researchers hope these embryos, known as chimeras, could eventually help save the lives of people with a wide range of diseases.

One way would be to use chimera embryos to create better animal models to study how human diseases happen and how they progress.

Perhaps the boldest hope is to create farm animals that have human organs that could be transplanted into terminally ill patients.

But some scientists and bioethicists worry the creation of these interspecies embryos crosses the line. “You’re getting into unsettling ground that I think is damaging to our sense of humanity,” says Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the New York Medical College.

The experiments are so sensitive that the National Institutes of Health has imposed a moratorium on funding them while officials explore the ethical issues they raise.

Nevertheless, a small number of researchers are pursuing the work with alternative funding. They hope the results will persuade the NIH to lift the moratorium.

“We’re not trying to make a chimera just because we want to see some kind of monstrous creature,” says Pablo Ross, a reproductive biologist at the University of California, Davis. “We’re doing this for a biomedical purpose.”

The NIH is expected to announce soon how it plans to handle requests for funding.

Recently, Ross agreed to let me visit his lab for an unusual look at his research. During the visit, Ross demonstrated how he is trying to create a pancreas that theoretically could be transplanted into a patient with diabetes.

The first step involves using new gene-editing techniques to remove the gene that pig embryos need to make a pancreas.

Working under an elaborate microscope, Ross makes a small hole in the embryo’s outer membrane with a laser. Next, he injects a molecule synthesized in the laboratory to home in on and delete the pancreas gene inside. (In separate experiments, he has done this to sheep embryos, too.)

After the embryos have had their DNA edited this way, Ross creates another hole in the membrane so he can inject human induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS for short, into the pig embryos.

Like human embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can turn into any kind of cell or tissue in the body. The researchers’ hope is that the human stem cells will take advantage of the void in the embryo to start forming a human pancreas.

Because iPS cells can be made from any adult’s skin cells, any organs they form would match the patient who needs the transplant, vastly reducing the risk that the body would reject the new organ.

But for the embryo to develop and produce an organ, Ross has to put the chimera embryos into the wombs of adult pigs. That involves a surgical procedure, which is performed in a large operating room across the street from Ross’s lab.

The day Ross opened his lab to me, a surgical team was anesthetizing an adult female pig so surgeons could make an incision to get access to its uterus.

Ross then rushed over with a special syringe filled with chimera embryos. He injected 25 embryos into each side of the animal’s uterus. The procedure took about an hour. He repeated the process on a second pig.

Every time Ross does this, he then waits a few weeks to allow the embryos to develop to their 28th day — a time when primitive structures such as organs start to form.

Ross then retrieves the chimeric embryos to dissect them so he can see what the human stem cells are doing inside. He examines whether the human stem cells have started to form a pancreas, and whether they have begun making any other types of tissues.

The uncertainty is part of what makes the work so controversial. Ross and other scientists conducting these experiments can’t know exactly where the human stem cells will go. Ross hopes they’ll only grow a human pancreas. But they could go elsewhere, such as to the brain.

“If you have pigs with partly human brains you would have animals that might actually have consciousness like a human,” Newman says. “It might have human-type needs. We don’t really know.”

That possibility raises new questions about the morality of using the animals for experimentation. Another concern is that the stem cells could form human sperm and human eggs in the chimeras.

“If a male chimeric pig mated with a female chimeric pig, the result could be a human fetus developing in the uterus of that female chimera,” Newman says. Another possibility is the animals could give birth to some kind of part-human, part-pig creature.

“One of the concerns that a lot of people have is that there’s something sacrosanct about what it means to be human expressed in our DNA,” says Jason Robert, a bioethicist at Arizona State University. “And that by inserting that into other animals and giving those other animals potentially some of the capacities of humans that this could be a kind of violation — a kind of, maybe, even a playing God.”

Ross defends what his work. “I don’t consider that we’re playing God or even close to that,” Ross says. “We’re just trying to use the technologies that we have developed to improve peoples’ life.”

Still, Ross acknowledges the concerns. So he’s moving very carefully, he says. For example, he’s only letting the chimera embryos develop for 28 days. At that point, he removes the embryos and dissects them.

If he discovers the stem cells are going to the wrong places in the embryos, he says he can take steps to stop that from happening. In addition, he’d make sure adult chimeras are never allowed to mate, he says.

“We’re very aware and sensitive to the ethical concerns,” he says. “One of the reasons we’re doing this research the way we’re doing it is because we want to provide scientific information to inform those concerns.”

Ross is working with Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte from the Salk Intitute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and Hiromitsu Nakauchi at Stanford University. Daniel Garry of the University of Minnesota and colleagues are conducting similar work. The research is funded in part by the Defense Department and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.