This blog is on temporary hiatus while I purchase my first home and haul myself, my husband, and our four cats halfway across the country to move into it.

(Astute readers may note that it has already been on de facto hiatus for some time. It’s a time of hectic transitions, what can I say?)

Aside from the science writers’ shindig at Fenway Park, I’d have to say the highlight of AAAS was indeed the presentation by the Annals of Improbable Research.

We heard a speech from the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that launches off your nightstand and zips around the room, forcing you to wake up and catch it. And another from a science writer who is searching for the holy grail of science writing: cataloging all instances of science writers claiming X is the holy grail of Y. Okay, I admit it, I’ve done it myself. But it wasn’t my fault, I swear — I was quoting a source!

We also sampled the Ig-Nobel-inspired Toscanini’s ice cream flavor: Yum-A-Moto Vanilla Twist, named in honor of Ig-Nobel-prizewinner Mayu Yamamoto for the discovery of a method to extract vanillin from cow dung.

But my personal favorite part of the event was Miss Sweetie Poo (an audience member brilliantly suggested that this might have been a better name for the ice cream flavor). Miss Sweetie Poo is an adorable 8-year-old girl who keeps presenters from talking too long. After a speech hits five minutes, she gets up onstage, looks sweetly up at the speaker, and repeats, loudly, as only an 8-year-old can: “Please stop! I’m bored!”

The Miss Sweetie Poo position, which goes to a new 8-year-old girl each year, was created to keep Ig Nobel Prize acceptance speeches from stretching interminably on and on. Having now witnessed the effect, I must say it is far more effective than the oh-so-subtle music fade-in used at the Oscars.

I must admit that I did not realize, when I wrote a few months ago about calculating the surface area of an elephant, that the esteemed authors of that study had received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2002 for their work. A hearty belated congratulations to you, K.P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan!

Other notable Ig Nobel-worthy research achievements over the years include:

LINGUISTICS: Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Universitat de Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards.

My favorite part is “sometimes,” which seems to imply that yes, on occasion, rats can distinguish backwards Japanese from backwards Dutch. I should add that in a past (highly scientific) experiment of my own, I and a colleague determined that cats are substantially more startled by backwards meowing (their own) than by forwards meowing (also their own). Read the rest of this entry »

Steve Reppert at UMass Medical School in Worcester has just come out today with two very exciting new papers on the circadian clock of the monarch butterfly. They’re both published through PLoS so they’re free for the looking online. Check them out here and here. I wrote my MIT thesis on Reppert’s work so I must admit I have a soft spot for this stuff. Below, I’m bringing you an excerpt from said thesis, discussing the work that’s now culminated in these two papers.

[For quick background: Each fall, billions of monarch butterflies funnel from the Eastern US and Canada into a handful of tiny pine groves in central Mexico. As they’ve never made the trip before and they have no parents to lead the way, they must rely on genetic memory to get where they’re going. The mechanism they use to pull this off is called a time-compensated sun compass. They use the sun as a guidepost, but they must constantly recalibrate their internal compass to compensate for the fact that the sun appears to move across the sky throughout the day. The timepiece they use for this recalibration is the circadian clock. Okay, now for that excerpt.]

Instead of studying in meticulous detail the circadian clocks of every living being, scientists focus on representatives of particular groups.  For example, the mouse circadian clock is often used as a model for how mammalian clocks are built.  Similarly, the fruit fly clock has long been a stand-in for insect clocks in general.  Circadian biologists could safely assume that the monarch clock would resemble that of the fruit fly more than that of the mouse, because the monarch is more closely related to the fruit fly.  The fruit fly is much easier and cheaper to study than the monarch; its long history as a so-called model organism means that there are many well-established tools and procedures for working with it.  So it seemed like a reasonable, and practical, approximation.

In the fruit fly, as in most organisms, the clock resides in individual timekeeping cells.  It works by manufacturing and then destroying certain proteins in a feedback loop that takes about 24 hours to complete.  This feedback loop can sustain itself indefinitely, which is why the clock keeps working even in constant darkness.  When the fly encounters daylight, though, a specialized protein in the timekeeping cell absorbs the light; it tells the clock that the sun is out by feeding into the loop.  This specialized protein is CRY, the fruit fly version of the protein that illuminated the possible clock-compass connection.  CRY is how sunlight sets the fruit fly’s clock.

But Reppert wanted to figure out how the monarch’s time-compensated sun compass works, so he couldn’t rely on the fruit fly model—fruit flies don’t use a sun compass, time-compensated or otherwise.  He decided he needed to take a closer look at the monarch clockwork, to see how the butterfly clock works. Read the rest of this entry »

Predictably, someone has turned the glowing kitties into Lolcats:


(From, of course. Again, hat tip to Discovering Biology in a Digital World.)

Like penicillin, it all started with an accident.

In 1997 a Japanese researcher named Masaru Okabe was looking for a way to track sperm development. His thought was to cram a jellyfish gene encoding a glowing protein — green fluorescent protein, or GFP — into a mouse’s sperm. Then the sperm cells would literally light up when exposed to a certain wavelength of light, allowing him to track them as they developed. But instead, he wound up with the inverse: nearly everything but the sperm glowed. He had a full-on fluorescent green mouse.

The mistake was fortuitous. Glowing mice aren’t just seriously cool; they’re also medically relevant. For instance, other researchers have similarly tagged human cancer cells with a glowing red protein and injected them into glowing green mice (engineered to be fur-less as well, so that the glow is visible). Then they can track the cancer as it grows and spreads, differentiating it from healthy cells by color alone.

Glowing cancer cells in glowing mouseRed tumor in green mouse

(Left: Fluorescent red cancer cells lined with the fluorescent green blood vessels of a fluorescent green mouse. Right: Fluorescent red tumor in a fluorescent green mouse. Both images from here.)

Below the fold: glowing fishies, bunnies, and kitties…

Read the rest of this entry »

Finger-painted by a kindergartener? Think again: foot-painted by a cockroach.

Cockroach art

“Eleven Steps” by Steven R. Kutcher
Hissing Cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)
With gouache on paper, 2003.
Please check out his website at

This is what the artist looks like: Read the rest of this entry »

Picked up on this one over at Living the Scientific Life. The photo really speaks for itself:


(Photo of Lil’Bit the two-faced cat pinched from the Daily Mail.)

Not only does this cat have two faces — because his faces can sneeze, eat, and sleep separately, his veterinarians think Lil’Bit has two independently functioning brains.

At seven months old, he seems to be faring pretty well, considering his condition. He does have some trouble with the litter box, but his (very obliging) owner has solved that problem with diapers designed for premature babies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Genital Arousal Disorder Adversely Impacts Women’s Lives

Some of you have probably heard me rambling over the past year about the Writer in Residence fellowship at Exeter. It’s a sweet deal — room and board, a stipend, and nine months of total freedom to finish your first book. In exchange, you act as an informal mentor to students interested in writing. Stanford, meanwhile, has a fellowship with a slightly different emphasis. It also provides the time and the means to work on a book, but includes weekly workshops with other fellows and spans two years.

I’ve been working over a book idea in the back (and occasionally front) of my mind since January, and I’ve decided quite at the last minute to crank out the first 50 pages in time to apply for these fellowships. It’s fiction with science, which is a thing quite different from science fiction, and which really needs a catchier name.

Accordingly, as the deadline is Friday and I have 25 pages to go, my posts here will be a little anemic this week.

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