What We're Reading

It's a long weekend. We don't want you to find yourself with nothing to read (or listen to). So here's a long list of interesting articles and one podcast that will keep you supplied with plenty of science-based conversational fuel for your Memorial Day gatherings. Also, if you were running low on things to be afraid of (seems unlikely given the current political situation), we have that covered too.

  • Why Do We Have Allergies?, Mosaic, April 7, 2015 -- Carl Zimmer describes Ruslan Medzhitov's provocative idea that allergen detection functions like a burglar alarm. A scientific advantage: "Allergies make a lot more sense in terms of evolution when seen as a home-alarm system."
  • New Evidence Connects Dung Beetle Evolution to Dinosaurs, Science Daily, May 4, 2016 -- Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Darwin was not above putting the occasional beetle in his mouth for safekeeping, but now it appears dung beetles evolved with dinosaurs as early as the Lower Cretaceous. Which just goes to prove the old adage, "Everyone poops--even dinosaurs." 
  • The Scientific Process [click on the episode link on the Hidden Brain home page], Hidden Brain NPR Podcast, May 24, 2016 -- A particularly thoughtful take on the question of reproducibility. Shankar Vedantam, who covers social science research for National Public Radio, devotes an episode of his podcast to what happened when one of social psychology's most famous experiments was repeated over a decade later on two different college campuses. 
  • Methane-producing Microbes in California Rocks, Science Daily, May 24, 2016 -- In a freshwater spring in Sonoma County, California, microbes feast on carbon dioxide produced by a reaction of rock and hot water known as serpentinization. From the carbon dioxide these microbes produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This is the first time these kinds of microbes have been identified outside of the deep ocean environment. 
  • Beware the Medical Beach Read, slate.com, May 25, 2016 -- Food and nutrition attracts more attention in the popular press than any other science topic, and the results aren't pretty. Breathless reporting of breakthroughs based on small, uncontrolled studies contributes to the widespread impression that either scientists don't know what they're talking about, or that lone mavericks know a "truth" that is being hidden by a hostile medical establishment. This book review notes that a nuanced and responsible treatment of what is really known about gluten's health effects might not be as easy to read or as satisfying as the usual miracle diet book, but is a lot more true to the science.
  • A New Theory is Close to Solving One of the Greatest Mysteries: How Life Began on Earth, Quartz, May 25, 2016 -- Life began on Earth about four billion years ago. However, our younger sun should not have warmed the planet sufficiently for large amounts of liquid water to persist, an assumed precondition for the development of life.  A new theory has emerged that the sun at that time may have produced more regular solar flares, which could both have kept our planet warm enough to have plenty of liquid water, and sparked chemical reactions to make abundant the building blocks of life.
  • Climate Change is the National Parks' Biggest Challenge, Climate Central, May 25, 2016 -- The introduction to a forthcoming suite of reports on climate change and the National Park Service explains, "climate change represents an existential threat the likes of which the National Park Service has never had to deal with."
  • Beware the Jelly Creationists, Leaving Fundamentalism, May 25, 2016 -- Jonny Scaramanga (a former creationist) offers a provocative discussion of "jelly creationism," which he describes as antievolution characterized by the attitude "I don't know or care how it happened, I just know that God did it."
  • Early Ichthyosaur Marks Marine Reptile Boom and Bust, Laelaps Scientific American Blog, May 25, 2016 -- Brian Switek reports on a new early ichthyosaur that breaks a convention in paleontology: that early forms set the bar for "normal." He writes, "There are upsides to being extinct. You're not around to feel embarrassed when paleontologists excavate your remains and deem you 'aberrant,' for example, as just happened with a 248-million-year-old marine reptile." Aberrant or not, Switek explains that this critter is providing valuable insights into the life history of ichthyosaurs, which were not, just as a reminder, dinosaurs.

photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nudson/8760146121