Buy Not Exactly Rocket Science: The Book

Not Exactly Rocket Science - the Book!

I moved to ScienceBlogs earlier this year. If you want to catch up on what you missed, buy my new book and get 80 of the best blog posts from the last year. From Mexican-waving bees to snow-making bacteria, from the neuroscience of jazz to the psychology of voting, the book covers some of the coolest, most exciting and most ground-breaking discoveries from 2008. Click the image for more.


Update your links

Hi all,

This is a quick reminder for anyone still subscribing to the old feed to update your feed-readers. I’ve now moved to ScienceBlogs and I’d hate to lose any readers along the way. I’m sticking to the original mission statement and if anything, I’m writing even more than before.

Here are the new details:



And a wee taster of some of the new material so far:

This blog has moved!

Not Exactly Rocket Science has transformed and rolled out! I’m now live at ScienceBlogs and hopefully all of you will join me on the new site.

You’ll need to update your bookmarks and/or feed readers.



“Begin PHASE TWO!” – I’m moving to ScienceBlogs…

So, I have some really exciting news – this blog is evolving. After 18 excellent months at WordPress, I am packing up and moving over to ScienceBlogs, a collection of some of the best, er… science blogs on the Interweb.

I want to assure current readers that the blog is not going to change, (well, except in look). Even though the blog will have some academic neighbours, my mission statement of making science interesting and fun to as many people as possible remains the same and the pitch of the writing won’t change.

I still have full freedom to write about whatever I like and if anything, I’m hoping that the scrutiny of a tight community of experienced bloggers, many of whom are hardcore scientists, will push me to ensure an even higher level of accuracy in what I’m putting out.

So for the moment a massive round of thanks to everyone who continues to read and support this blog. The growing traffic and the generally positive comments from people are really gratifying and I’m really excited about the next step.

In a couple of weeks, the new blog should be ready, I’ll post up the new URL, raise my hands in the air, say “Begin Phase Two!” and cackle maniacally.

Tiny molecules drove the evolution of the vertebrates

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe spinal column that runs down your back is an identity badge that signifies your membership among the vertebrates – animals with backbones. Vertebrates have arguably the most complex bodies and genomes of any animal group and certainly, our lineage has come a long way from its last common ancestor.

TigerThe closest evolutionary cousins of the vertebrates are simple aquatic creatures such as the jawless lancelets and the sac-like, immobile sea squirts. How did these simple body plans diversify into the vast array of sophisticated forms wielded by today’s fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals?

Gene number

Many scientists have suggested that the answer lies in the number of our genes. At three different points, the vertebrate genome (its full suite of genes) experienced a massive jump in size as huge chunks of genes – possibly the entire lot – were duplicated. The first of these coincided with the origins of the group itself and the second happened alongside the rise of the first jawed fish, setting them and their descendants aside from more ancient jawless forms like the lampreys.

So far, there seems to be a tidy connection between gene number and complexity, but the third round of duplication is a bit of a stumbling block. It happened at some point during the evolution of the bony fishes and while this group proceeded to radiate into a multitude of different shapes, their basic body plan stayed essentially the same. No big jump in complexity there.

Indeed, as the full genome sequences of more and more species are revealed, it’s becoming clear that the basic genetic toolkit that controls the development of animal bodies is remarkably consistent across the kingdom. Even the genome of a sea anemone, one of the simplest and most ancient animals on Earth, is strikingly similar to that of vertebrates.

In this light, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the advent of new genes can account for the large rise in vertebrate complexity. Now, Alysha Heimberg and colleagues from Dartmouth College have proposed a new theory, centred around tiny molecules called microRNAs.

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Testing, not studying, makes for strong long-term memories

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIt’s a familiar scene – the wee hours of the morning are ticking away and your head is bent over a stack of notes, desperately trying to cram as much knowledge into your head before the test in the morning.

Exam roomBecause of the way our education system works, this process of hard studying has become almost synonymous with the act of learning, and the inevitable tests and exams that bookend this ordeal merely assess how much information has stuck.

But a new study reveals that the tests themselves do more good for our ability to learn that the many hours before them spent relentlessly poring over notes and textbook. The act of repeatedly retrieving and using learned information drives memories into long-term storage, while repetitive revision produced almost no benefits.

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Earliest bat shows flight developed before echolocation

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTheir heads and bodies of bats have amassed an extraordinary array of adaptations that have make them lords of the night sky. Today, the thousand-plus types of bats make up a fifth of living mammal species. Richard Dawkins once described the evolution of bats as “one of the most enthralling stories in all natural history” and as of this week, the story has a clearer beginning.

OnychonycterisThe success of bats hinges on two key abilities: their mastery of flight, a feat matched only by birds and insects; and echolocation, the ability to navigate their way through pitch-blackness by timing the reflections of high-pitched squeaks. For evolutionary scientists, the big question has always been: which came first?

The ‘clawed bat’

Until now, fossil bats haven’t provided any clues for all of them show signs of both echolocation and flight. But a stunning new fossil, discovered by Nancy Simmons from the American Museum of Natural History is an exception and it provides a categorical answer to the long-running debate – the earliest bats could fly but could not echolocate.

The new creature hails from the Green River in Wyoming and is known as Onychonycteris, meaning “clawed bat”. Its fossils date back to about 52.5 million years ago and by comparing it to other prehistoric bats, Simmons found that it is the most ancient member of this lineage so far discovered. It acts as a ‘missing link’ in bat evolution, much like the famous Archaeopteryx hinted that birds may have evolved from dinosaurs.

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