“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.

Not Exactly Rocket Science’s Review of 2007

As another year finishes and it’s been a good one for me. I won a writing award, got to talk to David Attenborough and started a freelancing career. Luckily, the Christmas break has provided some much-needed relaxation so before I launched renewed into 2008, I thought I’d take a look back and pick the favourite stories which I managed to write about over the last year.

This isn’t a list of the biggest or most important breakthroughs; they are simply the stories I enjoyed writing about the most. They represent a mix of quirky results, articles I was proud of, and sheer coolness – my top ten are in green. As always for this site, all stories were written from the actual papers, rather than press releases or other news coverage.

Once again, thanks to everyone who read, commented on, or linked to this site. Hope to see you all in the new year.


1) Living optic fibres bypass the retina’s back-to-front structure

The human retina has an ‘incompetent design’ that forces light to cross a tangle of nerves and blood vessels before reaching the light sensors at the back. The mammalian eye has solved this problem by evolving living optic fibres – Muller cells – that funnel light through the messy retina.

2) Orang-utan study suggests that upright walking may have started in the trees

A study in orang-utans suggested that our ancestors may have evolved to walk on two legs while they were still in the trees, using a bipedal stance to traverse thin branches and canopy gaps.

3) Butterflies evolve resistance to male-killing bacteria in record time

It’s always a thrill to see examples of evolution in action. This year, the beautiful blue moon butterfly of Samoa provided just such an example by evolving resistance to a bacteria that was killing off its males within just 10 generations.

4) The evolution of the past tense – how verbs change over time

Evolution’s not just about genes. In a beautifully written paper, Harvard scientists mathematically modelled the evolution of English verbs, showing that irregular verbs become standardised according to an elegantly simple mathematical model.

Animal behaviour

5) Moray eels attack ‘Alien-style’ with second pair of jaws

Even familiar animals can surprise us. Moray eels are common aquarium specimens but scientists only just discovered that they grab prey with a second set of scary Alien-style jaws that launch forwards from the back of the throat

6) Mobs of honeybees suffocate hornets to death

Cyprian honeybees are frequently attacked the formidable Oriental hornet. But the smaller, weaker bees defend themselves by working together. They mob the hornet, prevent it from expanding the breathing apparatus in its abdomen and suffocate it to death.

7) Fake cleaner fish dons multiple disguises

This year, the bluestriped fangblenny emerged as only the second animal that can change colour to mimic different species, depending on whether it wants a meal or protection. Other discoveries showed the strategic ways in which animals use defensive signals – ground squirrels heat up their tails to fool infrared-sensing rattlesnakes (but not other snakes) and cuttlefish flash up startling eye spots only in front of fish that hunt by sight.

Animal intelligence

8] Chimps trump university students at memory task

Chimps took plenty of opportunities to show how intelligent they are, not least by beating human university students at a memory test. Other studies found that chimps make their own spears to hunt bushbabies, pass on new traditions between groups, altruistically help each other out and even had their own equivalent of our Stone Age.

9) Elephants smell the difference between human ethnic groups

Elephants too have demonstrated that they are no slouches in the intelligence department. African elephants can tell the difference between human ethnic groups and react more fearfully to those that hunt elephants.

10) Clever New Caledonian crows use one tool to acquire another

Meanwhile, the astonishing New Caledonian crow showed that it can combine different tools to solve a problem, often on the first go. They are the only animals besides ourselves and the great apes that have shown this ability.


11) Microraptor – the dinosaur that flew like a biplane

Flying birds evolved from land-bound dinosaurs, but like human aircraft, it seems that they may have gone through a two-wing design. A small feather dinosaur called Microraptor had wings on its legs too and used these to glide from tree to tree.

12) Evidence that Velociraptor had feathers

This year, scientists finally proved that Velociraptor had feathers on its arms, contrary to its makeover in Jurassic Park. Until now, that had always been an educated guess based on its evolutionary relatives, but small mounds of bone – quill knobs – provided conclusive proof.

13) Sabre-toothed cats had weak bites

The fearsome sabre-toothed cat, Smilodon, was found to have a surprisingly weak bite. It’s massive canines weren’t the brute blade of a swordsman, but the precise daggers of an assassin, used to deliver a quick killing blow to prey that was already wrestled to the ground.

Health and medicine

14) Human skin cells reprogrammed into stem cells

In one of the most exciting breakthroughs of the year, two groups of scientists found a way of turning adult human cells back into the stem cells of embryos, bringing us closer towards treating a range of conditions with personalised stem cells. One such technique was used to cure mice of a genetic disease called sickle cell anaemia using stem cells reprogrammed from their own tails.

15) Brain parasite drives human culture

The thought of a microscopic creature controlling our actions isn’t a nice one, but it might be true. The brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, affects a huge proportion of the world’s population and could be a potent driving force of human culture.

16) Space flight turns Salmonella into super-bug

Some bad news for astronauts – a NASA study showed that bacteria react to the zero-gravity conditions of space by becoming extra-virulent super-bugs.

17) Human gut bacteria linked to obesity

Obesity may be down to food and exercise, but new research showed that the balance between two groups of bacteria in our digestive systems affects our risk of being fat.

18) Resistance to an extinct virus makes us more vulnerable to HIV

A fascinating study showed that modern infections of HIV may be the price we pay for immunity to an extinct virus. Millions of years ago, we evolved resistance to a virus called pTERV1 that plagued other primates but this adaptation makes us more vulnerable to HIV.

Environment and ecology

19) How biofuels could cut carbon emissions, produce energy and restore dead land

It’s been a big year for biofuels – hailed as a solution to climate change, they have recently been accused to worsening the problem. But amidst the debate, a small paper went unnoticed, which found that cultivating a diverse mix of woody plants, legumes and grasses could produce biofuels in a way that would curb carbon emissions, produce renewable energy, restore unusable agricultural land and improve biodiversity.

20) Is a virus responsible for the disappearing bees?

Since 2006, a mysterious condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder has been causing entire hives of bees across the US and the UK to vanish. This year, a group of scientists finally found the cause – a virus called IAPV.

21) Restoring predator numbers by culling their prey

It’s been a fascinating year for ecology, with several papers showing that changes to food webs can have very unexpected results. A Norwegian case study epitomised this concept by showing that the best way to help out a threatened predator may be to counter-intuitively cull its prey. Along similar lines, other studies found that shark-hunting harms animals at bottom of the food chain.

Genetics and molecular biology

22) An entire bacterial genome discovered inside that of a fruit fly

In one of the most remarkable examples of gene transfer, scientists discovered that a bacteria called Wolbachia has transferred its entire genome into that of a fruit fly. These extreme gene transfers have important consequences for genome-sequencing projects.

23) Molecule’s constant efforts keep our memories intact

One study this year revealed our memories to be more fragile than we thought. Rather than being permanently writ in our minds, they only remain intact thanks to the constant action of a protein called PKMzeta. Block the protein and erase the memories.

24) Discovery of ‘fat gene’ highlights stigma against obese people

Earlier this year, a gene called FTO was identified as an obesity-related gene. More pertinently, it also highlighted the massive societal stigmas faced by obese people and the incredibly poor public understanding of the how genes affect behaviour.


25) Why music sounds right – the hidden tones in our own speech

All cultures around the world divide octaves into twelve semi-tones. Now, we know that this is because these musical intervals reflect the sounds of our own speech. They sound right because they match the frequency ratios hidden within the vowels of our languages.

26) Five-month-old babies prefer their own languages and shun foreign accents

It seems even five-month-old infants have strong prejudices – even though they can’t speak themselves, they prefer the sounds of their own languages and people who speak with native accents.

27) Subliminal flag shifts political views and voting choices

Subliminal messages can strongly affect behaviour, as a group of Israeli scientists found. They changed the attitudes of Israeli students to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and their voting preferences, by showing them the national flag for just 16 milliseconds, not long enough to consciously register.


28) Simple sponges provide clues to origin of nervous systems

This year, the possible origins of the nervous system were found in the simple sponge, an animal with no nervous system of its own. Sponges carry the genetic components of synapses, which may have been co-opted by evolution as a starting point for proper nerve cells

29) Monkeys (and their neurons) are calculating statisticians

Using a simple psychological test, scientists showed that monkeys can use simple statistical calculations to make decisions and even managed to catch individual neurons in the act of computing.

30) ‘Brainbow’ paints individual neurons with different colours

Monkeys weren’t the only ones to have their neurons watched. One group of scientists developed a technique that paints the neurons of mice with over 90 colours using a palette of fluorescent proteins. This ‘Brainbow’ provides an unprecedented view of the connections in our brains.


31) Megaflood in English Channel separated Britain from France

Just in time for the major summer floods in England, a group of scientists found that a megaflood broke through a land bridge that connected England to France, created the English Channel and separated Britain from the rest of Europe.

32) How India became the fastest continent

Continents may move slowly but among them, India is the champion sprinter. When it broke off from the supercontinent Gondwana, a plume of molten rock melted away India’s large rocky roots, turning it into a free-floating raft among strongly anchored peers.

Nominate me

Is there anything that you’ve particularly enjoyed reading on this blog over the last year? If so, why not tell the good people at OpenLab about it?

OpenLab is an anthology that collects some of the best science writing in the blogosphere and it would mean a lot to me to have Not Exactly Rocket Science represented on it. Bora from A Blog Around the Clock is collecting submissions and the closing date is in December.

You can see a full list of previous articles in the Site Index.

How I had lunch with David Attenborough and other stories…

Hi folks,

It’s been a stressful week and I’m ill – hence the dearth of recent posts. To tide you over for a bit, here’s some miscellaneous stuff from me:

Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year – I’ve been to this superb exhibition every year since 2002 and this year, I had the privilege of going to a media preview and reviewing it for Nature Networks. Have a look. It was great to talk to some of the winners; their commitment and passion for their work was infectious.

Lunching with David Attenborough – It’s not everyday you get to meet your childhood hero, except of course, for last Friday, when I spent most of the afternoon having lunch with Sir David Attenborough. The lunch was a prize-giving for the Daily Telegraph Science Writer Award and in a ludicrously jammy move, I was sat between Sir David and Philip Campbell, editor of Nature.

I spent three hours or so talking to them about science, evolution, my job, blogs, writing, documentary-making, and everything in between. It was incredibly relaxed and informal – neither of them gave any sense of superiority. Getting to meet David Attenborough is one thing, but actually getting to debate with a British institution about science and nature was quite another.

And really, aside from the wedding, I don’t think I’m going to get a better moment this year than the editor of Nature telling David Attenborough OM CHS CBE FRS that he should read this blog.

Anyway, I now have David Attenborough’s card (and his place-holder, which will sit atop my monitor at work and confuse people).

Carnivals – Various blog carnivals have featured posts of mine including:

Intellectual Blogger Award

A couple of weeks ago, Paul Sunstone from Cafe Philos ebulliently tagged me with an Intellectual Blogger Award and some kind words about my blog. I’ve been a bit remiss in continuing the chain so without further ado, here are my picks:

Unspeak, by Steven Poole. I came onto this after reading Steven’s book of the same name, which makes an eloquent and well-argued case for the role of words as weapons in the 21st century. Have a read and you’ll never see the phrases ‘war on terror’, ‘community’ or ‘sound science’ in the same way again.

Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. There is no better place on the Internet for seeing quackery and awful pseudo-science being dismantled with scathing wit and scientific rigour.

The Loom, by Carl Zimmer. Carl dishes out some of the world’s best science writing in newspaper articles, books and his own blog. His clarity of prose is an inspiration for people like me who are starting in the field.

The Evilutionary Biologist, by John Dennehy. It’s good-humoured, well-written and focuses very much on the science, rather than the creationism/ID debate. The historical persepctive of some of his posts are particularly interesting.

Retrospectacle, by Shelley Batts. A top neuroscience blog with heaps of personality and a healthy dose of unabashed geekiness.

An animal meme

A couple of people have recently tagged me with blog memes. I don’t usually do these, but I’m amused by the first and honoured by the second and I’m in a good mood tonight. So, without further ado, here’s the first, tagged by Kate from Anterior Commissure.

An interesting animal I had: I’ve never had a pet, so this could be very boring. However, I grew up in Malaysia and we had a troupe of macaques who were pestering the house for months. One night, we came home to find that one had snuck in the house and raided the kitchen. I found it in the bathroom with a carton of eggs, most broken. It screeched, threw an egg at me and ran out the window.

An interesting animal I ate: Thomson’s gazelle, in Kenya. It was the most incredible meat I’ve ever tasted – gamey, tender, flavourful. I have never had anything quite like it since. In nature documentaries, one of the fave set pieces of the cheetah appears to be running down Thomson’s gazelle. To be honest, if I could eat one of those, I’d have a go at running at 60mph too.

An interesting animal at the Museum: The Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum is an obvious but deserving choice. It’s a marvellous sight for visitors entering London’s finest science museum bar none. Last time I went, I saw a class of children with learning disabilities being ushered round the museum. One of them stopped by the large dinosaur and started moving in strange ways while making odd sounds. Soon, it became rapidly clear that he was having an imaginary lightsaber fight with the Diplodocus. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why dinosaurs rock. They will always bring out the kid in us.

An interesting thing I did with or to an animal: When I was knee high to a grasshopper, I got into trouble at Kuala Lumpur Zoo for climbing the fence to the giant tortoise enclosure and sitting on one.

An interesting animal in its natural habitat: I had the immense pleasure to go to the Galapagos Islands about ten years ago. The chance to get near the endemic wildlife (and I mean near – they’re very fearless) was amazing but nothing beat the snorkelling. Sealions would swim about me, some trying to pull my flippers off. But even that pales in comparison to the moment when an absolutely enormous shadow appeared in the water and turned out to be a manta ray. It swam right up to me and swerved to the right, bizarrely alien, unerringly graceful and f**king huge. I touched it. It felt sandpapery. It swam away.

Right. I tag Amuirin, the Bleiman Brothers, Carl Zimmer, Susan Kuchinskas and Tara Smith.

I won the Daily Telegraph Science Writer Awards!

Me smiling about winning the Daily Telegraph’s Science Writer Awards.So. I have some exciting news – I’ve just won this year’s Daily Telegraph Science Writer Awards, the UK’s most prestigious science writing competition. This has been a bit of a labour of love for me – it’s the fourth time I’ve entered, and in each of the last three years, I’ve received runner-up prizes.

My article (Grammar – a weapon against bacteria) is published in the Daily Telegraph today along with a rather nice photo of me at London’s Science Museum. The photographer has done a superb job of covering up the fact that I had just had a bad case of food poisoning and hadn’t eaten for a few days. He also got us permission to sit in the museum’s jet engine…

Obviously, a large picture of me can only hurt the Telegraph’s sales, but I’m really rather chuffed. I get published in Britain’s highest-selling national broadsheet, some as-yet-undefined work experience there, and a not inconsiderable cash prizes. I also get to attend a lunch with as many of the judges as can make it, including some really important people in the science-writing field and possibly, the absolutely legendary Sir David Attenborough.

(Photo taken by Ian Jones)

I’m getting married in the morning…

Well, on Saturday morning anyway. After a five-year-long relationship, I am finally tying the knot with my incredible partner, Alice. We’re then off on a long-anticipated honeymoon to Iceland after that, which means that this blog will be on hiatus until mid-August.

I had planned to write a few more articles now to stockpile some while I was away but, honestly, I’m too excited to do it. There are at least four really interesting papers sitting on my desk and I can’t concentrate on any of them. At this point in time, I couldn’t really give a monkey’s that obesity is a socially contagious condition, or that chimps are vengeful (like us) but not spiteful (unlike us). I am living and breathing weddings.

So, to any regular readers, thanks for continuing to read and support the blog. I’ll see you in three weeks. By remarkable coincidence, the day I intend to post my first new story upon my return will be the 13th of August, exactly one year from the point where I started Not Exactly Rocket Science.

See you then 🙂


PS Until I get back, I’ve switched on moderation for comments, which means that comments won’t be appearing while we’re on honeymoon. Sorry about that – WordPress’s spam filters have been acting up recently.

100 posts!

I’ve just written my 100th article for this blog.

I hope that people are finding the posts as enjoyable as they are for me to write.

Many thanks to everyone who’s supported me during the inception of Not Exactly Rocket Science. The comments, links and general words of support are really appreciated.

Hopefully, there will be hundreds more articles to come.