Category Archives: Great Reads

Great science reads: Does “brain porn” fail the test?

“Brain porn” is a term given to the simplistic (and reductionist) thinking that leads to attempts to use neuroscience (especially brain-scanning technologies) to explain the way the human brain works. This recent suite of articles discusses neuroscience, neuroscientists and the complexity involved in describing the human brain.

1. Let’s kick things off with a swift kick to the idea that neuroscience can explain nearly everything, including voting for the Republicans (Quart’s example in this first article) and even playing poker (as Blum mentions in article 5 below).

Neuroscience: under attack by Alissa Quart at The New York Times

2. This piece runs through some of the issues around drawing too many conclusions from brain imaging. I will paste a quotation from this article below because it is relevant to article number three in this selection:

“Scientists are also still struggling to construct theories about how arrays of individual neurons relate complex behaviors, even in principle. Neuroscience has yet find its Newton, let alone its Einstein.”

Neuroscience fiction by Gary Marcus at The New Yorker

3. This article picks up on the theme of a neuroscience equivalent for Newton.

Does Neuroscience need a Newton? by Scicurious at Scientific American blogs

4. If you want a great run-down of some neuroscience history along with the Newton-like nominees for neuroscience, read this piece.

Nominees for the Newton of neuroscience by Zen Faulkes at NeuroDojo

5. As you can tell from the title of this piece, we finish with a journalistic angle to the “brain porn” debate.

Winter of discontent: Is the hot affair between neuroscience and science journalism cooling down? by Deborah Blum at Knight Science Journalism at MIT

Great science reads of the fortnight – Dec 1 2012

1. We’ve all heard of “white noise” but scientists have uncovered a smell they are calling “olfactory white”. The “white” or bland smell is based on a combination of odours and would probably not be found in nature. But it will help scientists to learn about the human olfactory system and brain.

The whiff of white could hide strong odours by Zoë Corbyn in Nature

2. A jumping spider called Nefertiti recently returned from a 100-day stay at the International Space Station. The experiment, devised by 18-year-old Egyptian Amr Mohamed, tested whether Nefertiti would be able to adjust her hunting methods in a low-gravity environment and then readjust back on Earth. The video shows how Nefertiti got the hang of hunting in low gravity.

World’s First “Spidernaut” Lands at Smithsonian by the Newsdesk at the Smithsonian

3. Devastating floods have inundated California every 200 years for the last 2000-odd years, according to scientists who analysed sediment deposits. The last flood was in 1861…

Megastorms Could Drown Massive Portions of California by Michael D. Dettinger and B. Lynn Ingram in Scientific American

4. Today is World AIDS Day and discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS still exists. This post discusses some of the history around the stigma attached to infectious diseases.

What can we learn from disease stigma’s long history? by Sara Gorman in PLOS Blogs

5. Severe stress and chronic stress have opposite effects on the behavioural response of animals. This discussion of a study in mice shows scientists edging closer to understanding the physiology of severe stress.

Stressing out really does make it worse by Scicurious in Scientific American Blogs

Great science reads of the week – Nov 17 2012

1. A NASA supercomputer has modelled how winds move aerosols around the Earth. You can see dust (red) from the Sahara, the movement of carbon (green) from fires in Africa and Australia, sea salt (blue) in tornadoes and hurricanes over the Pacific and sulphates (white) from a volcanic eruption. For snapshots of these features or for more information go to this NASA webpage:

Paint by particle by NASA

Video credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

2. Physics moves forward when new findings conflict with existing theories. But at this early stage, it looks like the Higgs-like particle fits exactly with the existing theory (the Standard Model). But don’t worry, there is still hope that future data will throw up something unexpected.

New Higgs Results Bring Relief – and Disappointment by Michael Moyer at Scientific American

3. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that some people use the “medical model” to fully account for psychological conditions. The medical model would direct a doctor to treat a psychological problem as if it is a physical affliction, like a broken leg. In other words, it all comes down to biology or the physical condition of the brain or body. Read this article for the argument against the medical model of addiction.

Why addiction is NOT a brain disease by Marc Lewis at PLOS Blogs

4. Rappers had their brains scanned in two situations: while they were freestyling and while they were reciting memorised lyrics. Comparing the two sets of brain scans helped researchers to understand the creative process.

Brain scans of rappers shed light on creativity by Daniel Cressey at Nature News

5. Got an opinion on whether exercise should be “slow and long” or “fast and hard”? This article gives you the run-down on the various options for intense exercise.

Fast and furious: intensity is the key to health and fitness by Nigel Stepto and Chris Shaw at The Conversation

Great science reads of the week – Nov 9 2012

1. This isn’t a joke. Researchers have published an article in PLOS ONE about the types of bacteria found in belly buttons. This blog post is from one of the scientists and explains some of the backstory to this study.

After 2 years scientists still can’t solve belly button mystery, continue navel-gazing by Rob Dunn

2. If you’re one of those people who does not want to know the sex of your baby before it is born, the title of this article might freak you out.

Will we ever… decipher everything about a life form based just on its DNA? by Ed Yong

3. A great concept if it applies to humans. A study in rats suggests that exposure to controllable stress might be like a “behavioural immunisation” against future stressful situations.

It’s not the stress that counts, it’s whether you can control it by Scicurious

4. Skin heals itself when damaged but plastic and steel cannot. A materials scientist has copied the processes used by skin to invent a plastic that can repair itself when cracked. Wow?

The bleeding edge of self-healing skin-like materials by Emily Anthes

5. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) launched a new journal earlier this year to help quickly disseminate credible information during and after natural disasters. It’s called PLOS Currents: Disasters.

Rapid Dissemination of Reliable Information: Superstorm Sandy by Liz Flavall

Great science reads of the week – Nov 2 2012

1. Want to listen to singing sand? Check out this press release to find out more or just listen to the singing in the video posted below.

Why ‘singing’ sand dunes hum certain notes at the American Geophysical Union

2. Wilson da Silva, Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS magazine, wrote this fabulous read. Who would have thought that an earthquake in Indonesia would result in a great work of literature on the other side of the world? It’s like the opposite of the “butterfly flaps its wings…” concept.

The future of you by Wilson da Silva

3. Out of the social media around Hurricane Sandy came the conversation about fake photos of sharks on the streets of New York and the Statue of Liberty being engulfed by waves. So this piece analysing the ability of twitter to verify information was an interesting case study.

Twitter is a truth machine by John Herrman

4. We’ve known for some time that mothers carry the DNA of their children in their bodies. Now they’ve found mothers can carry the DNA of their sons in the brain. This article is a great trip into the backstory of fetal DNA in mothers.

Male DNA in the female brain revisited by Ricki Lewis

5. I know I shouldn’t finish on a depressing note BUT the fish at Fukushima are still radioactive and could be that way for decades.

Fukushima fish still hot by Geoffrey Brumfiel

Great science reads of the week – Oct 26 2012

1. Six earthquake scientists were sentenced to six years jail for manslaughter because they failed to communicate the risk of a quake in L’Aquila. This was shocking news for the global science community. Scientists understand and deal with uncertainty in all their work but governments don’t like uncertainty. Will scientists be unwilling to advise governments on policy in the future in Italy?

A chilling verdict in L’Aquila by Tracey Brown

2. We extract a lot of ground water in Australia, especially in times of drought. A warning tale of how 50 years of extraction created a 250-metre drop in the groundwater level that might have caused an earthquake in Spain.

Deadly 2011 earthquake linked to groundwater extraction by Deborah Zabarenko

3. My mother fed me poison mushroom soup once so I was naturally interested in this article about a mushroom that is only poisonous sometimes. Read the article to find out why…

Mushroom of the Week: Inky Caps. The Bane of Frat Boys Everywhere

by Rachel Feltman

4. This story about a beluga whale who could mimic human voices is kind of sad and fascinating at the same time. Scroll to the bottom of the story for a link to sound recordings of the whale called NOC.

Captive Beluga Whale Imitated Human Voices by Ewen Callawa

Great science reads of the week – Oct 20 2012

1. Although not a read, the video from the chest cam of Felix Baumgartner is riveting. My mind is officially blown at the idea that a man without a vehicle can travel faster than the speed of sound.

Skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s out-of-control spin by BBC News

2. If you want to think about another side of the Baumgartner jump, try this story about RedBull’s sponsorship of Baumgartner’s jump.

RedBull’s Stratos stunt by Amy Shira Teitel

3. If you’re a dog lover like me, you’ll want to read this piece about symptoms of trauma in dogs after the nuclear crisis in Fukushima.

Fukushima dogs had symptoms comparable to post-traumatic stress disorder by Khalil A. Cassimally

4. And continuing on the animal theme, who doesn’t love dolphins? Read this synopsis of how they sleep with only half their brain at a time so that they can remain alert.

Dolphins pull endless all-nighters by resting half of brain at once by Elizabeth Preston

5. To finish off for all the science writing geeks, here’s a discussion of the things that readers would like to see changed in the reporting of science news.

5 changes consumers want to see in their science news by Emily Willingham