Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Best of Nature Network, nature.com blogs and Scitable: 11 – 17 February

Robot hand can shoot hoops! 

Daniel Cressey on the News blog has been talking about a robot equipped with a ‘universal gripper’ which can now fire objects through basketball hoops and play darts:

Researchers from Cornell and the University of Chicago previously demonstrated their ‘gripper’, which consists of a rubber bag filled with granular material instead of the more common articulated ‘fingers’, could pick up heavy items such as car shock absorbers and delicate items such as raw eggs (see: Ground coffee helps robots get a grip). They have now added the ability to shoot objects picked up via positive pressure, as demonstrated in this video. Time to resurrect the Robo-Hoops contest.

Watch the video below demonstrating the gripper’s abilities or continue reading Daniel’s post here.

Chirps and Tweets

Scilogs NeuroCognition Blog features a guest post this week by Burak Yildiz, a post doc at the Max Planck Institute. He is considering the complex vocalizations produced by tiny songbirds and how they may give us hints about how humans learn, produce and understand speech:

Songbirds, similar to humans, gain their vocal abilities early in life by listening to adults, memorizing, and practicing their songs [1]. In most species, usually the males sing and females listen. Female birds choose their mates by listening to the songs that carry information about the strength, learning capabilities and origins of the male. Similarly, male birds distinguish the songs of their neighbors from the songs of strangers to protect their territories [2]. But how do their brains do all this?

Continue to the post to find out more!

Onto another bird: the Godwit. The Frontier Scientists have revealed that Bob Gill, a Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has proved that Godwits have the longest non-stop migratory flight of any bird.

You can watch a video in their post, explaining this study in more detail.


Scitable’s Green Science blogger, high school student Samantha J, has been asking in her latest post,”Why do zebras have stripes?”

Some theories say that when a zeal of zebras are running away from a predator, such as a lion, the stripes blend into each other which prevents the lion from pinpointing its target. There are also theories that say the stripes aid in camouflage or that they help zebras recognize one another. However, one theory, proposed by scientists in Sweden and Hungary, says that the stripes were adapted to ward off the irritating horseflies in Africa.

You can find our more in Samantha’s post.

Conditioned Fear 

Noah Gray on Action Potential, Nature’s neuroscience blog has been reporting from the Winter Conference on Neural Plasticity in St. Kitts & Nevis. In his latest post he reviews the opening session and shares a piece of history on conditioned fear:

Michael Fanselow gave the lecture on the history of fear research and focused on the era prior to the exponential growth of the literature, sticking to 1920-1980. Here’s a graph from a very recent review simply noting the number of “fear extinction” papers in the literature (one small sub-field in this topic,) just to give you a sense of how rapidly this field has grown:

Noah will be tweeting from #wcnp12 so check out his tweets and continue to his post to find out more.

Poll: How would you define a successful career in science?

Last week Naturejobs joined more than 100 representatives of funding agencies, research councils, universities and research institutes from across the globe for a workshop on how to track researchers’ careers. Rachel Bowden, Naturejobs blogger, asks how can you measure and define a successful science career:

 Several factors for defining success were put forward by the attendees at the workshop, shown below in no particular order. Please vote for your top three in our poll, and let us know what you think of the suggestions by leaving a comment below. What would you prioritise or dismiss? What is missing? And would you agree or disagree that there are a variety of successful careers for researchers, including those outside academia?

The results of the poll and comments will be considered for inclusion in the final report of the ESF-FNR workshop, and may influence future career-tracking studies, so please feel free to make your views known.


Paige Brown, Nature Network’s From the Lab Bench blogger, introduces her latest post with a quote from Professor Herbert Terrace: “Wouldn’t it be exciting to communicate with a Chimp, and find out what it was thinking?” She reveals how she has been inspired by film:

I watched Project Nim tonight, an intriguing and emotional film about a scientific project that, to many, meant much more than scientific findings – the story of a chimpanzee taken from its mother at birth, raised like a human child, and taught to communicate using sign language. (Read more about the film)

The project was initiated in the hopes of evaluating whether language was truly “no longer the exclusive domain of man,” as ape researcher Penny Patterson had declared in 1978. Project Nim wasn’t the first project aimed to teach chimpanzees to communicate, but several previous studies had focused on attempting to teach language as a vocalized medium – a difficult task for a species that has a long and heavy jaw, a deep-set voice box, and other structural characteristics ill-suited for the subtle articulations required for spoken language. According to project founder Professor Herbert Terrace, “the shift from a vocal to a visual medium can compensate effectively for an ape’s inability to articulate many sounds,”(Terrace 1979).

Does a new treatment for leukemia herald a new era in drug discovery?

This week’s guest Soapbox Science post is by Brent R. Stockwell, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and of Chemistry at Columbia University.  His post looks at a new treatment for leukemia:

An emerging trend in cancer therapeutics is the need for precise matching of drugs to disease subtypes—could one make a drug that is designed to address the unique networks and proteins found in CLL tumor cells? Such a tailor-made drug for CLL would likely have fewer side effects than the systemic, blunt chemotherapy this is commonly used to treat most cancers today. Moreover, such a customized drug would likely be more effective, by disabling the specific molecular defects found in CLL. This customization of drugs to diseases is an emerging challenge in cancer drug discovery, and indeed in all of medicine—how do we turn our increasingly sophisticated understanding of disease mechanisms into better therapies for patients?

Can this new technique discussed by Brent change the way we approach other cancers and diseases? Feel free to share your thoughts in his post.


newly discovered dwarf chameleon is among the smallest lizards in the world, with the diminutive males reaching a total length of less than 24 millimetres. Read the News Blog’s report here.



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