Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Best of Nature Network, nature.com blogs and Scitable: 2 – 8th June

On Thursday NASA cancelled a small astrophysics mission that would have studied the polarized X-rays streaming from black holes and neutron stars explains Eric Hand in the News Blog:

The mission, called the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small explorer (GEMS), had been selected in 2009 as a winner in NASA’s small explorer competition, and was scheduled for a 2014 launch. The principal investigator was Jean Swank, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“It was clear that they would not be able to complete it within their cost cap,” says Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director.


Continue to the post to hear more about these funding issues and how this may impact space research.

Brown Fat

Kathleen Raven divulges in The Spoonful of Medicine Blog that researchers are keen on pinpointing how brown fat is activated and how to convert white fat to its healthier cousin to help people slim down:

Image courtesy of PeJo via Shutterstock

In February, Canadian researchers published a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that looked beyond brown fat’s heat-producing capabilities to how, once activated, it affects our metabolism. With a sample size of six healthy men, they reduced average skin temperature by about 4 degrees to roughly 30°C by fitting them in a cooling suit. Positron-emission tomography (PET) allowed scientists to see for the first time that cold exposure increased the amount of nonesterified fatty acids (NEFA)—the primary source of energy for tissues in fasting conditions—in the blood stream by one-third. Despite the small sample size, researchers expressed confidence in their results due to consistent measurements across the participants.

Learn more about this research and its potential impact on obesity in Kathleen’s post. 

Arctic ice

Nicola Jones, reporting for the News Blog, reveals researchers have been shocked to find a record-breaking phytoplankton bloom hidden under Arctic ice:

“It’s much bigger [in concentration] than any natural open water bloom in the most productive ecosystems in the world,” says Kevin Arrigo, of Stanford University in California. “The growth rates were astonishingly high – these cells were doubling more than once every day.”

“I would have told you a year ago that this couldn’t happen in the Arctic,” says Arrigo. 


This finding implies the Arctic is much more productive than previously thought, find out more in the post.

Ray Bradbury, 1920–2012

Ivan Semeniuk  in the News Blog, remembers Ray Bradbury, author of the science-fiction classics The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, among other works, who died this week in Los Angeles.

Golden-eyed Martians, supernatural carnies and secret book lovers in a society hostile to the printed word were all inhabitants of Bradbury’s rich and imaginative universe. And although the dreamlike quality of his prose often left reality far behind, the author’s penchant for tapping the wonder that underlies the scientific enterprise — and blending it with the uneasiness created by the accelerating pace of technological change — won him many fans among scientists and scientists-to-be, from the 1940s on.

Learn more about Ray Bradbury’s career with links to tributes, in the post.

Plant Genetic Material (miRNAs) can Alter Animal Gene Expression

Nature Network blogger, Linda Lin, discusses in her latest post how plant genes can change the expression of our genes and we just have to eat them:


Relatively recently, Zhang et. al. suggested that rice miR168 can regulate fat metabolism in animals and humans after eating rice. They were able to detect the plant miR168 in the sera/blood of multiple animals. It was also found in multiple organs. If you follow the time course experiment (at the bottom), they also observed that miR168 levels went up in the sera of rice fed mice. Moreover, miR168 levels were higher in mice that were on rice diets v.s. control mice that were on non-rice diets (chow).

Linda explains this research further, linking out to evidence, in her post.

#ReachingOutSci and SoNYC

Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To complement this month’s event which looks at how scientists can reach out of the ivory tower to communicate science more widely, Soapbox Science hosted a series of guest posts. Over the last two weeks, scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers, lecturers and even a comedian, shared details about how they engage and reach out to the public. Find a short summary of every guest post, plus related posts elsewhere in the blogosphere, here. Finally, you can also follow the online conversation on Twitter using the #reachingoutsci hashtag. Join in the discussion and share how you communicate science.

World Science Festival

New York blogger, Jennifer Cable reviews the “Afterglow: Dispatches from the Birth of the Universe event,”  one of the many sessions from The World Science Festival that came to an end this week:

Lawrence Krauss kicked the evening off with a quick explanation of cosmic microwave background radiation, the all-pervading radiation that emanates from the Big Bang, and how it was discovered. The field of cosmology is really an exercise in cosmic archaeology. Because light takes a certain amount of time to reach our planet, the light that we see shows us not how something looks now, but how it looked in the past. For example:

  • When we look at the sun, we’re looking eight minutes into the past – Okay, I get it
  • When we look at some of the closest stars, we’re looking a few light years into the past – Yep, got that too
  • If we look out far enough, we should be able to see radiation from the big bang – 13.7 billion years ago – and picture what the universe looked like in its early years – Okay, now I’m lost

Stay tuned for more event reports from The World Science Festival.

Keep Cool, Science Journalists

Scitable’s blogger, Khalil A. Cassimally explains in his latest post how a recent humor column by Science Careers columnist, Adam Ruben, which caricatured popular science reporting, has sparked considerable criticism from science journalists:

The major criticism going Ruben’s way is that he appears to have missed the actual point of popular science journalism, which is to convey science to a mainstream audience. Some of the standard points he makes fun of are essential in the making of a good popular science story. For instance, to relate science concepts to the mainstream audience, many science journalists adhere to humanizing the science. They convince readers that science isn’t something detached or far-away by purposely showing them that it is done by humans who are very much like us all. This way, readers are more receptive to the actual scientific ideas and notions which they are thereafter presented with. This technique or method works and more and more science journalists have converged to employing it until it eventually became the standard way of writing popular science stories.

Khalil expresses that it is disconcerting some prominent science journalists opted to argue against Ruben’s column using a furious attitude. Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter in the comment thread. 

Transit of Venus 

On Wednesday, astronomers and enthusiasts worldwide watched a rare celestial event unfold as the planet Venus passed between the Sun and the Earth. Venus transits occur in regular repeating patterns of 243 years, explains Nature Network blogger Suzi Gage in her latest post. Suzi continues:

With gaps of 121.5 years, 8 years, 105.5 years and 8 years. It was 8 years since the last transit, so we’re in for a long wait until the next one!

You can find Suzi’s pictures of this event, taken from St Werburghs Hill, Bristol, in her post. Nature Network blogger Paige Brown also recorded the event and her images were taken from the Bayou, Louisiana:

Venus can be seen as a dark dot in the upper right corner of the sun. The other dark spots on the sun, I learned from an LSU Physics and Astronomy student who sat next to me during the event, are sun spots, where the sun is ultra-active! Yes, the sun has spots and blemishes too!


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